“Aye Carumba!” As his head bangs against the ceiling of the 4×4, our driver, Jonathan, starts channelling Bart Simpson, with a flood of inventive exclamations. From the rest of the car comes similarly creative language, as the tough, rocky terrain has us bouncing about like Mexican jumping beans on a bouncy castle. I grab the door handle, grit my teeth and try to concentrate on the dramatic landscape out the window, instead of the impending whiplash.
The scrubby desert landscape, textured with dark volcanic rock and replete with cacti fingers jutting menacingly from the ground, could be the sci-fi movie setting for another planet – it looks so wild and forgotten. It’s hard to believe just 20 minutes’ drive away there is civilisation, complete with white sandy beaches, high-rise hotel complexes and snuggling couples.
This is Aruba: an island of two contrasting halves. Known as a honeymoon destination, its paradise beaches are some of the Caribbean’s best. But away from the developed north-west, it’s quite a different place – one with great surf, rugged terrain and bags of potential for an off-road, off-grid adventure.
I’ve come for a week to the ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao – in search of something different from honeymoon heaven. And, here, on a jeep tour to the other side of the boomerang-shaped island, in the heart of Arikok National Park, I think I’ve found it.
As Jonathan maneuvers our 4×4 down a track that’s barely discernable from the rocky ground around it, we approach the coastal landmark of Dos Playas (“Two beaches”). A far cry from the island’s manicured Eagle Beach, here, massive waves crash down on a godforsaken stretch of white-hot sand, between two jagged rocky walls, giving the place the air of a forgotten frontier.
It might not be a Caribbean idyll but it’s beautiful in a powerful, primal way. It’s easy to imagine this as a landing spot for the buccaneers who once did their dodgy dealings in these waters, or a secret spot for a passionate love affair. The beaches on this side of the island are only safe for swimming when it’s calm, but they’re loved by the local surfers, who grab their boards and off-road their way over here by jeep or quad bike (the only way to access the park).
Camping is permitted here too, so some stay overnight, paying just a £15 permit per group – well worth the freedom from the usual hotels of the island’s more built-up areas.
As we continue our drive past the wild scenery, it’s not surprising the island has become a draw for surfers, with its great waves and chilled-out culture. A big Caribbean stew pot of influences, from local Arawak Indian, nearby Venezuelan and colonial Spanish and Dutch, means the people are laidback and friendly with an “anything goes” attitude. For them, life can be summed up with a five-letter word – “dushi”, which means ‘sweet’ in the local Papiamentu creole (a mix of Spanish, Dutch, English and African languages), and is liberally sprinkled into conversation to describe anything positive, from people to food.
Our small group of explorers soon picks up the lingo: ‘mi dushi’ means my darling, and is applied to anyone and everyone, while the bumper-sticker legend ‘dushi yiu’ (literally ‘sweet child’), is used to mean ‘awesome’.
Jeep safari over, it’s time to try out some of the other excitements on offer. Aside from the honeymooning, the ABCs are known for their wind- and kitesurfing, so the next morning I head to the wide bay known as Fisherman’s Huts, near the northern end of the island, where – even by 9am – the sky is filled with 30 or so adeptly manipulated kites, the horizon with brightly coloured windsurf sails.
The island’s stiff and steady trade winds mean it’s firmly on the radar as a destination for enthusiasts, and every June, it plays host to the Hi-Winds contest, where many of the top athletes in both disciplines compete for prizes.
Inspired by the uplifting sight of people zipping along in the wind, I rent a windsurfing rig from the local surf shop, and pretend to them and myself that I don’t need a lesson. I’m certain it can’t be that hard; in my mind I’m already off and running. Bam! My face hits the water with serious velocity. I get up, I fall off again. I go about two metres before falling once more.
Then I get into a rhythm … of falling. Tumbling headfirst into the ocean, then popping straight up out of the water and steadying my board before it can float away. “Stay there,” I growl through gritted teeth after a while, no longer wondering who’s watching me talk to myself, just filled with grim determination to conquer this sport. I don’t though, and eventually I get sick of trying, and sadly tug my rig back into shore, before sitting down to watch the other people during a slightly sulky sunbathe.
Determined to be successful at something, the next afternoon I jump aboard a catamaran and go snorkelling over the Antilla Wreck – one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean. This German freighter was deliberately sunk by its captain in 1945 (when the Germans invaded Holland during World War II) in order to avoid the ship falling into Dutch hands.
It’s massive, lurking like a huge, sinister shadow under the shiny, white sunbathing deck of our craft. Fuelled by the island’s trademark cocktail, the Aruba Ariba, which contains a crazy amount of 150-proof rum, vodka and banana liqueur, snorkeling feels more like flying than swimming. Ah, this is the life. A bit of ‘me’ time – something those smug couples are definitely missing out on.
Bonaire, diver’s paradise
I never thought it possible to get bored of seeing turtles but by the time I’ve counted 16 in the space of half an hour, I stop counting. The largest of the ABCs, Bonaire, is also the quietest, with a population of just 16,000 to Aruba’s 100,000. Its lack of development is due to the fact that – unlike on Aruba and Curacao – no gold was found here. Instead its natural treasures lie off shore, on a huge reef that hugs the north shore of the island, making it among the best dive destinations in the world.
My turtle spotting was part of a snorkeling excursion out to the off-shore island of Klein Bonaire, but most divers are drawn here for the 50+ shore-dive spots, marked with yellow stones, which make it easy to dive (or snorkel) straight from the beach.
Empty utes line the tree-lined coast road, abandoned as their owners hoist on heavy tanks and weight belts and waddle out into underwater paradise. Even from the land, the views are sensational – bleached coral beaches give way to turqoise shallows and then a rich, dark blue, as the sloping reefs drop away.
The island is the tip of a submerged mountain, so beginners (and snorkelers like me) can stay close to shore, near the summit, while more experienced divers have the potential for some proper exploration. Bonaire’s stubborn lack of development – no theme parks, no neon lights (or even traffic lights) – gives the island the air of a remote paradise, which visitors to Aruba’s high-rise area can only dream of.
There aren’t any pumping bars and nightclubs, but a handful of excellent restaurants in the island’s tiny capital, Kralendijk – the cerviche at It Rains Fishes is to die for – can offer a glass of wine in bars overlooking the harbour. When you’re there, I assure you, you’ll wonder: ‘who needs more than this?’
Curacao: Beaches and beats
Everyone knows this island from its famous export – the blue-coloured, orange-peel-based liquer found in cocktail bars the world over. But, as I discovered, the third island of the ABC trio has far more to offer than its eponymous spirit.
It has to-die for beaches, especially Blue Bay – a stunning curved stretch of white – and Santa Cruz, where Captain Goodlife (as much of a character as the name suggests) will take you out to the ‘Blue Room’, an underwater snorkelling cave. Away from the coast, the island is lusher and greener than its neighbours. Christoffel Park’s jungle-covered hills were a must-visit, both for the eerie plantation-house-ruins and for a hair-raising jeep tour around the park.
Willemstad, on the island’s south coast, is surely a candidate for the prettiest capital city in the Caribbean, with its waterfront rows of pastel-painted Dutch hausen, which give the place a toytown feel, and its Unesco World Heritage-rated old town, with crumbling colonial casas to rival Havana. Peering down the narrow back streets here, I was delighted to find local life on show: middle-aged ladies with their heads full of curlers, children and dogs running past, people chatting in the street. Unlike other Caribbean capitals, which can be run down and empty of tourists, Willemstad has a bustle and hum that speaks of a well-loved and busy city. In the evenings, many of the local rum bars in the city are filled with burly looking Curacaoans nursing glasses of luminous drinks or hunkering down over dominos. My favourite spot was the live music haunt Pampus, a new venue in the town centre, perched atop a pier on a lake. It crams in local salsa and cha cha enthusiasts, until the place is shaking with hip-swinging.
Wild Aruba, remote Bonaire, swinging Curacao: three islands, so different, each of them delightful in their own way. After a week’s island-hopping between them, you might choose a favourite, you might love all three. One thing is certain: you – like me – will go away knowing that three islands are definitely better than one.
Words Sarah Wawick
WHEN TO GO: Aruba has a steady climate of about 28-30ºC every day, with a strong breeze and low rainfall.
CURRENCY: £1= 2.86AWG (Aruban Florin).
ACCOMMODATION: Brickell Bay Beach Club & Spa (brickellbayaruba.com) is located on stunning Eagle Beach. Rooms from £557 per person per week. Camp at the Arikok National Park (arubanationalpark.org) for £110 per group per week, plus US$12 (about £7.50) daily entry fee to the park per person.
GETTING THERE: KLM flies from London Stansted to Aruba, via Amsterdam, from £722 return. (klm.com)