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Envoy Travelogue:
Aruba, A Real Desert Island

"It's like Arizona surrounded by water," said the middle-aged man in the front seat of the minibus taking us outside the town of Oranjestad toward our rendezvous with a catamaran for a day of sailing and snorkeling. His statement captures perfectly the essence of Aruba: It is an island of surprising, unmistakable, and delightful contrasts.

A few facts

The capital city of Oranjestad centers around a downtown of Dutch colonial buildings in pink, yellow, and green pastels. The countryside is dotted with low, scrubby vegetation, cacti, Dutch windmills, and Aruba's unique divi-divi tree, it's branches sculpted into tortured shapes by the tradewinds. And surrounding the island is some of the bluest, clearest water to be found anywhere in the Caribbean.

Aruba, just 19 miles long and 6 miles wide, is situated 15 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. A Spanish explorer was the first European to visit the island in 1499. At the time it was populated by the peace-loving Arawak Indians. Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci also landed there and named the island Venezuela, meaning "Little Venice." That name was eventually applied to the mainland, and the island became Aruba, from the Carib Indian words for shell and island.

Aruba has a uniquely peaceful history considering it was smack in the middle of the Spanish Main where most places were sacked by the Spaniards or pirates or both. The Spaniards, however, never decimated the native population, nor were black slaves ever introduced. In the 1600's, the Dutch gained control and chose to live in peaceful coexistence with the native population. As a result, most of the people of Aruba today are of mixed Dutch, Spanish, and Indian origin.

Dutch is the official language, but almost everyone speaks English. The unofficial language of Aruba is Papiamento, a language that dates back to the 1500's on the neighboring island of Curaçao. There, Papiamento arose as a result of African salves and Spanish and Portuguese trying to communicate with one another. Over the years, words were added by Dutch and South American traders.

What to Take to this Desert Island
Be sure and pack two things: a bathing suit and lots of money. Water sports and gambling casinos are two of Aruba's biggest attractions.

When our minivan deposited us at the beach, we boarded a catamaran and sailed into waters that were surrealistic in their blue-greenness. We stopped at two spots to jump in and view the colorful tropical fish. For our third stop, we visited a shipwreck. We anchored in 55 feet of water just off the stern of a German freighter that the captain had sunk during World War II rather than be captured by the Allies. Our captain warned us not to touch any of the barnacle-covered metal as it was extremely sharp and dangerous. The vessel lay on its side, partially exposed and rusting. We floated on the surface watching scuba divers down below explore the deeper mysteries of the shipwreck. All around us the dive boats were anchored proclaiming in red and white, "Scuba Aruba." For those who would like to experience the deep without getting wet, there is the Atlantis submarine, which carries tourists down 150 feet in air-conditioned comfort.

Back in town, we thought we'd try our luck at the gaming tables. We found none of the high-tension that vibrates around Las Vegas, for example. Like the island, the casinos are pretty laid back. The rules of the games are available at a government inspector's desk located at the entrance to each casino. And for those who just like to have fun, there are nickel slots and video poker machines.

Aruba offers other ways to spend money, too, like shopping. Jewelry is what most shoppers head for. As on other Caribbean islands, you can find some excellent buys in gold chains, Rolex and other ultra-upscale watches, and fine crystal. There is even a Little Switzerland store in Oranjestad. This quality establishment, famous throughout the Caribbean, stands behind its merchandise and offers substantial savings at duty-free prices.

So here's Aruba, place where you go and really ask yourself, "If I were marooned on a desert island, who would I take along?"

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