Travel: One Happy Island; A Happy Island in the Sun, Is How Aruba Is Described. and as a Country That Offers Travellers a Safe Caribbean Destination, It Is One That Will Prove a Hit in Years to Come. Lisa Piddington Visits the Former Dutch Colony That Lies Just off the Coast of Venezuela
Byline: Lisa Piddington
The Caribbean has long been a firm favourite with the British holidaymaker. The islands of the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and St Kitts have attracted the long-haul jet-setter in search of white sand beaches and endless sun.
For many though, the idea of allinclusive resorts where tourists are often literally penned in away from locals has been a turn-off. After all, what's the point in travelling thousands of miles and not even getting a glimpse of the island's life.
Aruba, on the other hand, offers a completely different destination - boasting almost full employment and a very low crime rate, it must surely be one of the safest places to visit in the Caribbean.
There are no barricades around the resorts and all the beautiful beaches are open to the public - but no fear here of pushy salesmen offering cheap and tacky wooden animals and beads.
Aruba's problem however is that few people, especially the Brits, know it exists. When I told friends where I was going I was met with many blank stares. So where is it? Well, to get your bearings, it lies just 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is one of the Lesser Antilles. It makes up part of the ABC islands - Aruba, Bonaire and the more popular Curacao.
With a population of 90,000 there are an incredible 42 different nationalities represented here (although this figure differs depending on who you speak to), making it hugely cosmopolitan, especially when it comes to eating out.
Over the years the island has proved a big hit with cruise lines and American tourists, while last year's UK visitor numbers rose to just over 5,000. But as a former Dutch colony it has quite a European feel - the streets are immaculately clean, English is very widely spoken and the hotels, being mainly aimed at the US market, are of a very high standard.
The capital of the island is the rather exotic sounding Oranjestad. Looking a bit like a toy town with its brightly painted malls, it boasts exceptional shopping for an island of this size - you'll find the likes of Hugo Boss, Nautica and Salvatore Ferragamo lining the streets.
A short drive outside the capital brings you to the hotel district, which rises along the palm tree-fringed south coast and where you can enjoy mile after mile of the whitest of sand and the most clear blue waters.
The north coast provides a drastically different scene, where the waves from the Atlantic crash against rugged cliffs, and where, over many centuries, arched coral bridges and dark limestone grottoes have formed.
And between the two extremes, just a couple of miles apart, you'll discover a desert-like region with its giant cacti and dramatic landscapes.
Like most countries, the best way to learn about the charms of Aruba is to take a history lesson. Its first inhabitants were the Caquetios Indians and evidence of the earliest known settlements date back to about 1,000 AD, as do the ancient painted symbols which tourists can visit on a number of limestone caves.
Some centuries later, the first Europeans landed on its sandy shores. First came the Spanish, who exported the Indians to Santo Domingo; then by 1636 the Dutch took possession and remained in control for nearly two centuries. In 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, the English briefly took control over the island, but it was returned to Dutch control in 1816. And it is because of this mix of history, that Aruba provides such a melting pot of cultures.
The island's past is recorded in a number of small museums in the main towns. Though not great, the staff are certainly enthusiastic about discoveries that have been made.
But then again, you wouldn't really travel to an island that promises all year round sun and spend the day looking at exhibits, would you?
With a more or less constant high 80Fs temperature, watersports, sunbathing and sailing are the best ways to while away the hours. …