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Published: December 26th 2013
We have been coming to Aruba on an infrequent basis for the past 24 years. In another lifetime we purchased timeshare here and that has afforded us the opportunity to visit this island about 10 times as well as many of the other islands of the Caribbean over that time period through ‘swapping’. Each time we come to Aruba we arrive having taken a firm decision that this will be our last visit and we will sell the timeshare, and then during the holiday we gradually change our minds and decide it might be worth holding onto it a little while longer.
Aruba promotes itself as ‘One Happy Island’. It is one of the three islands that comprise the Dutch Antilles, along with Bonaire and Curacao, and is located just off the north coast of Venezuela. There are about 110,000 residents from 80 nationalities living here and near full employment, predominantly in the tourist industry. There are over 40 hotels, 300 vacation rentals, 50 specialty lodging establishments, 20 bed-and-breakfasts and over 350 restaurants. Over 1.5 million people visit the island every year. The island is on 77 square miles (19 miles long and 6 miles wide) but does
not feel at all overcrowded or overdeveloped. There are 10 Casinos, the most of any of the Caribbean islands. There is no proper jazz club, although there is a Jazz Festival in September. The only live jazz is background music for diners! The beaches are superb: soft golden sand stretching for miles along the southern coastline. The northern coast is rocky and with rougher seas and with the steady, continual wind ideal for windsurfers. There is no limit to the water-sports available, including kite-surfing and para-sailing, snorkeling, and sailing. They have just announced the newest thrill-seeker experience – the JetLev – in which you can strap a Jetpack to your back and fly out over the ocean! There is a submarine. There are two golf courses.
Arubans are multi-lingual; in addition to speaking the own language, called Papiamento, a Creole language blend of African, European and Caribbean Arawak tribe tongues, they will also typically speak Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English. While the Arubans are a cordial people, they are neither particularly friendly nor ‘happy’. They mostly seem jaded, disdainful or just plain worn out by the endless throng of annoying tourists they have to deal with each and every
day. There is also a sense arrogance or aloofness among others, particularly the young men.
Their native residences are called Cunuco houses. They are single story houses with high slanted roofs built in an east-west direction for the steady breeze to keep them cool (in the time before air conditioning). They are a very cute and appealing construction, and some of them have been transformed into very nice restaurants.
The famous Divi Divi tree is Aruba's natural compass, always pointing in a south-westerly direction due to the trade winds that blow across the island from the north-east. An interesting observation is that attempts to plant this tree in other parts of the world have proved futile - it seems the Divi Divi is most comfortable in Aruba!
Aloe Vera plants can be found all over Aruba. The healing plant has been grown here for 160 years and is used to produce different kinds of products.
There are two ‘developed’ areas of Aruba – the ‘low-rise’ area on Eagle Beach which is where we have our time share. This is a collection of about six small hotels of four stories or less. The hotels are friendly and
quaint and the visitors are regulars who meet up annually there. There is a casino here and a golf course, a little plaza with a couple nice restaurants and coffee shops and a couple gift shops. Eagle beach is soft sand and never over-crowded. About 3 miles further west is the ‘high-rise’ area where about 20 hotels, some with up to 14 floors, are clustered on Palm Beach. Here the beach is also wide, soft and lovely. And here is where you will find the likes of the Marriott and Hilton resorts. They are typical of top quality hotels worldwide and once inside their plush lobbies you could be anywhere. Opposite them is a couple of shopping complexes featuring top brand stores and duty-free jewelers as well as mass-market type restaurants.
The main town of Oranjestad has improved significantly since our previous visit in 2008. They have completely rejuvenated the main street with fresh paving and plantings and a trolley running from the cruise ship dock to the opposite end of town. This area used to be quite run down as most of the new development was crowded closer to the waterfront. The entire town is given over to
tourism with gift shops and duty-free shops. The cruise ships can park right at the edge of town and there are generally two or three a day and the town is filled with day-trippers.
The islands of the Caribbean collectively label themselves as ‘Paradise’ and in some ways it is: beautiful beaches and a warm deep blue sea, the surfaces sparkling jewel-like. But beneath this shimmering surface, there are problems a plenty on most if not all of these islands.
And all is certainly not entirely joyful on this ‘happy island’. We learned quite a bit about some of the social problems here from a young man and his mother, especially with regard to teenage pregnancy, while waiting in a salon for a haircut. And we had a horrible experience at the very beginning of our visit when we witnessed a German tourist struck and killed by a motorcycle police officer. This happened in broad daylight in the middle of town on the main thoroughfare. The traffic crawls along in a bottle neck here. We were walking on the sidewalk when we heard the loud roar of motorcycle engines and the caterwauling of sirens come from behind us
and in an instant they were past. We turned to see them and heard the thump of the collision and saw the body lifted into the air and return to the ground, her life instantly extinguished. This horrific accident was not reported in any of the three English-language daily newspapers published here, but was covered in the St Martin Press newspaper, another Caribbean island which competes with Aruba for the tourist dollar. I sent emails to all three of the Aruban newspapers about their lack of coverage and received a reply from only one of them stating that they didn’t normally cover accidents or fires, but that there would be an article in the next edition. There was a brief article the next day: it asked no serious questions and looked like it had been written by the police department press office. The government is terrified of any ‘bad press’ that could damage the precious tourist industry. An article published in Holland in May 2013 headlined: Aruban companies witness much corruption in the government’ will not download in Aruba!
A few years ago a young female American visitor, Natalie Holloway, disappeared and was presumed murdered, although her body
was never found. One of the prime suspects in the case, a Dutch native, a few years later confessed to killing a young woman in South America and is now serving a 28-year sentence in prison there. The second largest town in Aruba, San Nicholas, on the eastern tip, is a sleazy town of strip clubs, massage parlors and old time brothels; you dare not go there at night except with a local or a large gang. Apparently, it has recently been added to the United States’ blacklist for Human Trafficking (although I cannot find any confirmation of this and it is certainly not mentioned in the local English language press.)
Having written all that in anger and disgust, I ask myself: is Aruba really much different than any other western city or state or country in 2013 or 2014? Corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, greed and fraud – these are the problems confronted by all the countries of the world, and Aruba is no different.
Over the years we have driven the length and breadth of the island many times, eaten at most of the better restaurants (a few we return to every visit), and done most of the
activities offered. We have always thoroughly enjoyed our visits here. This time we did too! We just sat in the sun (Joan) /shade (Greg) and read, listened to music (we both have Mp3 players – imagine that!) and snoozed the days away. Aruba is an ideal island for that studied lack of activity! This time, however, we have another reason for being here and recharging our travel batteries: it is a short flight to Colombia where we begin our four month journey the length of South America!
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Aruba - Sounds Great
After three trips in five years during which we saw every inch of the island, including nature and civilization, we bought our timeshare in St. Martin. It's not that we didn't enjoy our time on Aruba, but we didn't feel the need to return. After you've been to the Natural Pool five or six times and snorkeled in pretty average conditions, you've seen it. We may swap our week for Aruba sometime, but nothing is really drawing us back.
Aruba vs. St Martin
We have also been to St Martin - and the Dutch/French division of the island makes for an interesting dynamic. We found, however, the beaches on Aruba superior and the range of restaurants impressive in quality and variety. We would, however, happily return to St Martin!