As I bounced around in the front seat of a Land Rover, Bette Davis’ famous line in the movie “All About Eve” flashed through my mind: “Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
It’s impossible to overstate the bumpiness of this ride. Six of us, plus our driver, Sherman, were traversing the rugged terrain in Arikok National Park, an area of caves, sand dunes and limestone cliffs on Aruba’s eastern side.
Covering almost 20 percent of the island, it’s an arid, harsh environment, more reminiscent of the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico than the lush tropics of the Caribbean.
Here, vegetation tends to be cactus plants rather than Aruba’s signature divi-divi trees, while the dry desert conditions make it hospitable for wildlife such as rattlesnakes, iguanas and the beautiful cododo, an iridescent turquoise lizard.
The park attracts visitors who come not just to marvel at the lunar-like landscape, but for attractions natural (the serene Natural Pool, sandwiched in between the cliffs) and manmade (the remains of a once-flourishing gold mine, cave paintings done by Arawak Indians and the surprising Alta Vista Chapel, a sunburst of bright yellow).
A journey to Arikok is a highlight of any visit to Aruba, and the Land Rover adventure, offered by De Palm Tours, will delight adrenaline junkies. Those with bad backs as well as pregnant women would be wise to opt for a hike led by one of the park’s knowledgeable rangers.
The Land Rover excursion had been arranged by my accommodation, the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, located on the dazzling white sands of Palm Beach.
This is the Aruba of travel posters and vacationers’ dreams. Lush landscaping links the resort’s various buildings to a series of cascading waterfalls and pools (one for families and one for adults only), shopping arcades, a Mandara spa and six restaurants.
Excellent food everywhere
I took part in a signature Marriott experience — dinner at Atardi, a pop-up beach restaurant. Diners can dig their toes into the sand, listen to island music and hope for a glimpse of the “green flash” as the sun slowly sinks. At Atardi, it’s difficult to know which gets top billing — the sunset, serenade or seafood platters.
My vote goes to the latter. Having never been to Aruba, I was delighted by the excellence of the food at every place I tried.
Stop in for breakfast at Linda’s Dutch Pancake House and you’ll likely never think of pancakes the same way again. The Aruban versions are pizza-sized and filled with delectable tidbits, savory and sweet.
While the bacon and apple pancake is the most popular, I opted for a brie/walnut/honey concoction. The walnuts were cooked inside the pancake, with the brie melted on top and local honey on the side. I honestly think I could have finished the entire thing.
That would have been a shame, as lunch was a scant few hours later at Charlie’s, a place oozing with local color. I tried the mouthwatering ribs, along with a local beer, and was in heaven.
For dinner, the West Deck was a more than satisfactory spot. With a casual outdoor terrace overlooking the cruise ship terminal, it specializes in — what else — seafood.
On another day, I had a leisurely lunch at island favorite Zeerovers. Tables sprawl across a wooden deck overlooking the water, and fishermen pull up at the pier to unload their daily catches. This means you’ll get the freshest fish and shrimp possible, and the plantain puffs will melt in your mouth.
It was back to the Marriott for La Vista’s sumptuous buffet, which features the island’s native dish, keshi yena. A sort of chicken stew, it contains raisins, cashews, onions, green olives and seasonings and is topped with slices of Gouda cheese.
A real Dutch treat
Aruba is the “A” in the southern Caribbean’s chain of ABC Islands (“B” and “C” being Bonaire and Curaçao), each having a slightly different relationship with the Netherlands, which colonized them in the 17th century.
While technically independent, Aruba remains a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” I was told that was the equivalent of a doting parent who continues to dole out money to a child who accepts it while loudly proclaiming his independence.
Whatever the ties, Aruba has many remnants of its Dutch past. Windmills dot the countryside; the capital of Oranjestad boasts tidy white buildings with peach, mint green, lemon and orange trim — a sort of tropical Amsterdam. And the island has been influenced by the Dutch work ethic.
The best place to get a sense of this is the Museum of Industry in San Nicolas. Who knew that Aruba had a gold rush 25 years before California did? The precious metal was first discovered in 1824 by a 12-year-old boy tending his family’s sheep. Remnants of mines can still be found in several places.
Fragrant aloe, transported from the Arabian Peninsula, proved the source of the island’s next economic boom. Museum photographs show that in the 19th century, two-thirds of the island was covered with aloe plantations.
The museum’s final two galleries show that the ever-resilient Arubans shifted economic gears yet again — in the mid-20th century, prospering by refining oil from Venezuela, only 20 miles away, and today, as a tourism mecca.
Pretty impressive for an island which was once dubbed “Isla Inutil” — useless island.
Following a tour of the museum, stick around to wander through this newly emerging area with its colorful murals and the shop/studio/gallery Cosecha, a creative showcase for the arts and crafts of Aruba.
Arubans have an expression in their native Papiamento, “bon bini,” which means welcome. You’ll hear it everywhere you go on this enchanting isle.