Small Caribbean island is making a big play for tourists' dollars


April 10, 1994|By Ellsworth Boyd

While Bonaire is everybody's beloved baby, and Curacao is its budding offspring, Aruba for years was the estranged stepchild in the ABC islands of the Netherlands Antilles.

It's not that Aruba is particularly homely. Goodness knows, all three islands are flat, dry and cactus-ridden, in contrast to the lush mountains and tropical rain forests of the French West Indies, their northeastern neighbors. It's just that with all the hype spread over the years for tourists to "sojourn in Bonaire and Curacao," nobody paid much attention to the neglected cherub.

But things are changing now as Air Aruba extends its service into 12 major cities in the United States and Canada. More people are trying the small, arid island in the southern Caribbean and finding it very attractive, so much that hotels averaged close to 90 percent occupancy throughout 1993.

Aruba's beaches can hold their own with any in the Caribbean; there's a seven-mile stretch cordoned by coconut palms and white sands on the northwestern coast.

Other attractions include year-round average temperatures of 82 degrees, little rain (20 inches per year), blue skies, few bugs, a fetish for cleanliness and no slums. Aruba lies outside the hurricane belt, and its conditions are so stable local newspapers don't even bother to publish weather reports.

Water sports abound, including water-skiing, fishing, jet skiing, parasailing, windsurfing and scuba diving. The leading windsurfing destination in the Caribbean, Aruba offers year-round breezes and shallow waters that are perfect for flat-water slalom racing. From the end of May through the first week of June, sailboarding enthusiasts converge on the island for the annual Aruba Hi-Winds Pro-Am Windsurfing Tournament.

Most of the windsurfers congregate at Palm Beach and Eagle Beach along the hotel-lined northwest coast, while advanced hot-doggers favor Bachelor's Beach on the northeast coast. Lighter surf for beginners is on Roger's Beach or Grapefield Beach along the eastern tip of the island.

Most hotels and many outfitters offer equipment rental and instruction. For starters, try Red Sail Sports in the Harbour Town Shopping Center in downtown Oranjestad. Red Sail also operates out of the Aruba Americana and Hyatt Aruba Regency Resorts.

Castro Perez, a diver with 16 years' experience, is my guide on a drift dive that takes us over delicate coral formations in crystal-clear seas. Purple gorgonians and fanning plate coral are peppered among 4-foot-high star coral structures. The reef is a garden of color and texture that harbors an assortment of curious inhabitants.

Foureye butterfly fish and indigo hamlets cruise among purple sea anemones whose soft tubular bodies cling to rocks nestled in patches of sand. Glasseye snappers and dusky squirrelfish peer out from cracks in the coral where V-shaped feelers confirm the presence of spiny lobsters. Butter hamlets and yellowtail damselfish seem to play tag on small plateaus along the sloping reef while wrasses and rock beauties feed on algae colored in vibrant reds and greens.

Safety first is the rule of thumb at dive operations scattered along the coast, and the guides are cordial. Colorful reefs, an array of shipwrecks and an underwater rendezvous with a tourist submarine are included in a choice of more than two dozen excursions for beginner, intermediate or experienced divers. Buddy Person of S.E.A. Scuba or Terry Schwarzenback of Antilla Divers are experienced operators who will cater to your needs.

More than two dozen beachfront hotels line the northwestern coast, starting with the Holiday Inn near Hadikurari and stretching seven miles south to the Best Western near Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba.

The island's hotel capacity grew to 7,800 rooms in 1993, with several new hotels under construction. When these are completed, a five-year moratorium will be imposed.

Accommodations vary from the 47-room, Dutch-styled bungalows of the Hotel Amsterdam to the 500-room high-rise, Aruba Concorde.

The hotel strip on the northwest shore has the standard Holiday Inn, Hyatt and Best Western, plus the Sonesta Hotel. A six-story contemporary structure with a coconut palm atrium, the hotel provides boat service from its lobby to Sonesta Island, just offshore.

While other guests wait for taxis outside their hotels, Sonesta patrons saunter past the check-in desk to their awaiting water transportation. It's a strange sight to behold, even if you aren't staying at the hotel. A shot of the boat pulling into a Venetian-style canal -- in a hotel lobby -- provides great conversation for a slide or video show back home.

Hotel rates range from $85 to $225 for a double-occupancy room during the off-season (April 17 to Dec. 20). These rates almost double in the winter.

Arubans are noted for counting things, and just as they tally hotel rooms, they advertise "100 restaurants to choose from," featuring French, Indonesian, Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, Dutch and island dishes.

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