The Everything Island
By Ken Walker
ant a break on a truly magical and mystical island, where everything
seems possible? You don't have to survive a plane crash and spend a
season among strange characters on TV. You just have to hop a plane
or cruise ship to Aruba.
It's the A of the ABC islands -- Aruba, Bonaire, and
Curacao -- just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Though only six
miles wide and 20 miles long, it deserves a prime place on the A-list.
What's great about it? For starters, there's the sun,
the sand, the people, the terrain, the weather, the cuisine . . . And
for those who enjoy finding fault, those same things can be problems.
Round-trip airfare for a week in March 2010 ran a little
over $500 from L.A. (It was under $375 from New York, $400 from Boston.)
If you're cruising, who worries abiout the price? Once there, food and
lodging run from cheap to indecently expensive, depending on your tastes.
What makes everything seem possible is Aruba's limitless
--City hotel with all amenities, or bare-bones B&B?
--Filet mignon and single-malt, or goat stew and local moonshine?
--Comfy guided tour, or solitary bushwhacking?
--PADI diving, or a toe-touch to the water?
--Isolated cultural enclaves (mainly U.S. and Dutch), or schmoozing
with friendly locals?
You might find these extremes anywhere, but in Aruba
these extremes seem much further apart. And their variety challenges
White sand, green water
The Aruba sun is a faithful friend, but for the careless
it's a scorching enemy. The sand is warm and soft, but when the wind
is up it's a painful abrasive that can destroy a camera lens in seconds.
The people (the locals) are hospitable and gracious in the face of tourist
invasions, but the tourists themselves (yes, I have met them and they
is us) can be insufferable in large doses.
Hooiberg, seen from the Casibari Rocks
Arikok National Park
The terrain is grandly varied and beautiful, but getting
across the central outback is a tough hike or a rough ride without four-wheel
drive. Many places resemble the desert Southwest of the U.S.
The weather is usually an island-hopper's ideal. It
can also get chilly at night and bone-baking hot in the noon-day sun.
Did I mention the cuisine? In the capital, Oranjestadt,
you can easily imagine your restaurant is in New York, Paris, or Amsterdam.
In the countryside, simpler fare is the rule, with goat meat a staple.
And if you have an enquiring mind, you may be told that those white
chunks in the stew are tripe. Funny thing is, I don't like tripe, but
the stew was delicious.
Cave entrance, Guadirikiri
Admittedly, most of the scenic splendors in Aruba other
than ocean involve rocks. Beyond the mysterious glacial-type boulders
of the Casibari area (no one knows how they got there), are special
stony sights, both seaside and subterranean. Especially memorable are
the Guadirikiri caves on the windward coast, where massive chambers
open in volcanic basalt, one dark as a tomb, another sky-lit through
a natural aperture in its ceiling. Ancient aboriginal rock paintings
adorn the walls.
Second chamber, Guadirikiri caves
Another unique rock formation was a fearsome natural
bridge of coral, connecting massive boulders above the erosive surf
of the northern coast. You can still get photos of the bridge, but no
one crosses it any more. The sea reclaimed it over a decade ago, yet
it persists as a must-see on some Internet sites.
Getting close to the rocks is simple at such sites as
Baby Beach on the island's southeast tip, where captive sea-water from
high-tide surf forms a large placid pool. There are beaches for all
tastes, including one of unusual round black stones.
Cultural attractions abound. A harbor full of cruise
ships and sailing craft, a 200-year-old Dutch windmill shipped west
and reassembled in Aruba 50 years ago, a bird sanctuary, museums, an
abandoned gold mine and smelter, and the 260-year-old Alto Vista Chapel,
the island's oldest house of worship.
Want action? There's sailing, surfing, scuba and snorkel
diving, jet-skiing, wind-surfing, deep-sea fishing, going below in a
mini-submarine, golfing, and for those with thick jeans, sand-dune sliding.
There are always more things to do than you have time for, and many
of them can be enjoyed without money.
One thing is certain. The Aruba experience can change
you. You leave with a renewed sense of wonder and a yen to return, to
find out if Aruba is really habit forming.