MANY TRAVELERS consider Barbados the friendliest island in the Caribbean. And tourism is the island's No. 1 industry.

Long, bitter struggles against economic setbacks -- first in the tobacco industry and then with sugar -- have made Bajans realistic about protecting their current top earner of foreign exchange.

The government recently laid the groundwork for what it hopes will turn out to be an exciting new tourist attraction when it authorized the sinking of a 365-foot freighter in clear waters off the St. James coast. The burned-out out vessel, which had been purchased at auction, will be the focal point of a planned underwater park. The growth of tourism (300,000 visitors are expected this year) is on everybody's mind. Just 21 miles long by 14 miles wide, the tiny island already supports a permanent population of 258,000 residents. It is said to be the third most densely populated country in the world.

"... hopitality and a genteel behavior is hown to every gentleman stranger by the gentleman inhabitants"... is as true today as when George Washington made this notation in his diary during a 45-day stay in Barbados in 1751.

Today the Bajans are the best educated, most politically literate blacks in the West Indies. Their Cabinet and Senate are composed predominately of blacks, and blacks have important business interests, including ownership of the largest distillery, Mount Gay Rum products.

The country achieved its independence from Britain just 12 years ago, but their political and social sophistication didn't happen overnight. Its first legislature was established in 1639 (the third oldest in the British Commonwealth); some wording for the U.S. Constitution was borrowed from the Barbados Articles of Agreement of 1652. Although the country reverted back to slavery for many years due to economic crises, the Bayans have retained a remarkable sense of pride and indentity.

Barbados is different from its Caribbean neighbors in many ways. The most easterly of the West Indies, standing about 100 miles east of the arc of islands that stretches from the Virgin Islands down to Grenada, its relatively flat surface is of coral formation, not lava like its neighbors.

The sun does come down with a burning glow, as described by Irwin Burgie in the haunting song "Island in the Sun" about his native land: It lies just 13 degrees north of the equator. Year-round temperatures range from 70 to 85 degrees.

Beyond sweeping vistas of cane fields lies a vigorous community, 95 percent of Afro-West Indian origin and 5 percent European. By tradition each Bajan family requires a home of his own, eschewing apartment living. As you approach B ridgetown, rows of tiny wooden houses, each with pointed roof and gingerbread trim painted in contrasting hue, line both sides of the narrow roadway. Waterfront estates worth millions stand side by side with these modest but clean and well-cared-for mini-houses.

The Bajan dialect, with its clipped cadence and rapid delivery, is unintelligible when heard for the first time. A guide, such as Frank A. Collymore's "Barbadian Dialect," can open the door to understanding their creative speech patterns full of homespun descriptions and wry wit. To Bajans, sweet drinks are "balloon juice"; a tow-story hosue is "an upstairs hose"; a suitcase is a "packall." My favorite expression is the pregnant woman: she's "making small bones."

On the other hand, formal speech-making is a universally admired skill among Barjans, and using the King's English with grace and poise is indulged in at ev ery opportunity.

Although the island is small, one can explore 688 miles of well-paved roads crisscrossing the cane fields. Barbados is divided into 11 parishes, each with its own church. One full day is needed to drive around the island to see important rural sights; another half day should be devoted to the capital city, Bridgetown.

If you don't want to risk getting lost, Island Services offers a 6 1/2-hour excursion, including lunch at Sam Lord's Castle for $23 person. Fiesta Holidays' tour, which includes lunch at the Atlantic Hotel, is slightly less. Car rentals run about $18 per day, plus $5 for an international drivers' license. Lefr-hand cars and traffic patterns are the rule.

But first, spend a day or so relaxing along one of the 30 miles of beautiful beaches that ring the island. A book about your host country, such as F.A. Hoyos' "Barbados Our Island Home" or Sir Ronald Tree's "History of Barbados," is a good investment.

If you visit Barbados in season, particularly as a non-group traveler, you must book the best hotels months in advance. Year-round occupancy rate is a low 55 percent, although this figure is misleading not only because it includes the government tourist office democratically lists a myriad of small hotels, guest houses and cottages in the official count.

Many of the "mom and pop" hotels remain unoccupied most of the year for lack of publicity, as well as other reasons. Although I observed Canadian and German tourists who seemed content with some low-budget accommodations (apparently their most important considerations were price and escape from the cold), I think most Americans expect a higher standard of comfort and esthetics.

For example, the Sweet Life, a small hotel that enjoys a good reputation among islanders for its family-style cameraderie, was recommended to me "because you'll get personal attention which is so important." I first examined the brochure, which displayed the property to good advantage and prompted me to take a closer look. When I actually saw the property -- one of several small hotels near Acre Beach on the south shore -- I found it completely unacceptable to my tastes. I would rather stay home than spend time in a mediocre, even depressing environment.

Especially at a destination like Barbados, where the spectrum is so varied, it is important to make sure that your travel agent knows your tastes and confrms to you that he or she can definitely vouch for the hotel being offered you -- either from prior experience or personal visit. Don't be afraid to ask questions and insist upon answers before you pay your money. In this way you can avoid the expensive disappointment (not to mention later recriminations) of being booked in the "wrong" hotel. With the proper guidance you can get a good bargain, such as the "Best of Barbados" packages initiated by the government, which include accommodations, tours and extrase; during the off-season (April to mid-December) rates start as low as $50 per person, double occupancy.

At the other end of the scale, in-season rates at the luxurious Sandy Lane Hotel are $180 a day per couple, including breakfast and dinner. One of three hotels I sampled, it lives up to its reputation as one of the most elegant hotels in the Caribbean. The 15-room, neo-Palladian luxury property, located in St. James on the posh "Platinum Coast," boasts the best beach on Barbados, an 18-hole golf course, five tennis courts and a lovely free-form pool lit for night swimming.

For low-key elegance, try the Discovery Bay Inn, with 75 rooms facing the garden pool or casuarina tree-lined beach. One of three sister hotels, including the Colony Club and Tamarind Cove, it shares tennis courts, a 51-foot yacht "Eione" and dine-around privilges. Tiny yellow birds arrive each morning to share your breakfast, which is served on your pricate patio. Summer rates start at $70 daily (MAP -- with breakfast and dinner) per couple, winter rates at$105.

Popular with businessmen is the 40-room, newly refurbished Ocean View Hotel located in Hastings and sandwiched between the coastal highway and the roaring surf. An entire wall of the dining room is the sea, its vivid green and turquoise colors glistening in the sunlight and framed by trellised archways and tropical plants Tangy salt breezes whet the appetite for consistently excellent cuisine served with great courtesy. During the winter season the festive Sunday brunch of local dishes at$10 per person is must. MAP for two starts at $70 in winter and $55 in summer.

Cooking is a lively art form in Barbados, with a tradition of flavors as vibrant and colorgul as the primitive paintings and posters sold in the marketplace. A recipe book makes a grand sourvenir. From October to July the traditional dish is flying fish; also popular is dolphin (dry) and kingfish (moist). Exotic local fare includes breadfruit cou cou mashed with salt fish; puddin and souce (sweet potatoes mashed with pig's blood served with pickled ears, snouts, etc.) They also make fabulous pizza and ice cream.

Pices Restaurant serves succulent local seafood on a candlelit terrace overlooking a quiet inlet framed by graceful trees. At Bagatelle dinner is served midest the splendor of a historic plantation house. The Mirimar Hotel, famed for its buffets, overlooks a bright crescent beach, a treat for the eye as well as the palate.

Riding local buses is a recommended way to mingle with the Bajans and save on high taxi rates. The day I headed into Bridgetown I encountered a spirited public debate held for my benefit at the bus stop about the pros and cons of welcoming tourists. Another time I was waiting at a bus stop with another person, when a well-dressed Bajan invited us into the car of a friend who had stopped to give her a lift into town.

Bridgetown is a busting city. The wharf area is picturesque. Elegant duty-free shops line Broad Street -- the main thoroughfare -- displaying luxury ceramic and glassware, electronic and photo equipment, jewelry and gift items. On the side streets one encounters a network of nondescript shops and open sewers.

At the fast-food Chefette, where you can buy pizza, chicken and hamburgers, a sign read "Be Discreet," suggesting that customers not monopolize the tables. Young Bajan men with gold chains accenting their open shirts and well-dressed young women appeared more stylish than many tourists.

I found the best shipping at small boutiques in the Skyway Plaza in Hastings. The Gearbox offers the "perfect" bikini for about $17. The brightest array of native handcrafts were at the Loomhouse; dolls in costume, wrought iron figures as wall hangings or plant holders, fabric handbags and many more items were attractive and inexpensive. Three-In-One on Balmoral Gap features Caribbean music plus ceramic by artist Courtney Devonish. If you're buying Mount Gay Rum I found the best prices at the airport. (Choose the liqueur if you want to make flaming desserts.)

If Barbados begins to seem too quiet, there are an interesting group of night spots away from the hotel scene to explore. Bel Air is the liveliest, but its nightly jazz jam session doesn't even begin until midnight. At the Pepperpot Lounge the Merrymen, the island's most popular singing group, work their special magic. Alexandra's offers disco dancing that's popular with both Bajans and tourists. The Hippo disco attracts a younger crowd, mostly Canadians.

On Monday night the Island Inn show includes limbo, fire dancing and calypso. Tuesday is Bajan night at the Hilton, a 188-room luxury hotel built by the government on the site of historic Fort Charles. It is a dramatic setting for al fresco feasting, but unfortunately it is also down wind of an oil refinery.

There are plenty of daytime activities. Scuba diving at the Hilton and Holiday Inn costs $20 for a one-tank dive, (there are about 25 partly visible wrecks around the island), parasailing is $12 a half hour, water skiiing is $15 per half hour and deep-sea fishing for marlin and tuna on a charter boat like Ram Endhill's cost $180 for a full day.

Take time to talk with the local people whenever you can. They have interesting values, some evolved from long association with the British. But they are uniquely themselves, both serious and full of fun and enthusiasm.