Jamaica has sun and sand and surf, a richly varied culture and an exciting history replete with legendary pirates, Indians, Africans, Spaniards and the ubiquitous British.

Jamaica also has spicy, pungent food (pepper shrimp, meat patties, jerk chicken and curried goat), outrageous 150-proof rum and world-renowned coffee from the Blue Mountains.Jamaica has great music, and a terrain that easily lives up to any fantasy of a lush, tropical island paradise.

And Jamaica has friendly, hospitable people in all colors and from varied ethnic backgrounds; people who invariably extend a welcoming hand and a hearty "Hello, Darling!" to slightly startled tourists.

It's hard to be alone for long in Jamaica, unless you choose to remain aloof and avoid eye contact with the warm-hearted citizens of the very island you are visiting. That's possible - but why travel if you pack fear, mistrust and suspicion along with your bathing suit?

Do pack your common sense. As everywhere, there are unscrupulous people in Jamaica; people selling goods and services that law-abiding citizens of every country reject. But once rejected, the sellers of same waste no time moving on to potential customers, and soon you'll be striking up a conversation with a genuinely friendly Jamaican.

The encounters begin in a predictable way. A smiling Jamaican hails you, shakes your hand, inquires after your health and well-being and then asks if you are in Jamaica for the first time.

If the answer is yes, you will be asked if you are enjoying your stay. If the answer is no, you will be asked what cities you have visited before and if you are enjoying your stay. At some point, your new friend may volunteer information on his or her place of birth and urge you to visit that city. And you may or may not be offered suggestions on where to eat or shop or hear reggae music. If you ask any questions, have a pen and paper ready.

In its wisdom, the government of Jamaica has established a formal country-wide Meet the People program, which brings together tourists and citizens with common interests.

Participants meet for lunch or dinner, attend a special event together or while away a few hours on the beach. (For more information on the program, stop in any Jamaica Tourist Board office once you're on the island.)

I had intended to sign up for the Meet the People program on a recent press trip to Montego Bay and Negril, but I was too busy playing in the water and meeting people on my own. I brought back some wonderful memories of my new friends, and decided you would enjoy meeting them, too.

Here then, is a portrait of Jamaica that emerges from the smiling faces of its people.

Montego Bay, home to 43,521 people, is the unofficial capital of Jamaica's north coast and the second largest city on the island. The following people make Montego Bay especially memorable.

I met Oscar Levy, manager of the popular Doctor's Cave Beach in downtown Montego Bay, during his daily swim in the Caribbean Sea. We both treaded water long enough to chat.

"For 50 years, six days a week, I've been swimming the length of the beach. On Sunday, I'm in church," the distinguished gentleman said. He gestured at the curving strip of white sand and the nearby concessions. "All this is my responsibility. My job is to keep it beautiful so visitors will be happy."

Then Levy gazed around him, farther down the beach, out to sea and back at the bustling city behind his beach.

"Unfortunately, we who live here don't see all this anymore. We are used to the beautiful scenery, the water, and we don't appreciate it. Maybe people should exchange homes for a few weeks - homes and ideas." Then he swam away.

Lisa Salmon lives at the Rocklands Wildlife Sanctuary in Anchovy, just outside Montego Bay. A native Jamaican, the 85-year-old Salmon opens her Eden-like patio to the public at 3 p.m. each day, and people from all over the world come to watch her feed the wild birds that arrive promptly at 3:30.

Finches, orange and banana quits, red-headed woodpeckers and orioles gather for the feast. White-chinned thrushes and fleet-footed mice tussle over bits of cheese. Tiny Jamaican hummingbirds eat and run, pausing momentarily in midflight to suck sugar water from tiny bottles. A red-billed streamer tail sits on Salmon's extended finger. Wild canaries, which declined to join the party for 30 years, now land in strangers' outstretched hands and munch seeds.

An afternoon at the Rocklands Wildlife Sanctuary costs $3; listening to Lisa Salmon hold forth on her life-long battle to preserve wildlife is worth many times that. "I'm an old woman," Salmon said. "I have only half an ear and half an eye. But I still have plenty of mouth."

Adolf Kessler, general manager of the Doctor's Cave Beach Hotel, came to Jamaica 25 years ago. "Originally, I'm from Germany. I came to Jamaica with a four-month contract to manage a hotel in Ocho Rios, and I flew here from a job in Lapland, where it was minus 46 degrees Centigrade," Kessler said.

"It took two days to get here. I stepped off the plane in my winter clothes and was met by a blast of warm, humid air." Kessler shook his head and laughed heartily. "I thought, iWhat am I doing?' But I've stayed here, except for a year and a half on Tobago."

Kessler's hotel is an independent "a la carte" establishment, unlike the highly touted "all-inclusive" resorts that lure many tourists to Jamaica.

"I think we offer the right product to the average tourist," he said. "We're not a luxury hotel, and we're not a dump. What we offer is quaint - we appeal to people who want to get away from crowds and still feel comfortable. And if you are in the right mood and here with the right partner, it's very romantic."

Tucked in an alley just past the hotel, I found Monica Reed, proud mother of five and one of Montego Bay's many fruit vendors. Her basket of wares includes the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted, succulent mangoes, assorted sizes of bananas, Jamaican apples and other tropical fruits.

In two minutes or less, Reed can peel, core and slice a pineapple and package it up in a carry-out bag for you.

"For eight years, I've been selling fruit in Montego Bay. I like the work, because I like to meet people," Reed said. "I've talked to people from all over the world - Canada, Germany, England and America - and I like the American people the best."

If you're walking in Montego Bay on Gloucester Avenue, keep an eye out for a fruit vendor sporting a bright red St. Louis Cardinal's shirt. That's Monica Reed!

Not far from Reed you'll find Louise Dennis, 81, outfitted in her freshly starched Salvation Army uniform, collecting money and graciously blessing any contributors.

Down Gloucester Avenue in the other direction, you'll find a Jamaican craft market in full swing just behind a row of boutiques and specialty shops. Ask for Jennifer, who neglected to give her last name, and she will introduce you to the other vendors. And do stop in the nearby Cornwall Beach branch of the Jamaica Tourist Board Office and say hello to Norma Taylor, a particularly gracious woman who also loves to laugh.

Negril, nestled in the western corner of the island, is known as "the do-as-you-please" capital of Jamaica. Peace-loving souls, hedonists (abashed and un), avid divers and snorkelers and sun-seekers craving an over-all tan come to Negril. Some 1,166 people live in and around Negril, and I managed to meet some of the nicest.

Jean and Vince Gaynair, proprietors of Aqua Nova Water Sports, are ready and waiting to serve aquatically inclined visitors to Negril. They offer glass-bottom boat trips, sailing charters, snorkel tours, water skiing, wind surfing, jet ski rides, parasailing, fishing excursions, a river tour and rides on big yellow "water bananas." You also can book a morning or sunset cruise or travel to Booby Cay on the Eclipse, a 45-foot Trimaran sailboat for an all-day island picnic. Prices range from $4 an hour to $250 a day.

Jean is the fashion plate in the family; Vince is the ever-cooperative boat captain who will send out the call for any dolphins in the area to kindly make an appearance.

A Rastafarian gentleman who goes by Erasmus led a tour for our press group of the Ital Herb Garden, a working farm and vegetarian restaurant about 90 minutes outside of Negril. He is married to a German artist whose mystical paintings are for sale in a small gallery adjacent to the juice bar on the property.

Back in Negril, an entirely different field trip took us to De Buss, an outdoor reggae club and restaurant on Norman Manley Boulevard. Joy Gentles-Logan, the ebullient host, manages to keep an eye on the musicians on stage, the revelers on the dance floor and all the customers at the bar and in the diner and still keep time to the hard-driving music.

No problem - everybody's happy! And on this particular night, "everybody" included soccer players from England, a ski club from Chicago, generic tourists from assorted countries and residents of Negril.

Throughout the stay in Negril, we were accompanied by Patricia Hannan, senior marketing officer of the Jamaica Tourist Board. Hannan is a Jamaican who doesn't much like any of Jamaica's claims to fame, such as rum, reggae, coffee or the infamous Rick's Cafe, where those in the know go to watch the sun set.

But like all Jamaicans, she likes people.

*****

(ADDITIONAL INFORMATION)

Getting to and around Jamaica

Air Jamaica offers vacation packages, with flights out of Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto. For more information, see your travel agent.

Where to stay: Montego Bay and Negril both have accommodations in a full range of prices and levels of luxury. You can stay put at an all-inclusive resort or you can stay at a modestly priced hotel and do your dining, dancing, swimming and sightseeing all over town. I prefer the latter.

In Montego Bay, I stayed at the lovely Doctor's Cave Beach Hotel. Rates range from $60 to $110 per night. For more information, call (809) 952-4355 or write to P.O. Box 94, Montego Bay, Jamaica, West Indies.

In Negril, I stayed at the T-Water Beach Hotel, the first hotel in town, and at the Rock Cliff Resort. Both are comfortable, "no-frills" beach hotels with rates ranging from $38 to $85 per night. Call the T-Water Beach Hotel toll free at (800) 654-1592.

Other information: In June, an American dollar was worth about $6.75 in Jamaican dollars. The average year-round temperature is about 80 degrees in the beach communities and cooler inland and in the mountains. Jamaicans speak English to tourists and a local patois among themselves.

For more information: Write the Jamaica Tourist Board, 36 South Wabash, Suite 1210, Chicago, Ill. 60603, or call (312) 346-1546. - St. Louis Post-Dispatch.