When we first booked our Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Freedom, I had every intention of experiencing the world renown beaches of Aruba. I couldn’t wait to stick my toes in the sugary white sand, snorkel in the clear turquoise waters, and relax under a palm tree while drinking from a coconut. On this particular cruise, Aruba was our last port of call. By the time we arrived, the collective sunburn I had accumulated from our other stops completely stole my desire to go anywhere near the beach.

So, as passengers in a colorful array of swimwear disembarked the ship heading for the beaches, my wife and I boarded an air conditioned motor coach for an excursion called the “Best of Aruba Island Tour.” Though I was more than a little bummed I wouldn’t get to enjoy some of the world’s best beaches, I now have to admit that taking that excursion and learning more about Aruba’s culture and history left me feeling more connected to Aruba than a day at the beach ever could. 

Upon leaving the port, our motor coach driver, Mierto, took us through Oranjestand, Aruba’s capitol, past a myriad of colorful Dutch architecture buildings. We learned that children are taught five languages in school; Dutch, Spanish, English, French, and Papiamento, a Creole language containing elements of Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and African languages. Mierto tried to teach us a few Papiamento words but the only one that I could remember was “dushi” because it rhymes with sushi and means nice, good, or sweet.

Viewfinder Tip: When you are in the Caribbean and your wife tells you to put on sunscreen, listen to her. 

Prior to this excursion, I always had pictured Aruba as a tropical island with lots of lush vegetation. As we drove into the countryside, I saw that it is more of a flat desert, teeming with cacti. Our first stop was at a cluster of huge boulders called the Casibari Rock Formation. We hiked the paths to the top of the boulders. From the top, we were treated to some great views of the desert, local homes, our cruise ship, and a 541-foot, cone-shaped volcanic formation that the locals call “The Haystack.”  

Across the street from the rock formation is the quirky Casabari Cafe. The eclectic decor of its outdoor dining area told me this was a fun and happening place, especially at night. Some of the pieces of interest included life-sized replicas of the Blues Brothers, a red London-style telephone booth, airplane engines with attached propellers, a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower, and a walk-in circular grill with overhead stage lighting. I know you’re not supposed to covet, but I seriously coveted that grill for my own backyard. 

Best of Aruba

As we left the cafe, Mierto identified several twisted Divi Divi trees. Their growth is shaped by the northeastern trade winds that blow across the island; the winds cause the trees always to grow in a southwesterly direction. Since most of the resorts and casinos are located on the southwest part of the island, lost tourists can use the Divi Divi trees as compasses to find their way back.  

Our next stop: the Alto Vista Chapel. Catholicism was first brought to Aruba in 1750 by Spanish missionaries, and remains a big part of local culture today. The Alto Vista Chapel sits on a hill on the site of the original chapel, overlooking Aruba’s north shore. It is considered to be the first church established in the Caribbean. The small yellow chapel with a cobblestone foundation and terracotta roof still holds services today. 

From the chapel, we drove down to the beautiful north shore, where we stopped for a few photographs. Thundering waves slapped against the rocky coast. The stiff wind was blowing sea mist on us, even from 50 yards away. As we were abused by the elements, I fully appreciated why the public beaches, resorts, and casinos are located on the other side of the island. Heck, If I were the Divi Divi tree, I’d face southwest as well.

A Divi Divi tree, natural bridge, and the California Lighthouse

We continued up the coast on bumpy roads for a couple of miles to what was once one of Aruba’s most popular attractions, a natural bridge carved by the sea. Before its collapse on Sept. 2, 2005, the bridge stood 23 feet above the sea with a span of approximately 100 feet. The remnants of the bridge can be seen clearly today. Adjacent to the collapsed bridge is a new, smaller natural bridge that the locals call, Baby Bridge. 

The final stop on our Best of Aruba Island Tour was at the California Lighthouse, a 98-foot-tall stone structure completed in 1916. The lighthouse was named for the S.S. California, a ship that wrecked nearby in 1891. It is one of Aruba’s most famous landmarks. Though we were not allowed to go inside the lighthouse, the hill where the lighthouse is built offered spectacular views of the beaches and resort areas.  

When the tour ended, Mierto was kind enough to drop us off in downtown Oranjestand where we purchased our daughters some turquoise stone bracelets at the open air market. Then we trekked over to Iguana Joe’s, where we literally drank in the culture by downing a plate of shrimp fajitas with Balashi, Aruba’s flagship beer. 

Which cultures would you like to explore and why?