The Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao, known together with Bonaire as the Netherlands Antilles or ABC islands, are fast becoming must-sees for international travelers.
With their combination of Dutch colonial charm and tropical verve the ABC islands bring a new dimension to the Caribbean experience. Swaying palms and white beaches are complemented by a dramatic South American backdrop: Venezuela is only 17 miles away and the ABCs share an arid, cacti rich interior which is perfect for exploring on foot, by jeep and even on horseback.
The islands are increasingly popular as cruise ship destinations, (last year cruise ships calls to Aruba rose to 327 (from 299 in 2008) and passengers went up to 606,768 (from 556,090 in 2008).
One happy island is Aruba’s motto and the people on the islands live up to it. The local language here is Papiamentu – and everywhere you go from the casinos to the cunucu (countryside) you will hear a friendly ‘bonbini’ (welcome).
Most visitors start their visit to Aruba in the capital Oranjestaad with its bustling shopping malls, markets and restaurants.
As well as great beaches, Aruba is home to a number of indigenous species characteristic of its unique tropical desert climate. Historical sites such as the Fontein and Quadarikiri caves, which feature ancient Indian paintings can also be found in the Arikok National Park which makes up 20% of the island’s landmass, Tread carefully for this is also home to the Cascabel Aruban rattlesnake!
The graceful, southwest-bending shape of Aruba’s national tree, the watapana, or divi-divi, can be spotted all around the island.
What to see and do
The Archaeological Museum of Aruba reopened this year in a former family house in Oranjestaad, transformed to a state-of-the-art museum that preserves Aruba’s Amerindian cultural heritage, and covers 5,000 years of local history.
Aruban landmarks dotted along the coast include the picturesque yellow Alto Vista chapel overlooking the sea, the ruins of 18th Century Spanish gold mines. The Baby Natural Bridge and the California lighthouse.
The ‘wish-stone garden’ is a stretch of coastline covered almost entirely by small piles of rocks. Legend has it that you can have as many wishes as rocks you can pile on each other – but if the tower falls down, your dreams disappear.
Those who have enjoyed Arikok Park by day may be tempted to head back there after dark, on a unique Aruban full moon walking tour. The Moonlight Walks venture deep into Aruba’s desert-like interior to discover curious shapes and shadows cast by the moonlit cacti and rock formations
Aruba has over half a dozen wrecks submerged in its waters, including the spectacular Antilla, a 400-foot German freighter which dates from World War II, which is the largest wreck in the Caribbean. Snorkelling and snuba trips on one of the islands catamarans also provide a good way to see the wreck.
Where to eat
The Old Fisherman, Serving authentic Aruban home-style cooking right in the centre of town, The Old Fisherman is a cozy local eatery with seafood delicacies such as conch, shrimp, lobster tail, swordfish, fish cakes and catch of the day, www.theoldfishermanaruba.com
Where to drink
South of the island in San Nicolas, Aruba’s second largest city you will find one of Aruba’s oldest institutions. Charlie’s Bar, now encrusted with all kinds of memorabilia, opened in 1941. An Ariba Aruba is the island’s best-known cocktail made with Coecoei (a crimson liquor unique to Aruba) – or quench your thirst with an icy bottle of Balashi, the island’s own beer.
Where to stay
The Bucuti Beach Resort is a stylish, quiet resort at the low rise end of Aruba on the wide sweeping white Eagle beach with a spa and choice of restaurants and bars
Aruba Bucuti Beach resort & Tara Beach Suites, PO Box 1347 Eagle Beach, Aruba. www.bucuti.com
Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort is an intimate picturesque hotel housed in a pretty Dutch colonial building. It offers fine dining and a pristine white beach
JE Irausquin Blvd 252 Oraanjestad www.amsterdammanor.com
Divi Aruba Phoenix Beach is the latest hotel to open on the island, located in the high-rise hotel section along Aruba’s famed Palm Beach- a pure white sand beach dotted by palms and thatched shade cabanas www.diviarubaphoenix.com
Willemstad is a thriving town with fashionable shops, restaurants and pretty beaches nearby. Its floating Venezuelan market is popular with locals and visitors alike, where fishing boats are tethered together to display fresh produce and crafts. The pavement cafes make a perfect spot for coffee or a glass of Curacao – the islands own liqueur comes in a rainbow of colours and flavours. If you have chance visit the old distillery where the drink is still produced the original way.
Curacao has few UK visitors but those who venture here are charmed by its history kept alive throughout the island. Authentic plantation houses or landhuizen are open to the public. Some, such as Landhuis Dokerstuin, house restaurants and galleries.
What to see and do
Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Orobanda district is full of twisting alleyways bursting with good shops, restaurants and museums including, The Slavery Museum which houses fascinating African artefacts Willemstad also boasts the oldest working synagogue in the Western world: Mikve Israel-Emanuel.
In the city’s Punda district visitors can find Fort Amsterdam, built by the Dutch to protect the town.
Hato Caves, an elaborate network of stalactites and stalagmites with1,500 year old drawings as well as the Christoffel National Park, 4,446 acres teeming with exotic wildlife and gardens.
Den Paradera is a fascinating sensory herb garden where one learns about this regions variety of healing herbs and their uses www.dinahveeris.com. Enthusiasts will love the Mushroom Forest, an underwater jungle of 10-foot, mushroom-shaped star coral
Where to eat
Le Bistro Clochard in the Rif Fort area has lovely waterfront views over the old town and Willemstad’s famous pontoon bridge, nick named ‘the swinging old lady’. Fine dining with French and Swiss cuisine www.lebistroclcochard.com
Where to drink
The Grill King Family Steakhouse & Seafood is less formal and offers surf and turf, cocktails and the chance to dine on an ocean front terrace under the stars. www.waterfortterrace.net
Where to stay
Curacao has large resort hotels, mostly stretched along the protected south-west-facing coastline not far from Willemstad, but also some smaller characterful hotels.
The Avila Hotel is a family run elegant beachfront resort set around an 18th Century Manor House, Avila Hotel Penstraat 130 Box 791 Willemstad, Curacao, www.avilahotel.com
The newly opened Renaissance Curacao Resort & Casino is a step away from the historical Rif fort and boasts a 2nd floor elevated infinity pool with cabanas and sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea.
Renaissance Curacao Resort & casino. Willemstad, www.Renaissancecuracao.com
If visiting Aruba or Curacao, it is worth making the short journey to visit their little sister Bonaire.
A haven for divers, Bonaire is in the world’s top 4 diving spots. Scuba divers can enjoy the protected Bonaire Marine Park with more than 84 diving spots around the island.
The island has no large hotels but offers a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere perfect for getting away from it all. Travel between the islands is easy as ABC; Insel Air and Dutch Antilles Express operate short (30 minutes approx) flights between the three islands
Who cruises there?
★ Carnival www.carnival.com
★ Celebrity www.celebritycruises.co.uk
★ Crystal www.crystalcruises.com
★ Cunard www.cunard.co.uk
★ Disney www.disneycruise.co.uk
★ Fred Olsen www.fredolsen.com
★ Holland America www.hollandamerica.com
★ NCL www.ncl.co.uk
★ P&O www.pocruises.com
★ RCI www.royalcaribbean.com
★ Princess www.princess.com
★ Regent Seven Seas www.rss.com
★ Silversea www.silversea.com
★ Star Clippers www.StarClipperCruises.com
★ Thomson www.thomson.co.uk/cruises
★ Voyages of Discovery www.VoyagesofDiscovery.co.uk
★ Windstar www.windstarcruises.com
|Population||Aruba has a population of 100,000 approx and Curacao’s is around 150,000.|
|Climate||Aruba and Curacao are located outside the normal hurricane belt and so almost totally free from hurricanes – it is almost always dry and the average daytime temperature is 82°|
|Language||On all the ABC islands, Dutch is the official language, but Papiamentu is the local language spoken by the inhabitants, and English and Spanish are generally understood.|
|Currency||Officially the Dutch Guilder, but US Dollars are widely accepted|
|Time Zone||GMT -4|
|Dialling Codes||Aruba + 297, Curacao +599|