ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- I first got a glimpse of Aruba's beauty some 15 years ago, as I looked out the window of a puddle-jumper circling Aruba during a stopover en route to Trinidad. About 32 kilometres long and less than 10 kilometres wide, Aruba is carpeted in some areas with green, scraggly vegetation and a few steep hills, while the north side is rugged, desert-like terrain, peppered with cacti and wild rock formations. White sand rings the south and west shores, and the azure water demands a visit.
It doesn't disappoint. The temperature hovers year-round in the high-20s. The water is gorgeous on the southern beaches with their sugary white sand. And Aruba's main source of income is tourism, so visitors are always made to feel welcome. In fact, the Aruba Tourism Authority is promoting the island with a new campaign: "Aruba -- 90,000 Friends You Haven't Met Yet."
Our group of a dozen friends and family stayed a few kilometres away, right off Eagle Beach in a condo development called Oceania Residences where visitors rent units from owners -- http://www.arubacondo.com.
We had to cross a street to get to the beach, but we had unobstructed views of the sea from our rooms.
On the beach, huts provided shade from the intense sun, and it was relatively quiet with few crowds. The water is an intense light blue, but at least close to shore, there isn't much to see for snorkellers.
Huge cruise ships dock daily at Oranjestad and disgorge crowds of passengers to shop or grab a meal in the crowded downtown. A short drive northwest of Eagle Beach, high-rise hotels and restaurants line crowded Palm Beach. Businesses on the beach rent out sailboats and windsurfers, lead sunset cruises or provide fishing expeditions.
We booked a snorkel and sunset cruise aboard the 13-metre (45-foot) "Ali Kai" catamaran with Marcel's Watersports. At $45US a head, we got a three-hour cruise, in which we sailed up toward the northern tip of Aruba to snorkel near Arashi and Malmok Beaches. Schools of fish crowded around as we swam through the clear, warm water. Parrotfish, filefish and sergeant major fish prowled through the water as starfish lurked on the bottom. We cruised back to Palm Beach as the sun set.
But Aruba offers more than the sea for outdoor adventurers. Much of the northern side of the island is wild. In fact, about 20 per cent of the island's 70 square miles lies within park boundaries. The Arikok National Park has biking and hiking trails leading up to views of the rocky north coastline. Check out the unusual rock and cave formations, including natural rock bridges eroded by millennia of waves crashing into and undercutting the rocky coast.
We rented a Jeep and went off-road for a day, tracking the coastline from the northern tip of Aruba to Conchi, or the Natural Pool. While less than 16 kilometres as the crow flies, the trip took many more kilometres negotiating treacherous gullies, dodging boulders and climbing seemingly vertical trails.
After a hot day bouncing around in the back of the Jeep, we were rewarded with a secluded pool of seawater protected from the rough surf by cliffs and rock formations. Big waves hit the rocks and periodically washed into the pool in a strong, yet gentle waterfall. If off-road driving isn't your speed, try one of the tour companies and let a professional negotiate the tricky paths. ABC Aruba Tours in Oranjestad offers a day trip, http://www.abc-aruba.com/.
Our group included two young children, so the rugged terrain of the north was out for them. But the Butterfly Farm -- http://thebutterflyfarm.com/ -- near the resorts in Palm Beach made up for what they missed. Hundreds of colourful insects flutter about in a large mesh enclosure. You can see 35 species of the creatures in all stages of development, from egg to caterpillar, pupa and finally a butterfly.
Tickets are relatively expensive (adults US$15, children $8) but good for the length of your visit to Aruba, so take the kids early and often. The Butterfly Farm has locations on other Caribbean islands too, including in St. Martin, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman.
It's not unusual to have disappointing food in places with a lot of tourists no matter where in the world you go, and I must say we had several forgettable meals with our feet in the sand, watching the sunset. But the quality of our meals appeared to be inversely related to our proximity to the beach. At restaurants on Irausquin Boulevard, the views were not as good but the food was much better, including great tapas at Salt & Pepper and good seafood at Fishes & More.
The sand, sea and plenty of other diversions make it a perfect vacation spot for beach-loving families.
If You Go...
Aruba Tourism: http://www.aruba.com/ or 800-862-7822.
-- The Associated Press