Aruba: Cool winds, ideal beaches

For years, I have been brainwashed by my wife, Ayesha, and her sisters-all born on the island of Aruba-about its supposedly perfect beaches, its cooling trade winds and friendly folk.

So, on our latest two-week trip to the island just 25 kilometres off the coast near Venezuela, I made a superhuman effort to remain objective.

You see, I am not a beach person-nor a shopping nor a gambling person. Even if the sun shines out of a cloudless sky at an almost invariable 28 C, you’ll generally find me seeking the shade of a wind-bent divi-divi tree, rather than frying on the sand.

Clean, safe
On the flight down, I sat beside a couple on their third trip to Aruba who were bubbling about their plans to buy a condominium there. “It’s so clean and safe,” they enthused. Not to mention hurricane-free.

Okay, I will admit that the streets of the capital, Oranjestad, with their gingerbread Colonial Dutch architecture, are spotless, and the island crime rate is commendably low.

And while we’re talking cleanliness and comfort:
Water: For Canadians, for whom clean water has become an obsession after recent water scandalsAruba’s water is bliss-clean, pure, desalinated seawater without a trace of chemical taste, just like champagne out of a tap.

Sleep: Forget air conditioning. Thanks to those trade winds, you can slumber with the bedroom curtains billowing while listening to the breeze in a whistling pine.
And the people-a happy mix of 40 nationalities – are friendly. When someone honks in Aruba, it’s meant as a wave.

While casinos don’t excite me, and I am loath to join the cruise-ship crowds stocking up on jewellery and clothing in Oranjestad, history, on the other hand, is my thing.

History, solitude
So I was overjoyed to find quaint original cunucu houses in faded yellows and greens still nestling between Cartier and Gucci stores in the centre of town.

So when Yvonne Webb, in charge of building preservation on the 32-km-long island, related the heroic story of how a fragile 135-year-old merchant’s house was moved to a new site in the capital to save it from destruction, I wanted to shout, “Hurrah!”

It shows that Aruba, which became independent from the Netherlands in 1986, is finding it has more to offer than sun and great beaches-especially for travellers with a taste for history plus solitude and serenity.

Beachcomber’s delight
For serenity, you don’t have to look far. Right near popular Eagle Beach (and close to the Bubali bird sanctuary) is the Butterfly Farm, where director Tony Cox, originally from Montreal, tells stories about the surprisingly sexy, boozy lives of our favourite insects.

Solitude? One of my biggest thrills was introducing our daughter, Farida-only a tyke when she came here last time but who now has children of her own-to the pleasures of beachcombing along the wild, deserted north shore.

We walked miles beside surging waves, finding washed-up curios and impromptu driftwood works of art created by anonymous sculptors.

Cactus wilderness
The best spot, though, is Arikok National Park, a wilderness of cactus and bizarre rock formations that occupies 17 per cent of the island’s mass.

Arikok demands attention and time. Many visitors charge up and down its precipitous, pot-holed roads in Jeep convoys, taking in the John Wayne western scenery and figure they’ve seen it.

To really experience Arikok, though, you should come in the morning before it’s too hot, pick up leaflets on the park’s flora and fauna and, if you’re not up to tackling the park’s 32 kilometres of wild hiking and riding trails, follow the signs to Cunucu Arikok.

Tour Arikok Park
You can get around this easy-going walking trail in 45 minutes. Don’t! Ideally, give yourself a couple of hours. Stroll, stop, admire the parakeets, the amazing cacti-some 150 years old-and rest on the stone benches under sheltering watapana, or divi-divi, trees.

See if you can spot the gonzalito bird that builds five purse-like hanging nests for his five mates (“Just like an Arubian guy!” locals joke) and study 600-year-old Indian paintings on huge concave boulders that bubbled out of long-ago volcanoes.

Cactus roof house
Halfway through the tour, our guide shows us a traditional Indian house. Its roof is made from split cactus stems, harvested three days after the full moon to ensure the house would never be destroyed by termites.

“A house here,” he explains, “is only for sleeping and cooking. The only other thing you need is a tree for shade because you do your living outside.”

This truly is Aruba’s future. The European Community has pledged $5 million U.S. for development and park director Roeland de Kort tells us the park is the key to making local children aware of their unique natural inheritance.

Bring a picnic
Drive a little further-bring a picnic because there’s not a restaurant for miles-and you encounter Boca Prins, a Caribbean classic.

In this lonely spot, roaring waves tumble between a gap in the cliffs before surging up a pristine beach. Eating your Dutch-style croquette lunch in the shelter of an open-sided cave, you hear the sounds of eternity.

There I go, gushing again! Can’t I find a single bad word to say about the place?

One tiny flaw
I do have one negative comment. Arriving at the posh new airport named for Dutch Queen Beatrix, I did not have the two Yankee dollars required for a luggage cart. Aruba has its own perfectly good currency unit, the florin, worth a little less than a Canadian dollar. But, exasperatingly, everyone quotes prices in American dollars-a constant irritant to Canadians.

Now if they would just fix that little flaw, they would have one pretty fine island.

Good to know
Aruba is the westernmost of the Caribbean islands and lies about 25 kilometers off the coast of Venezuela and about 70 kilometers west of Curaçao.

Be sure to carry cab fare if you aren’t being picked up at the airport. A cab ride will take about 20 minutes from the airport to most hotels and will cost you between $10 and $20 U.S.

Free medicine
The aloe vera, which grows everywhere on the island, is a wonder drug for the taking. For heat rash, slice off an aloe leaf, allow the yellow dye to drip for a few moments, strip away the spines and outer covering, then apply the transparent gel straight to the hurt. By the next morning, the rash is gone.

Most overrated attraction
For a mere $74 U.S., you can listen to a corny spiel before heading out for an hour-long ride in the Vancouver-built Atlantis submarine. Sure, peering through the windows, you will see a couple of wrecks and some fish, but 150 metres down, it tends to be murky.

Frankly, I had a whole lot more fun spotting an octopus and fooling around with a flounder while snorkelling on the north coast.

Fibs they tell you
“Never rains in Aruba!” people say. Well, it does-usually at night and in the late fall rainy season-and very welcome it is too.

However, they are right about one thing: the cooling trade winds hardly every die down.

Better deals
Oranjestad’s big new airport is a gem. Only trouble – it’s mostly deserted except for weekends, when vacationers arrive and leave. Airport managing director Simon Arends says they are working on promotion deals offering free Fridays or free Mondays in local hotels to encourage mid-week travelling.

This is a good idea for travellers who have greater travelling flexibility.

Best fish dish
Aruba abounds in good restaurants in every style. For traditional peas and rice and curry and the like, I enjoy Freddy’s in San Nicholas, a simple spot where you can also dance most nights.

But the best fish I tasted was grilled red snapper at The Paddock, an open-air, waterside restaurant in Oranjestad-huge helpings, reasonably priced.

Blowing winds
The trade winds that blow at night make the temperatures pleasant but will wreak havoc on your hair. You may want to pack a scarf or hat to wear in the evenings.

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