By Victor Block
An explosion of scarlet, purple and other vivid colors of lush tropical foliage sets off a gleaming white sand beach that rims the azure sea. Nearby, stretches of rocks and pebbly soil interspersed with cactus comprise a very different bleak, desert-like terrain. The variety of landscapes on Aruba is echoed by the diversity of its attractions.
Aruba’s white sand beaches are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Touches of European charm abound around the island.
While Spain and Great Britain held sway over Aruba, the Dutch took it over in 1636 and it has remained under their control since, except for a short period in the early 19th century. Reminders of the island’s Dutch heritage are everywhere. Today, it is an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
One distinctive landmark is an authentic windmill built in 1804 that once drained water from low-lying areas of Holland. In 1960, the structure was taken apart, shipped to Aruba and reassembled in its unlikely Caribbean setting, where it has housed several restaurants and night clubs.
Most people visit Aruba for its palm tree-lined beaches overlooking crystal clear water. A seven-mile line of beaches backs up to the high-rise hotels that rim the sheltered southwestern and western coastline. The windswept northern and eastern coasts, which are battered by the sea, have been left largely undeveloped. Each stretch of shoreline, along with the arid island interior, has its own appeal.
Rugged limestone cliffs run along much of the northeastern coastline. They mark one boundary of Arikok National Park, an ecological preserve that sprawls over nearly 20 percent of the island.
Hiking trails crisscross the park, and its more isolated areas offer opportunities to spot native parakeets, burrowing owls and other wildlife.
Intriguing chapters of Aruba’s history come alive in this setting. Shallow cave formations recall a time when a small branch of Arawak Indians inhabited the island. Brownish-red drawings that ornament walls and ceilings attest to their presence.
Reminders of Aruba’s agricultural past in the park include a long-deserted adobe farm house, while abandoned mines recall a mini-gold rush that got underway in 1825 and lasted for nearly a century.
Speaking of gold, the presence of 12 casinos has earned the island the nickname of “Las Vegas of the Caribbean.” While most casinos are located in major resort hotels, there are two in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital and largest city.
Oranjestad has other attractions. The Dutch colonial architecture of many buildings, some dating back to the late 18th century, comes in a variety of pastel colors. The busy port teems with the coming and going of boats and sidewalks with crowds of sightseers and shoppers.
When not spending money on shopping or gambling, visitors have a choice of several small but interesting museums. The Archaeological Museum is housed in a cluster of colorfully painted homes that were occupied by a local family for nearly 130 years beginning in 1870. The exhibits inside showcase the history of Indians on Aruba. They range from an ancient long house and native hut to artifacts dating back as far as 2500 BC.
The Historical Museum of Aruba is housed in Fort Zoutman. That fortification was built in 1796-1798 to protect the island from pirates, and the town soon began to grow around it.
The museum has displays about farming, fishing and other aspects of island life, including interesting tidbits about villages. For example, the town of Noord began as an Indian community, while the hamlet of Rancho was established as a fishing village around 1855.
Stops at other small villages also provide introductions to what locals call “the real Aruba.” San Nicolas is the second largest town, after Oranjestad, yet a world away in atmosphere. While it once jumped to the beat of workers at the now-abandoned nearby oil refinery, it’s usually on the quiet side these days.
Several shops and restaurants line a mini-promenade along the main street, but the biggest draw in town is Charlie’s Bar. Beginning in the early 1940s, scuba divers who dropped by attached their underwater finds to the walls and ceiling, creating what today is a bric-a-brac heaven.
The main claim to fame of Paradera village is its location close to two intriguing natural sites that were sacred places to Indians. The Ayo and Casibari rock formations consist of huge boulder formations that rise up from the sandy desert terrain. Over time, prevailing winds have carved the rocks into unusual shapes that, with a little imagination, resemble birds and dragons.
Steps have been carved into the rock at the Casibari site and those who climb to the top are rewarded with a panoramic view of the island. Some of the stones at Ayo still bear petroglyphs scratched and painted onto the surface by Indian artists.
Those boulders rising from a flat, stark landscape provide a setting very different from the white sand beaches of Aruba. Both are among the something-for-everyone variety that makes the island an inviting winter getaway destination.
For more information about Aruba call 800-862-7822 or log onto aruba.com.