ORANJESTAD, Aruba — There’s a few things you should know about this idyllic little island if cruising has never taken you this deep into the Caribbean Sea, which is precisely where we find ourselves.
• Aruba is not at the end of the Caribbean, but you can see it from here…well, almost. You can see Venezuela on a clear day, so that’s how close you are to South America.
• While the Carnival Freedom is by no means the only cruise ship that ports here, it was the one that brought us, and that was good….because Carnival’s Best of Aruba Island Tour was ideal for Aruba newbies.
• There are spots where you can pretty much see the entire island, like from the top (541 feet, 520 steps) of the biggest hill — called Hoyba, or haystack — and even from Casibari Rock Formation, a collection of rocks only a third as high.
• Orange is the color here (Oranjestad is Orange Town), since this is one of three remaining Dutch colonies in the southern Caribbean, which also means the principal language is “dutch” to visitors like us. Fortunately, English, Spanish and Papiamento are also major languages, although Papiamento is also “dutch.”
• If you think you’ve seen a lot of cactus in the Arizona desert, or inuksuks (or inuksuit: stones of friendship in the picture above) in British Columbia, those places are rank amateurs compared to Aruba. There are 21 kinds of cactus and what seems like a million unukuit.
• And finally, expect to pay a premium for most things (isn’t that what happens on idyllic islands?) for the good reason that most things are imported. Fortunately for us, Mirto Boekhoudt isn’t among them.
A grandfather now, Mirto was the driver-cum-guide-cum-comedian for Carnival Freedom passengers on his bus. He was born here and has never left. While we’re constantly amazed by how much these people know about where they live, his running commentary turned three and a half hours into an entertaining education.
He’s never seen snow, which immediately made his passengers envious since that’s part of the reason they leave northern climes and board cruise ships. It’s 80 to 90 degrees here year-round and “rainy” season from now through January means about 16 inches per year. There hasn’t been a hurricane since 1934 — Aruba’s outside the hurricane belt — and the winds blow hard enough to turn the dividivi trees into compasses.
“They’re a guide to tourists,” he says, “because the wind blows to the southwest and that’s where all the hotels, casinos and ships are. The casinos are like investment centers: Invest your money and you never see it again!”
Cactus is part of the island’s lifeline because it retains water during rainy season to complement what comes from the third-largest desalination plant in Balashi that also provides all the island’s electricity. The steam from boiled seawater powers turbines that become electricity while the water is stripped of minerals to make it drinkable, pumped to storage tanks situated on hills to create water pressure for the homes.
“We call it a Balashi Cocktail,” Mirto quips, without having to explain that its more common name is tap water.
There are golf courses and restaurants with food from Venezuela (nothing grows here) and seven miles of white sandy beaches, flanked by some of the most expensive hotels you’ll find — how does $850 a night for the cheapest room sound? There are tourist sites, such as the Natural Bridge that collapsed (above) in 2005, depriving Aruba of its biggest attraction although it has been replaced by what is billed as the Baby Bridge (below). And there’s a chapel which draws more visitors than parishioners, because church service is only on the first Sunday of every month —the 350-year-old Chapel of Our Lady of Alta Vista features its outdoor pews, immaculate graveyard and white crosses on the roads to keep you from getting lost…yes, you could.
You might think that’s next-to-impossible on an island paradise that rose from the sea as volcanic ash to become 20 miles long and just six miles wide but it isn’t. Almost everything is at the same height.
In recent decades, Aruba has gone from gold mining to oil refining to just straight tourism as it’s number one industry.
“Seventy-five per cent of the people depend on tourism,” cracks Mirto, “and the other 25 per cent depend on the 75 per cent.”
So do the visitors who step off cruise ships.
Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news
November 2, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Freeport, Nassau, Half Moon Cay
Cost per day: $31