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A true island view greets tourists who travel on foot Hiking the Caribbean

Caribbean vacationers break down into two types: those who like to vegetate and those who like the vegetation. While the former are frying in their chaises and sipping pina coladas, the latter are hiking through rain forests, canteens strapped to their waists. While the former are lined up for seats at hotel "native" shows, the latter are out and about, sampling authentic community life and mingling with local folks who never dipped below a limbo stick.

Having had my share of both experiences, I've emerged a vigorous proponent of the get-off-your-duff approach to island appreciation. While everyone needs a little downtime to unwind, visitors who don't go a little wild -- nature-wise -- are cheating themselves out of the Caribbean's richest treasures.

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Over the years, I've tracked down outdoor adventures on a score islands. I hired a guide to take me trekking in Jamaica's Blue Mountains. I rode on horseback along a remote beach in Barbados, climbed my way to stunning 360-degree ocean vistas from the top of a mountain in Nevis, and gawked at rare parrots along a jungle trail in Grenada, with waterfalls at every bend. While on a sailing vacation through the British Virgin Islands, I explored the coral beaches of the low-lying atoll of Anegada, walking miles without seeing a single human being, but spotting plenty of ospreys and wild goats, and one tongue-flicking iguana. And on a moonless night in Puerto Rico I paddled a kayak along a phosphorescent bay where thousands of jumping fish glittered like tiny piscine Tinker Bells.

Until recently, guided outdoor excursions were hard to find and, on many islands, nonexistent. But the rise of eco-tourism and the desire of athletic travelers to get to know their host community on a more intimate level have led to a boom in organized adventures throughout the Caribbean.

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While the local tourist board or hotel hospitality staff can set up day-trips covering topographic highlights, an increasing number of outfitters now offer extended explorations that allow participants to immerse themselves in the natural wonders of a destination for anywhere from a few days to a week or more. This is not the Caribbean of high-rise hotels and room service. Accommodations may be rustic, though clean, and some trips involve camping. The food, while wholesome, is seldom gourmet. On the other hand, participants have an opportunity to interact with islanders away from the servile ambience of a resort. During my excursions, I've fallen into conversation with fishermen hauling in their nets at dusk, groups of schoolchildren giggling their way home down dusty streets, and all manner of shopkeepers with much to say about local politics and world events.

The emphasis of particular trips varies with the focus of the outfitter and the attributes of the island. One trip might stress tough ascents up steep mountains; another, leisurely hikes in search of rare tropical birds; yet another, easy paddling through marine sanctuaries or mountain biking along lush rain forest trails.

Hiking in Dominica

Ex-Ec Hikes and Tours, a Montreal-based company that specializes in weeklong nature trips to Dominica, gives guests a choice between easy, moderate or challenging itineraries. The island is widely considered the Caribbean's most unspoiled tropical wilderness, with forests blanketing two-thirds of the country, volcanoes towering 4,000 feet, hundreds of freshwater rivers and waterfalls, and a wide variety of exotic animal and plant life.

Based at small hotels, including a 350-year-old converted fort, guests head off each day with Dominican guides. All the itineraries include scenic drives through Carib Indian territory, jungle gardens and fishing villages. Guides also will customize special-interest excursions, such as a day-trip to an area famous for its orchids arranged for a couple particularly interested in botany, and a visit by a group of doctors to a Carib elder knowledgeable in ancient Indian medical remedies.

When not hiking, guests can participate in snorkeling, mountain biking, sea kayaking, scuba diving and whale watching.

Trinidad and Tobago

The Asa Wright Nature Center, a 200-acre reserve and former coffee plantation, is the base for Nature Expeditions International's nine-day wildlife and natural history tours to the West Indian islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad boasts more than 400 species of birds, 108 kinds of mammals, 55 reptile breeds and 617 kinds of butterflies. Exotic trees and flowers, including dozens of species of orchids, abound. Staying in the center's rustic guest house or individual cabins, participants take day trips into the tropical rain forest of the Arima Valley, in the country's northern mountain area, and the Caroni Swamp, a mangrove forest that is home to the scarlet ibis, white and blue herons, spoonbills and kingfishers. On Day 6, the group flies to neighboring Tobago for two days of hiking and birding, as well as boat trips to reserves on nearby Little Tobago Island and St. Giles Island, and to the undersea garden of Buccoo Reef, to view tropical fish and corals.

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Birding in Jamaica

Bird-watching is the focus of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. The company's weeklong excursion in Jamaica -- home to some 30 species of birds found nowhere else -- takes in some of the country's prime bird-watching turf: the forested hills and fern glades of the Blue Mountains, north of Kingston; the canals, ponds and lagoons en route to Mandeville, in the country's southwest; and the rugged mountains of Cockpit Country, deep in the Jamaican interior. Robert Sutton, a Jamaican ornithologist who specializes in bird sounds and has written a field guide to Jamaican birds, is the guide.

The company also runs a one-week birding trip to Trinidad and Tobago, led by Steve Hilty, a tropical biologist who has contributed to birding guides on Colombia and Venezuela.

The U.S. Virgin Islands

Over the past few years, the Sierra Club has expanded its popular and reasonably priced outings program to wilderness sites around the world. The club's weeklong hiking and snorkeling trip to St. John, the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands (most of the island is a national park), includes walks through jungle trails and past the remains of ancient sugar plantations, as well as snorkeling amid coral reefs that are home to sea turtles and fish in Day-Glo shades. Accommodations are in simple cottages at Cinnamon Bay.

The Sierra Club also plans an April, 1995, hiking and snorkeling trip to Puerto Rico. The weeklong excursion takes in El Yunque, the National Forest Service's only tropical rain forest. The group then hops a boat to the unspoiled offshore island of Culebra for snorkeling, swimming and an opportunity to assist Fish and Wildlife Service surveys of nesting sea turtles. Accommodations are in a villa in Culebra and an historic hotel on the mainland.

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For those who want to venture further afield -- and a-sea -- in the Virgins, Arawak Expeditions runs five- and seven-day paddling and camping trips through both the U.S. and British Virgin

Islands. Participants, who should be in good physical condition but need have no kayaking experience, can expect to paddle between two and four hours a day, with breaks for snorkeling, lunch and hiking excursions. Camping is on deserted beaches under the stars as well as at established campsites with running water and toilets. Campfire meals emphasize Caribbean foods.

The Grenadines on foot

After living in the Caribbean for several years, Jill Bobrow and Dana Jinkins decided to show others the remote coves and small villages they had discovered. The result was their Vermont-based Caribbean Adventures off the Beaten Trek, a 2-year-old company specializing in six- and eight-day hiking trips to some of the region's most lush isles.

The company's excursion to St. Vincent and Bequia in the Grenadines gives participants a taste of wilderness in both the largest island in the group (St. Vincent) and one of the smallest (Bequia). In St. Vincent, participants stay at an ocean-front tented resort. Jeeps take the group to starting points for treks up the country's 4,048-foot Soufriere Volcano and to waterfalls deep within the jungle. There's often boat transport back to the resort base, minimizing long journeys over rough roads.

A 1 1/2 -hour ferry-boat ride transports the group to tiny Bequia for visits to fishing villages, hikes to pristine beaches popular for body surfing, and strolls around chic Admiralty Bay, a favorite harbor of international yachtsmen. Bequia also is known for its handicraft shops and model boat-building.

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The company's trips to Grenada, a veritable Garden of Eden with fruit trees and fragrant spice plants lining the roads, include hikes in the Grand Etang National Park, a jungle refuge with towering waterfalls around a large crater lake, strolls through old plantations, and visits to tiny villages along dirt roads.

IF YOU GO . . .

Except where noted, trips include most meals. Some companies offer trips to islands in addition to those mentioned here. Airfare is extra on all trips:

* Arawak Expeditions; (800) 238-8687. Five- and 7-day sea-kayaking-camping trips in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands depart year round, except September. Price: $750 per person, double occupancy for 5 days, $925 for 7 days. Price includes meals and all camping and kayaking equipment.

* Caribbean Adventures off the Beaten Trek; (800) 846-6594. Six- and 8-day hiking trips to Grenada depart throughout January, May and August. Price: $1,400 for 6 days, $1,900 for 8 days. Six and 8-day hiking and snorkeling trips to St. Vincent and Bequia depart throughout February, July and December 1995. Price: $1,300 for 6 days, $1,800 for 8 days.

* Ex-Ec Hikes and Tours of Dominica; (800) 667-3932. Weeklong excursions to Dominica, offering hiking, snorkeling, mountain biking, seakayaking, scuba diving and whale watching. Departures year round. Price: From $1,250 per person, double occupancy.

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* Nature Expeditions International; (800) 869-0639. Nine-day excursions to Trinidad and Tobago. Trips in 1995 depart Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 11, April 15, July 15, Aug. 12, Nov. 25, and Dec. 23. Price: $1,990.

* Sierra Club, Outing Department, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, Calif. 94109; (415) 923- 5522. A weeklong hiking and snorkeling trip to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands departs Jan. 22, 1995 (Trip No. 95-424). Price: $705 per person, double occupancy. A weeklong hiking and snorkeling trip to Puerto Rico (Trip No. 95-954) departs April 24, 1995. Price: $765 per person. Meals are extra on all trips.

* Victor Emanuel Nature Tours; (800) 328-8368. One-week bird-watching excursion to Jamaica departs April 15, 1995. Price: $1,295. Weeklong Trinidad and Tobago bird-watching trip departs Dec. 1, 1995. Price: $1,825.


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