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.
Home to the Tunnel of Love
But despite repeat visits to the island and the use of a map, we got lost while driving around one afternoon, and were amazed to find how quickly our route became a long, dusty road where goats and iguanas had the right of way. On another day of our trip, we opted for a daylong bus tour, for $40 a person, which included lunch at a local eatery. As we headed to the Parke Nacional Arikok — Aruba's national park, covering 20 percent of the island — the sea and the dunes of Boca Prins appeared as a mirage of vibrant blue and white. But the drive also felt a little like a roller coaster ride — narrow, winding, bumpy roads were the only way to the Fontein Cave, which boasts bat-filled tunnels and ancient drawings attributed to the Arawak Indians who populated the island before the Europeans arrived.
The park is also home to the Tunnel of Love and Guadiriki caves. If you're there at the right time and you climb to the caves' entrance, you'll see sunlight streaming into two huge chambers. Some say the passageways hold the spirits of pirates and star-crossed lovers. Emerging from the caves, you might see — as we did — a herd of wild donkeys grazing in the distance.
Dive sites near Aruba are extraordinary, with at least a dozen shipwrecks. Nothing compares to the grand dame known as the Antilla, just a mile offshore and not far from another tourist draw — the California Lighthouse in Noord.
An Underwater Tapestry
Splashes of color — mostly lobsters, fish and tube sponges — create an underwater tapestry running through the World War II German freighter. It's one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean, and fairly intact despite its history. The ship's captain scuttled the 400-foot long vessel when Aruba authorities ordered him to surrender. He went to prison; the Antilla went 60 feet under.
On Aruba's North Coast, the remote, uneven terrain invites mountain biking, off-road safaris and all-terrain vehicles. Traveling the well-worn dirt trails by horseback takes stamina; wear a hat and sunscreen and drink plenty of water. On the island's eastern shore, waters are choppy. The waves are especially strong at an area called Boca Mahos — which translates to "ugly mouth." In contrast, the lagoon at the island's southernmost tip, across from South America, is so tranquil that the locals say babies can swim there — hence its name, Baby Beach.
But the most popular beaches are places like Palm and Eagle, along the West Coast, near the hotels. Just let the divi-divi trees point the way.
If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Air Holland and KLM fly from Amsterdam to Aruba. American Airlines flies from New York, Boston, Miami, San Juan and Newark, N.J. US Airways, Air Canada and Delta Air Lines have connecting flights. Round-trip fares from New York are around $600. For information on cruises,visit www.arubabycruise.com GETTING AROUND: You can rent cars, take off-road Jeep tours or bus tours, or travel by taxi. But cabs don't have meters, so ask for rates upfront. Fares from the airport to hotels run about $20. Rancho Notorious offers horseback and mountain bike tours, www.ranchonotorious.com DIVING: For dives, Atlantis Adventures, http://www.atlantisadventures.com/index.php, Aruba Pro Dive, http://www.arubaprodive.com or Red Sail Sports, http://www.redsail.com. Most hotels offer dive packages. Professional dive shops have weekly specials, courses and beginner's certification. PLACES OF INTEREST: Arikok National Park, Antilla shipwreck, the caves of Guadiriki, Fontein and Tunnel of Love, Natural Bridge, Ayo and Casibari rock formations, Spanish Lagoon, Hooiberg hill, Alto Vista Chapel, gold smelter ruins, Arashi coral reefs, California Lighthouse, Bubali bird sanctuary, Lourdes Grotto in San Nicolas. For sightseeing in the caves, bring or rent a flashlight. Windsurfing hotspots: Malmok, Boca Grandi and Hadicurari (Fisherman's Huts) FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the Aruba Tourism Authority at (800) TO-ARUBA or visit www.aruba.com.