Aruba's rough and rugged side

Although Brooklyn, N.Y.-born senior editor Henry Magenheim has globetrotted for years, he had never visited Aruba until recently. His report follows:

ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- The opportunity to visit Aruba on a trip where beach activities and diving would not be emphasized was inviting, since those are not my usual pursuits.

As a first-time visitor, I was eager to see rural areas, attractions, iguanas and restaurants, to meet locals and to inspect several hotels.

Before I left New York, friends spoke positively about Aruba, citing its safety, friendliness, quality dining, uncrowded beaches cooled by trade winds and the action found at 11 casinos.

They also raved about the drinking water produced by the island's desalination plant, the diversity of shops and U.S. Customs and Immigration pre-clearance at Aruba's airport.

But they doubted that I would see much of interest inland.

They were wrong about that. Aruba's natural and man-made attractions are spread all over its 70 square miles.

Many can be seen on four-hour van and bus tours, typically priced at $34 with lunch. A car rental is another option.

During a four-day stay, I took two guided van tours, both led by Nathalie Maduro, an Aruban with the Aruba Tourism Authority.

I saw things I would never see in New York: the Natural Bridge; rock formations with ancient Indian drawings; endless cacti; wild parakeets; scurrying iguanas; wandering chickens and a 100-foot-high lighthouse.

The California Lighthouse, atop a hill overlooking the 18-hole Tierra del Sol golf course, opened in 1916 and was named after a vessel from Liverpool that had been shipwrecked offshore.

Although the lighthouse is not open for tours, I did climb the Casibari rock formation for a panoramic view of the island. Another nearby formation called Ayo had some pretty good Indian cave drawings.

So, too, did the Fontein Cave in Arikok National Park, but many of the drawings were marred by graffiti. Fontein and other caves in Aruba are home to up to six species of bats, which, thankfully, sleep during the day.

Visitors can see the bats inside the caves with a flashlight or at night when the bats make their way outside the caves.

A memorable man-made structure is the small yellow-walled Chapel of Alto Vista, overlooking the sea. It draws throngs of worshippers at Easter, I'm told.

Along a desolate strip of the rugged north coast, I was awed by giant waves crashing into boulders at a place called Boca Mahos, not far from Bushiribana.

Clients should take a few extra moments here. The sights and sounds of this seascape are pristine, not marred by billboards, T-shirt shops or other commercial outlets.

The Natural Bridge is a favorite subject for photographers visiting Aruba's north side. The Natural Bridge, not far from this area, is a favorite of photographers. The coral structure is more than 100 feet long and rises 25 feet above the sea and beach. Nearby is a building with rest rooms, snacks and a gift shop.

If clients need a disposable camera, they will need a lot of disposable dollars. The cameras are three times more expensive in this gift shop than in the U.S. and about one-third more than in Oranjestad.

The Butterfly Farm, not far from the Palm Beach hotel strip, was my favorite man-made attraction.

Up to 1,000 butterflies from the Americas, Australia, Indonesia, Africa and China flutter under an open-air canopy that covers tropical foliage and ponds.

Viewing the Egyptian Atlas Moth up close was well worth the trip to the farm. On the end of each wing was a snake head designed by nature to deter predators such as birds, lizards, spiders, wasps and frogs. The design looked as if it had been painted by an artist.

Likewise, the owl butterfly, which resembles an owl, also fools predators.

Cindy Cox, the farm's assistant manager, never tired of questions. When asked the life span of a butterfly, she replied, "Up to three months."

The butterflies are most active in the morning, so it is best to schedule visits beginning at 9 a.m. Admission to the Butterfly Farm is $10 for adults and $5 for those under age 18.

The Aruba Aloe Museum offers an audiovisual presentation on the aloe plant and its valuable gel, whose medicinal and cosmetic values are well displayed in the gift shop. Entry is free, although an admission fee is under study.

The Archaeological Museum Aruba is housed in temporary quarters in Oranjestad but will relocate to another downtown site in 2005.

On display now are stones and bones, urns, ceramics and other artwork produced by Aruba's Indian settlers, who began arriving around 2500 B.C. from what today is called Venezuela.

Arminda Ruiz, assistant conservator, said the new building will have room for more displays and exhibits on loan.

All that touring made me hungry, and I dined at several restaurants that easily can hold their own against U.S. restaurants. L'Escale in the Marina Tower of the Renaissance Aruba features Caribbean cuisine and strolling violinists; Chez Mathilde, in a 19th century home in Oranjestad, offers a varied French menu.

Brisas del Mar, a moderately priced seafood restaurant on the water in Savaneta, is a favorite of the resident iguanas who visit under the tables, hoping for handouts.

Chefs at Blossom, the Chinese-Japanese restaurant at the Wyndham Aruba Beach Resort & Casino, create meals flapjack-style in front of the diners.

Also noteworthy, because every booth is alongside an aquarium, is the Buccaneer, not far from Eagle Beach.

I did not have time to visit El Gaucho Argentine Grill, also in the capital, which had been recommended by friends.

The most memorable event during my trip was the visit to a neighborhood Dera Gai celebration, associated with the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Festivities included live banjo and piano music, dancing and children's games.

Night fires around the perimeter of the celebration symbolize purification.

Concierges at Aruba's hotels can recommend celebrations such as this, which occur year-round. At times, a nominal festival donation is expected.

To miss such a celebration would be to miss mingling with Arubans on their own turf.

For more information...

Aruba Tourism Authority
Phone: (800) TO-ARUBA
Agent Web:http://agents.aruba.com
Consumer Web:www.aruba.com

For more information, see related articles:Drive time: What clients need to know in Aruba, Desalination tour focuses on the sea-to-bottle process.

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