A Caribbean Caress

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Travel Writer

Aruba: just say it. Those three vowelly syllables have a jewel-like ring, a Latin lilt. The sound rises and falls like a gentle wave on the shore.

There are waves of all kinds to be found along the shores of Aruba, the “A” of the “ABC” islands of the Leeward Antilles (the others are Bonaire and Curacao). Small enough to be easily navigable, cosmopolitan enough to keep city types busy, and with a range of affordable lodging and dining options, Aruba is riding a crest of popularity. The laid-back pastel capital city of Oranjestad has a newly youthful spirit, with a slate of recently opened or refurbished restaurants and hotels.

January is the perfect time for a spontaneous getaway: tourism traditionally dips here between the Christmas holidays and the February high season, and many hotels are offering package deals. The glorious Caribbean temperature rarely dips, however, with an average high in the mid-80s. So if you’re longing for guaranteed warm weather in deep mid-winter, Aruba is a fairly safe bet, with numerous daily flights from both New York and South Florida.

January is also when the island kicks off its most festive season: the colorful, two-month-long party known as Carnival. Parades, costumed spectacles, concerts of the drum-heavy “tumba” music, calypso contests, and other festivities punctuate the calendar from now until March. While Carnival has its basis in religion, it’s a proudly cultural celebration of local traditions here — and everyone is invited to join in the fun.

Richly layered with history, Aruba offers an intriguing brew of African, Latin, indigenous and European ingredients. For American visitors, it’s a safe and welcoming country, whose relatively high standard of living mitigates the kind of drastic tourist-local divide that can be uncomfortable elsewhere in the Caribbean.

You’ll find the gorgeous, white-sand beaches and limpid turquoise waters typical of the region. But Aruba is also drier, flatter, windier and considerably more Dutch than your average tropical island. Those who loathe tropical humidity will find Aruba’s climate a delightful surprise. Visitors are often startled to see prickly cactuses sprouting amid the sandy dunes, evidence of an arid climate. Constant breezes keep the blazing midday sun bearable, while winds off the open ocean whip up picturesque surf along the wilder, more rugged eastern shores.

The island’s proximity to Venezuela results in the lively Latin-American influence, evident both in the fresh, fruit-based cuisine and the tropical beats that waft from live-music nightspots. If you speak any Spanish or Portuguese, you’ll recognize a lot of words in Papiamento, the Creole language spoken across the Leeward Antilles.

Aruba’s Dutch heritage is most obvious in the vowelly place names and in town: Oranjestad boasts a tidy, well-organized infrastructure and pastel wedding-cake architecture that’s a tropical fantasy of Europe.

All this, and yet there are only about 120,000 people living in Aruba, giving it a small-scale, relaxed feel. About three dozen families are Jewish — a community born in the 1750s, which brought the first Jews to the island along with the Dutch West Indies Company.

Aruba’s Jewish presence has always been smaller than that of nearby Curacao. But its heritage encompasses Portuguese, Polish, Dutch, South American and other diverse strands, reflecting a population that has seen waves of migration to and from Europe and the Americas. Today, the island’s only Jewish house of worship, Beth Israel Synagogue in Oranjestad, is a frequently visited attraction, with Shabbat services in English.

There are also several pretty, historic churches in the capital, whose narrow streets of colorful buildings and lush green parks make for delightful strolling. If it rains, Oranjestad offers plenty of shopping — both high-end and artisanal — to keep you occupied, as well as several small museums. The town bustles at midday, when cruise ships dock and visitors flood the boutiques and waterfront cafes; at night, the bars are hopping, yet it’s far from a raucous scene.

Most visitors base themselves in the capital or elsewhere on Aruba’s western coast, where the resorts, casinos, and most accessible beaches lie. As its name suggests, Palm Beach is one of the more popular resort areas, with tranquil water that is perfect for bathing, and a nearby butterfly farm to amaze the kids. But there are beautiful beaches everywhere — and in keeping with Aruba’s general friendliness, every last one of them is free and public.

So you can wander along the coast until you find your own perfect slice of sandy paradise. Nature-lovers or those with more than a weekend here would do well to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as the island’s compact size and general safety make exploring an appealing proposition.

Heading north along the coast, you leave the civilized orange-and-pink gingerbread buildings behind for a landscape of windswept dunes, hidden caves and huge, craggy rock formations sculpted by a crashing surf. Only a few lonely lighthouses and remote settlements punctuate the cactus-riddled terrain, which looks as it must have to the island’s original Spanish and Dutch settlers.

Off the beaten path, but well worth a trip, is the island’s national park, Arikok. It’s a sprawling, rustic ecological preserve that’s home to a vast range of local species, from rattlesnakes and bat colonies to pools filled with turtles. But there are also abandoned gold mines, indigenous art from centuries past, and spooky caves — plenty of reminders that you’re a long, long way from Central Park.

 

A view of the colorful buildings on the waterfront in Oranjestad.

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