We left home at 3:15am, our brains like cotton candy from sleep debt and our minds surfing on surges of pre-trip adrenalin.
Delirious and uncaffeinated, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s en route. They are marketing red velvet “muffins” now? I was torn between a pretzel bagel and a carrot orange muffin when the oh-so-helpful night cashier barked, “Get the carrot. It’s the best and I don’t like nothin’.” It became my line for the week.
We felt a bit punch drunk queuing up at the United Airlines gate at YYZ. Talk about no frills service. The airline has eliminated seat back entertainment entirely. The flight attendants took cranky to the next level—not even smiles are available anymore. The drink service (oh wow, complimentary water or soda—but that’s it—not even a tiny packet of crappy pretzels or stale cookies with your beverage anymore) was quickly interrupted by turbulence. When a woman in 32B asked politely for tea, the sour attendant (who sounded like she’s sucked on car mufflers half her life) said, “We all have to sit down now. It’s gonna get real bad.” Nice reassurance. There was turbulence, yes, but nothing compared to the 6-year-old kickboxer seated behind me, violently playing with her headlocked My Little Pony.
But, fast forward to Orangestaad, Aruba, the whole point. The Duty Free (named the “Dufry” for reasons unknown) welcomed us with Haig Club scotch shots. We made fast friends with two New Jersey broads who were impressed with our ability to seek out free Scotch before we had even grabbed our baggage.
Our immersion into the liquid sun and crushing heat of Noord was immediate. Our taxi driver kindly took us to a Chinese supermarket to pick up a case of beer (we would soon learn that all the supermarkets are Asian owned and sell everything from Bolognese Lays chips to sushi to KitKat yogurt to wheels of Gouda the size of Goodyear tires). After dumping our bags in our villa and exchanging jeans for bikinis, we found our place poolside. Two inked-up Brazilian boys in Quiksilvers, as brown and oiled as coffee beans, were quick to offer us their leftover grilled chicken and spicy sausage straight from the grill. Yes, we could ease into this. The guys had a solid soundtrack of Queen, Joan Osborne (whatever happened to her? What if God was one of us….Bread and the Smiths. Finally, Celine Dion didn’t make the equatorial cut. Lime parakeets blurred by and called out alongside Freddy Mercury and the troupials (a flashy cousin of our oriole).
We rented a perfect pad with a kitchenette in Washington ($1,200 CAD) with just eight villas sharing a limestone-tiled courtyard and pool. We were more than happy to take up loungey residence outside the mad tourist real estate of Eagle and Palm Beach.
Eagle is a jammed stretch of low rise hotels (Holiday Inn, Radisson, Occidental) while the all-inclusive high-rise hotshots like the Ritz, Marriot and Rui, monopolize Palm Beach. This neon chunk of Aruba was quickly crossed off our list. I’m forever amazed that people jump on planes and fly seven hours only to seek out Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, Cinnabon and Hooters. On my first morning run I nearly fell flat to see the likes of KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.
Much of the island has been massaged by North American’s appetite and colonially rubbed by Holland (*I have no complaints about the mecca of Dutch cured meat, salty black licorice, stroopwafels and cheese available everywhere). But, there’s a reason Aruba is popular and cruise ships barf out thousands of passengers four times a week—the sea and sky is surreal. It’s arid—you could bet your nest egg it’s not going to rain during your vacation. There are no mosquitoes or pesky flies or bitchy sand fleas. As the Aruban license plates suggest—it is “One Happy Island.”
The sand (and, we are self-titled beach experts) is like cornstarch here—so fine and el blanco—it’s whiter than the Kindle paperwhite. So white (dare I complain) that you can’t even read on the beach because of the glare.
Tradewinds keep sweat licked off your skin before it even has a chance to make itself known. The trademark Divi Divi tree doubles as a compass. Follow the direction of the Divi tree—the tradewinds have blown them all into a southwesterly orientation.
The sun is giant and reliable. Sunsets are like watching the apple drop on New Year’s Eve on Times Square. It’s massive and radiant and an acceptable reason to pop a champagne cork or pop the big question.
As we watched the sky move from Tiffany to mauve from our sandy audience seats, Kim and I marvelled at how different this trip was for us. How easy! We only had to unpack once—we weren’t hopping around solar-powered beach huts every few days. At night, we weren’t tucking in mosquito nets with army cadet precision or hosing ourselves down with DEET. We could actually drink the tap water! (When you know you can’t drink the tap water, you inevitably go into panic mode and end up buying more than ever). Our villa had endless hot water—hot enough to boil lobsters. In fact, the coldest setting of our Aruban shower was still HOTTER than Colombia’s ‘hottest’ shower. And instead of a Grandma floral soap bar the size of a dieter’s pad of butter, we were issued a Costco-sized bar of Ivory. We had towels for the pool, the beach, for showering. Face cloths even. We laughed thinking of our stay in Tayrona National Park where our toilet didn’t even have a seat.
ATM’s in Aruba actually had money in them. We didn’t have to notify the Canadian embassy of our travels. We didn’t need any sketchy immunizations or Dukarol cocktails pre-trip. No bank-breaking anti-malaria pills prescriptions to fill. Our villa had Netflix for crying out loud! We were kitted out with a Cuisinart coffee maker, a Hamilton Beach blender, a Weber grill, air con (ugh—also, why do people fly seven hours to seek out bars, restaurants and hotels that are the same temperature as Canadian winter?), and black-out blinds that even knocked out my wide-eyed insomniac (though the tiny red light on the air conditioning system did keep her awake until I found a mango fruit sticker to blot it out).
Aruba shares our same time zone, electrical voltage (no accidental camera battery frying necessary!), love of karaoke (not us), and sex shops.
The kicker was the Canadian dollar sitting at a pukey 70 cents American. However…
What surprised us most was that there were no beach vendors or touts. No one was egging us on to get our hair braided or to buy shells glued together to look like turtles. “Pretty lady, how ‘bout a massage?” Nothing. No eye-bugging harassment to hop on a sunset catamaran cruise, to rent a jetski or dodgy coconut cookies for sale.
When a string of colourful, makeshift structures on wheels rolled in to the empty stretch between Eagle and Palm Beach, I thought that maybe we’d happened upon a food truck festival of sorts. Dead curious, I finally approached one of the tiny hut owners. About 25 homemade trailers had gathered in the parking lot near the beach, taking up prime waterfront space. There were toilets on wheels even—it was like an instant presto campground for over 75 Arubans and counting.
I was told that it was part of the Holy Week celebration. For two weeks, Arubans congregate on the beach to celebrate. Imagine how quickly that would last in Canada! As if you and 50 of your friends could park your tiny house nation on any ol’ beach. Cool for the Arubans though—but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any greasy empanadas or heavy bricks of rum cake for sale.
Oddly, there was no begging either. No one begging for baksheesh or shillings or, Aruban Florins. Gratuities were automatically added to bills. I read that the unemployment rate is 1%, so, maybe this is what such a state looks like. The dogs don’t even beg.
The bus system is so simple. The lines run north or south—1A or 1B. For $2.30US, you can do a cheater northern tour of the island like Kim and I did, surveying Arashi, Malmok beach and Boca Catalina before committing. But, be forewarned about the buses—in the words of a Lonely Planet writer (Colombia guide), “the air con is at a level to stun an elephant.” When we first asked a local about the bus system Kathleen Johnson (oddly the name of my great aunt) repeated my question with a frown. “How often does the bus run?” “When you are on it, it is running.”
The islanders are point-blank, no guff responders. If you want a serious dose of history, oil refinery politics and an ear-to-the-ground opinion of the red light district in San Nicolaas, drop into Charlie’s for a Balashi and a pound of shrimp. Charlie the Third will serve you the most succulent pile of three minute boiled prawns and atomic “honeymoon sauce” and fill you in on it all (two slim beers and two pounds of prawns–$46 US). While taking long drags on his ever-present cigarette. (And don’t be worried about rolling your eyes—you have to just to take in all that is hanging from the ceiling and plastered on the walls at Charlie’s. It’s a global museum of licence plates, Auschwitz photos, totem poles, aerial maps, trophies, lanterns and kitsch nearly 75 years in the making.
It’s an intelligent island. Elementary school lessons are in Dutch. Kids grow up speaking the native tongue, Papiamento. In grade four they learn English—grade five is an intro to German. Talk about being ready for the world. And, the world is coming to Aruba, it’s obvious. Tourism is the biggest financial injection but sales staff show zero interest in actually making a sale. Whether you walk into Cartier or Ralph Lauren or any of the dozen diamond joints, you probably won’t be acknowledged. Even the smaller vendors in Orangestaad don’t bother to look up from their conversations over Red Bull to convince you of the merits of buying garage-sale-destined grains of sand in a bottle or maracas or carved machetes and parrots. They really couldn’t care. Obviously they’re not making commission or, they’re reserving their energies for the crush of cruisers on day pass and souvenir money to blow.
It was our first travel destination void of diarrhea (*editor’s note: please see shit-pants-in Egypt, Belize, Colombia, ________, etc. blog posts). To live in Aruba, I’d have to shave my head though—those tradewinds just wreak havoc with your hair which may explain the number of beauty salons per capita. If you are into kiteboarding or windsurfing, this is your piece of terra firma. If you have a toupee or like to eat potato chips outdoors—it’s too dangerous.
If you rent a Polaris Razor as we did to rip around the island, you can achieve “skydiver face”—you’ve seen grainy, wobbly footage of divers when their faces go all wonky on the plummet, right? The winds off the east coast replicate this if you are in an open-air UTV at 40mph.
Yeah, the Razor was cool. It was a steep $200 US per day (or, in Canadian pesos, $260, ouch. $1,500 deposit). You can easily circumnavigate the island if you don’t doddle over wooden maracas and Hooters servers. After an hour we were near-deaf and vibrating from the engine roar. Gasoline hung on our skin like teenage boys doused in first date Drakkar cologne. The coast was wild, raw and rough—a sharp contrast to the placid western waters.
The Arikok National Park ($11 US, UTV’s permitted) was a drive-thru safari of winding, windy paved trails (no burrowing owl or rattlesnake sightings). We pulled over for a few spelunks in the Fontein and Quadirikiri Caves. There are no guides, so, you can explore as far as your nerves take you.
We didn’t spot wild donkeys until we were outside the park and their “wildness” is now questionable. We watched as two vehicles were surrounded by the “wilds” seeking snacks. The donkeys are on to the tourist game.
My favourite spot was the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary where nearly 150 donkeys have been rescued from abuse or injured by vehicles. A volunteer proudly told us “we are saving the wild donkeys from being demolished.” We grabbed $1 pellet feed bags but were told to stay on the balcony to feed the donkeys as they are known to create a quick mosh pit.
Cruising through San Nicolaas back to Santa Cruz and Paradera I was happy to see that most dogs were collared. A friend had contacted me just prior to us leaving asking if we were flying direct. The Aruba Rescue Foundation (cutely acronymed “ARF”) is always looking for volunteers to fly back to Toronto with dogs. Fosters will meet you at the airport and the process is seamless for volunteers. I would have brought back 50 but we had a stopover in Newark. (*If you know of anyone going, please reach out here and I’ll put you in contact with the Aruban dog do-gooders!)
If you are looking for a safe, sanitized, super Anglo hot spot with all the Americana pleasures at the ready, Aruba is it. If you’re looking for cheap beach hut rentals, cheap happy hour mojitos, golden Johnnycakes for a buck or, cheap anything—Aruba has a big VISA tag attached to it. Yes, you can get a flight for a steal ($420) but this is not an island where you can live like royalty for $20 a day. We couldn’t even begin to compare our time or expenses in Taganga, Colombia ($32 US for a cabana, 75 cents a beer, $1.25 for an avocado-stuffed arepa). We travelled around Egypt for three weeks for the same price tag!
Did we have fun? Of course. Kim and I can sniff that out anywhere. Aruba is finally a destination that a big percentage of our friends and family would actually enjoy. And that’s good too—we are all different in what we want and demand of our destinations. We just want to call dibs on all the uninhabited islands now. Forget the Cinnabons but, okay, we’ll take some gouda.