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Adding excitement to posh Caribbean vacation Activities: Deluxe resorts are offering their guests rain-forest hikes, horseback tours and visits to Mayan ruins.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The six hikers slogging through the Nevis rainforest may be roughing it, but don't worry about their aching muscles, callusing feet or the hunger that is beginning to gnaw as noon approaches. At the end of the day, they will return to rooms with deep soaking tubs and bottles of fragrant balms to soothe away their little hurts. And their guide has a backpack full of brie and fresh-baked French bread packed in picnic boxes by their hotel chef.

This, after all, is not some low-budget eco-tour. It is the daily rain-forest hike offered by the Four Seasons Nevis, a posh Caribbean resort better known for pampering guests than making them sweat.

These days, though, even the most genteel vacationers like to go a little wild during a Caribbean respite. An increasing number of lodgings of all kinds are accommodating that desire with activities ranging from easy nature walks to killer hikes up volcanic peaks, horseback riding, kayaking and guided snorkeling tours of underwater parks.

Choose an elegant, full-service resort, a spa with the latest health and beauty therapies, a deluxe eco-tent with solar power and computerized energy monitors, a rented villa with your own pool and private staff or a jungle lodge with its own Mayan ruins.

You won't sacrifice any comforts on these nature vacations, where you can have your cake and sweat it off, too.

The goats cavorting on the golf course at the Four Seasons Nevis should be a giveaway to this resort's love affair with its environment. With the cloud-shrouded peak of 3,200-foot Mount Nevis looming in the background, a 2,000-foot stretch of powder beach as its front yard and miles of rainforest trails a short drive away, the Four Seasons Nevis is a natural for the title of most elegant Caribbean resort with most access to outdoor adventures.

A short shuttleboat ride from Nevis' bigger sister island of St. Kitts, the 5-year-old resort always has drawn a haute clientele impressed by the Four-Seasons panache, the extensive tennis and water-sports program, and the absence of extensive development on the verdant 36-square-mile island.

The resort's 18-hole golf coursewinds through a rainforest populated by chattering monkeys (who sometimes run off with a ball or two), and rises from near sea level to 420 feet, with spectacular views of the sea and nearby islands.

In past years management decided to go eco and introduced more than a dozen guided hikes on Nevis and St. Kitts.

I joined a 2 1/2 -hour hike that took in both rain forest and plantation country (Nevis was once a major sugar producer). Issued firm wooden walking sticks, we followed our guide up a steep jungle path through fig and mango stands, wispy palms and dense fern groves, then picked our way across jagged boulders, before descending to wide-open fields dotted with coconut palms. We passed the ruins of old plantation buildings, herds of grazing cows and great Caribbean overlooks. We never saw another hiker on the trail, which heightened our proprietary sense of discovery.

Le Sport, St. Lucia

Health spa/beach resorts are becoming a popular Caribbean phenomenon. Le Sport -- nestled below rolling hills at the northern tip of one of the Caribbean's least developed islands -- has been at the forefront of that trend since its inception nearly eight years ago. Instead of baking all day on the skin-cancer track and drinking yourself silly on tropical concoctions all night, you can temper your sun, surf and sousing with aerobic exercise, therapeutic treatments, rain-forest hikes, and healthful food and drink -- all included in the package price.

At Le Sport, morning hikes take guests along gorgeous hillsides with sweeping ocean views, on sunrise power beach-walks or out to historic Fort Rodney in Pigeon Island National Park above tranquil Rodney Bay Marina, where you get sweeping ocean and island views as you watch the yachts glide into the bay below. Longer options include bike tours and diving, snorkeling, and sailing excursions to the south of the island, near the landmark twin peaks of the Piton mountains.

The spa section is the Oasis, a Moorish-looking arrangement of pools, arches, fountains and treatment rooms set on a hill up 79 steps. Here there are aerobics classes, yoga sessions, fencing, weight-training and a pool for water aerobics. Here also are rooms for facials, hydro treatments and massages.

Maho Bay, St. John

In the early 1970s, Stanley Selengut, a civil engineer by education, got to thinking about what a vacation dwelling in a fragile environment might be like, if one wanted comfort as well as ecological preservation.

Selengut's ruminations led to the creation in 1974 of Maho Bay Campground, one of the Caribbean's most beloved purveyors of the philosophy: reduce, recycle and relax. Selengut set his eco-resort on the U.S. Virgin Islands' most beautiful patch of wilderness, a lush hillside in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. Nearly two-thirds of the 28-square-mile island is designated as national park, including an underwater park at Trunk Bay, not far from the camp, where well-marked underwater trails guide snorkelers along the reef just off the beach.

Hidden among the trees and connected by elevated wooden walkways are 114 tent-cottages, each hand-constructed atop a 16-foot-square platform. You get the outdoorsy feel of camping, minus the hard ground -- and with a propane stove, ice cooler and priceless hillside views of the impossibly turquoise sea. Communal bathhouses are spaced inconspicuously around cottage groupings.

Guests can eat family style at the outdoor restaurant; park rangers lead guided hikes, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking and bird-watching excursions; and local artists and regional culture experts give frequent evening talks. The resort also provides a bus connection to local nightspots with live music.

While guests from students to corporate execs loved this rustic alternative to the big, antiseptic traditional resorts eating up neighboring St. Thomas, Selengut decided to go cushier with his next project. In 1992, Harmony was hatched -- uphill and upscale from Maho Bay. The 12 spacious studio apartments, all with sweeping sea views from large balconies, have complete kitchens, private baths and computers that advise when to use up excess energy on windy, sunny days and when to conserve on cloudy, still ones. Selengut constructed these cottages of recycled building materials (plastic lumber, glass tiles, recycled steel nails, a welcome mat made from old tires). All power is solar and wind-generated.

Next, and even more up the comfort chain, came Estate Concordia, 10 cottages -- some with 20-foot cathedral ceilings, wrap-around decks, and dishwashers -- on the more remote and secluded southeastern shore of St. John on Salt Pond Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling and shelling on the island.

Newest of the eco siblings -- and up the hill from Estate Concordia -- are the Concordia Eco-Tents, high-tech tent-cottages with all the airiness of the Maho Bay tents and all the amenities of Harmony and Estate Concordia.

St. Barts

When most people think of villa rentals they think of something only for the very rich. Add to that the fact that these villas are on the tony little island of St.-Barthelemy (St. Barts), famous for its French food and pricey boutiques, and the price will double in their minds.

Actually, a weeklong villa rental on this mountainous beauty of an isle 15 miles southeast of St. Martin can be quite affordable -- about $2,500 a week in high season, much less mid-April through mid-December. For that price you get one bedroom, a small pool and a gorgeous sea-view, but alas, no cook, butler, nanny or other serving staff that bigger bucks would command. Add a $1,000 or so, and the amenities improve.

Still, this is a delicious way to vacation. In a villa, you get a complete home away from home, with privacy and daily maid service (she also does light laundry). The 8-square-mile island has about 200 rental villas scattered along the beachfront and on hillsides. Most of these are represented by a West Indies management company that coordinates everything from car rental at the St. Barts airport to charter fishing bookings.

The island itself is so small that everyone explores everywhere, sampling a variety of beaches (there are 20 perfect ones on the island) and restaurants. Outdoor excursions include guided horseback trips through the hills and villages, hiking on rocky trails through scrub brush and past goats to secluded beaches (the 3/4 -mile hike to Colombier beach is a favorite), and exploring remote, stalactite-filled caves with a guide from one of the villages.

Chaa Creek, Belize

Mick and Lucy Fleming have been welcoming visitors to their 300-acre jungle retreat in this western Caribbean nation since 1981. The 20 thatched-roof cottages (all with private baths) are lighted by kerosene lanterns, although a generator provides power for the kitchen, bar and dining room, where guests meet for communal meals and nightly cocktails. Belize is not an island, but you'll feel removed enough from civilization to imagine it is.

Chaa Creek runs excursions to the extensive Mayan ruins in Tikal, a three-hour drive into neighboring Guatemala, as well as horseback trips to the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge, a spectacular range of undulating, pine-clad hills. Tours also go to the Rio Frio Caves, which have massive cathedral-like vaults, and the natural swimming pools and falls of the Rio On.

Chaa Creek, with abundant ruins of its own on the property, is the site of much archaeological investigation, and just four miles west are the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich.

The lodge has an extensive trail system, which guests can explore on foot, by mountain bike or on horseback. Or rent a canoe and take to the river. The Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Center on the premises provides up-close viewing. Adjacent to Chaa Creek is the Panti Medicinal Trail, a self-guided nature walk where each beneficial plant is identified in terms of its use by man.

Recently, the Flemings built a tented camp about 1/2 mile down-stream from Chaa Creek, to appeal to travelers wanting a more rustic lodging. Ten large wooden platforms have been elevated between the trees to give each tent privacy as well as well as unobstructed views for bird watching (Belize has 300 resident species and 200 migrant species).

If you go

Prices are for winter (high) season and may drop substantially off-season. Price does not include taxes or service charges.

Four Seasons Nevis; (800) 332-3442. Room prices start at $350 ** through Dec. 15; $650 Dec. 16 through Jan. 1; and $575 through April 6, when the rates drop again. Guided hikes range from a 1 1/2 -hour stroll through Charlestown ($10 per person) to a full-day trek up Nevis Peak ($45).

Le Sport, St. Lucia; (800) 544-2883. Rates from $240, including all meals, alcoholic beverages and most spa treatments and sports. Single supplement is $40 per night. Weeklong packages offer substantial savings.

Maho Bay, St. John; (800) 392-9004. Rates: Maho Bay, from $95; Harmony, from $150, Estate Concordia, from $135, Concordia Eco-tents, from $95

Villa Rentals, St. Barts: (Book through WIMCO; [800] 932-3222.) Private villas with pools and ocean views start at about $2,500 a week for a one-bedroom and one-bath cottage, and rise to more than $18,000 for an elegant, five-bedroom, five-bath house on prime real estate. Horseback excursions with Ranch des Flamands (on St. Barts, phone: 27-28-72) run about $50.

Chaa Creek Cottages, Belize: (Book through Tropical Travel; [800] 451-8017). Rates: $125 per day (three-night minimum), including all meals. Rates at the tented Macal River Adventure Center run about $50 per day including all meals. Excursions range from guided nature walks ($10) to a three-hour horse trip ($35), a full-day exploration of the Mountain Pine Ridge ($200) and overnight tour of Guatemala's Tikal Mayan Ruins ($295 per person).

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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