Aruba’s varied island culture and terrain

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Victor Block

Aruba’s arid, desert-like terrain, where cacti abound, contrasts with its tropical beaches, palm trees and turquoise water.
Photo by Len Kaufman

A gleaming white sand beach that rims the azure sea is set off by an explosion of scarlet, purple and other vivid colors of lush tropical foliage. Nearby, stretches of rocks and pebbly soil interspersed with cactus comprise a very different terrain — bleak and desert-like.

The dramatic variety of landscapes that greets visitors to Aruba is echoed by the equal diversity of its attractions. Together, they make the island an inviting winter destination for vacationers with a broad range of interests.

 Those seeking nothing more than a relaxing sun-and-sand getaway have a choice of magnificent white sand beaches that are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Others interested in something with a European flair will discover touches of it around the island.

The continental influence dates back to times when both Spain and, for a brief period, Great Britain held sway over Aruba. The Dutch took the island over in 1636, and today it is an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Dutch touches

Evidence of Aruba’s Dutch heritage can be seen around every corner.

Oranjestad, the capital and largest city (the word translates to “orange town” in Dutch), is named for King William van Oranje-Nassau, the first heir to the royal family House of Orange.

Many buildings sport pastel colored facades and whimsical architectural touches that have been described as Spanish Mediterranean, with overtones of Dutch influence. Streets with names like Nieuweweg and Arendstraat would not be out of place in Amsterdam.

Adding to the cross-cultural blend is a distinctive landmark familiar to anyone who has visited the island. Looking out of place in a landscape of palm trees and cactus is an authentic windmill that once drained water from low-lying areas of Holland. Built in 1804, the structure was dismantled, shipped to Aruba, and reassembled in its unlikely Caribbean setting, where it has housed several restaurants and night clubs over the years.

Despite these inviting hints of the “old country,” most people who visit Aruba come to enjoy its soft sand beaches overlooking crystal clear water. A magnificent seven-mile stretch of beaches backs up to the high-rise hotels that rim the sheltered southwestern and western coastlines.

The windswept northern and eastern coasts, which are battered by the sea, have been left largely undeveloped. Each stretch of shoreline, along with the arid island interior, has its own appeal.

Rugged limestone cliffs that run along much of the northeastern coast mark one boundary of Arikok National Park, an ecological preserve that sprawls over nearly 20 percent of Aruba. Hiking trails criss-cross the park, and those that lead through its more isolated areas offer opportunities to spot native parakeet, burrowing owls and other wildlife that makes it their home.

Intriguing chapters of Aruba’s history come alive in this setting. Shallow cave formations recall a time when a branch of Arawak Indians inhabited the island. Brownish-red drawings that ornament walls and ceilings attest to their presence.

Reminders of Aruba’s agricultural past in the park include a long-deserted adobe farm house, while abandoned mines recall a mini-gold rush that got underway in 1825 and lasted for nearly a century.


Aruba’s capital and largest city, Oranjestad, features casinos, museums and Dutch colonial architecture.
Photo by Len Kaufman

Casinos and museums

Speaking of gold, the 12 casinos on the island have earned it the nickname “Las Vegas of the Caribbean.” While most casinos are located in major resort hotels, there are two in Oranjestad.

The capital city also has other attractions. The Dutch colonial architecture and pastel hues of many buildings, some dating back to the late 18th century, impart a Disneyworld atmosphere.

The busy port teems with the coming and going of boats, and sidewalks with crowds of sightseers and shoppers. Jewelry, designer fashions and perfumes are popular buys, along with blue Delft ceramics and Dutch cheeses.

When not spending money on shopping or gambling, visitors have a choice of several small but interesting museums. The Archaeological Museum is housed in a cluster of colorfully painted homes that were occupied by a local family for nearly 130 years, beginning in 1870.

The exhibits inside showcase the history of Indians on Aruba. They range from an ancient long house and native hut, to artifacts dating back as far as 2500 BCE.

The Historical Museum of Aruba is tucked away in Fort Zoutman. That fortification was built in 1796-1798 to protect the island from pirates, and the town soon began to grow around it.

The museum has exhibits describing farming, fishing and other aspects of island life, including interesting tidbits about villages that I explored. For example, I strolled through the small town of Noord, which began as an Indian community, and the hamlet of Rancho, that was established around 1855 as a fishing village.

Visits to other communities also provided introductions to what locals call “the real Aruba.” San Nicolas is the second largest town after Oranjestad, but is worlds away in atmosphere. While it once jumped to the beat of workers from the now-abandoned oil refinery nearby, it’s usually on the quiet side these days.

A mini-promenade along the main street is lined by several shops and restaurants, but the biggest draw in town is Charlie’s Bar. Beginning in the early 1940s, scuba divers who dropped by that establishment attached their underwater finds to the walls and ceiling, creating what eventually evolved into a bric-a-brac heaven.

Today, virtually every inch of available space is adorned by automobile license plates, paper money and business cards from around the world, and other memorabilia too varied and numerous to list.

Ancient rock formations

Very different is the main claim to fame of Paradera village, which is its location close to two natural sites that were sacred places to the Indians.

The Ayo and Casibari rock formations consist of huge boulders that rise up from the sandy desert terrain. Over time, prevailing winds have carved the rocks into unusual shapes which, with a little imagination on the part of the viewer, resemble birds, dragons and other identifiable figures.

Steps have been carved into the rock at the Casibari site, and those who climb to the top are rewarded with a panoramic view over the island. Some of the stones at Ayo still bear petroglyphs scratched and painted onto the surface by Indian artists.

Those boulders rising from a flat, stark landscape provide a setting very different from the white sand beaches of Aruba. The small, silent caves in Arikok National Park present an environment that contrasts sharply with the clamor and commotion of the island’s casinos.

Yet these scenes and many more are among the something-for-everyone variety that makes Aruba an inviting destination to explore and enjoy.

If you go

Restaurant meals can be a bit more expensive here than on some other Caribbean islands, but the over-sized portions served by a number of eateries are large enough to share. There also are early bird specials and other meal deals that can stretch your dining dollar.

At Fusion, a sophisticated piano bar adjacent to Alhambra Casino, some of the hot and cold tapas ($6-$12) are ample enough to be an entrée. Main courses include rib eye steak with French fries, and paella, the typical Spanish seafood soup (each $19.50). For more information, call (297) 280-9994 or email marritf@megaresorts.com.

A very different décor and cuisine are offered at the Pelican Nest, a casual outdoor café perched at the end of the pier in front of the Holiday Inn. One chef’s special is the excellent ceviche ($7.75), which is large enough to make a meal from. A merger of shrimp and chicken salad on greens is a land-sea entrée combination ($16), and grilled fresh-caught fish is served with French fries ($8.25). For more information, call (297) 586-2259 or log onto www.pelican-aruba.com.

The challenge when seeking a place to stay is narrowing down the numerous choices. The studio apartment at the Aruba Beach Club Resort validated the belief of my wife Fyllis and me that checking into a timeshare property can provide good value. It was surprisingly roomy, and the kitchenette offered the option of eating some meals in.

The low-rise property lacks the hustle and bustle of much larger hotels, and sits on one of the finest beaches on the island. Basic rates begin at a reasonable $200 a night for a suite that can accommodate four people, although taxes and other charges add to the total. For more information, call (297) 524-3000 or log onto www.arubabeachclub.net.

If you check into the Hyatt Regency Resort, Spa & Casino you may never want to leave (that is, until your money runs out). As the name indicates, it combines Hyatt Regency excellence with a top-flight spa, in-house casino and other amenities one expects from that hotel brand.

The landscaping alone is worth stopping by to see even if you’re staying elsewhere. Fields of flowers surround a massive three-level swimming pool with a slide and waterfalls, all leading to the beautiful beach. High-season rates start at $565 a night. (Low season starts April 20.) For more information, call (888) 591-1234 or log onto www.aruba.hyatt.com.

The lowest roundtrip fare in late January is $381 on Delta and US Airways from BWI.

For more information about Aruba, call (800) 862-7822 or log onto www.aruba.com.