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NATURE REIGNS SUPREME IN CARIBBEAN ISLAND NATION

In the predawn darkness, navigating solo over unmarked mountain roads suddenly didn't seem as good an idea as it had the day before.

We had ventured into the rain forest that dominates the high mountain peaks throughout the center of St. Vincent, in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the world's rarest parrots in its natural island habitat. As the road continued, it shrank to a mere mud track and I couldn't help think we had succeeded only in becoming hopelessly lost.

But, the guess work ultimately paid off. The road petered out at small parking area where a battered sign proclaimed "Vermont Wilderness Preserve." It is here the remaining handful of St. Vincent's parrots live and cavort in the wild.

The trail from the parking area up the hill into the damp environs of the old growth forest was no less challenging then the road in, but it was clearly marked and no guide was necessary. Walking through a shroud of mist in the half light just before sunrise unveils a jungle set perfect for use in a Tarzan movie. The path climbed steeply to the ridge line where large trees favored by the nesting parrots stood dominant above the canopy.

The hard work had its payoff, and as the sun rose we were rewarded by the loud screeching cries of the parrots as they returned to nest from their predawn foraging. I never did get close enough to photograph one in detail, but the fleeting glimpse of this rare and magnificent bird, in its golden olive plumage was memorable enough to crown this adventure for us.

Everything about St. Vincent is special if you cherish nature and the opportunity to explore an island still rich in natural and scenic treasures. It stands from the sea, a giant, 18-mile-long rock in the middle of the southern Caribbean, still on intimate terms with its volcanic origins. She is high, rugged and densely foliated. Unlike many other islands in the region, this is a place you can still get hopelessly lost if you take the wrong trail.

Just to the south along the horizon lie 42 smaller, associated islands known collectively as the Grenadines. Indeed, most properly refer to this island nation as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, though each little sister proves to have a distinct persona and an ambience all its own. With limited time, it is best to focus on one or two islands, but if you insist on seeing everything, be forewarned this is not quick bus-tour country.

In addition, the overall experience of visiting St. Vincent and the Grenadines is certainly not for everyone. Lacking casinos, glitz, duty free shopping and with little in the way of gourmet dinning and evening entertainment, it is more suited to those packing binoculars, hiking shoes, snorkeling gear and a camera with a telephoto lens. If you throw the Grenadines into the mix, sandals, sun tan lotion, a few unread books, and a well-worn bathing suit round out the packing.

The best way to see St. Vincent is to rent a jeep, snag a good guidebook and map, then set out on your own. Primary navigation is easy. The main road runs up the east and west coasts starting from the Villa Beach and Kingstown area at the southern tip. I found you can't really circumnavigate the island by jeep despite what some books claim because the northern road through the historic Carib Indian villages quickly turns into nothing more than a donkey track. Each side of the island makes a good day trip on its own if you are staying in the south, as most will.

Kingstown itself is the typical old island capital featuring the usual fish and produce markets, several strikingly beautiful cathedrals and the high energy of the island's commercial center. For a look at the real heartbeat of the Caribbean, hang around the market and docks where ancient island ferries and old banana boats still ply their trade and disgorge a colorful cast of characters straight from some old pirate novel.

Heading north along the west side offers a perfect opportunity to stop for lunch at small roadside stands in the various fishing villages, and later taking a dip at small, nearly deserted beaches shared with only a handful of boisterous children playing hooky from school.

The interior of the island is wild and rugged, but if you choose to explore, several small roads penetrate it slightly from Layou, Vermont and Rose Hall. A number of scenic vistas look out over the coastline and beckon immediately for cameras to be put to good use.

Along the Atlantic side you will be fascinated by the number of old plantation ruins and historic mills informally cast in their undisturbed state. Nothing here is patched and painted for the tour bus crowd.

Further up the coast awaits an especially peculiar experience. Those continuing to the end of the island will have to drive across a small vision of hell when bisecting the Rabacca Dry River. It is a half-mile wide scar of barren black gravel, cinder, pumice and ash washed down the face of the La Soufriere volcano in a single boiling mud flow. It's so porous that the former Rabacca River still flows through but has been driven underground -- hence the new name. The curious should kneel down in the center and put their ears to the ground where the sounds of the river rushing beneath can still be heard.

For the hearty trekkers, La Soufriere will top the list of full day adventures. This menacing volcano dominates the north and has a penchant for waking suddenly. More then 2000 people were killed when it erupted in 1902. More recently it has rattled window panes in 1971 and 1979. Perhaps this contributes to the adrenaline rush that motivates so many to endure the challenging walk up the 3,000-foot flanks.

The trail is well-worn and clear but the six-hour trek to the top and back is a tough walk, and good shoes are a prerequisite. When finally at the top, you may be allowed only a brief look at the crater, as swirling clouds are the norm at the summit. But, when the breeze does take over, that quick peek is going to be an unforgettable one. Peer down into the pits of the earth and you will contemplate nature at its most powerful.

The interior of St. Vincent is a wet place, and water literally rushes down the mountains in many places. Some scenic waterfalls are near the road. A couple, such as Baleine, can be reached only by boat, while still others, like Trinity, require determination and a pulse-elevating hike. Any one makes a perfect place for bird watching, flower picking, a cool dip and a picnic lunch.

When worn out from trekking across St. Vincent, if time permits, start thinking "beach" and set off to visit some of the Grenadines. On these smaller islands stretching away just to the south you will find the big-time water sports, diving, sailing and fabulous white beaches.

Planes and ferries hop daily to the largest of the Grenadines, including Bequia, Mustique, Canouan and Union islands. Reserve ahead, though, if you want to fly as the small planes have limited seating. Another option many enjoy is a charter sailing trip offered by several companies in St. Vincent.

Once on the island of choice, you can walk most anyplace -- just ask anyone you meet for directions -- or grab a taxi. There are a handful of small, modest hotels on the bigger islands, though tiny Palm Island in particular is noted for a single luxurious retreat that occupies most of its terra firma. If staying just for the day, taxi drivers will happily suggest a full day's itinerary, including a brief island tour, lounging time at a choice beach, a good spot for lunch and a return to the pier or airport at the end of the day. The unfortunate thing about a visit to St. Vincent and the Grenadines is that almost all of us run out of time long before we run out of places to see. Worse, with 42 Grenadines, there just isn't enough vacation time to get to all of them.

Travel information

For a recreational visit, Americans need no visa, passport nor special inoculations. Do bring two means of legal identification, at least one with a photo and the other a birth certificate. Save about $18 cash (it varies subject to exchange rate) for the departure tax.

No one flies direct, but American Airlines goes through its San Juan hub. Otherwise, fly Continental or Delta into St. Martin or Antigua and then switch to a LIAT shuttle flight. It's slower, but where else can you log visits to six different island countries in just one slightly long afternoon flight?

For more information on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, call the SVG National Tourist Offices at (800) 729-1726, or write to 801 Second Ave., 21st Floor, New York, NY 10017.