The Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St.
Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius are blessed with an incredible mix
of cultures and customs.
Although these islands share ties of ethnicity, language,
architecture and cuisine with Europe and with each other, each
island is unique. Agents selling the Dutch Caribbean need to know
the differences among these sister islands in order to best serve
One of the things the islands do have in common is language.
Dutch is the official language on all the islands, and Papiamento
-- an amalgam of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, African, English and
French -- is the language of the people on the ABC islands (Aruba,
Bonaire and Curacao). English, however, is widely spoken,
especially in the travel industry.
Touting itself as "One Happy Island," Aruba serves up top
hotels, a slew of U.S.-style services and amenities, gambling,
dining, long stretches of beach, water sports galore and, best of
all, some of the friendliest residents in the
region. Like its sister islands, Bonaire and Curacao, Aruba lies
outside the so-called "hurricane belt" -- a strong selling point
for clients planning summer vacations.
The ABC islands occasionally work together for marketing
purposes, but the three are very different from one another.
Topographically, Aruba is the classic desert isle, where cacti and
rocky vistas give way to dramatic seascapes. Despite its desertlike
appearance, the island is by no means deserted. It has a population
of more than 84,000 that is almost fully employed. The people are
descended from Dutch and Spanish settlers and the Arawak tribe.
Oranjestad, the island's capital city, is a brightly painted,
storybook version of Dutch architecture, with some authentic
restored older buildings as well. A hub for cruise ships, the city
boasts an impressive array of attractions for visitors. Eateries
run the gamut from upscale dining establishments to McDonald's, and
shopping is practically a recognized sport.
Not far from the city, beachgoers will find many optimum sites
for basking in the sun. Perhaps the most well-known strand is Palm
Beach, a seven-mile-long strip on the island's southwestern coast
that is home to the lion's share of Aruba's high-rise, chain hotels
and timeshare properties.
Water sports enthusiasts will be well accommodated here, as all
manner of equipment is available through Red Sail Sports, the
island's leading concessionaire. On-site water sports facilities
also are available at most hotels.
Visitors seeking nightlife will be pleasantly overwhelmed by the
number of options available to them. More than 10 casinos operate
nightly, and a range of clubs offers dancing, drinking and other
activities for night crawlers. Hotels offer their own brand of
entertainment, with nightly shows and cocktail lounges.
Although an islandwide moratorium on building is in effect
through the rest of this year, hoteliers here have not held back
from upgrading their properties. Most prominent is the refit of the
Radisson Grand Palm Beach, Aruba, which is undergoing a $45 million
renovation scheduled for completion this summer.
The least developed of the ABC islands, laid-back Bonaire offers
world-weary travelers a refreshing lack of glitz and hubbub.
Similar to Aruba in its desertlike conditions, the island is only
24 miles long and seven miles at its widest point.
The island's government has taken steps to protect natural
resources, and one result is that this island also has a moratorium
on hotel construction through the end of the year. As for its
underwater assets, the Bonaire Marine Park was created in 1979. The
park is protected by strict regulations and active enforcement to
guard the surrounding waters of Bonaire and its sister island,
Because Bonaire began preserving its environment well before
ecotourism became hip, it now boasts one of the most pristine reef
systems in the world and is widely recognized as one of the world's
top diving destinations. Divers and water sports fans also have
taken to using kayaks as a means to reach their dive sites, and
kayak tours are a popular diversion.
The destination's tourism executives also hope to lure the
sports-minded with land-based attractions. Guided mountain-bike
tours of Washington-Slagbaai National Park are available for the
first time. The park celebrates its 30th birthday this year.
Activities include guided hiking excursions of Mount Brandaris and
hiking on newly marked trails. Moonlight nature walks and
activities for children and teens also are in the lineup.
Most hotels here tend to be simple and unfussy; they were
created to serve the low-maintenance divers who helped put the
island on the tourism map. Nightlife also is more subdued, but
partyers need not look elsewhere -- a handful of popular bars
ensure that revelers' needs will be met.
The small capital city of Kralendijk is less flashy than the
capitals of its sister islands Aruba and Curacao, but shoppers can
do a bit of damage on their credit cards on the main drag, J.A.
Abraham Boulevard, and in the shops of the Harbourside Mall.
Among Bonaire's distinguishing features are the Salt Flats,
undulating saltscapes from which the island derives a good measure
of its income by harvesting and selling the mineral. Nearby, a
designated flamingo sanctuary is home to the exotic pink birds so
often reproduced in plastic.
Curacao offers a blend of land-based and undersea attractions
that make it a prime destination for island lovers. Well-known for
its allure as a diver's haven, the breezy island's coastal waters
offer an array of 57 coral species and 500 species of fish, crabs,
anemones and sponges on a beautiful reef system with 68 recognized
dive sites. Consequently, the island has received kudos from both
Scuba Diving magazine and Caribbean Travel and Life as a prime
destination for divers.
As for ease of booking, major U.S. dive operators prominently
feature Curacao in their packages each year.
Landlubbers, too, will find plenty to crow about on Curacao. The
capital city of Willemstad is a beautiful example of well-preserved
original Dutch architecture that puts other destinations to shame.
Its skyline of brightly colored buildings is a standout example of
Dutch, European and Caribbean styles, and many buildings are more
than 200 years old. The city's historical merit was recognized in
1997 by Unesco, which added Schottegat Harbor to its World Heritage
Touring the city is simple. The Punda and Otrabanda sections are
connected by the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, which spans St. Anna
Bay. Accessible by car or on foot, visitors have an array of
attractions to choose from here. Must-see sites include the Curacao
Sea Aquarium. Charming, small and sporting a number of interactive
exhibits that educate and entertain, this little aquarium packs a
wallop for families with kids or fun-loving grownups.
The Curacao Liquor Distillery (Landhuis Chobolobo) is located in
the Scharloo district and offers visitors the opportunity to watch
liquor being made and to taste some samples. The Floating Market is
a big draw. Shoppers will love buying edibles and souvenirs from
the decks of boats which line the waterfront beside the Queen
Wilhemina Bridge. The market is open every day but Sunday. Built in
1732, Mikve Israel-Emanuel is the oldest synagogue building in
continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Visitors in search of long beach walks should look elsewhere,
because Curacao's sandy strands are more intimate, set in coves
cradled by craggy cliffs and dramatic rock formations.
The island's best-known hotel, the former Sonesta Curacao Resort
& Casino, now is operated by Marriott International, which
signed a 25-year management contract in January.
These two islands offer a picture of old-time Caribbean life
seldom seen in more developed destinations. With its notoriously
minuscule airstrip bidding visitors a harrowing hello, tiny Saba is
the smallest of the Netherlands Antilles Windward Islands, a
five-square-mile patch located 28 miles southeast of St. Maarten
and 17 miles northwest of sister island St. Eustatius. It has a
population of only 1,200.
Saba is a popular destination for avid scuba divers, hikers and
nature and art lovers. Day trips by air or high-speed ferry are
easy from St. Maarten, and visitors often become so enthralled with
this peaceful island that they end up spending a night or two to
soak up the flavor.
The people who settled Saba apparently were very literal-minded:
The capital, located at the base of an extinct volcano, is the
Bottom. The main road is called simply the Road, and its most
scenic point is named Mount Scenery.
A hallmark of Saba is the rain forest, which ascends to the
3,000-foot summit of Mount Scenery. Like Bonaire, Saba has wisely
protected its marine environment with the Saba Marine Park. A
deep-water pier accommodates small cruise/sailing ships at Fort
Although shopping is an afterthought here, Saba is a duty-free
port. The best purchases include handmade lace, Saba Spice liqueur
and locally made knickknacks. Accommodations are limited,
relatively cheap, and basic, and none of them are beachfront,
because the mountainous island is virtually beachless.
Neighboring St. Eustatius is more commonly known as Statia, and
like Saba, its diminutive size -- five miles long and two miles
wide -- belies its wealth of activities. Black-sand beaches,
unspoiled diving over wrecks and reefs and a fascinating history
make Statia worth the trip.
Statia, with only 2,100 residents, has a complex historical past
and was a strategically important shipping point and a bustling
seaport before it was eclipsed by U.S. ports in the late 1700s. A
handful of interesting sites are open to visitors, including Fort
Oranje, which was built in 1629 by the French.
St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum is housed in the
18th-century Simon Doncker House and is billed as one of the finest
historical sites in the Caribbean.
Also on Statia is Synagogue Honen Dalim (meaning "she who is
charitable to the poor"). Built in 1739, it is the second-oldest
synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, after the Mikve
Israel-Emanuel. Unlike its Curacao counterpart, it is now a ruin
and no longer used for services. Tours of the Upper Town and Lower
Town give visitors insights into the island's history. The island's
Historical Foundation, located at the museum, offers a brochure on
St. Eustatius Marine Park, which was inaugurated in 1998,
protects remarkable dive sites, which include old shipwrecks from
its colonial period as well as an impressive array of deep-water
marine life in deep waters.
Accessed by plane from St. Maarten, Statia's deep-water "finger"
pier at Gallows Bay accommodates small cruise and sailing vessels.
As on Saba, accommodations are in a range of smaller properties,
and guest houses offer bed-and-breakfast style lodgings in a
The Old Gin House, a landmark hotel, is slated to reopen in
stages, starting this spring. A gourmet restaurant and full-service
bar now are operational. Located near Fort Oranje, the rebuilt
18th-century building once housed a cotton gin, and is set in
The 37-square-mile island is the smallest patch of earth to be
shared by two nations. Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin have
had more than 350 years to work out the political kinks, and the
result is a boon for travelers seeking variety, because lodgings,
cuisine and atmosphere on either side of the border are so very
Intermarriage among the French, Spanish, African and Caribbean
cultures created a lively Creole culture that infuses the island
with its own personality. The Dutch side's 16 square miles is the
smaller share of the land, but it offers much to visiting
Although a significant number of hotel rooms were taken out of
inventory by Hurricane Luis in 1995, the island is making strides,
and today, some 3,000 units welcome visitors from around the world,
according to the St. Maarten Tourist Board. In addition, the Dutch
side's nine casinos make this one of the premier gaming
destinations in the Caribbean.
The Dutch government has set its sights on developing
infrastructure, and to that end it has undertaken projects at its
two main points of entry. Its Princess Juliana airport serves as a
regional hub, and currently is under construction as part of an
expansion program. The island's reputation as a haven for cruise
ships will expand with the renovation and upgrading of its port and
pier facilities. The construction will give access to megaships,
promising more land-based business from cruise passengers in the
Water sports are a big attraction on St. Maarten, from swimming,
snorkeling and boating to more adventurous fare like parasailing
and scuba diving.
Duty-free shopping is another lure for visitors on the island's
Dutch side, with an array of shops located on Front Street in
downtown Philipsburg, the Dutch capital. Shopping here is fun and
often a bargain; Delft blue pottery, designer clothing, locally
produced guavaberry liqueurs and art all can be had, along with
imported Dutch cheese. In addition, more than 300 restaurants
islandwide offer diners an array of cuisines and price ranges from
which to choose.