Aruba: One Happy Island
As kids in school in Holland we learned about The Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. We were thrilled that these islands were included in our ship’s itinerary and that we’d finally get to see each one.
Again we did our homework before leaving home. I studied the map of Aruba on Google Maps and read about the island. Aruba sounded like the most ‘party island’ of the three. One comment on TripAdvisor suggested that this is a good place to rent a car. We thought that was a brilliant idea. On Google Maps I found a car rental place right next to the pier and booked a small car for the day. An excursion only to the Lighthouse would have cost us 65.- per person. Now we had a car to ourselves, all day, for about 45.- plus taxes and fees, about 73.- total.
We got a map from the car rental place and headed south along the very busy, touristy boulevard. It was so interesting to see traffic signs and street names all in Dutch. Even the traffic rules are the same as in Holland: traffic coming from the right has the right of way; no right turns on a red light.
From Oranjestad we drove to Sint Nicolaas and beyond, We stopped at a white sand beach along azure waters. We watched some kite suffers on this very windy day. Then we proceeded to drive every main road, across the island to the far side, all the way north and back again.
We stopped at, what turned out to be, a very popular bakery. They had lots of Dutch things and everyone speaks Dutch. “We learn five languages in school,” someone told us, “Dutch, English, Spanish, Papiamento and Portuguese”. It was fun to be able to chat with someone in several languages mixed together.
The currency was even more mixed up. Prices in the tourist area were posted in US dollars. But in more local shops, like the bakery, the cash register showed Antilles guilders. We were told we could also use euros.
The license plates here have the slogan: One Happy Island. We thought it would be fun for our grandkids to have one of these old license plates, if we could find one. We stopped at an old garage and tire place. “Oh, we just threw out a bunch yesterday…” the guy told us, in Dutch. At the next garage, they didn’t have any either but a customer overhead and said “Just follow me home and I’ll give you one.” So we did… and now we have both a souvenir and a story.
We drove all the way to the northern Lighthouse and then back along the shore to Oranjestad. It seemed to us that most of the older, smaller homes for locals were in the south end. It was a bit dilapidated, with lots of little beer shops and night clubs. The northern end, however, had endless rows of newly constructed, and still being constructed, apartment buildings and condo’s. Signs pointed to “high rise hotels” and “low rise hotels” with casino’s sprinkled in for good measure.
The water front in Oranjestad was choked with tourists, busses and other traffic. It was very touristy and did seem to live up to its reputation as a party island.
For many years I had seen photos of a picturesque, pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water. Willemstad, Curacao. I didn’t think I’d ever see the place in person so I was excited when I saw that this was one stop on our cruise itinerary.
The three Caribbean islands have been a Dutch colony for hundreds of years. In 2010 the islands wanted autonomy and some separation from The Netherlands took place. Now, they are not independent because that would have meant loss of social services, European citizenship and economic support. But the islands are ruled almost like a Dutch municipality, albeit remote.
The ship docks here just outside the town. We walked first through a total tourist trap: the old stone remnants of the city fort have been turned into a corridor of shops and restaurants that steer visitors right through it, no way around. It’s even hard to find the exit into town.
But after that we strolled the quay and crossed into city center over the Queen Emma Bridge, a long wooden swing bridge. To our delight a sail ship had to pass so the bridge swung open to let it through, a fascinating system. People can even stay on the bridge as it swings open and back again.
Stretching across the far side of town is the large blue arch of the newer Queen Juliana Bridge.
We strolled through quiet, Sunday morning streets. Most shops were closed but we found a nice coffee shop with wifi along the water. It was like being in Delft or any other historic Dutch town. The very same architecture, alley ways, even products (Heineken and Amstel…). All signs are in Dutch and everyone speaks it.
We walked by the floating market, crossed a square, saw the churches. Then we crossed back across the swing bridge (there is also a free ferry but it didn’t seem to have a schedule on Sunday morning) and walked into the other, slightly rougher side of town. This seemed less geared at visitors and more at locals. We found little shops and eateries with signs mostly in Papiamento. We ventured into one little cafeteria and ordered croquettes and beer before strolling back to the ship.
One of my best friends was born and raised on Curacao so it was a really neat experience to see her place of origin. With cascading bougainvilleas and a laid-back atmosphere, Curacao certainly seemed like a good place to spend time in the winter! And I’m grateful I finally got to see that pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water in that remote Dutch settlement.
Bonaire: The Diving Place
Of all the places we visited on this trip, Bonaire is the island I would have liked to spend more time. Judging from our brief visit, it seemed the most natural of the three with huge green areas and nature parks. As the license plate states, Bonaire is ‘The Diving Place’.
From the ship we saw a long skinny island stretching north and south from the town of Kralendijk. We joined the group that had signed up for a glass bottom kayak and snorkelling tour. We walked down to where the kayaks were stacked along the beach, donned our life jackets and paddled across the bay to a strip of white beach further south. It was a very windy day so we battled good waves. Thanks to the glass bottom in our sit-upon kayak we could see the corral and sand on the bottom.
After a tricky landing on the beach, through a narrow path in the corral reef, we beached the kayaks and snorkelled for a while. Loads of little blue fishes, tiny bright yellow ones… I always love snorkelling in warm waters. Our (Dutch) guides were perfect and I highly recommend a trip with them if you ever visit Bonaire: http://www.kayaktoursbonaire.com
After our kayak adventure, we still had a few hours so we walked briskly all over town to explore some more. We picked up diving information for our diving son, chatted with locals, found the dive shop, and of course found another great coffee place with wifi.
On the way back to the dock we came across the cutest Dutch pub and couldn’t resist sitting in the typical wicker patio chairs with a Dutch beer.
Bonaire seemed less touristy to us, perhaps a bit more planned, less tacky than Aruba which had life size plastic cows and horses all over the place…
This is our last stop and we drag our feet getting back on board because now we will spend 4 nights and 3 full days steaming back north to New York. We dread the upcoming temperature change…. But in two days it will be Valentine and, just before we leave this last, lovely Caribbean island, Kees buys me a little piece of Bonaire: a gorgeous necklace with a aqua coloured piece of glass that will always remind us that we’d like to return to these exotic islands some day.