I've got so many memories of that place," said Mama Irene, fanning herself with her straw hat. "The weddings I saw there, the fields full of cane, all neat and ready for the cuttin'." The old lady paused and mopped the sweat from her brow. "You know I worked at Betty's Hope for 20 years, and my mother before me. After school, me and my sisters used to help Mom bundle the cane and put it in the trailer. Drop salt, pick up the cane, drop the manure. Leave it all nice and neat¿" It was a hot, windless Sunday morning, and Mama Irene - one of the last plantation workers still alive on Antigua - was sitting on her porch in her frock and her curlers. "It used to be so pretty," she said, "the big plantation house, the gardens. They've restored the windmill nicely now; but the fields - they're all overgrown, just cassie bushes and cactus.

"Course it isn't just Betty's Hope," she added. "Nowadays no one works the land. There's no more farming on Antigua. Now it's just hotels and stuff."

"Is that a good thing?" I asked.

"Good sometimes, not good sometimes," replied Mama Irene. She swished the hat down toward her dusty feet, brushing away a fly. "Times was hard when I was small. They have it easy now. My grandson¿maybe he'll get to be a waiter at one of the hotels. But they're lazy this generation. There's no farm for them to go to. Don't know what work is. Wouldn't know what to do with a hoe if it were put in their hands. Mixing cocktails - that's their idea of hard labor."

Mama Irene cackled with laughter, so that her body shook and her chest heaved beneath her frock. "Mixing cocktails!" she repeated, drumming her dusty feet on the bare boards. "Cocktails! Wouldn't know a hoe if you put it in their hands!"

We were in the village of Pares in central Antigua, looking out at the edge of the village. The Sunday service had just finished, and little girls with yellow ribbons in their cornrows were streaming out of the church, giggling and playing hide-and-seek among the red flamboyant trees. The sign by the gate read:

CHURCH OF CHRIST

JESUS LOVES ALL MEN

PRAISE THE LORD!

Next door, in the wooden Baptist chapel, a rival service had still not finished, and the sound of clapping and gospel music wafted over the giggles to Mama Irene's porch.

"Course the island's changed completely," continued the old lady. "When I was a girl, the whole family would go to church. These days they just send the children mostly, and the children don't go. In those days we didn't have TV or radio. We didn't even have electric light."

She gestured behind me.

"See over there?" she said. "See the tower at Betty's Hope?"

Mama Irene pointed over to the black limestone cone of the old windmill at the plantation. The tower rose over the low cassie scrub, a solitary memorial to a way of life that ended only 40 years ago but that now seemed - at least in Mama Irene's telling of it - like something from ancient history.

"It was the end of the plantations that changed everything," she said. "For all that life's got easier now, sugarcane juice was the lifeblood of this

island. For better or worse the island was created by the cane, and it was the cane that held us all together."

She spat forcefully on the ground to emphasize her point.

"In those days you all worked together in the cane fields," she said. "Everyone cared for everyone. Today no one bothers."

The old lady fanned herself angrily with her hat.

"Betty's Hope used to be so nice. No weeds, no grass, no cassie bushes. Just the cane laid out for miles. And the sound of the cuttin': two licks for each. Top, bottom, and leave the stalk. I'll never forget it, that sound. Switch, switch, and into the trailer. That's what life on this island was all about."

Mama Irene was right, of course. For better or worse, it was the cane that made Antigua. As a fashion for sugar and sweetness grew in 18th-century Europe, British settlers came out to Antigua looking for land on which to build plantations. The planters imported slaves from West Africa to do the hard work of growing and harvesting the cane. An inhuman trade in human lives and the clearing of land for cane - that was what the European taste for sucrose meant in Antigua.

Over the last 40 years, however, another foreign fashion has led to a second seismic shift in the life of Antigua. Since the 1950s, just as the Caribbean sugar trade went into recession, around the world there grew a vogue for white beaches, tanned skin, and sun. As a result Antigua's economy is now as overwhelmingly tied to tourism as once it was to sugar. Antigua, a small island, has once again responded to fads that originated many thousands of miles from its shores, the skeins of direct imperial control slowly giving way to the dictates of airlines, tour companies, and cruise operators. You can see the result as you fly for the first time into Antigua, swooping in over the yachts bobbing in English Harbour and gliding down over the empty green center of the island, to the air-strip at St. John's.

Today, the island lives around its shore. The towns - and the jobs - are all on the coast. The marinas and the hotels, the villas, the bars and the restaurants - and also the new roads - all follow the white strand of the island's gleaming coastline as it loops and meanders its way around the turquoise salt ponds, skirting the sand and the brilliant white coral.

This is where the shifting population of expatriate yachties, drifting DJs, and assorted international hedonists hang out. As you walk along the shore at English Harbour, a commonwealth of suntanned boat hands and cooks, divers and snorkelers, yacht builders and sailing enthusiasts from all over the world (but principally Brits, Germans, and Americans) can be heard updating their social diaries.

"I didn't see you at the party at the villa last night."

"No. I just got in from St. Lucia. Choppy seas."

"St. Lucia? We're heading there for a few days before sailing on to Barbados and Grenada. Then back here for the balloon festival."

"Cool. But we'll be in Tobago then."

"By the way. Tim said that Eric [Clapton] is playing down by Ffryes tonight. In the bar. Small acoustic gig. Nothing grand."

"Tonight? See you there then."

The coast is where the parties happen - and not just expatriate events. Antiguans love to party, and they'll use any excuse to get down to the beach, get barbecues sizzling

And steel drums ringing, with the sound systems turned on full.

In April there's the revelry of Antigua Sailing Week. Before that, it's the round of parties celebrating the cricket season; and before that, the Hot Air Balloon Festival. And in July, Carnival is marked by the island's biggest and best parties and raves along almost every one of the island's 365 superb beaches (one for every day of the year, as Antiguans will proudly tell you). Think of Antigua today, and the word sybaritic comes to mind.

In the days of cane, the island had a very different complexion; the money lay not on the beaches but in the plantations, and the plantations lay in the rich soil of the gently undulating plains of the interior. The coast had importance only in so far as it held the island's two ports - St. John's and Parham - from which the sugar was exported, and its coastal forts, which were built to protect those exports from the Caribbean's many pirates and the French.

Neighboring St. Lucia changed hands between the English and the French 14 times during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. But no one was taking chances with Antigua. The British turned it into one of the most heavily fortified places on earth, with an iron ring of no less than 40 forts guarding every inlet and every bay.

The end of the plan-tations and the rise of tourism has left the center of Antigua oddly still and silent - hot, humid, and sparsely settled. But it is uniquely lovely and fascinating to explore after the bustle of the coastal strip. The highways of the coastline dwindle to tracks as they head inland. The villages are empty but for a few old men in homburg hats slapping dominoes onto gaming boards.

Miles and miles of good arable land is simply left untilled. Here and there you see the odd banana or tamarind tree, a few goats picking at a meadow or a cow tethered to the trunk of a soursop or mango tree. Occasionally there is a garden full of subsistence crops: sweet potatoes, squash, maize, and cassava.

But standing out against the all-devouring cactus and the vines are the old plantation windmills. They are everywhere. It takes less than an hour to drive from one tip of Antigua to the other, but on this small island there still remain more than 90 towers, and these are just a fraction of what once was there.

Climb to the top of one of Antigua's hills, turn your back on the sea and look down over the pure chlorophyll green of the inland plains, and you will see black cones punctuating the landscape like so many outsize exclamation marks.

Beside the towers you will find a whole complex of ruins now smothered beneath green vines and creepers. Bromeliads sprout from the roof of slave barracks and molasses vats; vines tangle over boiling houses and rum distilleries. It comes as a shock to realize that these ancient-looking fragments are often no more than 100 years old, and that some were still working within living memory.

So it is with the forts. On my first day in Antigua, I rose early and climbed Monks Hill, the craggy peak overlooking English Harbour, the island's most magnificent anchorage. Massive walls that appeared to have been built by giants - some were 25 feet thick - lay deserted. Turrets and loopholes stuck up through the greenery. To get inside the former Great George Fort and examine its empty guard rooms and armories I had to virtually cut my way through the long aerial roots of orchids and spider lilies.

A short distance below in the harbor, I could sense the international rich at play: Rupert Murdoch's vast catamaran bobbing en route to the tycoon's wedding in New York, Eric Clapton's villas within sight on a peak north of Shirley Heights, the shoreside bar where Keith Richards had recently jammed. Yet in the eerie quiet of Monks Hill I was in a lost world.

Betty's Hope, Mama Irene's old workplace, is the best preserved of all the plantations. Several of the buildings have been rescued from decay by a remarkable conservation project that brought together large numbers of Antiguans - everyone from government officials to schoolchildren - to help restore the plantation windmill and boiling house, and build a small but superb interpretative center. As a result it is easier here than perhaps anywhere else to reconstruct the life of the sugar plantations. A new set of sails and a new top house have been fitted onto the windmill; break wheels and spindles, rollers and shafts, cogs, flywheels, and ratchets fit perfectly into place. As you sit and take it all in, your imagination begins to fill in the gaps: the creaking of the sails in the northeast trade winds, the lowing of the animals, the shouts of the foreman, and the grunting of the men as they swung their machetes; the sweat and the dust and the sweet ooze of the sugar syrup.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable and thought-provoking aspect of Betty's Hope is not the physical reconstruction so much as the research that has gone into its little museum. The owners of the estate were careful record keepers, and their archives - more than 3,000 letters and some 250 detailed inventories - form the most complete surviving record of daily life in the 18th-century Caribbean.

In the displays at Betty's Hope the inhabitants of the plantations sudden-ly cease to be ciphers and statistics

and instead become flesh-and-blood human beings with names and jobs and personalities.

We meet George Guy the boilerman and Rose Phillipo the water carrier, Edward Chuf the carpenter and Vincent Jacko the cook. It is like throwing open the shutters in the top story of a plantation house and looking out. Everyone is there, busy with different activities: John Gooseberry the weeder and John Forly the sheep boy, Billy the cooper and Rebecca the seamstress. In the shade of the mango tree one can see the old and infirm taking their ease: George Collins, "saddler in deep decline"; Betsy, "an invalid"; Sarah Charles who had "cancer in her breast"; even Molly Beard, "a lunatic."

The range of activities is surprisingly wide, and many of the listed occupations required both skill and specialization: Charles Bird may have been a slave, but he was also a respected doctor who attended the manager as well as the workers, while many others at Betty's Hope were clearly highly regarded and accomplished craftsmen.

Even in an age that regarded slavery as no worse than an unpleasant necessity, the Carib-bean plantocracy had a bad name: As early as 1676 a visiting sea captain said the planters lived "a lewd, licentious sort of life" and drank "claret at breakfast"; 150 years later Doctor Johnson referred to their descendants as "English barbarians" and called on his friends to drink to "the next insurrection in the West Indies." Yet, again, the stereotypes tend to break down when one examines the details. Today the best place to get an idea of what the life of white Antiguan society was like is, ironically enough, probably in the island's graveyards.

One of the best collection of memorials in the Caribbean can be found next to the cathedral in the Antiguan capital of St. John's. The town is an easygoing, low-rise, sitting-out-on-the-porch sort of place. Its houses are made of wood and brightly painted in inspired primary colors: canary yellow, kingfisher blue, and an inferno orange. Many of the shacks are raised up on stilts, so that they resemble disused railway carriages.

The town is right at water's edge; every street seems to end in a quay or a dock or a marine drive. Views of the sea surprise you at every turn. From some angles ocean liners and yachts appear to be parked beside the pick-ups and jeeps in the car lots. But look inland, and you see the streets rising uniformly up the hill to terminate in the great twin-domed Georgian cathedral, one of the largest in the West Indies. Surrounding it on all sides are a scattering of lichen-encrusted 18th-century gravestones. They tell an intriguing, even surprising story.

Stone after stone reveals a tale of early, tragic, and sudden death, from yellow fever, malaria, or childbirth, all exacerbated, no doubt, by the lack of proper medical facilities: "In this place is laid the remains of Elizabeth, the pious, amiable and much beloved wife of Richard Ottley, who departed this life¿in the 32nd year of her age." "Here lies Adele Forrest, 22 months old." "Captain Adam McMinn of the Brigg Camppell, 32 years."

In a couple of hours of wandering, I did not come across a single grave whose occupant had made it into his or her 40s. Over and over again one comes across evidence of dashed hopes, of bright prospects wrecked, perhaps, by an unlucky bite from a single infected mosquito.

Lying in the graveyard around me there was probably no shortage of cruel masters and spoiled heiresses, ruthless slavers and negligent mistresses, but the epitaphs in this well-tenanted burial ground seemed to tell a more nuanced story - of unfulfilled ambitions and broken hearts, of hundreds of forgotten young men and women who had drawn a blank in the great Caribbean lottery.

In 1939 a semiliterate plantation worker and former Salvation Army captain named Vere Bird formed the island's first trade union. Twelve years later he led the plantation workers on a general strike against the landowners and their leader, the English aristocrat Alexander Moody-Stuart. In the shade of a tamarind tree Bird and several hundred ragged workers famously met Moody-Stuart, who arrived on a white horse, and told him the Antiguans would "eat cockles and the widdy widdy bush; we will drink pondwater" until the field hands were paid more than the pittance they were receiving.

There was no sugar harvest that year, and seeing the way the wind was blowing, the plantation owners began to sell. By 1967 Antigua had become self-governing, with Bird as Premier.

Over the years that followed, as Bird steered the island away from sugar and toward large-scale tourism, the whites streamed out of Antigua. Before World War II they had formed about five percent of the island's population; by 1970, for better or worse, only a handful were left.

Today there is a large white expat population again, but few of them have become permanent residents - if only because Antiguan work permits, at several thousand dollars a shot, are some of the most expensive in the Caribbean.

Virtually none of these modern expats are descended from Antigua's old plantocracy, and on my last day in the island I made a point of visiting one of the last of the great plantation families.

Yvonne MacMillan, born Yvonne Hall, lived in a large white house on a hill outside St. John's; on the walls, above the solid mahogany furniture, hung family portraits and machetes from the family plantations.

Yvonne sent her American husband off to get a glass of juice for me. When I had drunk it and replaced the glass on the table, Yvonne rose and placed a coaster underneath. She didn't want rings on the wood, she explained.

Yvonne was a tall, upright woman in her mid-50s, with brown hair and dark eyes. She had a painted mouth, narrow wrists, and a determined expression. Large pearl earrings glinted in her lobes.

Her ancestors, she told me, had come out to the West Indies in the 17th century, when, in 1676, Capt. John Hall acquired Betty's Hope from his wife's family. The Hall family, she said, were some of the first to come out from England; now they were virtually the last left.

"Everyone left in the '50s and '60s," said Yvonne. Her accent was difficult to place - English, but with a vague hint of a lilt, possibly Scottish or Welsh, in the way she ended her sentences.

"Everyone I grew up with went. Virtually everyone. When I tell my children about the sort of life we led, they simply don't believe me."

"What do you mean?" I said. "What don't they believe?"

"You know, the social life, the balls, the clubs, the tennis parties¿ And the formality of it all. Whenever my father went out in the evening, he used to put on a jacket and tie, often black tie. In those days you had to dress up. There was no question of wearing shorts in St. John's, and certainly not swimsuits."

Yvonne shook her head in disbelief. "People just laugh now when I tell them that we used to have to wear panama hats at school," she went on. "Or that we only learned English history and world geography. Not a word was said about the West Indies, let alone Antigua. Every morning we would sing ¿God Save the King,' the national anthem¿"

"Did you feel English?" I asked.

"At school they told us that England was home with a capital H," Yvonne said, absentmindedly polishing her earring with her thumb and forefinger. "But no¿I was born in Antigua and always regarded the island as home. These days when I say I am Antiguan, people just don't understand. They ask, ¿But where did you come from originally?' No one can believe that I was born here, and that my parents were born here, and their parents and grandparents before them. Today no one understands the degree to which black and white came to form part of the same culture."

"Did they?" I asked. This was something I had never heard before.

"Certainly," said Yvonne. "There was a lot more in common than any-one realizes today. Let me tell you a story¿

"My grandmother was an amazing woman," Yvonne said, as she sipped her drink and settled into her heavy mahogany chair, "unusual for her time in that she was completely without the slightest color consciousness. She encouraged everyone to come and eat at her dining room table with her children.

"Anyway, one day she had an accident - it was about the time I was courting my husband. She went out of the french windows to get some air, and the wooden veranda collapsed beneath her, so that she fell and broke her hip. It was strange. No one could understand how it happened because the veranda looked very strong.

"They brought her into town to recuperate, but as soon as she was on the mend she insisted on being taken back to the estate, saying she wanted to visit the big tamarind tree at Hermitage Point. Her hip was still not 100 percent, so no one took her. But one day she just disappeared from the house, and it was not until several days later that she was found under this tamarind tree. Yet she refused to say what she was doing or how she had got there. Right up to her dying day, she refused to talk about it.

"Once when my husband and I were out walking at Hermitage Point, we stumbled across the tree where she was found. Neither of us had been there before. All around were shells and charms and broken bottles: It was clearly an obeah site. We realized what it was but didn't make the connection until after my grandmother died.

"Several days after the funeral we went to sort her personal property. I was going through her drawers when I came across this horrible voodoo doll. It was a doll of an old lady, and in its thigh were all these needles where the doll had been pricked. It was exactly where my grandmother had broken her hip. I held it for a couple of seconds before I realized what it was; then I dropped it. I was really scared.

"I don't know for sure what all this means. You have to draw your own conclusions. But personally I am convinced that my grandmother had realized that someone was trying to hurt her with obeah. She had been born on the island, and she knew enough to try and get to the tamarind tree to counteract the black magic and protect herself. Many of the customs and beliefs of this island were common between black and white. No one realizes this today. For all the terrible stuff that went on in the plantations, by the time that I grew up, at any rate, there was a bond there, certainly among the families who had been here since the beginning."

Yvonne drained her glass and replaced it neatly on the coaster. She looked me straight in the face: "I don't think you can ever really understand Antigua," she said, "unless you first understand that."