And so to the islands. Our cruise ship, the Marella Discovery, sailed all night and the next day from Barbados to Aruba, the first of 3 of the Dutch Antilles Islands we visited. Not what I expected. I had always imagined Aruba – having remembered it from the Beach Boys song ‘Kokomo’ (no Wilsons involved) about an island off the Florida keys – as a tropical island with palm trees and monkeys and all that.
Instead, most of the island was rocks, cacti (or cactuses if you prefer), snakes (including the non indigenous boa) and scrub. You may be surprised, if you’ve never been there, to realise that I refer to Aruba. Our tour from the ship took us across the island to a place where a natural stone bridge used to be. It collapsed in 2005, but we all still troupe out there to see where it was. Don’t get me wrong, there is rugged beauty where the bridge used to be….and a gift shop, naturally.
The sea on this side of Aruba faces Venezuela which is only 18 miles south of the island. It’s a rugged sea and beats against the lava rock and coral coast mercilessly. No wonder the bridge eventually collapsed. The wind here is so strong, the coast is veritably uninhabitable. No structure can withstand the beating from the lava and coral sand laden wind. Nothing much but scrub can grow here. Not the Aruba I had imagined.
That Aruba is on the opposite coast where all the white beaches, 5 Star hotels and resorts can be found. Very impressive. So much so that our guide drove us past the whole lot of them, bragging about it all. Didn’t need to really. It was evident. This is why people come here. An average annual temperature of around 29 degrees celsius and virtually no rain. Guaranteed great weather the year round. A no-brainer. But from atop the Ayo Rock Formation….just another pile of Aruban rocks….all you can see for miles is scrub, more rock and cactuses. Oh, and our ship way over on the horizon.
The other highlights were the Alto Vista Chapel, only because we got watermelon there. It was a very hot 32 degrees Celsius. And the equally exciting California Lighthouse, named after the steamship ‘California’, wrecked nearby on 23 September, 1891. The lighthouse was built-in response to the steamship’s sinking. Better late than never I suppose. I walked toward the sea to see the white dunes and watch the lizards darting across the path where I walked. Speedy little buggers they are too.
Aruba is part of a what is known as the ABC islands, 3 islands in a row, all 3 just off the Venezuelan coast. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. But not in that order. C, in this case, comes before B. That’s where we sailed to next, Curaçao. Straight into the harbour, docking just before going under the very large Queen Juliana Bridge. From the upper deck of our ship, either side of the inlet looked like toy town, coloured buildings set up like doll houses. Very colourful and very clean.
Two sides of the harbour. We were docked beside the Punda District. The Ortobanda District is on the other side. Our side is more residential and the other side is all business. Very colourful businesses, but business all the same. Because of its uniqueness, the whole town of Willemstad has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently, all buildings had to be white a few centuries ago. It was the law. Then one island governor changed the law and said everyone was free to paint his home any colour at all. He also happened to own the town’s paint factory. Enterprising.
The Punda side near the harbour had a huge square dedicated to Christmas, decorated with snowmen, a Christmas tree and even a Christmas train. Market stalls lined part of the square. I bought an island shirt at one. It seemed the thing to do. Inside the old harbour fort is another market, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. An islander played his lone steel drum on a stage set up in an open area. He was playing, ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’. He could play until he was blue because at 30 degrees celsius, it was indeed a dream.
A tour guide drove us through Punda to a resort where we boarded a boat that had a compartment underneath allowing us to view the coral reef below us. They called it a mini-sub. Not quite. Anyway, everything was happening on my best friend’s side. I was looking down over a 300 foot drop. Very dark, no fish. I protested to my best friend and was called a baby. I just wanted to see some colourful fish and the Ray on her side she said they all saw. Only when our boat guide got out in his scuba gear to feed the critters did I see anything. All very lovely, but in such a confined space with the ‘mini-sub’ bobbing from side to side, I started to feel queasy. I was glad to go back up on deck.
From there, we drove over the Queen Juliana Bridge to Otrobando to the factory where booze is made….specifically, Curaçao Blue liqueur, made from the Laraha bitter orange citrus fruit and various spices. The blue colour comes from E133 Brilliant Blue food colouring. Not so appetizing, but it looks cool and very islandy. Nice taste. Very strong. I kept sampling the various flavours and felt quite fine after a while. I bought the Rum and Raisin flavour. It was too heavy to bring home, so I drank it in my cabin on the ship….no, not all at once.
That evening, we sailed for Bonaire, last of the Dutch Islands in this part of the Caribbean and the smallest. Most of Bonaire is a nature reserve of one type or another. We went on a tour of the Mangroves at Lac Bay. And it was a very rough ride in an open-back Mercedes truck that was about 50+ years old. Dusty road too….off-track. It was our lucky day. Half way up the rough road, the flamingos had gathered. Sometimes they do, others they don’t. Today they did, right here at the Pekelmeer. Bunches of them. They came to the shore near us and began fighting with each other. We moved on. They weren’t there on our way back.
We arrived at a beach on Lac Bay and got into a rubber raft to go through a Mangrove tunnel into a world of colourful fish, eels, Mangrove trees and upside down jellyfish. The latter look like roundish rocks on the bottom of the lake. In went our guide and came back into the rubber boat with one of the jellyfish. We passed it around, among the 8 of us. My best friend and a few others didn’t want to touch it. Yes, it was a sticky, gooey jelly thing. I felt sorry for it. It went back into the water and took its place on the bottom. No harm done. We then went looking for tortoises, saw a couple come to the surface, went back to the beach and swam until it was time to get back to the ship.
On to Grenada, then St. Lucia. We hear about the debacle on Grenada in Part 3. And….did you know that those white sand beaches are created from a fish that eats the coral and poops out the grains, which are white. Lying on fresh, white fish poop. Why not.