Originally created 09/17/00

Beyond the beach



ORANJESTAD, Aruba - How tempting it was to plant myself beneath tall coconut palms on a lovely beach with white sand and calm water so intensely blue it seemed illuminated from beneath the surface.

Aruba's best beachfront hotels are excellent. But it's a shame if visitors don't venture beyond them.

Most of the southern Caribbean island is treeless, its rocky hills spiked with tall cacti pointing toward the blue sky.

On the western coast, most of Aruba's 28 hotels stand on level terrain along a seven-mile stretch of beach. The turquoise sea is placid and filled with windsurfers, para-sailers, water cyclists and boats loaded with snorkelers and scuba divers.

On the eastern coast, the wind-driven ocean is deep blue, wild and empty, with white-capped waves that pound against the island as if determined to wear it away. The hilly coast is rugged, desolate and uninhabited. Much of the "beach" is rough black rock that requires careful walking.

Yet that wild shore was my favorite place in Aruba.

In some spots, the ocean has broken through the rock shelf, creating narrow channels leading to secluded sandy beaches. Some people body surf at those beaches, according to Michael Thonissen of the Aruba Tourism Authority. "It's dangerous, but it's a lot of fun."

Aruba seems distant, exotic, appealing. It is less than 20 miles long and no wider than six miles. It is only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, whose mountains can be seen on clear days.

Hurricanes almost never hit the island. It doesn't rain much. And there is little poverty, making it safe to explore on your own. My favorite activity was swimming over the 400-foot-long sunken wreck of a German merchant ship, deliberately scuttled by her captain at the beginning of World War II so it could not be captured by the Dutch. It is one of the largest shipwrecks in the Caribbean.

A close second was taking a short hike in Arikok National Park. It was like walking through a cactus garden, on a well-groomed trail meandering around massive boulders. Green birds that look like parrots are called parakeets.

Free-roaming goats run out in front, dance atop narrow stone walls and bleat from the tops of the great rocks. Incredibly blue lizards scamper through the underbrush.

Aruba's best-known geological feature might be its natural bridge - more than 100 feet long, 25 feet above the waves that created it, it's wide enough to safely walk across.

Most of Aruba is covered with colorful houses with colorful roofs. It is impossible to tell where one town ends and another begins. Yet about 17 percent of the island is protected as national park, and as much as one-fourth of it never will be developed.

Beautiful beaches all over the island are open to the public, but you might be charged if you sit in a lounge chair at a hotel where you're not a guest. With its steady trade winds, Aruba claims to be one of the world's best windsurfing sites.

Everything in Aruba seems modern and upscale, from the airport to my hotel to the main streets of Oranjestad, the capital. There appeared to be none of the desperate poverty I've seen on some other Caribbean islands.

While gambling is not heavily promoted, many of Aruba's better hotels have casinos. The new domed casino in the renovated Radisson resembles a planetarium, complete with occasional falling stars.

The many American restaurant chains make the island seem less foreign. Restaurants such as Pizza Hut and Wendy's "are the most popular places on the island," said one hotel official. "That is what the local people want."

Aruba is an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with its own democratic government. Until 1986, it was part of the Netherlands Antilles, along with the neighboring islands of Bonaire and Curacao.

Doreen Boekhoudt-Kralick of the tourism authority claimed that there are "no dangerous parts" of Aruba. Visitors who explore by car should have no problem finding locals willing to provide directions or even lead the way, should the tourists get lost.

"We have three types of weather here," said Tom Wolf, an assistant manager at Hyatt Regency Aruba. "It's either 85, 86 or 87 - and always sunny."

Annual rainfall in Aruba is only about 24 inches. Most of it comes in brief showers during November and December.

Aruba relies heavily on tourism - it anticipates 700,000 overnight visitors this year, said Antonio Leo of the tourism authority - but it does not have an unlimited potential for growth. The Aruban government apparently does not want it to become overdeveloped. Mr. Leo said the government does not want any hotels built on the island's North Shore, where wind, salt and sand would make construction "impossible."

A section of Arikok National Park called Cunucu Arikok has ancient Indian drawings under a rock ledge where bats live, as well as a humble 19th-century homestead with an adobe house and a fence made of live cactus.

"Fifty years ago, people were still living in these houses," said Fafedde Boersma, a landscape architect in charge of development.

That section of the park is thickly vegetated because it is on the protected side of a hill, away from wind and salt spray.

The national park is only about 3 years old. "We still have to build a visitors center to tell the public why the park is important and why we have protected it," said Mr. Boersma. "If you want to be a country of some status, you need to protect your natural values."

Park visitors probably won't ever see gray Aruban rattlesnakes, which are small, shy and rare.

You'll hear about iguanas being all over the island, but you're more likely to see the smaller blue lizards and even smaller lizards of other types. Visitors have a better chance of seeing an iguana outside a hotel, where some guests feed them. Although protected, they still are illegally hunted. Their flesh, used in iguana soup, is considered both medicinal and an aphrodisiac.

One pest not native to Aruba are boa constrictors. The snakes are illegally brought in as pets, then let go. "We've caught 28 boa constrictors in the last four months," said Boersma. "It's crazy."

The captured snakes are destroyed.

Other attractions

Aruba's Butterfly Farm has about 1,000 butterflies near the high-rise hotels and Tierra del Sol, Aruba's only 18-hole professional golf course.

Near the natural bridge are the stone remains of Bushiribana gold smelting works.

Aruba also is the home of the world's second largest water desalinization plant.

California Lighthouse is one good place to get an overview of Aruba. Others are Casibari Rock Formations, Alto Vista Chapel and, in the south, Colorado Point, where you can see the remains of World War II artillery emplacements that protected the oil refinery.

The Natural Pool is called one of the island's most romantic spots, and Aruba's caves include one with with a heart-shaped entrance called Tunnel of Love.

IF YOU GO

The busiest and most expensive season is the winter holidays. Summer is the least expensive. Although the island's temperature remains constant all year, rates at major hotels are as much as 40 percent higher in winter.

At Hyatt Regency Aruba, an upscale beachfront hotel, room rates are $350-$500 a night from Dec. 20 through Easter but $200-$300 in summer. At the Radisson Aruba, which recently underwent a major renovation, nightly winter rates begin at $345, $200 in summer.

Less expensive lodgings, some under $100, also are available.

The Aruba Sonesta Beach Resort in the heart of bustling Oranjestad has an adjoining casino, show theater and shopping mall, but you can't walk to the beach from the hotel and the air-traffic noise is noticeable.

Other hotel chains on the island include Marriott, Wyndham, Allegro, Holiday Inn and La Quinta. You can save money by staying at all-inclusive resorts or booking package deals that include air fare.

To encourage more families with children under 12 to visit, Aruba is offering a "One Cool Family Vacation" promotion through Sept. 30. Participating hotels are offering free accommodations for up to two children sharing a room with at least one paying adult, plus free meals, free admissions and other discounts and activities. Check www.family.aruba.com or www.arubaconventionbureau.com.

Aruba's "One Cool Honeymoon" program, offered all year by participating hotels, offers newlyweds discounts on activities, dining and shopping. It also offers a free bottle of wine or champagne and a free night's stay if you return the next year. Check www.honeymoon.aruba.com.

Restaurant cuisine is international and includes Cuban, Argentinian, Indonesian and Italian cuisine. There are a number of American chains.

Some full-service restaurants promise Aruban-style cooking. One is the Driftwood, a seafood restaurant where the food is very good but not particularly spicy.

Snack shacks along roads offer "take away" treats, including pastechis - fish, chicken, Dutch cheese or even chop suey filling fried inside a pastry crust.

The barbecue sampler platter on the porch at Coco's Beach Restaurant includes a view of the stunning water of Rogers Beach near the oil refinery.

The Caribbean stir fry at the Radisson's Laguna Waterside Wok and Bistro is recommended. Diners fill bowls with their own ingredients, including lamb, pork, beef, chicken, scallops or shrimp. Chefs then prepare the meal, which is served on a turkey-size platter with rice and noodles. Five sauces are available. Few diners can clean their plates.

American money is generally accepted as currency. There is no sales tax.

Most Arubans speak English, in addition to at least three other languages - Dutch (the official language), Spanish and the island's own Papiamento.

For more information, check Aruba's Web site at www.aruba.com. Or call the Aruba Tourism Authority at (800) 862-7822.