Greta Garbo wanted to be alone here.

Susan Hunt brought her second husband, Richard Burton, here. They stayed in the same room at the same hotel where she had honeymooned the year before with her first husband, race car driver James Hunt.

Paul McCartney, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jimmy Buffett and Cheryl Tiegs have also discovered the ease of escaping on this breezy, sun-baked Caribbean island south of the Virgin Islands and north of Guadeloupe.

"You've read Herman Wouk's 'Don't Stop the Carnival'?" a British expatriate asked us upon arriving at Coolidge Airport, a rickety, salmon-pink cinder-block building that could easily fit in the cargo section of our airplane. "Well, this is it. The water goes off. The electricity goes off. Nothing works. You'll love it."

We clung to each other in the back seat of the cab during the ride to the hotel. They drive on the left here, but it really doesn't matter. They drive on whichever side has the fewest potholes, fallen coconuts and assorted livestock straying in from the lush green pastures. Lots of beeping as the car screeches around the trecherous turns and twists of the mountain road into the rain forest.

Old men on donkeys and mahogany-colored children in doorways of pink and powder blue shacks waved to us. We waved back. Young girls in lavender-colored uniforms carried school books and held hands, unabashed in their affection for each other. Young boys played cricket, cheering each crack of the bat. Others kicked soccer balls lazily down the broken concrete, dreaming of Pele or one of the girls in lavender.

We arrived at Callaloo Beach Hotel, a small cozy inn on the south shore with pale pink bungalows nestled between palm trees, the Caribbean five feet from our front door. Contrary to an earlier visit, the power was on.

We spent the first night drinking German wine and eating red snapper with the owner, Nick Fuller, a feisty, self-described "old wombat" who once served as the American consul to Antigua. Chomping on a cigar, Fuller (also known to the islanders as "Ugly Fullah") hooked up his new stereo and played Fats Waller tunes until 2 a.m., regaling us with tales (true and false) of other hotels and their owners, the tourist industry, smuggling and his sex life.

We loved it.

It is impossible to write about a Caribbean vacation without the usual cliches: sun-drenched beaches, swaying palm trees, pina coladas in the afternoon, sand in the sheets. b

But there were dilemmas: how to say no to the little boy selling conch shells for "only one American dollar"; how to look cool dancing to steel band music with a red hibiscus flower in your hair; how to avoid buying straw hats.

Sometimes the water didn't work. Some nights, the power went out. Sometimes, both happened simultaneously. "No problem," Nick said.

During the next two weeks, we (1) rented a car and drove every day to a different hotel or beach; (2) laid in the blazing sun while our brains turned to Tapioca; (3) snorkled in clear, blue water; (4) skinny-dipped in clear, blue water; (5) acquired a taste for cockles; (6) fended off a bat with a tennis racket; (7) took pictures that will not turn out; (8) had our first, serious fight (over a Scrabble game); (9) learned to brush our teeth by candlelight; (10) practiced saying "no problem."

"Antigua is a rock in a sea of controversy," said Howard Holford, pouring a glass of white wine and twirling his handlebar mustache. Holford is the owner of Curtain Bluff, recognized as the island's premier resort hotel. Curiously, Curtain Bluff ($165 to $175 a day in season, for double room MAP) and Callaloo ($98 a day) share the same stretch of sand, which was badly buffetted during last year's hurricanes.

Curtain Bluff (Paul McCartney stayed here) is one of two hotels on the island which require men to wear coats and ties after 7 p.m. At 6:45 Holford was bare-chested, wearing faded floral swim shorts. He said the small resort is booked solid for the next three years.

Mentioning political and racial tensions he attributed to some other Caribbean islands, Holford explained: "Antigua is stable. We have the most gorgeous beaches, the best food. There's very little crime, and no corruption."

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Antigua was settled by the British in 1632. In 1967, with its dependencies Barbuda and Redonda, Antigue became a state in association with the United Kingdom.

Tourism is the main source of economy, with a dozen or so resort hotels.

For the past few years, according to hotel owners, bookings have been steadily growing. The Canadian International Development Agency is building a new airport terminal and airlines have increased their service from America, Canada and Europe. During sailing week in April, rooms are virtually impossible to find.

Insiders say word of Antigua will spread even more when the film version of Peter Benchley's novel "The Island" is released. The movie was shot here. Reportedly, much of the script re-writing was done by candlelight.

You don't have to be a millionaire to join the exclusive Mill Reef Club -- but it helps. Built in 1949 on 1,200 acres of seaside land, Mill Reef boasts 50 property owners and 500 members who pass through the barricaded entrance to a plush, secluded haven on the far eastern corner of the island.

Mrs. Paul (Bunny) Mellon owns a house here, which Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to frequent. IBM mogul and ambassador to the Soviet Union Tom Watson and Lord and Lady Astor are other notable Mill Reefers.

The manager said one day a vice president of the United States showed up at the gate and was refused entrance. "He wasn't a member," the manager sniffed. "We're not like a hotel, where they'll take anybody."

Half Moon Bay Hotel adjoins the white sands of Mill Reef. Like most resorts, it offers (in the words of the brochure) "superb food/tropical golf/West Indian entertainemnt/championship tennis/beachside rooms/sunshine and water."

We settled for a cheeseburger by the pool. The ambiance was Miami Beach Geriatric, with lots of white belts and Kiwanis Club string ties. The clubhouse, however, was stunning and decorated in natural wicker and colorful canvas. Half Moon also boasts a dramatic, seaside golf course. In season, oceanfront rooms for two with breakfast and dinner range from $120 to $180 per day.

We drove to English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard, headquarters of the British fleet in the Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Lord Nelson was senior officer of the station from 1784-1787, and the dockyard -- the most interesting historical site on the island -- has been lovingly restored.

Every slip in the yard is taken by one outrageously expensive yacht or another; sleek boats from Denmark, England, Southhampton, Belgium, France, California, South America pull in every day, their sun-bleached crews smoking Gaulois or buying vegetables or practicing yoga in the yard.

"Leaving after Christmas for Australia via Panama Canal. Crewmenbers needed," read the notice on the Dockyard's message board. "Gourmet vegeterian cook available for Caribbean cruise" read another.

We strolled to the stone patio of the Admiral's Inn for a lime squash, trying to look sun-bleached and mysterious.

In order to simplify this story, we decided to do the best and worst of Antigua:

BEST BEACH: Ffryes Bay, located on southwestern shore. Perfect white sandy shore, good snorkeling, quiet, unspoiled.

BEST SNORKELING: Long Bay, located on northeast corner of island. Rent equipment from Long Bay Hotel, a 20-room establishment catering to serious scuba divers and those who want to learn. Beautiful coral reefs.

BEST LUNCH: Spanish Main Hotel, located in downtown St. John's near the Cathedral. Dark wood, British pub ambience, offering robust West Indian dishes, cold lobster salad; cockles and melted butter. Try the knockwurst and sauerkraut, homemade ice cream for dessert.

BEST DINNER: Antigua Yacht Club, English Harbour. An Italian chef and his British wife run the kitchen in this tiny, cinder-block building on the water's edge. The food is expertly prepared, the atmosphere decidedly informal. Try the fish soup, fresh lobster, cockles with linguine and key lime tart for dessert. Stop by in the afternoon to reserve a table -- they have no phone.

Curtain Bluff also serves excellent food. Try the chef's award-winning West Indian Bouillabaisse on Friday nights. Admiral's Inn is also first-rate (Saturday night dance to a steel band under the stars), as is The Inn at English Harbour. Reservations are recommended.

BEST SHOPPING: Duty-free perfume, liquor, British pipes and cigarettes in St. John's, the capital city. Best local buys are pottery (found at Arawak Crafts) and Antiguan rum.

WORST BUGS: Galley Bay Hotel, located on Five Islands on the western-most point of the island, is a charming settong for a resort hotel. Pierre Trudeau has stayed here. So has Greta Garbo, who reportedly liked to sunbathe in the nude. In season, double beachfront rooms are $94 to $104 per day. The Gaugin Villas, unique thatched-roof hideaways, are $84 a day. For M.A.P. (breakfast and dinner) add $22 per person per day. We ate a scrumptious lunch of fresh lobster salad on the veranda overlooking the blue water but were driven away by bugs, the see-um and the no see-um variety. Flys, mosquitos and tiny sand fleas kept us scratching for days.