As I bounced around in the front seat of a land rover — bones jarring, joints rattling and brains scrambling – Bette Davis’s famous line in the movie “All About Eve” flashed through my mind — “buckle your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Even trussed up like a prize turkey as I was, it was impossible to overstate the bumpiness of this ride. Six of us, plus our driver, Sherman, were traversing the rugged terrain in the Arikok National Park, an area of caves, sand dunes and limestone cliffs on Aruba’s eastern side.
Covering almost 20 percent of the island’s land surface, it’s an arid, harsh environment, more reminiscent of the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico than the lush tropics of the Caribbean.
Here, vegetation tends to be cactus plants rather than the signature divi-divi trees found on the rest of the island, while the dry desert conditions make it hospitable for wildlife such as rattlesnakes, iguanas and the beautiful Cododo, an iridescent turquoise lizard.
The park attracts numerous visitors who come — not just to marvel at the lunar-like landscape with its massive rock formations, but for attractions both natural (the serene Natural Pool, sandwiched in between the cliffs and accessible by a staircase of some 80 steps) and man-made (the remains of a once flourishing gold mine, cave paintings done by Arawak Indians and the surprising Alta Vista Chapel, a sunburst of bright yellow against the dun-colored surroundings).
A journey to Arikok National Park is a highlight of any visit to Aruba, and the Land Rover adventure, offered by De Palm Tours, will delight adrenalin junkies; however, those with bad backs or other medical conditions, as well as pregnant women would probably be wise to avoid it. Instead, they can opt for a hike led by one of the park’s knowledgeable rangers.
The Land Rover excursion had been arranged by my accommodation, the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, located on the dazzling white sands of Palm Beach.
In contrast to the National Park, this is the Aruba of travel posters and vacationers’ dreams. Lush landscaping links the resort’s various buildings to a series of cascading waterfalls and pools (one for families and one reserved for adults only), shopping arcades, a Mandara spa (located in the Ocean Club adjacent to the hotel), and six restaurants which will ensure no one goes hungry.
On my first night, I took part in a signature Marriott experience — dinner at Atardi, a pop-up beach restaurant. On the same spot where guests bask on chaise lounges during the day, once sunset approaches, the chaises are replaced by tables and chairs scattered along the beach. Diners can dig their toes into the sand, listen to island music and hope for a glimpse of the green flash as the sun slowly sinks into the horizon. At Atardi, it’s difficult to know which gets top billing — the sunset, serenade or seafood platters.
My vote goes to the latter. Having never been to Aruba before (except to board a cruise ship), I was delighted by the excellence of the food at every place I tried.
Stop in for breakfast at Linda’s Dutch Pancake House and you’ll likely never think of pancakes the same way again. At Linda’s, the Aruban version are pizza-sized and filled with some of the most delectable tidbits imaginable, both savory and sweet.
While the bacon and apple pancake is the most popular, I opted for the brie, walnut and honey concoction. The walnuts were cooked inside the pancake, with the brie melted on top and local honey on the side. Had it not been for a case of self-inflicted pancake shaming, I honestly think I could have finished the entire thing.
That would have been a shame as lunch was a scant few hours later at Charlie’s, a place so oozing with local color that Sloppy Joe’s in Key West or Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans seem sedate by comparison. Try the mouth-watering ribs with one of the local beers and you’ll be in heaven.
There must be something in the Aruban air because I was hungry again by dinner time. Luckily, the West Deck was a more than satisfactory spot in which to satisfy the hunger pangs. With a casual outdoor terrace overlooking the cruise ship terminal, it specializes in — what else — seafood.
On another day, I had a leisurely lunch at island favorite Zeerovers. Tables sprawl across a wooden deck overlooking the water, and fishermen pull up at the pier to unload their daily catches. This means you’ll get the freshest fish and shrimp possible, and the plantain puffs will melt in your mouth.
It was back to the Marriott for La Vista’s sumptuous buffet, which features the island’s native dish, Keshi Yena. A sort of chicken stew, it contains raisins, cashews, onions, green olives and a variety of seasonings and is topped with slices of Gouda cheese.
ARUBA – A REAL DUTCH TREAT
Aruba is the “A” in the southern Caribbean’s chain of ABC Islands (B and C being Bonaire and Curacao) — each having a slightly different relationship with the Netherlands, which colonized them in the 17th century.
While technically an independent nation, Aruba remains a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” When I asked what that meant, I was told that it was the governmental equivalent of a doting parent who continues to dole out money to a child who accepts it while loudly proclaiming his independence.
Whatever the ties, Aruba has many remnants of its Dutch past: windmills dot the countryside; the capital of Oranjestad boasts tidy white buildings with peach, mint green, lemon and orange trim — a sort of tropical Amsterdam, and the island has been influenced by the work ethic of the industrious Dutch.
The best place to get a sense of this is the Museum of Industry in San Nicolas. Don’t let its academic name put you off; this place offers a plethora of fascinating information.
For example, who knew that Aruba had a gold rush 25 years before California did? The precious metal was first discovered in 1824 by a 12-year-old boy tending his family’s sheep, and soon became the basis for a thriving economy. Remnants of the mines can still be found in several places on the island.
It may be a long way from gold to aloe, but the fragrant plant, transported from the Arabian Peninsula to Aruba, proved the source of the island’s next economic boom. Museum photographs show that in the 19th century, two-thirds of the island was covered with aloe plantations.
The museum’s final two galleries show that the ever-resilient Arubans shifted economic gears yet again — in the mid-20th century, prospering by refining oil from Venezuela, only 20 miles away (the long-abandoned refinery is being brought back to life), and today, as a tourism mecca, especially for cruise ships.
Pretty impressive for an island which was once dubbed “Isla Inutil” — useless island.
Following a tour of the museum, stick around to wander through this newly emerging area with its colorful murals and the shop/studio/gallery Cosecha, a creative showcase for the arts and crafts of Aruba.
Arubans have an expression in their native Papiamento, Bon Bini, which means “welcome.” You’ll hear it everywhere you go on this enchanting isle.
(Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky.-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.)
IF YOU GO TO ARUBA
Where to Stay: Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. Located on Palm Beach, the hotel has 411 rooms (including 23 suites), all with spacious balconies overlooking the landscaped grounds and beach. The resort has a Mandara Spa, two pools, and nine restaurants and bars (be sure to try the signature Aloe cocktail in the Lobby Bar.) arubamarriott.com
Don’t miss: Speaking of aloe, if you want to take products home, visit the Aloe Plantation and its accompanying museum and shop (arubaaloe.com). Fun fact: The Egyptian queen Cleopatra used the succulent as a regular part of her beauty regimen.