Aruba: One Happy Island

Traveling just about anywhere in the Caribbean is reason enough to put anyone in a cheerful mood, let alone visiting a destination that’s regarded as, “One Happy Island.’’ Now, most anyone can pin a slogan onto a destination, but if visitors don’t exactly make a connection with it, the idea could prove detrimental.

This isn’t the case for Aruba, though. The tiny Dutch possession really does wear its nickname well. Its people are friendly, amenities are fun and the underwater scenery nice enough to put a smile on your face.

As one of the ABCs, Aruba has many of the same geographic characteristics as its nearby sister islands Bonaire and Curaçao. They just come in different measures. You see: all three islands have beaches, but Aruba has the most by far. Names like Palm Beach, Eagle Beach and Baby Beach seem to label just about every seascape on the island.

And, although Bonaire is dubbed a “Diver’s Paradise,” Aruba too shares much of the same underwater attributes. Again, they’re just proportioned differently.

The People and Their History

The warm and friendly faces of the Aruban people carry forth the peaceful tradition of the earliest inhabitants, the Caquetios, an Arawak Indian tribe that migrated here from South America around A.D. 1000. Drawings left behind by this ancient tribe are still preserved in caves on the southeastern side of the island for all to see.

The first European visitors were the Spanish who colonized the island in the early 1500s. The Dutch West India Company gained control in 1636, and except for a brief stint when the British occupied the island in 1805-1816, the Dutch have maintained firm control ever since.

In 1986, Aruba seceded from the Netherlands Antilles to become an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Bonaire and Curaçao still remain members of the Antilles, along with Saba, Saint Eustatius and Dutch St. Maarten. Aruba’s parliamentary democracy is overseen by the Constitutional Monarchy in Europe, and a prime minister is elected every four years.

The population is roughly 90,000 residents, made up of various origins of European, African and Latin descent. In the 21st century, Aruba’s economy relies heavily on tourism for commerce. Offshore banking and oil refining and storage are other integral contributors to the country’s gross domestic product. The Amerada Hess petroleum refinery, in San Nicolas, is one of the largest oil refineries in the world.

The Island

In stark contrast to Aruba’s happy-go-lucky marine environment, its flat-to-rolling topography gives way to harsh, desertlike conditions once you get away from the resort areas. The cactuses and windswept divi-divi trees provide little sun protection for the island’s wildlife, which is composed of wild goats, donkeys, iguanas and a variety of birds.

Temperatures pretty much hang around the 82-degree Fahrenheit (28-degree Celsius) mark with little seasonal temperature variation due to Aruba’s nearness to the equator. The constant caressing of the gentle trade winds blowing from the east also keep the island relatively cool, especially at night. Aruba averages a mere 18 inches (46 cm) of rainfall each year, so the chances of getting rained on during a visit are slim. Like Curaçao and Bonaire, Aruba is tucked outside of the hurricane belt.

At a little under 20 miles (32 km) in length and just over 5 miles across, Aruba covers an area of about 70 square miles (182 sq km). It’s in the southwest quadrant of the Caribbean Sea, just 15 miles from the coastline of Venezuela when plotted on a map and is a short island-hop flight from its sister islands.

The Diving

Contrary to what some may believe, there’s more to Aruba’s dive sites than simply finning the confines of some really good wrecks. There are also very nice natural reefs waiting to be explored. But, it’s the notoriety of the artificial ones that seem to grab hold of the limelight.

Take the underwater scenery leading down to the wreck of the Jane Sea, for instance. True, this is one of Aruba’s finest sites, but the reef traveled between the mooring buoy and the wreck is in many ways just as spectacular. Visit the Jane Sea a second time and only briefly visit the wreck before thoroughly exploring the reef. This forest of corals is called Plonco Reef. It starts at about 20 feet (6 m) before sloping down to the wreck, sitting upright at around 90 feet (27 m). Spaces between the corals are riddled with crevices where moray eels and spiny lobsters can be found holed up. Dense crops of finger, brain and plate corals, mixed with plenty of soft varieties, flourish throughout. Keep your eyes peeled for sea horses in the shallower depths.

The water encapsulating the 250-foot-long (76-m-long) Jane Sea is usually blessed with great visibility, a byproduct of the often-present current. Finning toward it, the wreck seems to materialize rather abruptly out of the deep blue. Schools of amberjack and barracuda are often seen finning around the coral-encrusted wreck.

Another recommended dive is The Finger. No, this isn’t the island’s way of discreetly telling divers where to go, although following the contours of this spur-and-groove formed reef will unveil some staggering hard coral formations. Pretty tropical fishes flitter along these coral tips. Lying camouflaged in the wide-open sandy bottom close by, which flows away from the finger, are plenty of bottom dwellers such as peacock flounders and stingrays.

The openness of the Antilla’s cargo holds makes it easy to maneuver in. The 400-foot (121-m) German freighter, scuttled in World War II, lies on its side with the bow stemming 40 feet (12 m) from the surface. Fifty-five feet (17 m) down is the stern. From amidships, a pair of rigging masts extends roughly 30 degrees toward the surface. One breaks the waterline.

Covering the entire starboard side of the hull are orange cup corals. They’re not much to look at during daylight hours, but at night the polyps burst into a fiery display. Yellow tube sponges grow from the wreck’s extremities, mainly railings and masts, making for a perfect backdrop for daytime photography. Penetrating the cavernous cargo holds, divers will sometimes see large schools of silversides, so underwater photographers should be sure to pack a light — even when the sun is out.

Aruba offers a few alternative methods of exploring the underwater world. The Seaworld Explorer is a glass-bottom boat that offers tours to the Antilla wreck and a nearby coral reef. Atlantis Submarine offers a look at Aruba’s reefs from a depth of 150 feet (45 m) below the surface. And a company called Sea Trek offers “ocean walk” tours 20 feet (6 m) below the surface using diving helmets.

Other Things to Do

Scuba diving and snorkeling are by far the most popular watersports on the island, but boardsailing has to rank next in line. Because of constant trade winds blowing across the island from the east and the calm water on the leeward (west) side, boardsailors from around the world gather at Hadikurari Beach for a chance to hang ten with the wind. Sailboard rentals and lessons are available at little stick shacks lining the beach. Each June, the Hi-Winds Amateur World Challenge boardsailing tournament is held here.

On the other hand, if your idea of water-related activities is little more than splashing in the surf or lying beachside with a tropical drink in your hand, perhaps a leisurely horseback ride along the sandy shoreline is more to your liking. Full- and half-day trail rides can be arranged.

With a rental car and a road map, there are plenty of scenic places to visit and things to see. The natural bridge is an island icon in every sense of the word. Stroll across it, take a picture or swim beneath the 25-foot-high (7.5-m-high) coral formation honed out in the shape of an arch.

The California lighthouse offers picturesque views of the island’s north side. It’s named after a famous shipwreck found offshore. The California is the infamous ship that received an SOS signal from the Titanic but never responded.

Spelunking is a popular activity on Aruba’s west side. Lights can be rented at the entrance to each cave, or pack your dive light for a free look. The Fontein Cave features the largest collection of cave drawings left behind by ancient Indians.

The Guadirikiri Cave burrows back into squatty cliffs for more than 100 feet (30 m) and is home to hundreds of harmless fruit bats. The Tunnel of Love is a lengthy cavern, with a bit of a treacherous footpath, named for its entrance, which ambiguously resembles that of a heart.

If you prefer butterflies to bats, visit the Aruba Butterfly Farm, at Palm Beach. The tropical gardens teem with exotic butterflies from all over the world. Arrive early and watch the miracle of metamorphosis, as butterflies emerge from their chrysalis and take flight on glittery wings.

Another hot spot for glitter: Aruba’s casinos. You’ll find world-class gaming and entertainment available 24 hours a day.

If you’re feeling particularly romantic, take your date to the local drive-in. That’s right, these nostalgic motor-in theaters may be few and far between back home, but the big screen on the way to San Nicolas is very popular for locals and tourists on weekends.

After the flick, stop in at Charlie’s Bar. The popular hangout, once known as the place to pick a fight with refinery workers, is another tribute to yesteryear. Bric-a-brac and knickknacks crowd space on the walls and ceiling. It’s sort of like the Sloppy Joe’s of the ABCs.

Aruba draws a worldwide array of tourists, but it’s North Americans who will feel right at home with eateries like Wendy’s, Burger King and Outback Steakhouse lining the main drag leading in and out of the capital, Oranjestad. Breaking this chain of familiarity, fortunately, is a slew of restaurants and fine dining establishments offering native cuisine with a distinct Caribbean zest.

The possibilities for a good time in Aruba are virtually unlimited. Duty-free shopping and gaming are among the other popular choices. Therefore, it sort of goes without saying that experiencing a good time in Aruba really comes down to whatever makes you happy.

Story and photos by Bret Forbes