Aruba. The Lesser Antilles in the Southern Caribbean Sea
Dunes of the Sea
Music: Time is the Enemy, Quantic (Café del Mar)
Movie: The Pursuit of Happiness
Book: Any book. Just chill!
North of Venezuela, in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, lay the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.
With a long history of conquest, domination and disputation going back to Amerigo Vespucci, the southern Caribbean islands are unique and beautiful holiday destinations. If you like water sports, caving, off-road driving, or just idling by some gorgeous beach, Aruba is the place for you.
Mostly flat, dry and rugged, especially on the northern corner, Aruba has mainly desert vegetation (I will have seen many of cacti and aloe – both wild or plantations – on today’s tour).
The locals speak Dutch and Papiamentu; if you speak Spanish or Portuguese, you’ll understand this melodious language.
The food I like best is fried plantain, a sweet side dish that complements almost every meal on the island. I always get it with seafood, and it’s a great combination.
This is all I know about Aruba from my previous visits. Today I’ll get more facts as I’m planning to jump on a tour that covers half the island.
The ship has docked in Oranjestad at dawn. Once I finish dispatching the morning tours, I have a quick chat with one of the tour operators who invite me to accompany their group today. It is an off-road UTV tour with lunch and a stop at the beach on the way back.
As Shore Excursions staff, we take all the tours available to learn as many details as possible. And to have fun, of course! Well deserved, considering that the working week on cruise ships is seven days for the duration of the contract (minimum six months).
I’m ready in minutes and join the group of thirty passengers and six tour guides with broad smiles on their relaxed faces. All six of them must spend a lot of time outdoors. I am jealous of their beautifully tanned skin!
The induction consists mainly of “avoid the boulders” tips and try to keep up with the group.
One of the guides asks me if I could take a lady with her two teenage kids in my car. Her husband decided last minute not to take the tour, and she did not feel a confident off-road driver.
I happily accept the company. Should I mention to the guide that the ink on my driving licence is still wet and I have zero off-road driving experience? Meh! What’s the big deal? Just stay off the boulders!
The lady and her kids are super fun people, especially the kids, who are happy their mom is not driving.
“Take the left path!”, one of them shouts from the back seat.
I am a young adult (or an old kid). So, I take the left path while praying not to hit the boulders. I’m sort of getting now what the inductions meant; the rocks are humongous!
I bypass the long convoy amid super excited shrieks from the backseat and get just behind the leader. He knows the location of each rock by heart, so if I just follow him. Now I can enjoy the scenery without having to worry too much about crashing the jeep.
The landscape is as described in the tour brochure: dry, wild, amazing!
The first stop of the day is in the middle of a desert. It is a quick stop for a refreshment and a brief history of the island.
The minute I get off the jeep, I see why the guide is watching the rear of my automobile intently: it’s got a flat tyre.
“Oops!” says the teenager responsible for “take the left path!”
“I’m happy you’re driving,” he goes on, “mum would have crashed the jeep to the first boulder. Did you see the size of them? They were, like, ginormous!”
Aye, I did see it. I’m glad we are alive, mate!
In the five minutes needed by two of the guides take to replace the tyre, another one gives us as much information as she can about the island. She starts by navigating through the prehistory of Aruba. We learn of the Amerindians and Caiquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe found by the first Spanish navigators who landed on the island in the fifteenth century. Then, she goes all the way to modern independence, primary industries and lifestyle on the island.
The current main industries of Aruba are oil (as in petroleum), tourism, banking and aloe-based cosmetics. That explains the aloe plantations we’ve seen on the way.
Tyre fixed, we re-board the jeeps and head east. At the next stop, I get to dip my feet in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean under the massive limestone Natural Bridge. The currents are mighty strong here; I wouldn’t go for a swim. There will be time later when we’ll stop at a beach on the western coast where the water is calmer.
Need I remind the lovely reader that this is still an account of a younger me, and this story happened some years ago? Unfortunately, when you go to Aruba, you won’t see the bridge anymore. Greedy Katrina took the ancient coral limestone away with it. ‘Tis the way of nature, but what a tremendous loss!
The postcard view is exquisite. The guides know it and don’t rush us. We wonder how half a day is already gone. Time flies when you have so much to see and enjoy it a great deal.
It’s time to get again behind the wheel for another enjoyable driving portion of the tour. The last stop before lunch is California Dunes, at the north tip of the island. As we walk on the hot undulated sand, we find out where the name of the place came from.
The history is that a steamboat shipwrecked off the north coast of the island, called back then Hudishibana, in 1891. The ship was transporting all sorts of merchandise. from clothing to furniture. As the items got washed to the shore, the locals picked and sold them.
The local police could not control this and asked the neighbouring island, Curaçao, to send help which arrived in the form of two police officers. They received instructions to look for California. The policemen thought that was the name of the area and kept asking the baffled locals about it.
In the end, the name stuck and the northern coast of Aruba and the lighthouse are called today after the shipwrecked steamer.
Another fact the guide mentions is that Will Smith owns a villa on the island. I stop on a dune and take in the panoramic view. Desert ending in shimmering turquoise waters, breezy heat and sunshine, what’s not to love about this place? The guy is lucky. A fish in the sea. Like Oscar in Shark Tale!
On the jeeps again and we head back to civilisation, asphalt roads and big money resorts. Just before we reach the large hotels, we stop at a beach not far from the lighthouse for lunch and then a couple of hours of leisure time.
I share the table with the teenagers and their mom. It’s impressive to see that after a few hours in the sun our skin is slightly bronzed and our faces lightened by content smiles. The kids wolf down everything the waiters bring to our table. We agree that a little desert wind does increase an already accentuated appetite!
I stuff my face as well even if I know it will weigh me down like a sack of rock once I get in the water. But how can you leave that food on the plate? It would be a sacrilege!
I don’t waste time at all after lunch. I drop my backpack and light clothing on the beach and jump in the water. I love swimming in this beautiful crystal water more than frying in the midday sun on the sand.
Caribbean, here I come! The teens don’t waste much time and jump in the waves as well. Even their mom swims alongside me while we talk about the cruise and this fabulous tour. She knows her husband will feel sorry that he decided to remain in town.
I ask for her cabin number and promise to send some prints of the photos I’ve taken today. If the teens don’t irk their father, the images will surely do!
Before I know it, the tour guides call for us to re-board our respective jeeps and start the civilized drive back to Oranjestad.
I get back on the cruise ship invigorated after the day in the dunes, wind and wave. I am also ecstatic that I managed to see most of the island in one go. And what a fantastic tour this was! From now on, I can explore the town on our next stops here.
As promised, I get a friend at the photo department to print some of the pictures in a standard size. For a reason, I cannot find a standard size envelope in the Shore Excursions stationery supply. I ring our colleagues at the Guest Relations desk opposite the lobby. No luck there either. So, I stuff a handful of prints in an oversized envelope. I draw a funny face and write an apology note that I could not find a bigger one and send it to the lovely family.
Later that evening, they stop by the desk to thank me for the photos. The kids, who are still beaming after today’s tour, are now amused by the envelope thing.
Their father shakes my hand and thanks me for taking his family off his hands today. He’s had a great one too. It did not start well as he’s spent a lot of money in the casino opposite the terminal. But just before we got back from our tour, he hit the jackpot. Their cruise is now properly starting!