Should you get lost in Aruba, follow the divi-divi trees.
That was the tip from Leroy King, a tour guide, as my mother, aunts and a busload of people ventured into the rocky, parched interior that defines much of this unique island.
The divi-divi trees — gnarled and outstretched to the Caribbean Sea — have been contorted by the steady tradewinds into huge, bonsai-like figures, and their limbs point west, to the bustling hotel district.
But we quickly realized that many of Aruba's points of interest are far from the hotels and the island's Main Street, with its colorful casinos and storefronts. Away from these developments, we encountered white sand dunes amid rugged desert landscapes. The coastline is strewn with coral-encrusted shipwrecks. Volcanic rock formations, lagoons and gold mine ruins wait to be explored, and towering cacti and aloe dot the arid countryside.
"When people think of the Caribbean, they think of a lush, tropical island. Aruba is not," said Theo DeJongh, a statistical manager with the Aruba Tourism Authority in Oranjestad.
A Mixture of Everything
The island's interior instead brings to mind the stark landscapes of the American Southwest. "It's not just beaches and casinos," DeJongh said. "It's a mixture of everything."
The island's most photographed attraction, the Natural Bridge, is a coral formation that was once a cave entrance on the northeastern shore. The entrance eroded over time and collapsed to form an arch 100 feet wide and 25 feet above the sea.
"We've been all over in our travels, but we were looking for something different," said Sylvia Scott, 63, of Sussex, England, as she and her husband, Don, watched the waves crash against the cliffs around the bridge. "Shop after shop after shop, that's not my type of holiday. For the scenery alone, it's worth coming here." Aruba became an autonomous member of the Netherlands in 1986. Though Spain first claimed it in 1499, Holland's rule left lasting cultural influences on the indigenous population of Caquetio Indians and those who followed.
Fort Zoutman and the King Willem III Tower are remnants of Dutch architecture and the site of a weekly Bon Bini Festival, a celebration of local music, dance, art and cuisine. The fort, completed in 1796 and still armed with cannons, has a museum filled with local artifacts.
Aruba has its own currency, the Aruban florin, and while Dutch is the official language, most Arubans are fluent in three more: English, Papamiento, which is spoken throughout the Netherlands Antilles, and Spanish. Venezuela is a mere 15 miles from the island's southernmost tip; Miami is a three-hour flight.
The island — 20 miles long, 6 miles wide and 12 degrees north of the equator — is also safely outside the region's hurricane belt, making it an attractive destination for late summer and autumn travelers as well as those seeking sun in the winter. Aruba's annual rainfall is less than 20 inches, and the temperature averages 82 degrees; by midday, heat can be intense with little shade in sight.
My relatives have been coming here for 20 years, and each time they discover something missed on a previous trip. My aunt spent her honeymoon here 15 years ago; my mother snaps pictures and shakes her head upon noticing every new attraction. "I can't believe they have an ostrich farm now," she says.
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