THIS BAR'S A REAL DIVE; Underwater 'Drinking' in the Caribbean Paradise of Aruba
Byline: Rachael Bletchly
I'M at the bottom of the Caribbean beside the wreckage of a plane, holding a wine bottle in one hand and a sea spider in the other.
Beside me is a diver feeding a three-foot parrotfish from a baby's bottle as his mate takes pictures of my stunned expression.
You see, I don't do "underwater", not since I was five and my brother threw me in the pool at Pontins Camber Sands and held me down.
Yet here I am, a mere four decades later, exploring the magical world beneath the brine with the help of a special helmet and a long-suffering team of divers.
This surreal aquatic adventure is called SeaTrek, and it was one of the highlights of an incredible week's holiday in Aruba.
"Where?" I hear you ask, like most of the colleagues who commented on my tan and relaxed demeanour when I returned.
Aruba is a tiny island 15 miles off northern Venezuela. It's also the western-most of the Dutch Antilles and the "A" in the so-called ABC Islands with Bonaire and Curacao.
Just 20 miles long and six miles wide, it's outside the region's hurricane belt, has year-long sun and an average temperature of 28C.
From the moment I arrived and the first of the island's 100,000 endlessly helpful locals beamed and said "Bonbini Dushi!" (Hello, Sweetie), it was clear happiness is hardwired into the Aruban DNA.
The island is one of the most welcoming holiday spots I've ever visited. No wonder more than 60 per cent of its 600,000 annual tourists have been here before.
And while it's not the cheapest Caribbean destination (the casinos and designer shops are always full of wealthy American visitors and the 500 cruise ship passengers who pass through each year), it's certainly one of the most stunning.
Its white, sandy beaches have been voted the second best in the world and the sea is so clear, my friends thought I had airbrushed all my holiday pictures.
The one photo everyone brings home from Aruba is of the iconic watapana, or "divi divi" trees - the island's emblem.
These twisted trees always point south west, where most of the tourists are. So they're a good way to find your way home after one too many delicious Aruba Ariba cocktails or Balashi beers.
The trees grow that way because of the island's strong trade winds. And, trust me, the Aruba "breeze" is REALLY strong.
This makes it a brilliant place for watersports such as windsurfing, sailing and kitesurfing. But it also accounts for a lot of holidaymakers with Jedward-style hair.
Aruba has a homegrown solution for sunburn - the aloe vera it's been growing and exporting since the 1890s. The Aruba Aloe Museum offers guided tours and all you never wanted to know about this strange-looking healing plant.
It's worth a visit, if only to stock up on the 50 hair and body products in the gift shop.
Spanish explorers travelled to Aruba 500 years ago in search of gold, naming it after the phrase "oro huba" - meaning "there was gold".
Except there wasn't - or so the Spanish thought when they gave up mining and left empty-handed.
Then, in 1824, the Dutch turned up and struck gold. Rather than share the wealth, they carted it home to their royal family, a fact that still rankles with locals today.
But despite its gold reserves being exhausted, Aruba's still a gem of an island, with plenty of natural history and a stunning contrast between the northern and southern shores.
The southern beaches are glorious, especially the Baby Beach.
It's just down the road from Saint Nicolas, the district known as Sunset City, and is the perfect place for a spot of lounging.
Don't miss the famous Charlie's Bar, decked out in memorabilia left behind by visitors over the past 50 years, including licence plates and a whole load of knickers!
The north of the island is rugged and dramatic, with rock formations, natural bridges, cacti and deserted gold mines. …