Easy does it in Aruba
Aruba is a slender, sandy island in the warmest waters of the Caribbean near the coast of Venezuela.
Years ago it was famous for oil, but that faded in the '80s, and the island -- an autonomous nation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands -- is now well established in tourism. It's a favourite of Canadians and Europeans, lured not only by its balmy climate but also its people, who reflect customs drawn from their Dutch legacy of tolerance and efficiency.
"It goes back to the very early history of Aruba," De Palm Tours owner Harold D. Malmberg told me. And many Arubans speak several languages -- mainly Dutch, English, Spanish and the local Papiamento.
I had arrived on a Sunwing charter flight and was driven to the gleaming newly redesigned Riu Palace. (Based in Spain, the company owns more than 100 quality hotels and resorts across the world, including many in the Caribbean.) The 450-room Palace rises above a calm inlet of turquoise waters on Palm Beach.
I had chosen an all-inclusive arrangement offering pretty well everything, including an in-room bar that apparently would be restocked as required. (I hereby take the oath: It didn't require restocking during my stay.)
But what I really liked was the size of the room -- six people wouldn't crowd the bed -- and the partly open-air corridors that allowed for refreshing breezes. The restaurants? All fine, especially Krystal, with a fusion menu and elegant decor, which was among the best of my travels in recent years.
I did get around. One day I went here and there with Rocky Franken, a well informed guide from De Palm Tours, who knows Aruba like the proverbial back of his hand. The company -- which has about 40 buses, rental cars, 4WD vehicles and some 300 employees -- can accommodate almost any touring preference from snorkelling to hiking.
Franken took me first to the capital, Oranjestad -- not far from my hotel -- where visitors can see Aruba's past and present: Fine colonial manor houses from another age, yet just a minute's walk from modern offices and shops. Two or three couples were touring from horse drawn carriages.
We continued our drive around Aruba, stopping at settlements, beaches, monuments, all of it taking roughly two hours. The old island presents a pastoral scene, but few small places offer more activities on land, water, or at the tables of hundreds of restaurants, which serve varied cuisine from steakhouse fare to uniquely Aruban dishes, such as "pan bati," a cornmeal pancake listed on almost every menu.
Here are my top five picks for further exploration:
1. Discovery Tour
Take a full day tour aboard a comfortable bus with an expert guide, to historical and archaeological sites such as Ayo Rock Formations and Lourdes grotto. It usually also includes stop to enjoy the pleasures of the beach. The tour company usually provides lunch.
2. Jeep adventure
This De Palm Tours land trip visits the Natural Pool, one of the most unique geological sites in the Caribbean. Accessible by 4WD vehicles, you traverse the rugged terrain and low hills of Aruba's landscape. Your guide also shows you some of the island's most evocative sites including the California lighthouse, and the slightly eccentric Alto Vista chapel near the island's northwest tip. The road leading to Alto Vista is lined with tiny crosses bearing religious exhortations.
3. Under the sea
One of Aruba's most striking bits of history -- the decaying wreck of a German U-boat supply ship, the Antilla -- is viewed best by snorkellers and scuba divers. Apprehended off Aruba's coast by Allied Forces in May 1940, the captain deliberately sank the ship. Today Antilla's hulk draws snorkellers and scuba divers, partly for its history but also because the waters surrounding Aruba are so clear they allow viewing at depths of 30 metres.
There are many choices -- daytime cruises, sunset sails and kayaking adventures. All are available from De Palm Tours and other smaller firms represented at activity desks in major hotels. One choice is a cruise that circumnavigates the island, including diving and dining. The views are striking but sometimes sea breezes make the water slightly choppy, so don't over-indulge in the free flowing drinks!
5. Beach time
It's tempting to stay in a lounge chair at the hotel pool, but you'll miss one of Aruba's unique pleasures -- an afternoon at one of many renowned beaches. The ones I went to were never crowded, the people mostly Aruban, the sands clean, the waters calm. Two good choices: Eagle Beach and Baby Beach, an island favourite.
Sunwing offers charter flights to Aruba. For details, see sunwing.ca or signature.ca, where you will also find seasonal offers. For information on De Palm Tours excursions, see depalm.com, or check with the tour desk at the Riu Palace.