Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands — I pulled down a book from the shelf, and a delicately illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling's ''Kim'' fell open before me. What was this? Shelf after shelf of leather-bound classics and limited editions on a remote tropical island? The answer was that the fine collection belongs to Ellen Devine, owner of the Olde Yard Inn on Virgin Gorda, who built two octagonally shaped libraries to house her volumes. For me, the library was the first in a series of unfolding surprises.
Virgin Gorda is the second largest of the British Virgin Islands -- and at that, is only nine miles long. It is 80 miles east of Puerto Rico and is easily reached. Both Crown Air and Air BVI have flights between the two islands almost every daylight hour (Virgin Gorda's dirt airstrip has no landing lights).
But Virgin Gorda seems a century away in time. The first road connecting the two ends of the island was built in 1969; electricity arrived in 1971. The island remains little developed, with only a handful of hotels -- and the British intend to keep it that way. Zoning laws are strict, and property is difficult to buy.
Joseph and Ellen Devine (he is a former lawyer, she a former editor) moved down from Canada in 1973 to open the Olde Yard Inn. It is in ''the valley'' at the base of 1,500-foot Gorda Peak. They have managed to create a sophisticated atmosphere, while preserving a strong local flavor. The small, reasonably priced inn has 11 rooms, all simply decorated and with no air conditioning, save the sea breeze floating in through the window. The dining room is underneath a thatched banana-leaf roof and offers what is now considered the best food on the island, a judgment I share after gaining four pounds during my five-day stay. (For information, call the Olde Yard Inn directly (809) 495-5544; mail usually gets held up or lost on the way.)
The first morning, I woke to the crow of roosters -- they run loose on the island, along with the goats and lethargic cows that roam the streets, blocking the little traffic there is.
Nobody is in a rush on Virgin Gorda. I meandered over to the dining room for a breakfast of an omelet and toast. There I met Ed and Rose, who invited me to join them for the day in their exploration of the island.
For transportation, you may use the bicycles underneath the cashew tree in front of the inn, or you may go on foot (nothing is that far away).But I suggest you rent a jeep, as many of the roads are hilly and bumpy. If you are anxious about driving on the left, Speedy's taxi service will take you anywhere on the island and pick you up at a prearranged time.
I had come down to Virgin Gorda with an attitude of ''seen one beach, you've seen them all.'' If any island can dispel this attitude, Virgin Gorda is the one. There is a variety of beaches to visit, each with its distinct characteristics. Many are marked by swooping bays and odd rock formations. Ellen gave us a map and suggested we first visit the baths for which the island is famous -- a cluster of enormous boulders which have created a labyrinth of indoor caves and pools.
The snorkeling at the baths was superb. Brightly colored parrot fish, butterfly fish, angelfish, and squirrelfish swam among the reefs as coral fans undulated back and forth with the waves. And you need not worry about insidious currents sweeping you away - there are none. Don't lug down your equipment; Ellen has masks, fins, and snorkels of many sizes.
I left Ed and Rose and went off to explore the baths. I squeezed through a narrow passageway and entered the first ''room,'' created by two huge boulders leaning against each other. The boulders, many two or three stories high, baffle geologists. They only exist on Virgin Gorda, where they cover much of the south end of the island.
The crashing waves outside poured down the ''tributaries'' to the enclosed pool, and the water was illuminated by a stream of light from a crack where the boulders met overhead. I dove into the water, swam over a shallow rock, and entered the next room, which appeared to be a dead end. But beyond it lay a maze of pools, tunnels, caves, and craters. I eventually broke through the surface to get my bearings; the boulders looked like the ruins of an ancient city. I figured out where I was and rejoined Ed and Rose.
We stopped for lunch at the yacht harbor, which has a snack bar and a shopping center. (You may wish to bring a picnic lunch, which the inn will pack for you.) Afterwards, we continued our exploration with a drive up Gorda Peak. The view was arresting. Virgin Gorda was spread out underneath us, but other islands burst from the turquoise ocean to equal heights. If you are more energetic than we were, you can take one of the trails to the summit -- and search for the wild orchids that grow only there.
In the late afternoon we returned to the inn for a shower before dinner, and I had another look through the library, where I could have spent my entire five days. Classical music wafted through the air on a now-cooler breeze.
Dinner started off with the inn's soup or pate, coquilles, or escargots. Entrees were fresh lobster or fish (the local catch of the day), the chef's special, or seafood a la Bretonne, served with two vegetables, a salad, and hot garlic bread. The desserts were homemade: chocolate mousse, creme caramel, cheesecake -- it varied. The food was obviously chosen and cooked with great care, and quite delicious.
For a change of pace, Little Dix, a large, elegant hotel and sister resort to Caneel Bay in St. John, has a fine restaurant, and their nightly entertainment is more sophisticated than anything else you'll hear on the island.
The following day I went scuba diving with Joe, who operates out of Dive BVI in the yacht harbor. If you are not a diver, consider becoming one, for the reefs surrounding Virgin Gorda provide a spectacular introduction. Joe can give the preliminary course in one day, then take you out.
I had asked to dive to the wreck of the Rhone where ''The Deep'' was filmed -- the most visited of the offshore shipwrecks. The Rhone sank in 1867 and separated into several pieces. It has now become part of the sea, embedded in years of coral growth. We dove through the hull, which is still intact at 80 feet deep. I had such a feeling of serenity in the darkness under the gentle curve that it was difficult to imagine a one-time scene of disaster -- until I saw a barracuda lurking beside me. I swam out rapidly. I had been told that despite their ferocious looks, they never attack. But I preferred not to take my chances.
The third day I bicycled to the southeast end of the island to explore ''Coppertown,'' where Spaniards mined copper in the 16th century. House foundations and graves are scattered throughout the island, dating back to when the population reached 8,000 - eight times the present population. In the 1800s the economy declined and the Europeans left, leaving behind their slaves to manage the island. It was not for another century that a white person set foot there.
The next morning I left. The small plane took off, and Virgin Gorda faded in the distance -- but the memory of its astounding beauty and kind people has remained.
Practical details: Winter rates (through April 15) at the Olde Yard Inn are $ 125/$145 for two; this includes an extremely substantial breakfast and a fabulous dinner.