THERE are three ways to get to Canouan, the glimmering gold and green gem of the Grenadines. One way is to hitch a ride on the twice weekly inter-island mailboat. The second is to scare up a small plane. The third, and certainly the most pleasant, is by private yacht. We chose the third - a comfortably outfitted 43-foot, sloop-rigged Beneteau. In our case, the yacht was merely ours for a 10-day charter, long enough to sail to Canouan and the other islands, between St. Vincent and Grenada, that make up the Grenadines (geographically a part of the Windward Islands). Aboard our boat, the Zachari, we leapfrogged from island to island.
And while the three-dozen islands are clustered together in a 50-mile string, they often seem worlds apart. There's Mustique, peopled by the jet set; Mayreau, undiscovered and native; and the Tobago Cays - inhabited only by brilliantly colored fish.
We chartered our boat from the Moorings, one of half a dozen charter boat companies in the Windwards. We opted for a bare boat, which meant that the six of us - three couples - captained and crewed the vessel ourselves. But for those who don't know port from starboard, the charter companies will provide a captain and crew.
Sailing in the Grenadines is not for everyone. If you embrace the Holiday Inn's concept of ``no surprises,'' or seek glitter and gourmet restaurants, go elsewhere. But if you've lamented that you got to Hawaii after James Michener, try the Grenadines.
We had our share of surprises. The Moorings boasts of weather that's 80 degrees and sunny. But we left on our first sail from St. Lucia's Marigot Bay in the rain. Trapped by the tall volcanic mountains, the Pitons, rain dogged us for much of ``the long passage'' - 55 miles down the coast of St. Lucia, past St. Vincent to Bequia. But when we'd navigated it successfully, we congratulated ourselves on having accomplished the sailing equivalent of a triathlon.
We dried out in Bequia, an island with a long tradition of fishing and whaling. We browsed in boutiques and uncovered Bequia's cottage industry. Local craftsmen, with the most rudimentary of hand tools, turn out meticulously carved and intricately decorated models of boats. In the afternoon, we collapsed on Princess Margaret's beach to enjoy our first sunshine. At night we took our dinghy into town to visit a ``jump-up'' - an island equivalent of a disco - albeit with a steel band.
When we left Bequia the next day, we left civilization. St. Lucia and Bequia are large islands with the accompanying ``urban'' hassles of crowded harbors. From Bequia, we sailed backward in time. As we pointed our boat and headed for places we'd never received post cards from, the pace slowed.
Canouan, with hills the color of Van Gogh's palette, was as much a getaway place as you're likely to find. Two small hotels accommodate tourists. We walked to ``town'' - a tiny post office and cinder-block sometime movie theater. A women-only road crew was fixing the main road for traffic that consisted of bikes, donkeys, and an occasional motorcycle.
At Tobago Cays, we enjoyed some of the Caribbean's best snorkeling. The huge, shallow reefs of fantail and brain coral - just off the three Cays - are perhaps the best place for a beginning snorkeler. Not only are the fish abundant and diverse, but the often waist-deep reef makes it easy to stand up and reconnoiter.
My two favorite islands were probably Mayreau and Petit St. Vincent - opposite worlds. Mayreau won my vote for charm and isolation. The island is a canvas of tropical colors and images - lime green and hot pink houses - and gardens with vegetables and pink and red flowers. At the very top of the island, there's a small stone church, with goats grazing in the churchyard.
Petit St. Vincent, an island resort, lies at the other end of the pampering spectrum. This 100-acre resort island caters to just 44 guests - housed in 22 cottages scattered amid the island's palms and sea grapes and attended to by a staff of 70. Rope hammocks, protected from the sun by thatched roof huts, are scattered about the powder sand beach that rims the island.
One of the pleasures of a cruising vacation is its simplicity. The boat is both your transportation and hotel. There is no concern with what to wear. Bathing suits, shorts, and T-shirts suffice, with only one slightly dressy outfit for the fanciest restaurants. We had arranged for the Moorings to ``split provision'' our boat. They provided amply for all our breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, and six of our 10 dinners. For our onboard meals, we relied heavily on the charcoal grill, hung off the stern. We left St. Lucia with a large stalk of bananas - the island's chief crop - and cooked up endless variations: Our dwindling stalk became our calendar, measuring the days left until our return to the ``real world.'' On our nights out, we splurged at Petit St. Vincent and the Cotton House on Mustique, an elegantly restored 18th-century plantation, and had a more native meal at Captain Hook's at Soufri`ere Bay in St. Lucia.
Often what is most memorable about sailing in the Grenadines are the times you did nothing or close to nothing. Such times were spent sipping a cold drink on deck while watching the long afternoon fade into dusk, then the gaudy sunset show followed by the dizzying spectacle of the Milky Way. There was the nightly search for the green flash - a streak of green light on the horizon that's said to follow the Caribbean sunset. Few pleasures equal snorkeling very slowly through clear turquoise water amid a million tiny silvery fish, sailing alongside a school of playful dolphins, or watching the rain give way to a vibrant rainbow.
Our final destination was St. Lucia's Soufri`ere Bay. Once our boat was safely tied to a palm tree, we took a side trip by cab to Soufri`ere volcano. The bubbling pools of lava, the hazy yellow clouds of sulfurous steam, the accompanying rotten-egg smell, and the stained green and yellow ``moonscape'' seemed to provide a fitting, if somewhat ironic, finale to our trip. The now dormant volcano was a vivid reminder of the violent origins of these islands that had provided us with such peace and serenity.
If you go
Chartering a yacht: These companies arrange both bare-boat and crewed charters and assist with travel arrangements; departures are generally from St. Lucia or St. Vincent: The Moorings USA, Suite 420, 1305 US 19 South, Clearwater, FL 33546. (Tel. 800-535-7289). Stevens Yachts, 252 East Avenue, East Norwalk, CT 06855 (800-638-7044). Caribbean Sailing Yachts Ltd., Box 491, Tenafly, NJ 07670 (800 631-1593). Ann-Wallis White, 326 First St., Annapolis, MD 21403 ( 263-6366).
Figuring costs: Renting our 43-foot Beneteau, one of the smaller, less expensive boats offered by the Moorings, costs $442 a day in the high winter season, $292 in off season. Split provisioning (that means breakfasts, lunches, and four out of seven dinners) costs $16 per person per day.
Planning your cruise: The following guides are helpful: Chris Doyle's ``Sailor's Guide to the Windward Islands'' (Cruising Guide Publications, Box 13131, Station 9, Clearwater, FL 33519 ( 797-9576). Jill Bobrow and Dana Jinkins's ``St. Vincent and the Grenadines: A Plural Country'' (Norton).