Bon bini! That's the Aruban way of saying "welcome," but it also sums up the Aruban way of living: friendly, joyful and relaxed. Appropriately enough, the island's motto is "One happy island." Aruba boasts some of the loveliest white-sand beaches in the Caribbean, an exotic countryside, Dutch gingerbread architecture and cool, soothing trade winds.
HistoryAruba has a fascinating history, one that has been colored by warring European colonizers, a boom-and-bust economy and the creation of a new language. The latter is something of which Arubans are especially proud; Papiamento, the language of the island, is a unique combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, African and Indian words. It is spoken only on the Dutch "ABC" islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
The island was discovered by Alonzo de Ojeda, who claimed it for the Spanish Crown in 1499. The Spanish never colonized Aruba; they thought it was barren and pronounced it an isla inútil, a "useless island." Therefore, instead of decimating the natives--a common practice in those days--the Spanish let the Arawak Indian population survive, and many of today's Arubans are of Indian descent.
In 1634, near the culmination of their 80-year war with Spain, the Dutch took over the island. Peter Stuyvesant was named governor of Aruba (as well as the rest of the Netherlands Antilles) in 1643, a post he held until 1647. From the 17th century on, the Dutch were in control, with the exception of a brief period of English domination between 1805 and 1816, during the Napolionic Wars.
Gold was discovered on the island in 1825 and mined successfully until 1913, by which time three million pounds had been extracted. As the yield turned meager and mining became unprofitable, Aruba's economic outlook appeared grim. But even as the gold diminished, the aloe plant was becoming the primary agricultural crop and the basis of the island's first major industry. Aruba's dry climate was found to be ideal for growing this versatile member of the lily family, used in cosmetics and lotions as well as medicinally. The island soon became the world's leading aloe producer.
Then, in 1929, the Lago Oil and Transport Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, built a large refinery at the southeastern tip of the island. The Lago refinery became the largest in the world, assuring Aruba its place as one of the most prosperous islands in the Caribbean. The refinery was sold to Coastal Corporation and is operational today.
By 1985, tourists had discovered Aruba's perfect beaches and incredibly clear aqua-blue waters, ensuring prosperity for the foreseeable future. Good fortune of a different sort came the island's way in 1986, when Aruba became a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Before this date, it had been a member of the Netherlands Antilles, the six Dutch Caribbean islands. Now the Kingdom comprises the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.
OranjestadOranjestad, the capital, is a bustling port city, full of shops, banks, offices and restaurants, most of which are housed in quaint Dutch- or Spanish-style buildings. The picturesque city wharf is lined with fishing boats, island schooners and houseboats. The wharf is also a marketplace, where you can buy seafood, fresh produce, handicrafts and T-shirts. Transactions are carried out in dollars as well as florins, and bargaining is expected.
Across the street from the wharf, at the corner of Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard and Arnold Schuttestraat, is the Tourist Bureau, where you can get up-to-date information on island events and sights.
Also on the seaside of Oranjestad, along Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard, is Wilhelmina Park, a small tropical garden on the waterfront that features a beautiful sculpture of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who ruled from 1890 until 1948.
You may want to visit a few sites of historical interest in town. Your first stop should be Fort Zoutman, at the corner of Oranjestraat and Zoutmanstraat, one of the oldest buildings on Aruba. Once situated just offshore (the coastline was subsequently altered by man), the fort has also served as a government office building, a police station and a prison. Today, it houses the Museo Arubano, which was opened by Princess Margriet of the Netherlands and contains a number of exhibits of historical significance.
The fort was built in 1796 to protect Aruba's harbor from attack by buccaneers who moored their ships along the southwest coast at Paarden Bay. Residents of the island, with the help of Governor John Rudolph Lauffer, built the fortress, and the governor named it in honor of Rear Admiral Johan Arnold Zoutman, a hero of the Dutch-English wars. The Willem III Tower was added to the fort in 1868 to serve as a lighthouse. The lamp in the spire was lit for the first time on the birthday of King Willem III in 1869.
Nearby is the Archaeological Museum Aruba, located on Zoutmanstraat diagonally across from the bus stop. The exhibits at the five-room museum are intriguing, especially the giant earthen jars that contain the remains of some of Aruba's original inhabitants. You also can see ancient artifacts, pottery, tools and art.
Perhaps the most absorbing exhibit on the island is at the Museo Numismático, located in the Instituto de Cultura building, adjacent to St. Francis Church. Inside are more than 30,000 different coins and currencies, dating back as far as the 5th century B.C. The museum, which began as (and still is) one Aruban's hobby, was later granted this permanent home by the government. The staff of the family-run museum will gladly regale you with colorful stories about the history of each piece in the collection, which includes coins that circulated in the Roman Empire, the ancient Chinese dynasties and the Byzantine Empire.
The IslandOf course, the island's biggest attractions are its beaches, but if you can get yourself out from underneath the palm trees for just a few hours, it's definitely worthwhile to tour Aruba's countryside.
The 100-foot-long Natural Bridge, carved out of coral rock by the rough surf on the northern coast, is the island's best-known landmark and the focus of most sightseeing tours. From Oranjestad, it takes only about 30 minutes to reach this marvel.
On the way to the Natural Bridge, plan to stop at Casibari and Ayo, where you'll find huge diorite boulders, some of which weigh several tons. Even today, scientists are not sure of the rocks' origins. The rocks at Ayo are decorated with ancient Indian drawings.
Just before you come to the Natural Bridge, you'll pass Bushiribana, where there are remnants of an abandoned gold smelter used during the Aruba gold rush over a century ago.
Adventure-minded travelers should visit Hooiberg, Aruba's most celebrated mountain, located at the center of the island. You can climb several hundred steps to its 54-foot peak, from which you can sometimes see as far as Venezuela. Also worth visiting are the Fontein, Guadirikiri and Huliba caves, inland caverns decorated with intriguing Arawak paintings and inhabited by harmless bats. A nominal fee admits you to all three caves.
For an other-world experience, venture out just beyond Palm Beach to the California Dunes, sand dunes in the middle of a desolate stretch of lunarlike landscape on the northernmost tip of the island. The famous California Lighthouse marks one end of the dunes.
Not far off the coast here is the shipwrecked Antilla, a German freighter that was scuttled at the beginning of World War II. Also in this area are the Chapel of Alto Vista, built by the Spanish missionaries in 1750, and the Church of Santa Anna in Noord, with its hand-carved oak altar that won an award in an exhibition in Rome in 1870.
For a look at the Aruban wilderness, check out Arikok National Park. You'll see the lovely dry cunucu, or "countryside;" cacti, other unusual succulents, and divi-divi, or Watapana trees. The Aruban outback is also home to more than 200 species of birds, and wild burros and thousands of sheep and goats roam the countryside.
Other sights of interest on the island are De Olde Molen, an old Dutch windmill that was actually transported from Holland; Boca Prins, a charming cove surrounded by white-sand dunes that the locals use as slides; the bird refuge near Frenchman's Pass, a good place to spot Caribbean Parakeets; and the nearby Balashi gold mill ruins at the tip of Spanish Lagoon, once a pirate's hideout and now the site of the world's second-largest desalination plant.
One of the best ways to see many of these sights is by taking a Shore Excursion. Check with your Cruise Director for more information.
Beaches & SportsIf your vision of paradise consists of powder-white beaches and incredibly clear azure waters, Aruba is paradise. For besides its exotic landscapes, friendly natives, balmy breezes and tropical rhythms, the island also boasts the most beautiful stretch of beaches in the Caribbean: the beaches along the Turquoise Coast.
A good part of this seven-mile string of shores on the western coast of Aruba is lined with hotels; the area is sometimes referred to as the Hotel Zone. It is perhaps best known for its two major beaches, Palm Beach and Eagle Beach. Palm Beach is the more famous of the two, and it's also where you'll find most of the large hotels and casinos. Eagle Beach, which is closer to Oranjestad, is a popular public park with shaded picnic areas.
At the southwestern point of the island, just south of Eagle Beach, is Manchebo Beach, a wide strand fronted by several hotels. Druif Beach, also lined with hotels, is located right next to Manchebo.
All the beaches along the coast are open to the public. Keep in mind that if you use any of a hotel's facilities, you will be charged.
Enterprising visitors will want to explore Aruba's other beaches, some of which are ideally suited for certain water sports. For example, Arashi Beach, located near the northwestern tip of Aruba, is a perfect place to swim and snorkel because of its clear waters, gentle currents and abundant underwater life. If you're into windsurfing, head for Bachelor's Beach, a favorite hangout near the island's southeastern tip. At Boca Grandi, just to the north, is a lagoon known as the Grapefield, where you can snorkel; there are also picnic areas here in the middle of a large sea-grape grove.
Perhaps the prettiest beach on the island is Baby Beach, on the shallow and placid Baby Lagoon in the area known as Seroe Colorado. It is ideal for children or inexperienced swimmers, and snorkelers will find some gorgeous coral heads in its channel. Near Baby Beach is Rodgers Beach, which has a slightly rougher surf. You must pass through the gates of the Esso Club to access Bachelor's, Baby and Rodgers beaches; visitors are welcome.
A few beaches on the rugged, wind-swept northern coast, such as Dos Playa and Andicuri, attract picnickers and surfers. But be warned: the currents can be treacherous.
Although Aruba's pristine beaches encourage visitors to bask lazily in the sun, don't miss out on all the exhilarating activities that make the island a sports-enthusiast's dream.
The sport of choice on the island is windsurfing. Aruba's trade winds, which average 15 knots year-round, have made the island the preferred windsurfing hangout in the Caribbean. If you want to explore below the Caribbean's aqua-blue waters, you have two options: snorkeling or scuba diving. You can also go sailing or fishing; the waters around Aruba are filled with blue and white marlin, wahoo, kingfish, tuna and bonito.
Ever played golf on "greens" that are actually oiled sand? Or had to deal with an occasional live hazard such as a goat? Well, this is all part of the game at the Aruba Golf Club. The 18-hole course is located on the eastern end of the island near San Nicolas.
ShoppingThe shops and malls of Oranjestad are modern and sophisticated; these upscale stores offer the added bonus of duty-free prices. Discerning shoppers can enjoy savings on jewelry, watches, perfumes, cosmetics, china, crystal, linens and designer fashions. And of course, T-shirt and souvenir shops abound.
Many stores and boutiques are located along the main streets of Oranjestad, especially the recently renamed Caya G.F. Betico Croes (formerly Nassaustraat and often called simply Main Street). There are also several major shopping centers downtown, including the Seaport Village Mall, the Harbour Town Market, the Port of Call Market Place, the Holland Aruba Mall and the Strada Shopping Mall. The Alhambra Bazaar, located in front of the hotels on the southwestern tip of the island, houses an interesting mixture of specialty shops. And there are several shops at the airport too.
Most stores list prices in dollars as well as florins, and virtually all shops accept dollars. The stores here are usually open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; some may close for an hour or two around lunchtime.
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