Tours Travel

Aruba: a happy island

When my husband told me he won a package trip for two to Aruba, I didn’t shoot him down with my enthusiasm. To me it was a Caribbean cliché with no real exploration or adventure. Of course I now understand that he suffered from cold weather dementia brought on by gray skies and freezing temperatures. In fact, he got so bad that I heard myself complain to a fellow New Englander, “But we’ll miss almost half of March!”

Fortunately, my frost-fueled hissing fit dissipated shortly after our charter scramble landed in Aruba. At the airport I was slightly freaked out by the sight of a burning garbage hill at the dump overlooking the ocean. This eyesore soon faded, however, and was replaced by expanses of electric blue ocean that kept us company on the short tour bus ride to our hotel.

It’s easy to excuse a few minor blemishes in Aruba, the “jewel of the Caribbean.” Just 15 miles from Venezuela, Aruba is small, only 20 miles long and about 7 miles wide. It is the most popular of the “ABC” islands (Bonaire and Curacao are B and C), a small group of islands that are part of the Netherlands Antilles and enjoy perfect, hurricane-free weather year-round.

With its strong economy, a harmonious population of less than 100,000, and a comfortable standard of living, Aruba seems like a political paradise. In fact, it has one of the highest literacy rates in the Caribbean, and the average Aruban speaks four languages: official Dutch, English, Spanish, and native Papiamento, a mix of African, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch developed by slaves on Curaçao in the 16th century to communicate with their owners who had fled the Spanish inquisition.

We enjoy Aruba like most tourists do, at a resort on the south coast. Beginning in the capital city of Orangestaad, near the western tip of the island, the resorts stretch up a ten-mile stretch to the expensive high-rises on the northwest tip near Boca Catalina, a world-renowned windsurfing spot. Aruba, nicknamed “One Happy Island,” has plenty to amuse and delight everyone. And, as we later learned, there’s even some opportunity for a real white-knuckle 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 beach. (GWV offers 7-day trips in the summer starting at $1025 per person) The kitchen, living room, two TVs, and phones were overkill for our needs, although we did use the microwave to reheat leftover snapper or Viennese schnitzel. The concept of light food, other than MacDonalds or Wendy’s, hasn’t really caught on, and it’s hard to find anything other than a multi-course dinner. We chose the “Dine-Around Plan” to provide us with seven breakfasts and four dinners in a variety of restaurants. ($419 per person). For breakfast it was worth the few minutes it took to take the bus to one of the skyscrapers like the Marriott and Aruba Grand where we got a great view and the rare treat of real milk and half and half. There are plenty of goats in Aruba, but no cows, so what you usually get for coffee is sweetened condensed milk with the consistency of latex paint.

Speaking of goat, they serve up an excellent curried version at Boonoonoonoos, a popular tourist spot in Orangestaad that offers Caribbean fare and funky decor. The Jamaican ribs were spicy – 20 on a scale of 1-10. (entrees start at $21) Another standout was Villa Germania, where you can slurp fantastically rich sauces in the open air (entrees start at $23) while watching the yachts in the harbor and tourists on their way to the Casino next door.

Most days involved beach time, usually under one of Aruba’s famous divi divi trees, short, hunched specimens bent by the 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 looking out at the turquoise water, we basked in its warmth and translucency, the quality that makes for a great snorkel. Snorkeling is perfect for water wimps like me because it has the illusion of a great adventure, while being very gentle. Down there with the lemon yellow angelfish, I’m sure she wasn’t the only one with a mask and fins who fancied herself an intrepid diver in the deep.

Aruba offers many 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, he was efficient – we were able to hear about sunset sails, jeep adventures, and snorkeling trips and then sign up at a discount. A favorite was the Jolly Pirate, a 4 1/2 hour snorkeling cruise with a crew of charming males serving poison rum and lunch and showing us how to swing from a rope. ($55 pp) We also liked the softer sunset sail ($40 pp) with snacks and an open bar. (Yes, pretty much every activity in Aruba has an open bar.) Most of the 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 a half-day snorkeling tour.) The Atlantic Ocean crashes against the rocky northern shoreline from the California Lighthouse in the far northwest to San Nicolas in the far southeast. Cactus and aloe plants dot the desert landscape that is enlivened by brightly painted houses. In Aruba, the color of the house is a family affair; even the ornate above ground burial crypts are painted to match the home of the deceased. Our bus tour took us to the Natural Bridge, a coral formation that centuries of surfing have turned into a bridge. Unfortunately, what I remember most about the place is having to pay a quarter to use a dirty toilet and no 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 saw rock drawings and made friends with a very tame “wild” donkey in this nature reserve that covers about a quarter of the island. As our old tour bus bounced down the dirt roads through the vast park, the 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’s impossible to get lost in Aruba.”

A few days later, when my husband and I were definitely lost in our rented jeep in the middle of the Arikok Nature Park, we remembered his words. We were also desperately trying to remember where that bumpy road was, having strayed far off course looking for a shortcut to the Natural Pool, a swimming spot on the north shore. Our shortcut turned into a dizzying series of washed-out paths littered with rocks 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 discussion we’d been waiting for. (You see, I had insisted that we take this route.)

After a brief but satisfying fight, we passed the remaining 6 ounces of warm water between us, watched the sun go down, and vowed to work as a team. From our height we could see another dump burning garbage, a recently appreciated sign of civilization. “Wow, that dump looks beautiful to me now,” my husband said. With a clearer head we decided to trace the path. By some miracle, we finally came across an Aruban who was also lost but was able to find his way out.

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

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