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Footloose in Aruba

Isle With Checkered Past Lures Games Players

June 19, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

ORANJESTAD, Aruba — Here's an island with a checkered history.

It all began in 1499 when Spaniards landed and moved peaceful Arawak Indians across the Caribbean.

Later during war with Spain, the Dutch took possession. They were followed by the English during the Napoleonic Wars and later came the Dutch again.

Now toss in Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, plus African slaves imported by the Dutch, and you have the makings of a native language, Papiamento, a mix of Arawak, Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese and a few African dialects.

If you want to say "I love you" in Papiamento, it comes out Mi ta stima bo . The saving grace for visitors is that almost everyone on Aruba also speaks near-perfect English.

Since it has lost its oil companies, Aruba has cast its lot with tourism. Not a bad bet when you consider that its beaches rival those of Bermuda, and half a dozen casinos offer balm to those whose day is not complete without a flutter at the tables.

Fishermen and water enthusiasts are just as high on the island as gamblers, with sailfish, blue and white marlin and other denizens of the deep providing a special excitement. Dedicated divers claim that the pristine waters often allow visibility down to 150 feet.

Here to there: American and Eastern Airlines will get you here, or fly Pan Am to Caracas and take a regional line for the short flight. Chandris, Princess and other cruise lines also call here.

How long/how much? Most American visitors stay seven days, taking advantage of weekly packages. Lodging costs are moderate for a seasonal resort, even in winter; dining prices are the same.

A few fast facts: Pleasant climate year-round of about 82 degrees, the little rain dropping between November and February. There's an airport departure tax of $9.50.

Getting settled in: Best Western's Manchebo Beach Hotel, Box 564 Aruba, $120 to $130 double high season, $70-$80 mid-April to mid-December, has a marvelous location on a promontory of sugar-white and pink beach on the south coast. All rooms have air conditioning and refrigerators. Some with ceiling fans. There's a pool with a rustic bar between the hotel and sea. It also has a French steak house just off the lobby with early-bird dinners for $10.

Bushiri Beach Resort, 35 Lloyd Smith Blvd., $110-$140 high season, $75-$95 low season, is just down the beach from the Manchebo and has more of a large motel feeling. Good-size rooms with air conditioning, mini-bar and TV, some with balconies and sea views. There are tennis courts, a gym and a pool in a horseshoe court open to the beach.

Another Best Western, Talk of the Town Resort, Box 564; $90-$160 high season, $65-$100 low season, is also on the beach, offering more of a relaxed resort feeling than the other two. The restaurant here gets high marks from everyone.

Regional food and drink: Apart from steaks, chops and other bedrock fare, local dishes can become the same melange as the language. Heading the list is pastechi , a turnover similar to a Spanish empanada or Cornish pasty filled with meat, chicken, fish or, honest, chop suey. These go for about 50 cents and must be eaten before mid-morning or you'll have to scour every back street in town to find one.

That old Dutch favorite the Indonesian rijsttafel, appears here, with all dozen plates of it stacked on your table and filled with meats, vegetables, seafood and fruit. It's eaten with white rice and sauces to scald your tonsils.

Keshi yena is another exotic and elusive specialty, an Edam cheese stuffed with meat, fish or fowl and a variety of vegetables, plus pickles and raisins. It sounds almost too exotic, but we can assure you it is delicious, although the search for this one is as difficult as for an afternoon pastechi .

Seafood is more than a staple on Aruba, with the red snapper, conch and grouper heavenly choices when served with plantains and pan bati , a flour-and-cornmeal pancake. Table liquids of choice are Heineken and Amstel beers.

Moderate-cost dining: Charlie's Bar in the town of San Nicolas is tacky beyond belief. The accumulated "stuff" of 46 years (old hats, ties, shoes, lanterns, life preservers and other flotsam) hang from the ceiling and walls in wild disarray. The walls also hold some of the worst "art" you're ever likely to see.

But Charlie's still draws locals and tourists alike with a few great dishes: cazuela , a hearty fish soup; churiasco sirloin steak, and uit smijter , a Dutch "bouncer" of ham and eggs on an open-face sandwich that is always proffered to departing tipplers. And in keeping with Charlie's elegant ambiance, there's a gigantic bottle of ketchup on every table.

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