ANTIGUA is always love at first sight. From an aircraft window, perhaps. A dense, green mass, ringed by the dazzling whiteness of 365 beaches, set in heavenly turquoise. Could anywhere really be so perfect?

I first visited Antigua in 1990. It was work, in the loosest possible sense.

Perhaps the finest 14 days' toil that any man could gain.

I had been assigned to write the autobiography of West Indian cricket legend Viv Richards, arguably the greatest cricketer of recent times - certainly the most famous export of this orchidaceous little island. I hadn't realised quite what this might mean.

For Richards was regarded as an emperor among his people and, to spend two weeks in such exalted company was like tasting royalty from within. (His presence still looms large. One often sees him striding purposefully through St John's and a pristine new venue, The Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, is set to open this year).

However, during my initial visit the notion of basking in reflected glory started to pale.

Locked in a cycle of cocktail parties on marble patios, I longed to escape and did, during the second week, to lose myself - literally - in a wash of landscape and culture.

I would return to Antigua twice during the intervening years and, even if the touristic elements have evolved considerably, the magic remains to this day.

There is nowhere on earth I would rather be.

Admiral Horatio Nelson thought so too.

The lovely warm trade-winds that blew his Men-O-war to Antigua's safe, secluded harbours remain the same, gently teasing the tourists as they step from the aircraft, scarcely able to believe just how intoxicating a simple breeze can be.

For many, a taxi will skirt St John's before rumbling along roads of gravel crumble towards a hotel complex on the other side of the island.

On two occasions, my journey would lead to the Blue Waters Beach Hotel, just 10 miles to the north.

It was tempting to allow oneself to remain locked in that lovely compound, and many do.

Indeed, most of Antigua's larger hotels are similarly aloof, enclosed institutions in their own right, where a life spent sauntering down to a beach bar to sip banana daiquiri's while the in-house band plays Bob Marley's Stir it Up awaits.

Nothing wrong with that, of course and, although the hotels are generally tastefully landscaped, they offer little insight into the unique atmosphere of this island.

Antigua is famously one of the safest islands in the Caribbean even if it doesn't always seem that way. I have trudged wearily into ramshackle villages almost entirely constructed of corrugated iron and yet, always, I have been welcomed into bars and cafés not noted for an English tourist customer base.

I spent one memorable afternoon at a well attended football match between Antigua and neighbouring island St Kitts. As the only white face among a 2,000-strong crowd, I did feel a slight edge of trepidation.

At half time a towering Rastafarian swaggered up to me before, to my astonishment, asking me if I felt that Michael Heseltine was a worthy politician.

At the heart of Antigua lies St John's.

A capital city dominated by the baroque towers which flank the cathedral.

For those arriving by boat, these towers are the first things they notice and, despite being twice destroyed by earthquakes - don't worry, these took place in 1683 and 1745 - the island is regarded as completely stable now; they seem to signify a solid heart to the city.

Between them and the dock lies a network of designer shops, bars and restaurants, mercifully not as bland as that might sound. Local crafts have infiltrated here and offer a colourful alternative to the Guccis and Pradas.

A vase procured from here for $6 in 1990 remains my most treasured possession, not least because it was apparently created by a reggae singer known as Bananaman.

St John's is downbeat fun and bustle.

Wonky wooden houses, shambolic grocery shops and market days that seem to sprawl everywhere.

Great tourist fun can be gleaned from the purchase of a coconut - its head ceremoniously sliced off to allow you access to the refreshing milk.

Darcy's Bar, in the heart of the city, is the perfect place to down a Red Stripe.

Earthy barrels, rickety tablesexactly as it was in the days when the young Viv Richards worked as a waiter.

On Fridays and Sundays, the market atmosphere expends outwards to the city's southern fringe.

Here, the barrage of tropical fruits on offer is bolstered by folk stalls boasting some of the most extraordinary crafts you may ever encounter - wooden hats, anyone?

It's all part of a prevailing eccentricity that permeates every aspect of Antiguan life.

Jamaica without the menace. Barbados without the creeping modernism.

In St John's it is almost impossible to avoid a lengthy discourse with a friendly local who, having latched on to a holiday programme on satellite television, will ask about the development of Salford Quays or whether Christiano Ronaldo will go to Real Madrid etc.

I once gave such a chap a cassette tape featuring Frank Sidebottom.

I can only imagine how that might have affected local culture.

This amiability is just one reason why, in 2007, Antigua simply sparkles with unguarded celebrity.

Once, only Eric Clapton could be seen skulking on the street corners, happy to be lost in the maelstrom of market day.

Today, film and soap stars, largely unbeknown to me, can often be seen sitting casually within the proliferation of bars (Antigua was voted the island most suitable for celeb-spotting in Caribbean Magazine).

Refreshingly, they too tend to prefer the locals' bars to the upmarket areas of docklands.

While St John's remains the hub of Antiguan life, it is the aforementioned 365 beaches that truly service the tourist industry.

Although you will tire of locals informing you that there is one for every day of the year', some of the more obscure expanses of sand make perfect destinations for those brave enough to hire a Jimny Jeep and just head for a patch of white on the map.

This is the most simple method of exploring the island and, the chances are, once there a man called Leroy will turn up with his glass bottom boat and, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel expedition, will take you on a glorious personalised tour around several undiscovered bays.

Enjoy his banter; the Red Stripe he will thrust in your hand and his genuine warmth.

It's the Antiguan way and it has yet to be eroded by time or tourists.