Aruba: Weathering a Storm

She went with her classmates to the lovely island of Aruba, and it’s been two months since high school senior Natalee Holloway was last seen as part of a graduation trip.

But even with the mystery of her whereabouts hanging like a dark cloud over her family, friends, tourists and the people of Aruba, this island is still considered a safe place to visit.

I was there last month while the search was in full force. Tourists joined the hunt for Natalee one day along with the townspeople. Today, the search continues, with everyone concerned and haunted by the notion of what could have happened to her.

They’ve looked through the rugged terrain, numerous caves and water all around the island, using state-of-the-art equipment. They’ve drained ponds near the hotel where Natalee was staying and searched a landfill. They’ve flown F16s, used cadaver-sniffing dogs, volunteers flown in from Texas, the FBI … and still no trace of the beautiful 18-year-old.

The reward for information leading to her whereabouts has reached $100,000. The reward for her safe return now stands at $1 million.

But life does go on, as it does everywhere, including on this tiny island in the southern Caribbean less than four hours from Philadelphia and just miles away from the coast of Venezuela. It’s an island where hurricanes are no threat — an unusual situation in the Caribbean. With a year-round average temperature of 82 degrees and low humidity, it makes for a perfect getaway any time.

Aruba is an easy island to get to know, and equally easy to love, far yet close enough from home for adventure, but small and friendly enough to feel like a second home despite recent headlines.

During its long and varied history, the Spaniards discovered and laid claim to Aruba in 1499, but seemed to have had relatively low regard for the land. This minimal interest eventually led the Dutch to take over Aruba in 1636. Through changing economic fortunes and various immigrations, the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) were part of the Netherlands Antilles.

However, claiming its autonomy from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986, Aruba is now a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The official language is Dutch. The native language is called Papiamento, though English and Spanish are also widely spoken and understood.

And how about Hebrew? The first Jews settled in Aruba in 1753. Until 1924, the total Jewish population was less than 30. However, after that year, a number of immigrants came to the island from Holland, Suriname (in northeastern South America) and Eastern Europe.

A Jewish center was established in 1942, and in 1962, the Beth Israel Synagogue in Oranjestad was dedicated. Today, the Jewish population on the island is still quite small, but this conservative synagogue endures with a membership of about 35 families.

There’s also a glatt-kosher deli in Aruba, which opened in December, due to calls from numerous tourists (and islanders alike) looking for challah, corned beef, rye bread and all those other delicious foods that have served our taste buds well for years.

The small island, measuring just 20 miles by six miles, has its 27 luxury hotels lined up neatly along the southwestern shore known as Palm Beach. The shops and sights of Oranjestad, the capital, are nearby, and this is where we stayed at the beautiful Renaissance Aruba Resort. Newly renovated and just minutes from Queen Beatrix International Airport, the hotel’s guestrooms are divided between two towers.

Some say — and I agree — that the best part about this hotel is its private island located just off the shore of Sunset Beach. It’s all a little like Disney World; a private water taxi arrives in the Marina Hotel lobby and takes off for the private dock every 15 minutes.

Butterflies and Ostriches

This capital city has a sunny Caribbean atmosphere, with Dutch colonial buildings painted in vivid colors. The main thoroughfare runs along the waterfront and abounds with marinas, shopping malls, restaurants and bars.

Nearby is Queen Wilhelmina Park, named after one of Holland’s longest ruling monarchs, and featuring manicured lawns, colorful fishing boats, busy outdoor markets and more.

Once you’ve settled in, there are several interesting things to see. We started with the Butterfly Farm, home to 32 different species of butterflies from around the world. Guided tours are given of this real working farm, where butterflies are raised from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.

There’s also the Aruba Ostrich Farm, which provides an educational experience with an incubator-cum-hospital on site. You could also choose to stop at the Bubali Bird Sanctuary or the Donkey Sanctuary if you have the time.

In the 1400s and 1500s, adventurers traveled throughout the Caribbean in search of wealth and treasures. According to legend, one of these treasure islands was named “Oro Ruba” (“red gold”), hence Aruba. A colorful history of gold prospectors has shaped the island’s legacy. Today, remnants of this history can still be visited at Burshiribana gold mill ruins.

Perhaps Aruba’s No. 1 tourist attraction is the Natural Bridge, and spectacular Casibari and Ayo rock formations. It’s called the Natural Bridge because it rises 25 feet above the sea, and spans a hundred feet of rock-strewn waters carved out of solid coral by centuries of relentless pounding by the Atlantic surf.

Equally attractive to tourists is the old stone California lighthouse, named for the off-shore wreck of the famous ship “California.” Perched on a high seaside elevation, the lighthouse has become one of Aruba’s scenic trademarks and offers a picture-perfect view of the island’s western coastline of sandy beaches, though it’s attracted more attention these days because of the Holloway mystery.

Back in Oranjestad are a number of small but interesting museums, including the Numismatic Museum, the Archeological Museum, and the Historical Museum and Access Art Gallery.

If you have time, be sure to visit Aruba’s second largest city, San Nicolas. For years, one of the main reasons visitors have found their way to this end of the island was to drop in at Charlie’s Bar, which has brought famous people from around the world. This small town is now starting to develop itself into an “alternative” tourist destination.

Aruba, despite the problems now marring its reputation, could be one of the best places you’ll ever decide to see. u

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