By Justin Cohen
For a non-swimmer who had studiously avoided the sea throughout his adult life, paddle-boarding, just one of an endless raft of watersports offered on Aruba’s Palm Beach, was not a part of the trip I was relishing.
In fact, the very mention of standing on a large surfboard in the middle of a deep ocean while paddling to ensure I didn’t drift too far was enough for me to forewarn our local guide Jonathan and instructor Dennis that I’d be steering well clear.
But buoyed by a life-jacket, Dennis’ reassurance that I “couldn’t drown yourself even if you tried” and a little peer pressure from the other journalists I was travelling with, it wasn’t long before I found myself ‘walking on water’, quickly discovering the thrill that’s seen paddle-boarding become the world’s fastest-growing recreational sport.
That enjoyment was no doubt enhanced by the fact I stayed on my feet, ensuring that the people of Aruba (and I) remained blissfully unaware of just how panicked I might get if I had toppled over. And though I’ve some way to go before Dennis will be quivering in his flippers at the prospect of facing me in any water-based challenge, I could hardly have chosen a more idyllic place to become better acquainted with the ocean; so central is beach life here that it’s reflected in the island’s flag.
For those longing for the wet stuff even while indulging in a spot of shopping, there’s even a speed boat travelling within the high-end Renaissance Mall in the capital Oranjestad to ferry guests of the Renaissance Resort and Spa to a private island.
Located in the southern Caribbean 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is home to just 110,000 people, the vast majority of whom work in the tourist industry. Now a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands with its own government (currently headed by Jewish prime minister Mike Eman) and currency (florin), Aruba has two official languages, Dutch and Papiamento, though most Arubans are also fluent in English.
The island is best known for its striking beauty, but it also made its mark on history through its Lago oil refinery, a major supplier of aviation fuel to the Allies during the Second World War.
Dutch Caribbean influences are very much in evidence in the capital, where bold pink-and-white buildings along streets lined with malls, bars and shops, including jewellery stores aplenty, give the appearance you’ve chanced on some sort of model village.
With bright colours at every turn and temperatures rarely below 26C, combined with a regular breeze ensuring mosquitos aren’t an issue. Little wonder Aruba’s motto is One Happy Island.
The seven miles along Palm Beach, home to big-name high-rise hotels and no fewer than 150 restaurants, and Eagle Beach, named repeatedly as one of the world’s best, provide ideal swimming conditions and never appear too crowded.
All 203 rooms at the all-inclusive Divi Aruba hotel where we stayed – one of four in the Divi group – sit tantalisingly close to the perfect white sand and azure-blue waters of Eagle. Baby Beach, so named because the water is so shallow that even children can wade far out, and Mangrove High Beach are also worthy of special mention.
This hidden treasure is entered through a natural cove created by said mangrove trees to reveal a jaw-dropping landscape that’s every inch what you’d dream a Caribbean paradise to be. Even this (previously) self-confessed water-phobe found himself pleading for “just another 10 minutes” when Jonathan beckoned us to leave the latter.
As I lay back in the clear, shallow waters, basking in the afternoon heat, my only challenge was to pinch myself to confirm this was all real while ensuring pictures were taken to prove to family and friends that such a place actually exists beyond the pages of travel magazines. Alongside banana boating, kayaking, deep-sea fishing and windsurfing, for which Aruba is a leading destination, the island is celebrated as the wreck-diving capital of the Caribbean.
A half-day cruise from Pelican Watersports combines the chance to snorkel at the site of the sinking of the Antilla, a German ship scuttled by its own crew rather than surrender to the advancing Dutch forces in 1940, with an on-board party atmosphere fuelled by Latin dancing, free bar and the catchphrase: “The more you drink the less your ticket costs.”
While Aruba’s south and west coasts are the focus for water babies new and more seasoned, the interior of the northeast coast stands in stark contrast.
Offering landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place as backdrops for a space film, numerous varieties of cacti and dramatic rock formations, this, Jonathan insisted, is the “real” Aruba he’d show visitors with just a few hours on the island.
The Arikok National Park, covering a fifth of the island’s land mass, is home to medicinal plants and wildlife including the endangered Arubian rattlesnake. Other highlights include 1,000-year-old drawings left on granite rocks by the Caquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe, Aruba’s first inhabitants, and the 500-foot Quadirikiri limestone cave, which stands where the coastline once was.
Fossilised crustaceans and coral are embedded in the walls of a cave carved out by water over thousands of years, while the light streaming through holes created by the once-gushing water creates spectacular picture opportunities. Horse-riding, quad-biking and Jeep safaris are all available to explore this coast.
Visitors can step into the ruins of the Bushiribana works, built by the London-based Aruba Island Gold Mining company in 1890, where gold was brought to be melted into bars. Stop at the nearby ‘wishing gardens’ to join a decades-old tradition of stacking rocks three high before making a wish. Though even a brief stroll around the coast under the afternoon sun is no mean feat, those looking for a real workout as well as a fun challenge should head for one of five facilities on the island now offering beach tennis.
For those who want to learn from the pros, the world’s best will take to 20 specially-erected courts on Eagle Beach next month when Aruba plays host to one of the circuit’s major tournaments.
Hearing Cado de Vreede, the island’s top ranked player, hail my serve was a highlight of a brief coaching session, even if I struggled to win a single point off him. Note to sporting world: I’ve no plans to give up the day job.
But for those days when Divi Aruba guests have no desire to move beyond the comfort of the resort, activities from beach games to movie nights and lessons in everything from Papiamento to salsa and windsurfing ensure there’s something for the whole family.
When it’s time to give your taste buds a good workout, guests have eight dining options, including the chance to sample the eateries at the nearby Tamarjin Aruba without any extra charge.
Those venturing out can enjoy what the publicity material describes as “an international culinary tour”; perhaps not surprising for an island that’s home to people of 96 nationalities. Though shellfish and seafood are staples in Aruba, there’s plenty of kosher fish on offer; I managed six varieties in five days including three I’d not previously heard of.
For local treats, I’d highly recommend the pan bati (flat bread) and pan bati hasa (fried flat bread), while Sam at the Old Canucu restaurant will personally prepare you a cocktail using the cashew fruit liquor he produces for local supermarkets. No visit to Aruba with your other half would be complete without a meal at Pinchos; perched on a pier in Oranjestad. You would struggle to find a more romantic dinner location.
For those willing to fork out around £60 per head, White restaurant delivers on its promise of “an exquisite dining experience”, including an enthusiastic description of every course as it arrives at your table. You will need to save plenty of room for dessert though, as the ‘chef’s ice cream tasting’ is something to behold.
Believe me, you’ll thank me when you see it. If it’s a taste of Judaism you’re after, you’ll find a fully functioning community in the recently-renovated Beth Israel synagogue, which hosts a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service as well as regular culture and Hebrew classes.
Huge Stars of David on its glass facade mean you can’t miss the shul, while a sign reading ‘rabbi’s home’ on the building next door confirmed my arrival at the home of the community’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Kripper. As I reflect on the relative safety of the community compared to their parts of the world, the Argentine-born rabbi ensures the envy levels are ratcheted up further: “We’ve recently introduced monthly havdalah sessions on the beach,” he tells me.
“Most people are surprised when they find an organised community with such a building and all kinds of activities.”
Reflecting on the fact he oversees around 10 weddings a year, Rabbi Kripper adds: “It’s the most stunning setting. You don’t have to sell Aruba – it sells itself.” Two Jews, three opinions? Not this time.