Aruba Offers More Than Sand, Sea and Sunsets

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ORANJESTAD, Aruba -- Given a choice between a snowy mountain and a sandy beach, I prefer the cold. But my wife is from Miami, and my infant son howls when exposed to a chill. So this year I deferred to them, and we headed to Aruba.

I got a glimpse of the island's beauty some 15 years ago, as I looked out the window of a puddle-jumper circling Aruba during a stopover en route to Trinidad. About 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, Aruba is carpeted in some areas with green, scraggly vegetation and a few steep hills, while the north side is rugged, desert-like terrain, peppered with cacti and wild rock formations. White sand rings the south and west shores, and the azure water demands a visit.

It doesn't disappoint. The temperature hovers year-round at about 80 degrees. The water is gorgeous on the southern beaches with their sugary white sand. And Aruba's main source of income is tourism, so visitors are always made to feel welcome. In fact, the Aruba Tourism Authority is promoting the island with a new campaign: "Aruba -- 90,000 Friends You Haven't Met Yet."

More than a half-million Americans visit Aruba each year. Huge cruise ships dock daily at Oranjestad and disgorge crowds of passengers to shop or grab a meal in the crowded downtown. Our group of a dozen friends and family stayed a couple miles away, right off Eagle Beach in a condo development called Oceania Residences where visitors rent units from owners ( We had to cross a street to get to the beach, but we had unobstructed views of the sea from our rooms. On the beach, huts provided shade from the intense sun, and it was relatively quiet with few crowds.

The water is an intense light blue, but, at least, close to shore, there isn't much to see for snorkelers. A short drive northwest of Eagle Beach, high-rise hotels and restaurants line crowded Palm Beach. Businesses on the beach rent sailboats and windsurfboards, lead sunset cruises or provide fishing expeditions. We booked a snorkeling and sunset cruise aboard the 45-foot "Ali Kai" catamaran with Marcel's Watersports. For $45 a head, we got a three-hour cruise in which we sailed up toward the northern tip of Aruba to snorkel near Arashi and Malmok Beaches. Schools of fish crowded around as we swam through the clear, warm water. Parrotfish, filefish and sergeant major fish prowled through the water as starfish lurked on the bottom. We cruised back to Palm Beach as the sun set.

But Aruba offers more than the sea for outdoor adventurers. Much of the northern side of the island is wild. In fact, about 20 percent of the island's 70 square miles lies within park boundaries. The Arikok National Park has biking and hiking trails leading up to views of the rocky north coastline. Check out the unusual rock and cave formations, including natural rock bridges eroded by millennia of waves crashing into and undercutting the rocky coast. …