Although we've visited many Caribbean islands, we’d never been to Aruba, the alphabetically first of the "ABC" islands at the end of the arc of the Lesser Antilles, nearly to Venezuela.
But when friends invited us to share their villa at the Aruba Marriott Surf Club, we quickly accepted.
Aruba's main attraction is the always warm – often hot – weather, and white sandy beaches. Fortunately, there is normally a breeze making it more pleasant and keeping you cool. In fact, the Divi Divi tree is said to be Aruba's natural compass, always pointing in a southwesterly direction due to the trade winds that blow across the island from the north-east.
It's an arid island with cacti being predominant in the unsettled areas. A huge desalination plant supplies the island's water needs, including "an average of one metric ton per day to each of over 7,000 hotel rooms." Who would have guessed?
One can see the sights on this compact – twenty by six mile – island in a day:
the California lighthouse and adjacent dunes, ruins of past gold mines – coincidentally, Aruba means "red gold," and a mini Gold Rush sprang up when gold was discovered on the north coast in the 1800s; and the nearby Natural Bridge, prominently featured on Aruba touristic materials, as well as on the business card of our taxi driver, Edith.
Unfortunately, the pounding waves and strong winds that over the millennia carved out the arch eventually led to its collapse in September of 2005.
That didn't prevent an authority in the Marriott lobby from notifying his friends that the disaster had only occurred the previous Saturday. The Banana Bus and Jeep Safari tours still visit, however,
which is fortunate for the nearby outsize souvenir shop, where browsers trying on everything from hats with crabs perched on top to outrageous sunglasses contribute to the carnival atmosphere.
A newspaper article noted that for an island that depends on tourism for seventy percent of its economy, the Natural Bridge collapse "brought more bad news to an island that has been under the scrutiny of the U.S. media for three months since the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway."
On which subject…
While waiting at the luggage carousel we noticed someone already prepared for the climate, in shorts and flowered shirt. He was soon joined by an Aruban, and we overheard that they were security officers in their respective countries who had collaborated in the past. The fact that his friend was here, past security and immigration, attested to his status. The tourist was a Canadian who had driven to Buffalo and flown from there, changing into island garb in the airplane restroom before landing. It was inevitable that the subject of Natalee Holloway would eventually arise. The Aruban had no further insight into what might have happened, but they both agreed that she probably ended up in the shark feeding grounds north of the island.
Having read that wild goats thrived on Aruba, I realized that we hadn't tasted any since many years ago at the now-defunct A.V. Ristorante Italiano in D.C. So, on our way to the Marriott we asked Edith if she knew of a restaurant that served typical Aruban fare, particularly goat. She said, yes, Nos Cunucu, "Our Farm" in the local Papiamento language. However, as it was off the beaten track, it was not that easy to find.
Several days later we asked a concierge at the Ocean Club how to get to this restaurant. The only one she knew of was in the hotel zone and was called the Old Cunucu House. We went to the adjacent Marriott hotel and found a more experienced concierge who was familiar with the one we wanted, and who marked its general location on our map. That was fortunate, because when we thought we must have driven too far, we recalled that she also had written the name of a hardware store we had passed, and backtracked. Sure enough, across the road was a smaller street, and further up that street, an even smaller one to the left – still no directional signs, though – they certainly weren't big on advertising.
At the end of this road was a rustic building with a monkey on a perch in front, a donkey wandering through the packed dirt parking lot, and pens out back housing chickens, peacocks – and goats. When we entered, the spacious glassless windows and adjoining wall-less dining area were a reminder cold weather is no problem here.
The cheerful waitress
brought us the chalkboard with the day's menu,
but unfortunately goat stew (Cabrito Stoba) would not be available until Saturday.
There were plenty of other interesting choices: beef – stew and tongue – and various fish, including whole grouper, cod, and minced shark, all served with pan bati (a thick, dense, fried bread), rice and peas, and salad. (Prices are in Aruban florins, worth $.56.)
We asked if the Saturday goat might be the one in the pen out back and she was aghast – it was a pet! She then told us that poachers had earlier stolen a previous pet. Her father was waiting when they returned to seize the replacement, and shot one in the foot. We neglected to ask if his aim was excellent or poor, but they turned out to be druggies who weren't even taking the goat for food. However, protection of property didn't sway the magistrate, who sentenced the father to several years in jail. The daughter quit school to keep the restaurant going.
But enough downers.
Most of the resort hotels are along the beautiful white sands of Palm Beach. The Marriott property is the northernmost, and has the most expansive grounds, the others being squeezed between an access road and the sea. On the other side of the access road are a multitude of restaurants, bars, and shops. Marriott's first construction was a hotel and casino, later joined by the Ocean Club time-share condos, and during our stay, the Surf Club.
Our friends had brought snorkeling gear, with which they viewed multi-colored fish further up the coast among coral reefs and a sunken ship. We took advantage of the Ocean Club's plentiful pools and the mini palm-roofed palapas along their extensive beachfront, from which one could absorb sun or retreat from it while listening to an interesting book on an iPod.
However, the new Surf Club has the latest in indolence – an endless river which circles a palm-covered "island." Underwater jets keep the water moving in a counter-clockwise direction, and upon which one, suitably buoyed, could laze for hours.
You may have noticed the "v/d" part of our taxi-driver's name – it's an abbreviation for "van der." The Dutch colonized the island, as well as nearby Curaçao, and Dutch is one of the official languages of the island (the other being Papiamento, which is a mixture of Dutch, English, diverse African dialects, and particularly Portuguese and Spanish). Thanks to Aruba's extensive tourism, English is also widely spoken.
The hyper-market where we purchased staples for our usual breakfast and lunches, as well as for pre-prandial happy hours, was Chinese-owned, as were many of the other shops on the island. However, the owner of the small adjacent toy store where we finally were able to locate the lightweight imitation truck inner tubes we needed to float on the endless river (and which also purveyed pirated software – not illegal in Aruba) was Dutch.
In addition to chain eateries (Tony Roma's, Benihana's, and Hooters, not to mention Dominos, McDonalds, and Taco Bell), and Nos Cunucu, Aruba has a large number of high-quality restaurants, particularly featuring beef and seafood, both in the countryside and in Oranjestad, which we liberally sampled. And our friends celebrated their wedding anniversary dining elegantly at the Marriott at the water's edge with the stars overhead.
Oranjestad's main street, across from the cruise ship port, also has a variety of shops offering jewelry, china, silver, perfume, even Dutch Edam and Gouda cheeses – and chocolate – at near-duty-free prices, and with no sales tax.
And, for the morbidly curious, the now infamous Carlos 'n Charlie’s bar, where Natalee Holloway was last seen.