Aruba – One Happy Island

When my husband told me he won a package tour trip for two to Aruba, I sure didn’t knock him over with my enthusiasm. To me it was a Caribbean cliche without authentic exploration or adventure. Of course, I now understand that I was suffering from cold-weather dementia brought on by gray skies and freezing temperatures. In fact, it got so bad that I heard myself complaining to a fellow New Englander, “But we’ll miss almost half of March!”

Fortunately, my frost-fed hissy fit dissipated shortly after our charter fight landed in Aruba. At the airport I did have a mild freak-out at the sight of a hill of burning garbage at the dump which overlooked the ocean. However, this one eyesore soon faded away and was replaced by expanses of electric blue ocean that kept us company in the short tour bus ride to our hotel.

It’s easy to excuse a few tiny blemishes on Aruba, the “jewel of the Caribbean.” Only 15 miles from Venezuela, Aruba is small, only 20 miles long and about 7 miles wide. It’s the most popular of the “ABC” islands, (Bonaire and Curacao are B and C), a small cluster of islands that form part of the Dutch West Indies and enjoy perfect, hurricane-free weather year round.

With its strong economy, harmonious population of less than 100,000 and comfortable standard of living, Aruba seems like a political paradise. In fact, it’s got one of the highest literacy rates in the Caribbean and the average Aruban speaks four languages: the official Dutch, English, Spanish and native Papiamento, a mixture of African, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch developed by the Curacao slaves in the 1500’s to communicate with their owners who had fled the Spanish inquisition.

We enjoyed Aruba the way most tourists do, in a resort on the southern coast. Starting at the capital city of Orangestaad near the western tip of the island, resorts extend all the way up a ten-mile stretch to the pricey high rises at the northwestern tip near Boca Catalina, a world-renowned wind-surfing spot. Aruba, nicknamed “One Happy Island,” has plenty to amuse and delight any taste. And, as we later learned, there’s even some opportunity for true white-knuckled adventure.

But that doesn’t come until later. First is the pure effortless fun of Aruba. GWV put us up at La Cabana, an all-suite resort across the street from Eagle Beach, prized for its soft, sandy shore. (GWV offers 7-day trips in the summer starting at $1025 per person ) The kitchen, living room, two TV’s and phones were overkill for our needs although we did use the microwave for heating up the leftover snapper or wiener schnitzel. The concept of light dining – apart from MacDonalds or Wendy’s – hasn’t really sunk in, and it’s difficult to find anything less than a multi-course dinner. The “Dine-Around Plan” we chose provided us with seven breakfasts and four dinners at a variety of restaurants. ( $419 per person.) For breakfast it was well worth the few minutes it took to hop the bus to one of the high-rises like the Marriott and the Aruba Grand where we got a great view and the rare treat of real milk and half-and-half. There are plenty of goats on Aruba but no cows so what you usually get for coffee is sweetened condensed milk the consistency of latex paint.

Speaking of goat, they serve a great curried version at Boonoonoonoos, a popular tourist spot in Orangestaad featuring Caribbean food and cheerfully garish décor. The Jamaican Jerk Ribs were hot: 20 on a scale of 1-10. (entrees start at $ 21) Another standout was the Villa Germania where you can slurp down fantastically rich sauces alfresco (entrées start at $23) while ogling the yachts in the harbor and the tourists on their way to the Casino next door.

Most days involved beach time, usually under one of Aruba’s famous divi divi trees, low, stooped specimens bent over from constant 15-knot trade winds. They provide shelter from the sun, which at 12 degrees from the equator, is formidable. When we weren’t on the beach gazing at the turquoise water, we were reveling in its warmth and translucency, the quality which makes for great snorkeling. Snorkeling is perfect for water-wimps like me because it has the illusion of great adventure, while being very tame. Down there with the lemon yellow angel fish, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in mask and fins who imagined herself an intrepid diver in the deep.

Aruba offers plenty of organized water and land activities. An early morning orientation session at a local casino offered by GWV on our first full day was invaluable. Despite the hype, it was efficient: we were able to hear about sunset sails, jeep adventures and snorkeling trips and then sign up at a discount. One favorite was the Jolly Pirate, a 4 ½ hour snorkeling cruise with a crew of macho charmers serving rum poison and lunch and showing us how to swing off a rope. ($55 per person) We also liked the more mellow sunset sail ( $40 per person ) with snacks and open bar. (Yes, virtually every activity on Aruba has an open bar.) Most boat and land tours are offered by De Palm tours, the oldest and most established tour operator on the island.

It was on our DePalm bus tour that we got to see “the other Aruba.” ( Approximately $42 per person for half- day tour with snorkeling.) The Atlantic Ocean slams against the rocky northern coast from California Lighthouse at the northwestern tip down to San Nicholas at the southeastern tip. Cacti and aloe plants dot the desert-like landscape which is cheered by the brightly-painted homes. In Aruba, house color is a family affair; even the ornate above-ground burial crypts are painted to match the deceased’s home. Our bus tour took us to the Natural Bridge, a coral formation that’s been pounded into a bridge by centuries of surf. Unfortunately, what I remember most about the site was having to pay a quarter to use a filthy toilet without toilet paper. I guess that’s extra.

Our favorite site was Arikok National Wildlife Park with its abandoned gold mines and pirate castle ruins. We looked at cave drawings and befriended a very tame “wild” donkey at this natural preserve which encompasses about a quarter of the island. As our vintage tour bus bounced along on the dirt roads that cut through the vast park, our bus driver assured us that if the vehicle did break down (which actually seemed very likely at some points) we shouldn’t worry because “it is impossible to get lost in Aruba.”

A few days later when my husband and I were very definitely lost in our rented jeep in the middle of Arikok Natural Park, we remembered his words. We also tried desperately to remember where that bumpy road was, since we had gotten way off track looking for a short cut to the Natural Pool, a swimming spot on the northern shore. Our short cut turned into a dizzying series of washed out paths strewn with boulders the size of washing machines. After two hours of fear, danger and a heavy dose of marital tension, we stopped to get our bearings and have the argument that had been waiting to happen. (You see, I had insisted we take this route.)

After a brief but satisfying fight we passed our remaining 6-oz of warm water between us, watched the sun sink and vowed teamwork. From our elevation we could see another garbage-burning dump – a newly appreciated sign of civilization. “Boy, that dump looks beautiful to me now,” my husband said. With clearer heads we decided to retrace out path. By some miracle, we eventually met up with an Aruban who was also lost but able to find the way out.

Please dear reader, do not repeat our mistake. I learned after our trip that off-road travelers are a big problem at the park. Park authorities are developing a map and guidelines to help visitors enjoy the Arikok Park and its dramatic rock formations, vegetation, prikichi (Aruban parakeets) and natural beauty without being an environmental pest or needing rescue.

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