Dutch Caribbean: Where Clients Can Go Dutch

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 their clients.

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.

ARUBA

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.

BONAIRE

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, Klein Bonaire.

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

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 List.

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.

SABA/ST. EUSTATIUS

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 Bay.

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 such tours.

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 homelike atmosphere.

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 gardens.

ST. MAARTEN

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 different.

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 tourists.

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 future.

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.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI