Northeast coast of Aruba lies far from the madding crowd

Associate editor Kimberly Scholz explored Aruba by foot, motorcoach, taxicab and horse. Her report follows:

ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- This island's resemblance to Arizona is striking.

Its dry, desert-like landscape, sparse cunucu (countryside), five types of cacti and the native divi divi, a tree bent at a 45-degree angle by the constant trade winds, seem almost out of place in the Caribbean.

Huge boulders are strewn about the interior, and a relentless surf pounds the cliffs on the barren northeast coast.

But Aruba also boasts white-sand beaches with tiki huts and palm trees that line the southwestern shores.

Visitors to this island are familiar with Oranjestad, the capital, where cruise ships dock.

It is a swirl of activity, with shopping, nightlife, restaurants and access to tours.

The city is 20 minutes from Palm Beach, site of Butterfly Farm Aruba. When I walked into the mesh-covered garden of the Butterfly Farm, my jaw dropped.

Hundreds of butterflies in all colors and sizes fluttered about, many settling on a table of rotting fruit, which owner Lori Cox called the fruit bar.

"The best time to visit is early morning," she said. "By afternoon, they are almost drunk from the fruit."

Butterfly Farm Aruba opened last year and welcomes visitors daily. Admission entitles visitors to repeat entry.

Outside of Oranjestad are other worthwhile diversions, such as San Nicolas, Aruba's second largest city, about 30 minutes away.

During the early part of the 20th century, San Nicolas was home to a large oil refinery that supplied jobs to local residents and Americans who came to run it.

When Exxon closed the refinery in 1986, the economy declined, businesses closed and people left the area.

Today, San Nicolas and its surrounding areas of Savaneta, Seroe Colorado and Arikok National Park are undergoing a renaissance.

San Nicolas is attracting businesses and visitors with new housing, a shopping center and a spruced-up approach road.

The district is dedicated to tourism and plans to open a visitors center with an outdoor crafts and food market, a park and a museum of Caribbean culture, according to the Aruba Tourism Authority.

San Nicolas' famous landmark is Charlie's Bar, which has greeted patrons for more than 50 years.

The interior is plastered with old license plates, random articles of clothing and items apparently salvaged from a garbage dump.

What else is there to see and do in this part of Aruba? The bartender and patrons advised me to head for Baby Beach in Seroe Colorado, a few miles down the road.

Seroe Colorado was a community for American workers until the refinery closed.

It is now being revitalized like San Nicolas, with new construction and plans for a 300-room hotel, a conference center, a bowling alley and a housing development.

Down a bumpy dirt road I found a snack bar and a beach protected by a manmade reef.

Youngsters waded several yards from the shore in waist-high calm waters, lending the beach its name, Baby Beach.

The beach is accessible by cab or rental car from San Nicolas, which is served by bus.

In stark contrast is nearby Arikok National Park, a preserve that encompasses 18% of the island.

Walking paths and lookout points help visitors spot mountain goats, rabbits and lizards.

Bottled water and sturdy walking shoes are required for the trails, some of which are steep and not advisable for the very young or very old.

Best time to visit is early in the day, before it gets too hot.

Arikok also is home to the Cunucu Arikok, a restored native house, and cave systems with names like Fontein, Guadiriki, Huliba and the Tunnel of Love.

Another way to explore Aruba is by motorcoach.

Local operator De Palm Tours operates a fleet of air-conditioned motorcoaches and minivans, offering a variety of half- and full-day excursions.

I joined one outing, which stopped at Santa Anna's Catholic Church, built in Noord near Palm Beach in 1776.

Its ornately carved altar, which took 10 years to construct, was donated by a church in the Netherlands in 1908.

The dark wood altar stretches from floor to ceiling.

The church holds Sunday services and is open for walk-in visits daily.

Next was the Bushiribana Gold Mine, or what's left of it.

The mine was built in 1872 but abandoned 10 years later.

The view from the top was spectacular. I even thought I might find a stray piece of gold lying around.

Tour guide Nixon Blanco nixed that idea.

"If you find gold on a tour of an abandoned mine, the government ruled that you must give it to the guide," he joked.

Other stops on the itinerary were California Lighthouse and the Natural Bridge, both great photo opportunities.

Horseback is another way to explore Aruba.

Near the high-rise hotels on Palm Beach is Rancho Notorious, named after a Marlene Dietrich movie.

The theme lives on in the horses' names -- Al Capone, Rocky Marciano, Jesse James, Madonna, Evita, and so on.

My horse, Joe Dalton, a tame guy with a mind of his own regarding direction, gave me a thrilling view of the barren northeastern coast.

In the distance, I saw the tiny Alto Vista Chapel, built in 1750 and surrounded by boulders, sea and cacti.

The two-hour horseback tour gave me time to visit the one-room chapel with its mustard-colored walls and the raging sea beyond.

I had visited Alto Vista the day before, but the approach on horseback made the second visit even better.

This time, I better appreciated the area's views and desolation. This visit gave me the chance to reflect on the peace and beauty of Aruba.

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