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I was so pleasantly surprised when I visited the beautiful Isla de Margarita -- I had not expected such a diverse vacation destination nor the idyllic beaches, the friendly locals or the fantastic shopping. I guess my preconceived ideas about Venezuela had made me slightly jaded and politics had clouded my judgment -- it was so gratifying to be wrong. If poverty and civil unrest mar the Venezuelan capital, then this island outpost was the complete antithesis, with a combination of adventurous tourists and seemingly wealthy locals taking long weekends in paradise.

Few people seem to have heard of Isla de Margarita, and are more inclined to associate the name with a Tequila drink than with this southern Caribbean island. In 1498, Christopher Columbus was the first European on record to note it, and presently Margarita boasts no less than 50 beaches spread along 106 miles of pristine coastline.

Getting around the island is both easy and affordable. With the price of fuel lower here than probably anywhere else in the world, car rental is a good option (approximately $40 per day), but so is hiring a taxi for an entire day. When I was there, we secured a car and driver for $50 a day. Although the Bolívar is the legal monetary unit in Venezuela, U.S. dollars are widely accepted (and sometimes preferred) in retail outlets and hotels. Margarita is tax free and duty free so go ahead and shop. The main streets of 4 de Mayo and Avenidas Santiago Mariño are teaming with retail stores and the Jumbo mall and Sambil mall feature international brands at low prices. The Conejeros Market, just outside Porlamar, operates each morning and is another good location to shop for clothing, shoes and souvenirs.

Apart from the beaches, there's a lot to see and do with your clothes on (light clothes at that). Historic architecture dotted around the island includes the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Asunción, built in 1571, Los Robles (1738), the Church of Pampatar (1748), Santa Anna (1749) and the Church of St Joseph in Paraguachi. Castles and fortresses, including Castillo de San Carlos de Borromeo (1664), Fortin Santiago de la Caranta (1596) and Castillo de Santa Rosa La Asunción (1683) are among the more impressive military monuments. Fortin de la Galera just north of Juan Griego is perched high on a hill and is renowned for its beautiful view of the sunset.

La Restinga National Park or Laguna de La Resting (www.parkswatch.org) is Margarita's most visited attraction. It consists of 25,000 acres of wetlands on the isthmus that connects Macanao Peninsula and east Margarita Island. The park's mangrove-covered natural canals can be accessed by boat from El Indio, El Saco and La Guardia, or the park can be crossed by car on the road to San Francisco. Largely undeveloped, the park is home to a variety of flora and fauna including Margarita's cottontail rabbit, white-tailed deer, ocelots, sea turtles and 107 bird species.

Playa El Agua is one of the most popular and beautiful beaches on the island. A dozen or so restaurants line the beach, offering shade and a delicious break from a day of sun tanning. There are also many stalls selling local handicrafts, jewelry and souvenirs -- in particular the ceramic masks and hand carved sculptures are affordable and attractive (I get a lot of complements about two masks hanging in my living room at home). Other well known beaches are Juan Griego, Bella Vista, Playa Guacuco and El Yaque. For more remote beaches, try the northern and western coasts of the island.

There are close to 10,000 hotel rooms in Margarita, ranging from humble tropical inns to five-star hotels. Room rates in the city (Porlamar) can generally start at around $20 per night, whereas the price of a room at one of beachfront properties would start at about $50. There are several all-inclusive resorts, but to be honest, you would probably be better off staying at a regular hotel and sampling the local fare at a variety of restaurants.

For windsurfing fans, El Yaque beach provides a perfect wind swept destination. Vela Windsurf (tel. 800/ 223-5443; www.velawindsurf.com) can arrange accommodation for visitors and lessons. Group lessons include simulator and on-the-water instruction and for a group of two to four people, the price is $35 per person for a one hour lesson. When four people are in the class the time is extended to 90 minutes. Private lesson are available for $45 per hour. Each weekday morning, Vela conducts 15 to 30 minute free windsurfing technique seminars for Vela clients. Their packages including equipment rental and seven nights' accommodations at the El Yaque Beach Hotel, breakfast daily and all taxes start from $530 per person in a sea view room, based on double occupancy. If you don't need to rent equipment, deduct $247 and if you are a windsurf beginner, deduct $100 from the price. You can also choose to stay in one of the hotel's deluxe one or two bedroom apartments with full kitchens from $446 per person per week (quad share) including equipment rental, breakfast daily and all taxes.

Other reasonable accommodation options at El Yaque include the cute Casa Rita (tel. +58/295-263-6553), located on a small hill overlooking El Yaque beach which has double rooms with balconies from $45 per night. Hotel Atti (tel. +58/295-263-9850; www.hotelatti.com) is located in a quiet location, with a swimming pool in the middle of a beautiful garden. Double rooms here including a Caribbean-style buffet breakfast are priced from $75. Casa Viento (tel. 800/660-9463; www.casaviento.com) boasts semi-luxurious rooms, hammocks under the palm trees, breakfast on the rooftop terrace, fresh fruit from the hotel's tropical garden and magnificent sunset views. Until April 15, 2007, room rates here including breakfast are $85 for a double or $60 for a single. For a week's stay with windsurfing equipment, pay $600 per person or deduct $420 for room and breakfast only.

Playa Parguito is a spectacular white sandy beach, with coconut palm trees. Often called the St-Tropez of Margarita Island, the beach is half a mile long and attracts mainly wealthy Venezuelans. Villa Cabo Blaco (tel. +58/414-794-6757; www.margarita-caboblanco.com) is a property with a private pool and tropical gardens located 100 yards from the beach. It offers a small number of luxury apartments, a few hotel rooms and a house for rent. Hotel rooms start from $50 per night for two people, a one-bedroom apartment starts from $75, $95 for a two bedroom and $105 for a three bedroom for a maximum of six people.

El Caney (http://elcaney.free.fr) is a super affordable small hotel located in Juan Griego. Comfortable but rather basic rooms with private bathrooms are simple and rustic. But its distance only 50 yards from the beach allows you to forgo luxury for location and an exceptionally low price. A week's stay here is only $121 for a double room for two people.

Casa Trudel (tel. +58/295-249-0558; www.casatrudel.com) is a small Bed & Breakfast located in a two story villa approximately 200 yards from Playa El Agua, a two and a half mile stretch of long beach of white sand, palm trees and restaurants. Prices for most of the year are $35 for a single and $38 double occupancy per night including breakfast and WiFi Internet service.

Getting to Margarita is relatively easy from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, with regular 40 minute flights. There is also an express ferry service (www.conferry.com) connecting the mainland, Caracas (La Guaira) to the island -- a distance of less than 25 miles -- from approximately $80 round-trip. Aeropostal (www.aeropostal.com/aero2004/home.asp), Laser Airlines (www.laser.com.ve/home.asp) and Aserca Airlines (www.asercaairlines.com) are all domestic carriers that cover the route. You may need some Spanish to be able to navigate and book through their websites. Although even with my extremely limited knowledge of Spanish, I managed to find round-trip airfares from Caracas to Porlamar from $110 including taxes. If you are transiting in Caracas, make sure you allow at least two hours between landing and catching your flight to Margarita. Although the international and domestic terminals are within five minutes walk of each other, sometimes customs and luggage collection can slow you down (you can't check your luggage through all the way from your U.S. departure point).

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