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When I first got to Aruba, I thought, "Dang, this place is really built up. And flat." I thought it would be more tropical and hilly. But there were only buildings and cactus, as far as the eye could see. Whatever, it's Aruba. "One Happy Island," as it markets itself.
We don't drink, but I expected a lot of drunk tourists in Aruba, and I wasn't let down. They stumbled all over downtown Oranjestad, many pouring out from the cruise port with their all-you-can-drink wrist bands and plenty of glassy-eyed young women yelling at their boyfriends that they can walk on their own, thank-you-very-much.
Speaking of downtown Oranjestad, there isn't a deal to be found. It's full of expensive jewelry shops and glitzy stores like Louis Vuitton, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci and Ralph Lauren.
It was also crowded. Aruba gets more than 1.5 million visitors per year, the most of the A-B-C islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao.)
Yet, Aruba dished out a surprisingly wonderful family vacation. Here's why:
1. The climate
Aruba has the most temperate climate of all the Caribbean islands, with an average yearly daytime temperature of 82 degrees. The constant cool breezes of the trade winds ensure cooler days, yet also manage not to pelt you with stinging sand at the beach. The island gets less than 20 inches of rainfall per year and has the world's best drinking water (right after Canada.) Best of all, Aruba is not on the hurricane belt, so when you book your summer tickets, you can be sure your vacation won't be ruined by a Cat 5 party-pooper.
2. The four-wheeling
I've done my fair share of four-wheeling while growing up in the Southwest, but Aruba served up the best four-wheeling I've ever experienced. Most of Aruba's east side is still pristine, including the island's sizable Arikok National Park, where you can find caves, cliffs, natural bridges, ocean pools and some of the rockiest terrain called a "road" that you will ever encounter. The bounces, dips, tilts and jolts of your vehicle are fierce, and your thrill-seeking kids will love it—when their heads aren't buried in your armpits, that is. The only downside is the driver has to concentrate so hard on the road it's hard to see the stark wild beauty of the island's largely uninhabited east side.
3. The deep sea fishing. Also not for the faint of heart, but the experience of a lifetime. The same winds that cool you off make the water extremely choppy, so if you're prone to seasickness, forget it. I had to slide on my butt just to get to the bathroom. That said, we caught hundreds of dollars worth of tuna and mahi mahi, then went to a restaurant that prepared it with several sides and sauces for only $10 a person. We ate this way for three nights, which more than covered the cost of the excursion. And there's nothing like watching your kids reel in a 20-pound fish from the open sea.
I stayed for 10 hours, completely sober and focused on the game. I left with $500, and was quite proud of myself, until I returned to the hotel and my son told me that my husband was out with the Aruban police looking for me.
4. The snorkeling
The reefs and shipwrecks around Aruba make it a prime snorkeling destination, and there is a place for every level of swimmer. We chartered a private boat, which was actually cheaper than taking one of the "booze cruises," which most snorkel operators offer. Not only did we get the reefs to ourselves, we also got to decide how long we wanted to stay. We saw thousands of multi-colored fish and corals. Also a few barracuda. But the most fun was a giant cloud of minnows. It was so massive, my daughter swam away in terror like she'd seen a great white. But the minnows wanted nothing to do with us, really. Soon we realized they were like a giant interactive toy. If we stayed vertical and twisted in circles, for instance, we could make a giant minnow tornado and watch thousands of little silver fish circle around us at a respectful distance. We could swim straight through the cloud and never touch a single one. The cloud would change shape to accommodate the movements of our bodies.
Family means grown-ups, too. My husband doesn't like to gamble much, which is fine with me, because it's cheaper. Almost all of the resorts have casinos. But be warned, Aruba might be the Bingo capital of the world. Every time I tried to play Blackjack, the tables were closed and swarmed with Bingo players. I finally headed downtown to a 24-hour casino that had an open $10 minimum Blackjack table. I had never actually won at Blackjack.
At the hotel, my son and I found an MIT-tested method of Blackjack online, which suggested when it was statistically best to hit, stay, split or double-down. My daughter filled out a little cheat sheet and colored it with crayons. Armed with my MIT education, I lost all track of time. I stayed for 10 hours, completely sober and focused on the game. I left with $500, and was quite proud of myself, until I returned to the hotel and my son told me that my husband was out with the Aruban police looking for me. When they returned, my husband made me come out and explain myself to the Aruban police. They were quite jolly about it. They'd taken my husband to about 10 casinos, where he got the royal treatment. They got to visit all of their friends in casino security. They said they understood my Bingo problem. And they applauded my husband for buckling his seat belt in the back seat. My husband finally got to meet some locals, and he calmed down considerably when he saw my stack of Benjamins.