The Dutch ABC's South of the Keys ... Farther South Than Jamaica, Saint Croix, Martinique ... the Netherlands Antilles, Once Desert Isles, Have Been Transformed by Dutch Industriousness and a Vibrant Cultural Mix into a Tourist's Best Buy

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The Dutch ABCs

You never need worry about a fast-moving cold front spoiling your stay in the Dutch ABCs--Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, just 60 miles off the Venezuelan coast. Their temperature varies little from the average of 81| F. (yet it never seems even that hot, thanks to constant trade winds from the east). Rainfall seems almost nonexistent--only 20 inches a year.

But the excellent climate is only part of the ABCs' allure. Many islanders, for instance, are descended from the Dutch and intermixed with other stocks to create their own unique culture, including a special language called "Papiamento,' a blend of English, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. But not to worry: Most everyone speaks several languages, including excellent English.

Happily, present-day islanders retain the Dutch traditions of politeness, cleanliness, and efficiency. Most important, they are genuinely friendly people who welcome visitors. Their bright, whitewashed buildings with colorful orange roofs crowd the waterfront and reflect the quaint charm of their mother country. Offset against the deep blue sky and turquoise green water, the dwellings seem too toylike to be real.

The vividness of the buildings is a remarkable contrast to the desert-like terrain of each island's interior: Large cacti and scrub are the ABCs' main natural vegetation. Early explorers cut down all the trees for shipbuilding.

Aruba

Aruba, only 19.6 miles long and 6 miles across at its widest point, is best known for two things: beautiful palm-lined beaches and shopping. The beaches, some of the cleanest and brightest in the Caribbean, seem to stretch on forever, making them ideal for early-morning and late-evening walks. The major luxury hotels that crowd the beachfront range from the elegant locally owned Tamarijn Beach Hotel to such big international chains as Holiday Inn, Americana, and Sheraton.

The shopping is nicely centered in one area of brightly painted stores along Nassaustraat in the main city of Oranjestad. Because cruise ships stop regularly, the shopping complex has grown into one of the most sophisticated and varied in the entire Caribbean.

Though Oranjestad is definitely the hub of Aruba, you'll find a great deal to see on this tiny island. The roads are good but many are unmarked: Visitors can either consult the local road maps frequently or take their bearings from the ever present divi-divi trees. The divi-divis (which according to locals grow sideways instead of upward) are all bent permanently in one direction--southwest --by the easterly trades.

A tour of Aruba should include the rugged north coast, site of the largest and most perfectly formed natural bridge in the Caribbean. Near the center of the island, at Casibari, is another natural curiosity, rock formations mimicking the shapes of various animal heads.

You'll find plenty of curious manmade objects on Aruba as well. Along the doorways and windows of many cottages you'll see ornate carvings of flowers and strange symbols carved into concrete--hex signs, made to ward off evil spirits . . . yet this is a very Christian population. And near the Aruba Sheraton is De Olde Molen (The Old Windmill), a full-size windmill brought over from Holland. It's still in operation, not as an energy source but as a very popular and unusual restaurant.

Another interesting stop is Spanish Lagoon, where pirates supposedly hid their booty and where some of the treasure may still be waiting to be found. …