ANTIGUA, West Indies - Picture perfect.

In some places in the world, that phrase isn't a cliche. The beaches of Antigua, for example, are picture perfect.

Located in the heart of the Lesser Antilles' Leeward Islands, Antigua boasts 365 beaches - "one for every day of the year," as the saying goes. It's a sandy parallel to lush Dominica, 100 miles south, which claims 365 rivers.

But while Dominica's waters act as though they're charting their own courses - twisting, turning, and entwining themselves within dense jungle paths - Antigua's beaches, especially on the southern and western shores, lie still and serene.

Antigua's sand is the stuff of hourglasses: perfectly smooth, almost sparkly. Where the Caribbean Sea laps it up, it begins to look even brighter under the perfectly clear, clean, bluish-green water. And Antigua's waters are warm, goes-perfectly-with-a-cool-drink warm.

But as soon as you drive south of the airport into the island's interior, away from the multimillion-dollar resorts that divide the beaches, a very different landscape unfolds. Paradise and poverty become neighbors. At least that's what I discovered on my second day here, in search of Hermitage Bay.

The stretch of gravel that leads to the all-inclusive Hermitage Bay resort is unmarked and easy to miss, thanks to dozens of indiscernible, pothole-laden roads veering off from Valley Road on the island's west side.

About four miles southwest of the capital of St. John's, Hermitage Bay lies due west of the village of Jennings, which, like others here, is distinguished by its church and gasoline station.

The start of my long, winding drive to Hermitage Bay was met with glares from locals socializing near a cluster of shacks, as if they knew where I was headed and didn't approve.

After 15 or 20 minutes of driving blindly on overgrown, makeshift roads, there it was: an oasis in the form of a neatly landscaped roundabout guarded by a single attendant. Behind him beckoned a simple, elegant, open-air lobby and, through that, a stretch of white sand and a horizontal stripe of turquoise sea.

In the lobby, I told co-owner Andy Thesen that I was in the market to swap hotels and asked about his rates. He humored me with a quote for a slightly discounted two nights' stay - $1,200. Per night. In U.S. dollars. It was about $150 less than the average nightly price of the least expensive of the resort's 25 private suites. Each is outfitted with private plunge pools and top-of-the-line amenities.

Trying not to look horrified, I politely declined Thesen's offer, thanked him, and strolled back to my economy Toyota.

On the 10-mile drive back to my hotel - the modest Copper & Lumber Store Hotel in English Harbor on Antigua's sleepy southern coast - all I could think about was what it meant to stay in a resort like Hermitage Bay in a tiny country like Antigua.

The economic contrasts are startling.

Along the western and southern coasts, wealthy Americans, Britons, and French sip bottomless mojitos, graciously waited on by local staff who likely live in or near the shacks that line those secluded dirt roads. Oprah has a home here, as does Robin Leach.

The island is fueled by tourism and populated in clusters radiating from St. John's, which, like many Caribbean capitals, is built around a cathedral, a market, and a handful of luxury malls. There are a few very good restaurants, dozens of gleaming resorts, two universities, and a half-dozen intimate inns. But there isn't really a middle class.

This sharp contrast between the privileged and the impoverished is hardly unique to Antigua. It is apparent throughout most of the Caribbean; tourists see only the side of paradise that has been carefully groomed for their arrival.

Unlike eco-conscious resorts more popular on adventure-tourism islands such as Dominica and the Bahamas, Antigua's hotels tend to be too big to hide their enormous carbon footprints or too small to have the means to do anything about it.

Most months, Antigua's beaches are dotted with international vacationers soaking in the 80-degree waters and lazing in the shade of mangroves. There are about 69,500 residents on the 108-square-mile island; more than anything, Antigua is a magnet for tourists, and it's outfitted accordingly.

That is apparent from the moment you land at the airport, where the grounds are landscaped as plushly as some of the west-shore resorts. Which begs the question: What did this place look like before the tourism industry had its way?

Small pockets provide the answer, striking an inviting balance between natural beauty, indigenous culture, and warm hospitality.

English Harbor, for one, is wonderful. Especially if you're a pleasure yacht enthusiast.

Stanford Antigua Sailing Week is the island's annual regatta, drawing more than 200 yachts and their crews from the world over to join in friendly competition. For one week at the end of April stretching into May, English Harbor is transformed into a continuous party, rallying behind a series of inshore and longer offshore races in competition for the Lord Nelson Trophy.

Sailing Week's ground zero is Nelson's Dockyard, named for Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson, who was stationed here with the British fleet in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, Nelson's Dockyard - and English Harbor beyond - is a mellow tourist destination to which travelers flock for fish and chips, rum, and conversation on those picture-perfect beaches.

It was in English Harbor that I found an Antigua I might want to return to someday. French restaurants line the streets near Nelson's Dockyard, and the best of them, Catherine's Café, is a water-taxi ride away.

The pace of life is more casual here in the south than at the stuffy resorts along the west coast. Restaurant and hotel staff are friendly but not stiff. The crème brûlée is amazing; the reggae is ripe. No one really dresses for dinner - it would go unnoticed, anyway.

Everyone is too busy catching up with neighbors and savoring the sunset across the jetty.

Just west of Nelson's Dockyard is Pigeon Beach, whose sand is not quite as bright as that of others, keeping it less crowded. To the east, the main road curves south to hug picturesque Willoughby Bay.

Just beyond it, if you make the right number of tiny turns off the main road, you'll stumble upon gorgeous Half Moon Bay, where there are no resorts - at least that I could see - to spoil the intimate serenity of the waters.

Half Moon Bay is arguably as beautiful as Hermitage Bay, though they're far apart geographically - and, perhaps, metaphorically.

On the day I visited, a small group of tourists quietly waded in the waters, taking in their perfect surroundings. There weren't any waiters offering cold drinks in the shade; there weren't any bungalows with plunge pools tucked into the foothills.

Still, at that moment, Antigua couldn't be blamed for resting on the laurels of its beaches - all 365 of them.

If You Go to Antigua

Getting There

Antigua lies in the middle of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean archipelago.

Antigua and the much smaller island of Barbuda form a dual island nation. V.C. Bird International Airport, the island's only airport, is about 5 miles northeast of the capital, St. John's.

Getting Around

Antigua is balmy, beachy and, for the most part, beautiful.

Beaches and villages are walkable once you've arrived, but getting to and fro requires ground transportation. (There is allegedly a local bus service, which I never did encounter.) As in England, driving is done on the left and is generally safe if you stay on the main roads. Keep in mind there are virtually no street signs. Directions are usually given in relation to landmarks such as churches, stadiums and roundabouts. Taxis (including water taxis) are available for hire via telephone but aren't common on the streets; most larger inns and hotels offer airport transfers for a fee.

Staying There

Luxury resorts such as Hermitage Bay (268-562-5500; hermitagebay.com) can cost upward of $1,000 per night and, for that price, are usually all-inclusive of meals, drinks, activities or some combination thereof. There's also a Sandals here (888-7263257; sandals.com), if that's your thing.

Tourists on more modest budgets might want to stick to less ritzy (and more charming) pockets, such as English Harbour. The Admiral's Inn (268-460-1027; admiralsantigua.com) and the Catamaran Hotel (268-460-1036; catamaran-antigua.com) are safe bets with affordable rates. After shopping around, I stayed at Copper and Lumber Store Hotel (268-460-1160; copperandlumberhotel.com), which resembles a Georgian inn and is incredibly friendly and well located.

Dining

Resort restaurants tend to go the international route - which isn't always a bad thing - but true Antiguan food is heavily influenced by the French and should be sought out. Seriously good takes on classics such as tomato tartine and steak tartare are served at English Harbour's popular Catherine's Cafe (268-460-5050), with bistro-style dining right on the jetty. Also recommended in English Harbour: Trappas (268-562-3534), which offers an eclectic mix of seafood and pub fare ranging from beer-battered mahi mahi to homemade Thai-style curry dishes; and HQ (268562-2563), a French-owned pub with live music on Sundays, and creme brulee that rivals the old country's.

What to Do

Relax. Bring sunscreen and a few paperbacks. Get in the water; there's plenty of opportunity to do so. There are two golf courses, if you must, but the point of staying on an island such as this is doing a whole lot of nothing.

Information

Official Antigua tourism information: 646-215-6035; www.antigua-barbuda.org

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