EACH MORNING, more or less at 6 o'clock, the milk boy fills two large, metal cans with warm, foamy liquid, straps them on a horse and heads for Coxen Hole. Rum bottles are the accepted form of measure around here since that's the most popular glass container; so when the boy stops for his customers, he sells milk by the fifth.

And so goes life on Roatan, a quaintly odd mixture of left-over English colonists and descendants of slaves, which is ever so slowly discovering both the 20th century and the outside world.

"My husband got here 10 years ago and he said, 'Well, give it five years and the island will be shot.' Five years came and went and nothing much happened. He said, 'Well, five more years. And five more have come and gone . . ."

The speaker, Elaine Radawski, has adapted to tropical island life. A California import, she figures the lack of paved roads is offset by the lack of rush-hour traffic jams, and the lack of spit-polish efficiency by the lack of pressured tension. She and her husband run the island end of an operation called the Bay Islands Co., which basically amounts to 60 milk cows, 100 beef steers, a gift shop that sporadically peddles maps and a real estate subdivision which hasn't sold an inch in three years.

If it sounds as if Roatan is hardly on the map, you couldn't be more correct. In fact, it isn't on some maps at all. But more of that later. The island is a three-by-36-mile stringbean of steamy, green mountains covered with more coconut trees than you ever thought existed and inhabited by hardly 10,000 souls.

Practically the only reason it's known to anyone outside of Honduras is it happens to be ringed by some of the best scuba diving reefs in the Caribbean and has a fledgling resort industry that actually lives up to its promises of giving you a get-away-from-it-all vacation. In an age where the Colonel's chicken has found its way from Nassau to Osaka, Roatan has yet to open its first fast-food franchise.

This was my second trip to Roatan . . . the first being 10 days of semi-insanity five years ago when I and some others puttered around the island in a native dory and slept on the beaches. Just us and the sandflies. I knew then I had to return, but I was more than a little concerned since untouched hideaways have a way of putting up Hiltons in the interim.

I shouldn't have worried.

To understand Roatan, you have to know something of its history. For centuries, Roatan and most of the other Bay Islands were little more than prayer stops for a group of Indians known as Payans (not Mayans).

Columbus happened upon Roatan July 30, 1502, during his fourth voyage and wrote about finding "very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain from which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer." Though the beer today comes courtesy of the Honduran mainland, the spirit of the bread remains since, even now, the people hereabouts whomp up coconut-laced loaves that have their equal only in Bimini.

What happened next tends to get confusing if you're trying to make sense of it four centuries later. First, the Spaniards wanted slaves for their gold and silver mines in Mexico, so they rounded up all the natives and shipped them off. The pirates moved in next since the Bay Islands made perfect staging grounds for raids on the mainland. It is said that at one time, there were thousands of them and Henry Morgan is supposed to have built a fort whose remains still stand. Off and on during the next hundred years, the Spanish fought the English and the population flourished one day, then sank to oblivion the next.

In 1796, the British dumped 5,000 black ex-slaves from St. Vincent, then the Spaniards arrived to take them to the mainland. Still, in each invasion some people hid and survived. There are those on Roatan who swear to this day that old great, great, great grandpappy was a pirate. How else, they ask, do you account for all those Kirkconnells, McNabs and Morgans still around?

In 1859, what with hassles over the Monroe Doctrine, the Bay Islands were given by Britain to Honduras, though its people considered themselves crown subjects through the turn of the century and still tend to call mainlanders "those Spaniards." As for those Spaniards, they have equally good memories and to this day you can find a few maps which simply did not show any islands out there north of the coast. All this explains, perhaps, a little of why Roatan has not exactly been on the beaten path.

As for Roatan today, progress has come . . . after a fashion. But all things are relative. The airport runway is still a gravel strip running along the ocean where beach sand should be. There's a new passenger building, but it's stood locked for a year because something or another isn't finished and the roof leaks.

Coxen Hole is the largest of Roatan's 22 villages and towns. A third of the island lives there in brightly painted, wood-frame squares which sit on stilts to catch the breezes. It's Bimini, circa 1960, with tiny hotels offering rooms for $6 a night and grocery stores with everything from baby food and soap to blouses, tea kettles and Clorox bottles of gasoline at $1.40 a gallon.

Just outside Coxen Hole, I found Linton Jervis. He's 43, though he looks 35, and is busy building boats like his daddy before him. The boat works take up his entire front yard and threaten, in fact, to push his tiny yellow house right into the ocean. Out in the water back of the house sat a half-finished, 28-foot resort dive boat and off to the side on a frame sheltered by palm thatch sat the hull of a 56-foot freighter. Five men squatted on the unfinished deck, pounding in wooded wedges to get the planks tight.

"The ribs are Santa Maria. The only thing harder than that is iron," Jervis said. "I've been working on it six, maybe seven months. It's slow, but I do it right. They don't build boats like that in the states any more. Only fiberglass," he sniffed.

A couple of days later, I managed to borrow a friend of a friend and the remains of his faithful but fading Land Rover. Five years ago roads around here were so bad, people relied on the daily mail boat to go from town to town along the south shore. Today the road is improved somewhat. Still, it took us an hour to rattle across 20 miles.

We bounced along while Antonio Rosales recalled the first car, which arrived in 1955 when he was 9. "We had all seen a gangster movie, so that's what we expected." What they got was a panel truck and it didn't go far, since there was barely half a mile of road on the whole island.

Some miles outside of Coxen Hole, Rosales turned down a path which died in front of a pile of concrete and half a dozen sailing ships. The concrete was slowly becoming Roatan's first truly modern hotel, a transit lounge of sorts for people heading out on the 44-foot CSY yachts. For $1,400 a week (groceries extra) Caribbean Sailing Yachts will hand you a single-masted yacht to go have fun with.

The outfit opened only last year, but already its neighbor, Colonia Brick Bay, has dreams of selling two-acre plots to well-heeled boatsmen. Colonia is the closest thing Roatan has to a true developer. The company has actually peddled 14 sites in the past three years and yes, sad to say, inflation is felt even here. Lots that went for $8,000 then sell for $15,000 now. A house that cost $12,000 then would run at least $25,000 now. The idea, eventually, is to rent out these little vacation cottages a la Aspen, where one has to schedule oneself into the game plan to get even two weeks in his own pad.

From Brick Bay we headed further east. Roatan still has only one main road that travels the southern spine of the island with feeder paths leading to the bay towns below. All of the island's main towns are on the south side. Whether it's because the harbors are better, the early settlers figured it was easier to put down on the side closest to the mainland, or the stiff breezes kept away the bugs. I don't know. All the reasons sound good.

We passed by French Harbor, where locals catch shrimp which eventually wind up on more than a few U.S. dinner tables. And we dropped down to visit Oak Ridge. At Oak Ridge, the mountains plunge directly into the water so people have taken to building their stilt houses in a single line hanging over the sea. The houses face the ocean, and the back door path which serves as a road is definitely not big enough for anything but feet or an occasional motorcycle. There are more houses on a couple of small nearby islands, but everyone is so dependent on the water that each house has a dugout or runabout moored beside its front lawn.

Hazel Ducker's Oak Ridge house is the usual wood frame, stilt affair, but inside she's got a Tappan range, a nice sized fridge and all the comforts of home. Some other things around here, though, have taken time. Roatan has 36 hand-crank telephones, complete with central operator, and there's still not a single house number on the island.

"You send to me care of Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras," Rosales told me. No need to mention Coxen Hole. The postman knows. One American resident on the mainland, in fact, got a letter addressed to Los Gringos, Danli, Honduras. The mailman came right to his door.

Beyond Oak Ridge, there's not much except scattered houses, mangrove and a Cousteau scouting party looking for salt water crocodiles. Off the very eastern tip lies a three-mile chunk of rock and jungle called Barbaret. People have been threatening to build a resort there for decades, but so far it remains Robinson Crusoe Land: green coves, creamy sand, rustling palms. It's the sort of place that inspires those running-naked-in-the-sand fantasies -- if you can dodge the sand flies long enough to keep your blood supply intact.

The north side of Roatan is far more primitive than the south. Most of the southsiders come from British colony stock while most of the north folk are descendants of those ex-slaves who stayed hidden. Punta Gorda and Sandy Bay are not clusters but, rather, strings of stilt houses along the beach. Some are palm thatch, some are mud, some are wood and all face a line of tiny shacks on docks over the ocean.These are the community outhouses, with sanitation being left to the tides.

I found Toribio Benedith sitting on a bench outside his house. He wore brand-new, wire-rim aviator sun glasses but the house at his back was little more than a wild cane and wood frame cabin which had been covered with mud, then cement and roofed over with zinc. Next to the house under palm thatch was a mud cradle with a couple of logs covered by a sheet of metal -- Toribio's kitchen. And Toribio's wife, a strong looking woman with endless patience, was standing inside by a table, ironing with one of those relic flatirons you only see in antique stores these days.

"I was a carpenter . . . a good carpenter. But my eyes have gone, so now I make children's toys," Toribio said as he fished around for one of his little drums. "But I have had a good life. I am comfortable and my son is in college." The other children are scattered here and there . . . Toribio isn't exactly sure where since it's a bit hard keeping up with 27 of them.

The other largish town on the north side is Sandy Bay, a slightly more modern version of Punta Gorda. And also on the north side are the island's two major resorts, a collection of native style cottages among the palms called Anthony's Key and Spyglass Hill.

You wonder, after meandering about Roatan, just what will become of the place. There have been certainly enough subtle changes. Though the road is no expressway, it's finally gotten good enough to retire the mailboat. Letters go by bus these days. And "those Spaniards" on the mainland are slowly discovering the island. More and more, you hear Spanish. There are even rumors that a large chunk of World Bank money is destined to repave the airport runway.

But the highways and high-rise condos might not be around the corner just yet. Paul Adams, owner of Anthony's Key, remembers all too well what happened to his short-lived telephone link to Coxen Hole. Locals along the four-mile route used it as a clothes line.

Which is just as well, I suppose, since sleepy island hideaways are sort of hard to find these days.

Cardozo is a free-lance writer. She lives in Plantation, Fla.