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Sunday, November 14, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Venezuela -- Will The Governor Boot Bad Guys Out Of Paradise?

Associated Press

MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela - This island's white sand beaches, green mountains and valleys, Hollywood sunsets and lively nightlife draw thousands of visitors a year. It's Venezuela's top tourist attraction and a good jumping off point for touring other parts of the South American country.

Presiding over it all is a former Miss Universe-cum-politician vowing to chase some bad guys out of her paradise.

"It's like Cancun 20 years ago, not as tourist evolved, a little more laid-back," says Dan Houlihan, 50, a crane operator from Esperance, N.Y.

But business may be picking up in Margarita. In March, the charismatic Irene Saez, the 1981 Miss Universe, was elected governor.

One challenge for her is improving service to tourists, who sometimes complain about crime, garbage, water and electricity shortages, prostitution, inattentive waiters and incompetent tour guides.

Saez has pledged to address all those problems and to use her contacts to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Margarita.

Since taking office she says she's discovered widespread corruption and waste in the island's previous administration, and has called for an investigation by the national comptroller.

"She has got her hands full," says David Crocker, an American who edits "Mira! The Venezuela Traveler," a hard-hitting bilingual newspaper on the island that is a must-read for tourists. Margarita, he says, "is a sunny refuge for shady characters."

Despite Margarita's downside, it boasts a top windsurfing spot, a pink cathedral devoted to the island's patron saint, Spanish forts built to hold back pirates, and an enchanting mangrove lagoon where boats glide through natural canals that seem like tunnels cut through the forest.

Margarita is the largest of Venezuela's 72 islands, stretching 67 kilometers (40 miles) from east to west and 32 kilometers (19 miles) from north to south and sitting about 40 kilometers (24 miles) off the mainland of eastern Venezuela.

The island features 50 beaches worthy of a name, and its population has burgeoned to 350,000 people, most of them making a living from tourism or fishing.

Five centuries ago Columbus landed here and baptized the island with the Greek word for "pearls," since the surrounding sea floor was packed with them, including a 200-karat giant sent to Spain's King Felipe II.

Today, the pearl beds have been mostly wiped out and Margarita's largest city, Porlamar ("By the sea"), is packed with high-rise hotels and condos, a gambling casino, restaurants, discos, and bars with exotic dancers. The city's duty-free shops also attract thousands of Venezuelans seeking bargains.

The island's most enchanting charms, though, are beyond Porlamar on the north coast beaches of Juangriego, Playa Caribe, Playa Puerto La Cruz and Playa El Agua, the most popular and trendy spot. You can stay in a bed-and-breakfast, walk down dirt roads to the beach and dine by the sea at night in open-air restaurants as palm trees sway in the breeze.

In Juangriego, waiters at restaurants such as El Viejo Muelle ("The Old Pier") place plastic tables right on the beach, where you can gaze at brightly colored fishing boats bobbing in the bay. Before dinner, head up to the Fortin de la Galera for what locals say is the island's most spectacular view of the sunset. Or just enjoy it from the beach.

On Margarita's south coast is windsurfers' heaven, Playa El Yaque, where hundreds of windsurfing boards with colorful sails zip across the water in a stiff breeze.

Not far from El Yaque is Macanao, an arid, sparsely populated peninsula whose main attraction is La Restinga ("Sandbar") National Park and its mangrove swamps.

The park is home to great blue herons, rare scarlet ibis, flamingos, dolphins and blue-crowned parakeets, which are found nowhere else in the world. Clinging to the underwater tentacles of the mangrove trees are some of the pearl-bearing oysters that once made Margarita famous.

The island, in general, is probably no less expensive than many other Caribbean tourist destinations.

Many travelers to Venezuela simply bypass the capital Caracas and use Margarita as a home base from which to visit pristine Los Roques archipelago, the quaint snowcapped Andean mountain village of Merida, the sprawling cowboy country of "Los Llanos" (The Great Plains) or Angel Falls - the world's longest cascade. ------------------------------- IF YOU GO Visiting Margarita Island

Here's some information on Venezuela's Margarita Island (story on page K 11).

Getting there: Margarita is a three-hour flight from Miami, with some direct flights. Another option is flying into Venezuela's capital of Caracas and taking a 45-minute connecting flight for about $100 round-trip. Ferries also run between Margarita and the mainland cities of Cumana and Puerto La Cruz.

Getting around: The only major airport on the island is in Porlamar. A half-hour taxi ride to the coast should cost around 12,000 bolivars ($19). Rental-car dealers offer bargains for as little as $30 a day. Smart travelers should read the contract carefully.

Lodging and dining: Venezuela is well-known for its quaint bed-and-breakfast inns that offer cozy atmospheres, economical rates and appetizing food. The island's capital of Porlamar is the hot spot for night life, but perhaps the most appealing "posadas" or inns are found on the island's north and northeast coasts.

One typically delightful spot is Dona Romelia (58-95-490238) in the trendy beach town of Playa El Agua. Set back from the beach about a mile or so, it sits amid a farm and offers a spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea. The inn's pastel-colored buildings with red, Spanish-style roofs circle a swimming pool and patio bursting with tropical plants and palm trees.

The rates for a double room at Dona Romelia's, including breakfast, are 27,000 bolivars ($43) from April to October, and 40,000 bolivars ($64) from November to March.

Closer to the beach in Playa El Agua are numerous other inns, such as the delightful Costa Linda Beach (58-95-491303) that charge about the same as Dona Romelia. Playa El Agua is easy to reach by car or taxi. Then just wander around until you find a posada that suits your taste and pocketbook. Speaking Spanish helps.

More information: A useful, multi-linked Web site for Venezuela is http://venezuela.mit.edu/

The state-run travel office on Margarita Island is Corpotur. The Web site is: www.Isla-De-Margarita.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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