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DESTINATION: CARIBBEAN

Aruba's Parched Playground

The small desert island is awash in attractions beyond its luxurious beach resorts

March 19, 2000|CRAIG STOLTZ | WASHINGTON POST; Craig Stoltz is the travel editor of the Post

ORANJESTAD, Aruba — I'd never given much thought to the term "desert island" until I visited Aruba.

Its arid, rumpled landscape bristles with long-armed cactuses, aloe plants and sad, spindly divi-divi trees bent low by the persistent winds. The key features of the interior of this Caribbean island are gigantic rock piles inhabited by wild goats, the remains of gold-mining operations, a few caves with ancient inscriptions and a massive stub of magnetic rock. In the last 24 years, the temperature here hasn't dropped below 66 degrees, and as late as 1926, people on the island died of thirst. The north coast's stony perimeter supports little more than wild donkeys, stray dogs, iguanas the size of cats and a rattlesnake species found only on Aruba. Candlestick cactuses are so abundant that householders build fences with them. Early Spanish settlers, not knowing what to make of this small, isolated and rocky place, dismissed Aruba as the islas inutiles, or "useless islands."

Its very desert-ness has protected it. Although many of its more lush and populated Caribbean neighbors have suffered slavery, colonization, economic exploitation and mass tourism, Aruba, which is just 18 miles from Venezuela, has been left mostly alone. The island sports a pair of wide white-sand beaches on the southern coast, lined with up-market tourist hotels; a reasonably safe and sometimes charming capital city that reflects a bit of the island's Dutch heritage and harbors some superb restaurants; and an efficient modern airport that can land big jets.

The northern coast, meanwhile, remains exotic, rocky desert, almost completely undeveloped and partly protected by national laws.

Aruba is a desert island with a great beach and comfortable resort hotels. Or, if you prefer, a pleasant resort island with a nearby desert playground. Either way, it's a good place to combine the pleasures of a typical resort getaway with a little Discovery Channel-style stimulation. Add the fact that 70-square-mile Aruba stands safely outside the hurricane belt, and this arid, scrubby place starts to look quite "useful" indeed.

That's not to say Aruba is undiscovered. Upward of 680,000 people visited Aruba last year, more than half of them Americans, and its 6,800 hotel rooms run about 77% capacity year-round. Our hotel, an 800-room, time-share beachfront behemoth called La Cabana, had a Dunkin' Donuts in the pool courtyard right outside our patio, and from our front door I could see--past the parking lot and across from the miniature golf course--an Outback Steakhouse. The hotels have cable, the water is drinkable, and if you have no interest in native cuisine, you can eat at one of three Wendy's, two Pizza Huts or a Tony Roma's. Everything is in U.S. dollars. You'll need plenty of them; nearly all the food is imported, so it's hard to find a place where lunch entrees cost less than $10 or dinners less than $20.

O ur hotel complex featured three pools--one a huge polygonal affair, one with a swim-up cave, and one with a swim-up bar--and an unforgettable three-story water slide that propelled my body faster than it's ever moved without benefit of a vehicle. Our boys, 9 and 10, spent hours on it. When they rested, they gave the iguanas the cherries from the tropical drinks that my wife, Pam, and I were sipping.

The usual resort activities--aqua aerobics, bingo, limbo--punctuated the days, and banana boats, sail boards and Jet Skis were never far from sight on the beach. In the resort's casual outdoor restaurant, we ate Americanized meals and, one night, enjoyed an incredible show by the Ballet Folklorico Nacional di Aruba, with dances from the many cultures Aruba has absorbed over the centuries--South American, African, European and more.

But the highlight was the beach. La Cabana sits across three narrow lanes of access road from Eagle Beach, whose blue-green waves were perfect for low-impact body-surfing. Like many Caribbean islands, Aruba is rugged and inhospitable only on the side that faces the sea. The quiet side, in this case the southern coast where the hotels stand, is calm.

The beach in front of La Cabana is spotted with thatch-roofed huts and plenty of vinyl-webbed chairs. If the young men who set them up for us were seeking nothing more than a tip, it would have been pleasant. Unfortunately, some were real estate and water-sports pitchmen trying to cut day-trip snorkeling deals and extract time-share-visit commitments. In some ways, they were worse than the ganja dealers who prowl Jamaican beaches: The dope guys at least seem to know who the prospects are and stay away from others, but the time-share dudes approached everyone. Worse, the salesmen pressed a time-share brochure on us every time we passed through the lobby at La Cabana. Who wants this hassle on vacation?

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