Aruba: Windy and Breezy With Chance of Gusts

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 23, 2003

The relentless wind scours Aruba's limestone coastline, crackly desert landscape and beaches by day and courses through the palms, Divi Divi trees and hotel courtyards by night, pausing for neither dawn nor dusk. It sends umbrellas flying from fruity drinks, turns a friendly tennis game into a cussing match and transforms carefully coiffed hairdos into raging manes.

And all of this is good (minus the &%#! tennis), because for much of my four days in Aruba I am skipping across the Caribbean on a sailboard, watching through the water as the blur of the sandy sea floor melds into rock formations.

I had heard that Aruba was a windsurfer's paradise -- dry, warm, modern amenities -- and I expected such conditions to attract primarily wind pilgrims. And, yes, the fanatics are here, but they are more than balanced by families drawn by the guarantee of sun (Aruba gets but 20 inches of rain yearly; the U.S. Virgin Islands, by comparison, get about 55 inches), young groups seeking a party (available), casino gamblers and cruise ship off-loaders. Visitors come from the United States, Europe (Aruba was a Dutch territory until 1986) and Latin America (the island is 18 miles from Venezuela).

My last trip to Aruba was in 1969, when I was 3, and my only memories are of catching my first fish (an angelfish that I released) and slashing my face open with my dad's razor. I figured now was a good time to refresh my Aruba knowledge. Besides, windsurfing had barely been invented in 1969 and beachside rentals were years away.

Flying 2,040 miles for only four days may seem excessive, but United Airlines' 41/2-hour nonstop flight from Dulles makes it worthwhile. Duncan from England, a neighbor in the one-story beachside studio complex where I am staying, isn't buying it.

"You're down here for only four days?" he asks me. "From Washington?" He and his wife, Isabelle, are completing a three-week stay, which Duncan clearly views as too little island time, despite the fact that he can't do much due to the hip he shattered in a kite-surfing accident (the wind-filled kite dragged him across a beach, slamming him into a van and then a brick wall; this is another reason why I windsurf). That I would fly so far from the cold only to turn around confounds both him and Isabelle.

But I get Duncan talking about wind -- the wind in Aruba, in Barbados, in England, in the United States -- and he forgets all about my short vacation. Because of unobstructed trade winds from the Eastern Caribbean, the wind blows year-round in Aruba, peaking May through June, when it averages 35 knots. Typically, January is one of the calmer months, with winds averaging 18 knots. I love wind, but Duncan is boring me so I ask if he's found an identifiable culture in Aruba.

"I don't know. I'm really not into culture at all," he says proudly. "All the sightseeing, history and the like. It does nothing for me."

Fortunately for him, there is little danger of being ambushed by living culture on Aruba, although archaeological evidence abounds of the Caquetios nation of the Arawak Indians, who inhabited the island from about 1000 until 1515, when the Spanish shipped them off to Hispaniola to work as slaves.

Aruba's modern population is a mix of Dutch, black and Latino and, not surprisingly, I heard an almost even mix of Dutch, English and Spanish spoken. Some Arubans still speak Papiamento, a Spanish derivative developed in the 1500s in neighboring Curacao to allow slaves and their owners to communicate -- but you won't need a Papiamento phrasebook to get by.

Honestly, when it comes to Caribbean vacations I side with Duncan. I came to Aruba to play, not learn. So I rally my rented Jeep to the north end, past the upper-class hamlet of Malmok, to where the pavement turns to sand.

A vague path snakes to the beach. The landscape is lunar-desert-meets-tropical-paradise: Cactuses jut from the sand and rock, defying the wind, and dune grass billows beside the glowing ocean.

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