Beach donkeys. Who knew there was such a thing?! But there they were, stretching their velvety noses and lips out to take the airplane pretzels from our hands. My sister and I stood at a dusty, rocky crook in the road overlooking the deep teal crashing waves a little ways ahead. A giant red anchor mounted in cement marked the spot, and across the road stood a lone makeshift tent and an old freezer with “super coco” spray-painted on the side, with three Aruban
locals working in the shade alongside a pile of empty coconut shells. Two cars were stopped there, and their passengers were waiting for the woman with the machete to chop off the top of a coconut and stick a straw inside so the coconut water could be sipped. The rest of the scene consisted of rocky, bristly desert as far as the eye could see.
We’d arrived on the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, which sits off the coast of Venezuela, the day before. We picked up the rental SUV and got settled into our townhouse, in a quiet spot within walking distance to Eagle Beach. Then we made a trip to the Super Food store, a huge and fascinating and crowded place with the main sections being the bakery, produce, beer, cheese, and more bakery and beer. We’d chosen an array of pastries, some local beer (Balashi),
mangoes, limes for the beer, tiny pears (with a name like “peertjes”, of course we did) and a few other necessities. When we picked up a lime, the produce guy said wait, let me get you the good ones, and then proceeded to open up a prepackaged bag of limes and take out several to hand to us. After he’d also dished out a little teasing and some jokes in his Papiamento accent (Papiamento is a Spanish Creole mix of Portuguese and Dutch spoken on Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao – the ABC islands), we went to check out, smiling and beginning to relax already.
The next morning, we nibbled pastries and walked just outside the complex to a tiny shop called the Clover Store, and ordered cappuccinos from the lovely Doris. We got to chatting and found she is from Columbia, and she told us about the teas and granolas and dried fruits and cereals she had attractively displayed, as well as some of the clothing items and jewelry she had for sale. I chose a white woven swimsuit cover-up to go with my coffee. We told her we’d see her later, then packed a beach bag for the day and took off for the south end of the roughly 75-square-mile island.
Our first stop was back through a dusty neighborhood to park on the side of the road at Mangel Halto Beach. This shallow spot sits atop small cliffs, and you get down to the water via a ladder attached to a wooden deck.
A handful of locals and two or three tourists were swimming and snorkeling. We eased our way down the ladder and stepped carefully across some rocky patches out into the pale, clear water. Ahhhh… heaven! Cool on the skin, in the 85-degree sun – it was perfect. We splashed a little and explored the rocky overhangs, then just bobbed for a while. When we started to feel hungry, we decided to try Zeerover’s, a walk-up counter where you choose the fresh catch by pointing to ice-filled coolers.
My sister pointed at the mahi-mahi steak and I pointed at the whole snapper. We waited at a wooden picnic table looking out over rocking fishing boats topped wedding-cake-style with seagulls, enjoying the shade and our cold drinks. A women brought our order out in one big paper-lined basket: head-on shrimp, mahi-mahi, and snapper, all fried without batter; sauteed plaintains; sliced red onions in vinegar; soft local cornbread. We weren’t impressed with the cornbread, but the onions were good, the plaintains soft and carmelized to bring out the sweetness, and the snapper delicate and flaky and moist with just a hint of seasoning.
We headed further south, stopping to feed the donkeys and grab a fresh coconut with a straw from “super coco”, and on to Baby Beach at the tip of the island. The circular inlet with shallow, glowing turquoise water and a few rocky reefs where a handful of people floated face-down with masks, is protected on either side by mounded rock jetties, with waves crashing hard on the sea side. Inside the open circle, we floated and watched gulls and frigatebirds playing in the drafts above us, pelicans hanging out on the reef rocks, and nearly-invisible, silver-white fishes brushing up against our legs to say hello, Caribbean-style. Colorful beach cabanas lined up next to a thatch-roofed beach bar where reggae drifted out.
We could have happily floated for hours, but didn’t want to push our luck with the equatorial sun, so we packed up and headed back to shower off the salt and rest in the cool townhouse, relaxed and happy.
The next morning we decided to have breakfast at The Dutch Pancake House in Oranjestad, the island nation’s charming capital. We sat down to plates of poffertjes (tiny puffed pancakes dusted with confectioner’s sugar), the Fruit Delight pancake covered with bananas and berries, and link sausages and a crisp tangle of bacon. After this fabulous outdoor start, we drove north to check out some more beach!
Driving alongside the water on the flat main road, we passed the Baboo wreck, a ship that was sunken long ago to form a reef and then resurfaced on its own after a hurricane in 1999. We gradually climbed the barren terrain to reach the California Lighthouse, which sits high on a bluff overlooking a desert golf course and the entire west coast, including the tall resorts of Palm Beach in the distance.
The we drove back down to the water and parked at (relatively) crowded Arashi Beach, joining visiting couples and local families and their dogs swimming in the wide, roped-off beach area with its sandy bottom. How much beautiful Caribbean turquoise can one describe without getting repetitive? But, truly, each spot has its own uniquely breathtaking colors and vibe.
Next, we picked up and drove just around the bend to stop at Boca Catalina, a rocky shore where we donned our water shoes and my sister, her snorkel. We swam and traded off the snorkel mask, to see schools of tiny silver bar jack fish swishing around us alongside silver palometa fish with their black fins and tails, polka-dotted trunkfish, striped sergeant majors, beautiful yellow-tailed blue tangs, bluehead wrasse, banded butterfly fish, shimmery French angelfish, black spiky urchins, and endless coral. As we swam, three different catamarans visited the spot and deposited their groups of snorkelers a little further out. We made note of Palm Pleasure, and decided to sign up for a trip with them the next day.
On the way back, we detoured into Palm Beach, the “high-rise area” with its swarms of Miami-ans and Jersey accents, Starbucks and burger joints. We usually avoid areas like this when we travel, but we needed to make our way to a beach shack to sign up for the snorkel cruise, and along the way we stopped at a few shops for souvenirs and chats with the shopkeepers. The people everywhere were so happy and friendly and laid-back, it still felt Caribbean even amidst the resort atmosphere.
Back at the townhouse, we showered for our dinner reservations, but mid-blow-dry the power flickered and then all went dark. Looking out the windows, we saw a handful of bright spots in the night where generators had kicked in, but otherwise we were suddenly isolated on a small, dark, quiet, windy island in the middle of the sea. The stars shone thick and bright in the dark sky. A quick call to the restaurant confirmed they, too were in shadows and their doors were closed, and also provided the information that this never happens so they didn’t know how long it could last. Hungry, and me with wet hair, we decided to take a drive to see what we could find that was not pastries or beer. Traffic was piled up but moving (the island has mostly roundabouts and very few traffic lights, which definitely made the blackout traffic move more smoothly!) and we found a back road through a neighborhood, which led us to one of the still-lit buildings: a Citgo gas station. Cars were lined up around the block for gas, which luckily we didn’t need. We parked next door and walked in to see what we could scrounge up. The shelves were already looking sparse, and a smiling woman was handing out hot dogs to every passer-by. We elected Doritos and Funyuns instead, and topped it off with Dutch cookies, peanuts, and containers of guava and mango nectar. I noticed every person in the place appeared relaxed and smiling. Returning home, we gobbled our snacks and wondered if tomorrow’s snorkel would be canceled, how we would sleep without A/C, what we would do if our phones couldn’t charge, and whether the entire rest of our stay would be sans electricity. I flung open the balcony doors in the bedroom, and my sister flung opened her bedroom windows wide, and we got such a good cross-breeze going that we dozed right off, thinking of how this One Happy Island had the ability to remain serene and keep perspective even in the middle of an island-wide blackout.
To be continued in Part 2…