NEEDHAM'S POINT, BARBADOS - I pulled back the curtains in my Hilton hotel room, and the brilliant Caribbean light streamed in. There was old St. Anne's Fort across the street, its iron cannons waiting for the enemy frigates that never came. I padded my way down to the beach, past a bright yellow lifeguard shack, and heaved myself into the warm, wet bliss of the sea.

"Gary gone Barbados, stay in a big hotel," I sang as I floated on my back.

After more than two decades of overseas traveling, I finally came to the Caribbean, pretty much for the same reason as Jackie Hunter, a tourist from Westminster, Colo., whom I met my first morning on Barbados.

"I've done Hawaii, I've done Mexico, so I thought I would try the Caribbean," she said.

Barbados won out over the dozens of other destinations through a process of subtraction. I wanted something foreign (scratch Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) but not too foreign (cross out current and former French and Dutch colonies). Lush (sorry, Aruba) but far enough south to be unrelentingly warm in winter (bye-bye, Bahamas).

Barbados sounded intriguing. Ninety miles east of the main chain of Caribbean islands, its location made it the natural center of British trading - the first port after the long voyage across the Atlantic.

It was a British colony for more than 300 years until it gained its independence in 1966. Its parliament, founded in 1639, is the third oldest in the Commonwealth. Future U.S. President George Washington accompanied his brother, Lawrence, to the island in 1751 in an unsuccessful attempt to cure Lawrence's tuberculosis.

A playground for the wealthy (Tiger Woods was married on the island), it also boasts a thriving middle class, 99 percent adult literacy and 10 percent unemployment. Life on the island that locals call "de Rock" is pretty good.

Then there's the rum. It's sold in more than 1,200 tiny shops around the island. I was off.

I stop in historic though gritty Bridgetown just long enough to linger in the space once called Trafalgar Square. It has been renamed National Heroes Square by republican-minded politicians trying to distance the island from its reputation as "Little England."

I ask Will, a local cabdriver, about the statue of Lord Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar.

"They want to get rid of it, but nobody wants to take it," he says. "So they turned it around so it doesn't look at the sea anymore."

I head northwest on Highway 1, the first leg of my round-island drive. It used to be you could navigate using the map of Barbados on a bottle of Mount Gay Eclipse rum (hopefully not while driving). Today, the label is less a map and more a Barbados-shaped logo.

Just north of Bridgetown, I swing into the Mount Gay bottling plant and museum. Guide Janelle Jones tells me the story of the company, once owned by the ironically named Sober family.

Mount Gay has been producing the sweet booze since at least 1703. The sugar cane plantation is still locally owned though the rum company is now part of the Paris-based Remy Cointreau conglomerate.

Jones portrays Barbados as a nation happily soaked in rum - rum in the afternoon, rum in the evening, rum in the morning coffee, rum in the afternoon cakes.

"They say if you drink rum straight, it preserves you," she says.

What about drunken driving?

"We don't have the breath test here, but we think it isn't the drink, but people acting dangerously," she says.

Jones suggests that visitors who want to act like a local go to a rum shop and order a Black and Coke, a mix of high-end, black-label Extra Old Mount Gay rum and Coca-Cola.

Many of the rum barons had mansions along "the Platinum Coast" to the north, around Holetown, where British settlers first came ashore in 1627. Today, the area, also nicknamed Billionaire Beach, has a string of high-end resorts clinging to the narrow ledge of sand.

The most famous is Sandy Lane, where rooms sometimes start at $1,000 a night in winter. The names Jagger and Sinatra have appeared in the guest book. More recently, Woods sailed his mega-yacht, Privacy, to the dock at Sandy Lane for his 2004 wedding at the hotel's Green Monkey clubhouse.

In T-shirt and swim trunks, I'm hardly a candidate for a colonial gin and tonic at the swanky Sandy Lane bar. Besides, I want to try one of the hundreds of rum shops, some little more than wildly painted wooden shacks with a plank serving as the bar.

Two miles north of Sandy Lane, I pull into the dirt lot of John Moore's Bar, a rum shop favored by local politicians. There's a stuffed turtle on the wall and nice ocean views out back. Men play bingo while a fisherman guts his catch in the corner.

Nobody is drinking Black and Coke, so I ask for a Banks, the local amber-colored beer. Between sips, I peruse the handwritten signs on the wall: "Indecent and filthy language will not be tolerated" and "Barflies and loafers - Keep Out."

A banged-up yellow bus screeches to a halt five feet from the door, and uniform-clad schoolchildren pile out. Some take up stools at the bar to chat with adult friends and relatives.

I keep driving until I get out of the west coast money belt. Mansions give way to houses, then shacks north of Speightstown. I speed past the fishermen at Six Men's Bay to arrive at Little Good Harbour. At the small seaside inn, $500 gets me a modern, two-bedroom unit with a kitchen across a busy street from the beach.

The hotel's locally famous restaurant, the Fish Pot, is in an 18th-century stone fort once used by his majesty's troops, sweltering in their red woolen tunics. It's now a perfect perch for a sunset dinner of a local specialty - crisp-skinned flying fish baked in herb aioli. It is delicious, though I admit to a yearning for a neighbor's plate of curry glazed lobster.

The next morning, I run into snowbirds John and Ginny Thomas of Plymouth, Mich., who are lolling on a padded raised platform on the beach.

"We've been coming to Barbados since the 1970s," John says. "We prefer the mix of Americans and Brits you meet here."

While totaling my bill, hotel owner Andrew Warden says that he's jealous of my next stop - the rugged eastern coast.

"It's where residents go when they want to get away and you don't have a lot of money," he says. "It's absolutely gorgeous, but the weather on that side of the island can be unforgiving."

My sedan climbs the road over the spine of the island, stopping at Farley Hill National Park, whose centerpiece is an 1857 sugar baron's Great House, which burned in 1965. Forty years later, it is overgrown with bright flowers and beautiful weeds. Green monkeys swing from the trees, while feral tabby kittens shakily climb around the rubble. A dove perches on a crumbling windowsill.

The hills are buffeted by gusts off the Atlantic. It's the first time in two days that I have felt cool and quiet. Visitors usually come by tour bus, but today I have the place to myself.

There are two flagpoles to mark a 1966 visit by Queen Elizabeth II, but there's only one flag on one pole - the blue-and-yellow trident of Barbados. The other pole, which once held the Union Jack, is empty.

I wind down to the eastern coast, stopping to watch a man climb a tree and lop off four coconuts with a machete. He slides down, hacks off the top of the coconuts, and sells them to tourists in the back of a pickup for $2 a pop. They drink the milk and leave the rind.

I save my appetite for the Round House, a restaurant perched above the ocean. Bemused diners on the patio watch my gravel-spewing attempts to park on the steep drive.

The flying fish pate spread on toast points is excellent, but with the panorama of the ocean around me, even a cheeseburger would have seemed impressive.

I've crossed the island and head south on Highway 3, past Bathsheba. I stop to see the rolling waves of Soup Bowl, the surf spot favored by world champion Kelly Slater when he visits.

The coast here is all cliffs and pounding waves. A squall blows in, and vendors at a hilltop crafts shop hustle to haul everything inside and slam the shutters closed.

Minutes later, it's sunny again as I find the Crane, the Caribbean's first resort hotel when it opened in 1887. It sits on a bluff above the most beautiful beach on the island.

Despite the statues of cranes - the birds - in the lobby, the beach is actually named after a crane - the machine. A big one used to sit on the bluff, hauling supplies from anchored ships.

My room is in the 1887 apartments. It is huge, with a 12-foot-high ceiling, tile floors, and step-through windows that open to a lawn leading to a sea wall.

Crane Beach is at the bottom of a bluff, which in the early 19th century made it a favorite of English expatriate ladies who wanted to go for a secluded ocean dip - something frowned on by polite society. Even today, the beach is reached by a steep, rickety staircase.

The crushing Atlantic has turned the sand into fine pinkish talcum that clings to the skin. Crane Beach is popular with body surfers when the conditions are right. They aren't when I'm there, but I go in anyway and am rewarded with two thrilling rides and one churning flip-over that leaves me with a sprained ankle.

I hobble up the stairs to the hotel. I need a salve. At the bar, I think Black and Coke, but the words

piña colada

come out of my mouth.

I kick back on my room's veranda, a little sunburned and salty. I can hear the waves crashing against the sea wall. "Bashy bim," the locals would say - "cool Barbados."

Basking in Barbados

American Airlines flies to

Bridgetown, Barbados,

from Philadelphia International Airport, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $589.

Places to stay

Hilton Barbados

246-426-0200

» READ MORE: www.hiltoncaribbean.com/

barbados

Has a nice beach.

Little Good Harbour

246-439-3000

.

com

Attractive, small hotel on a nice beach with famous restaurant, the Fish Pot.

The Crane

246-423-6220

» READ MORE: www.thecrane.com

Stay in the older part of the hotel, which dates to 1887.

Things to do

Mount Gay Rum

, museum and tour, in Brandons. 246-425-8757. Call to arrange visits to the distillery on the north end of the island.

Farley Hall National Park

,

St. Peter Parish,

- Gary A. Warner