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Antigua wakens from sleepy past

ANTIGUA is still the Caribbean island to explore for history. The sunny retreat that is synonymous with poinsettias, palms, and yellowbells also bears a long record of British colonial development. Walk these capital streets and drive (left side only) the cobweb of dusty roads over rolling hills to witness 350 years of English rule.

On the undeveloped side of the island, there's the tourist centerpiece of British past -- Nelson's Dockyard -- preserved home of the British colonial fleet, commissioned in 1755. Across the small cove is the 1786 Clarence House, occupied by King William IV (but now country residence of the governor general of Antigua) and site of Queen Elizabeth's recent lunchtime drop-in.

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Here in the capital lives the influence of Britain in the present -- Barclay's Bank, St. George cricket field, St. Charles Hotel, St. Mary's Street, English Harbour. Stretched over the island's 108 square miles are no less than five forts, each with its own battle legends and each notable for colonial fortification engineering. Thirty archaeological sites, notably Indian Creek and Mill Reef, pepper the miles of lush green forests, reef-protected beaches, and even one mountain you can climb.

All this is supplementary, of course, to the cornucopia of fun-in-the-sun water sports -- sailing, cruises, deep-sea fishing -- offered at 30 hotels from luxurious to moderate (guest houses and family cottages are available by the week or month). A fairly quiet night life, by Caribbean standards, goes on at isolated restaurants and casinos. Very little good, duty-free shopping keeps the tone of tourist life at very low decibels.

But a visiting tourist today might be struck by signs -- four years after independence -- that this sleepy paradise of undulating hills, warm-water beaches, and lilting calypso wants to move away from its reputation as one of the sleepiest and slowest of Caribbean isles.

Among other things, blame the satellite dishes. I noticed them on a number of rooftops and wondered just what kind of influence the onslaught of multichannel television could have on such a measured and noble existence where the gritty town market, surrounded by goats nibbling orchids through tattered fences, is still the center of non-tourist social life.

I found out the next day. Swimming off the warm stretches of Dickenson Bay beach, two sweet-looking Antiguan children told me their greatest ambition in life was to move to their grandmother's house in Florida, where they could see the town that gives us ``Miami Vice.''

That jibed with what a taxi driver told me about kids rebelling against the old ways here -- an island long since moving out of sugar cane and cotton (about 1970) and embracing the real moneymaker, tourism. The latter has taken over as greatest supplier of jobs and earner of foreign money.

It also jibed with a recent TV program, ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'' which featured the super-posh St. James's club as in-place for the nouveau riche. Not to mention the mammoth Jolly Beach club, which local hoteliers and tourist agents say is doing so much advertising, benefiting the rest of the island.

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As if all that weren't enough, the director general of tourism, Yvonne Maginley, told me the number of cruise ship visits is way up, a major OAS (Organization of American States) plan to turn the town into a mall is under way, liaisons with airlines are up, and hotel associations are growing. The whole island is embracing tourism, she says, discovering that ``service'' does not mean ``servitude,'' and the people are slowly dismantling the yoke of colonial mentality.

This impacts the tourist in two ways. First, as in Bermuda and Jamaica, a visitor can become the victim of overzealous natives -- from overeager trinket salesmen to taxi drivers with dollar signs in their eyes. (Although rates are fixed -- and fairly high -- I found some drivers, after befriending me, might initially ask for a well-inflated fare. You can obtain a fixed rate sheet or negotiate fares in advance.) Fast-talking islanders are everywhere, nudging you into every activity, sometimes politely, sometimes not. Convinced by two handsome, polite, and amiable islanders to ride ``thoroughbreds through the countryside with a local group of equestrians,'' I found myself in a group of one -- on a small ragged pony led by a boy with a stick. So, ask lots of questions before plunking your money down.

Second on my list of overhype was the entire island of Barbuda -- Antigua's sister island -- which is touted heavily as a sportsmen's paradise. Taking the short flight over for a day's tour, I found it to be a stark, irredeemably dusty flatland of shanties, passable only by four-wheel drive vehicles. It is a place only for the hardiest hiker or hunter. Dainty shoppers and parasoled bons vivants, be forewarned.

For more information, write to Antigua/Barbuda Dept. of Tourism and Trade, 610 Fifth Avenue, Suite 311 New York, N.Y. 10020. Phone (212) 541-4117.

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