AAH-RU-BA- THE DUTCH ANTILLES POLISHED LITTLE GEM

Main street, Oranjestad

Main street, Oranjestad

One of the most seductively styled and enduring of all the Caribbean islands, Aruba actually sits less than twenty miles from the northern coastline of South America. Aruba is part of the ‘ABC’ group of islands in the Netherlands Antilles- the other two are Bonaire and Curacao- and today, it retains more than just memories of its Dutch colonial days.

The capital of Oranjestad (literally ‘Orange Town’) is where most of the cruise ships dock. It’s a funky, breezy little brew of fussy, overly ornate shops, restaurants and buzzing waterfront bars, many of them with upper level balconies that offer stunning vistas out over the sparkling Caribbean itself. For some reason, Aruba seems big on casinos and, indeed, gambling in general.

Still more bars crouch along the edges of the languid, sun splashed waterfront, with umbrella shaded tables within strolling distance of fleets of idle, immaculate yachts bobbing at their moorings. The more eclectic establishments might boast life size pirate mannequins haunting the waterfront, or the odd cow, grazing contentedly on the roof. No, I don’t know why, either.

Aruba is also well known for being one of the Caribbean’s premier petrol refineries. The German navy certainly knew. Back in 1942, a surfaced German U-Boat attempted to shell the refineries here, but without much success.

Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

Unlike many of the Caribbean islands, Aruba has a dry climate. It also lies outside of the main summer time hurricane belt. As a result, it’s temperature is pretty constant year round. If you ever needed an excuse to enjoy a day at the beach, you now have it. Those on the south west coast are more sheltered from wind and waves than on the other shores.

Fortunately, you’ll find the likes of Eagle Beach are fully set up for some serious hedonism, Dutch style. Hammocks slung between palm trees resemble nothing so much as a series of slow, languid smiles, framed against the dreamy blue expanse of the ocean. Thatched huts and thrilling jet ski rides, para gliders and pina coladas compete for your custom and attention.

And if all that showing off is exhausting, just smile, slouch back into a hammock, and grab an ice cold, aptly patriotic Dutch Heineken. After all, this is Holland in the Caribbean.

Waterfront bar, Oranjestad

Waterfront bar, Oranjestad

Not that you need an excuse, mind you. But the symmetry is kind of sweet….

SWEET TREATS- CRUISING DOWN TO CATALINA ISLAND

ImageIf you’re on a package tour or fly drive to California, you might be in blissful ignorance of an added opportunity to put a bit of added zing into your trip. Why not add on a short, three or four day cruise out of Long Beach down to Ensenada and the gorgeous, chocolate box time capsule that is Catalina Island. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

It was an adventure made better by an overnight, pre- cruise stay on the Queen Mary; that proud, petrified one time monarch of the North Atlantic ocean. My stay was a wonderful experience; but that’s a story for another day.

ImageThe three day Carnival cruise leaves on the Friday, visits Ensenada, and returns on Monday morning. The four day Monday departures follow the same route, but add in Catalina as a first port of call.

Here’s the thing; I think Ensenada is unrelentingly grim. There’s little to see here of merit, and the appalling poverty of many of the locals is simply heartbreaking to experience. Yes, you can shop, and drink margaritas, too. But the flies are the size of stealth bombers, and twice as fast.

There’s a hermetically sealed, faux Mexican village at the cruise terminal. It is off limits to the ordinary locals, and painted in an eye boggling shade of bubonic yellow. For me, that’s pretty much it.

ImageBut Catalina is a creature of a completely different kind.

It sits not far off shore from Los Angeles, but about five decades behind in terms of appearance and ambiance. The stance of the place is breathtaking, and the clapboard houses, fishing fleets and bustling quaysides of the tiny capital, Avalon, will put you straight in mind of New England. You come ashore by tender, and even the short ride across the water is an exhilarating jaunt.

ImageThe coastline unwinds in a series of sinuous, serpentine curves. At the end of Avalon’s waterfront sprawl is a circular, charming theatre from the thirties. It resembles nothing so much as a grand, slightly faded wedding cake; like most of the island, it seems slightly lost in the mists that can blanket the place in a heartbeat.

ImageBut take a slow, gentle walk along to that theatre, and you’ll pass benches framed by beautiful, coloured tile work that looks as if lifted intact from a Lisbon side street. Oleander and hibiscus fringe the edges of a small, dusky bronze beach that shelves almost reluctantly into the sparkling, early morning sweep of the Pacific. Canoes and kayaks are piled up like so much driftwood. This was January, after all.

ImageThe town centre is full of quirky little shops,bars and restaurants set along the main drag. They spill down into the side streets of this pocket sized town. On the opposite side of the road, a gaggle of seagull draped piers jut out into the mostly placid Pacific.

Catalina Island will always be associated with the unfortunate, still controversial death of Natalie Wood on a stormy night on this same, still water. But the town was defined by its past long before that tragic night in 1981.

ImageBecause Catalina feels very like a slice of what I imagine mainland California must have been like in the fifties. People in loud shirts, drinking sunset martinis and dining on fresh caught local fish. Lounge singers  crooning in crowded, smoke suffused waterfront bars in an age before discos. Yachts and fishing smacks bobbing like contented swans in the moonlight…

ImageLos Angeles is just twenty four miles away, yet it feels like an entirely different planet. Catalina seems to be almost unfeasible, adrift in its own time and space. A surf kissed Brigadoon, more apparent than real. And there lies the charm.

ImageLunch was spent in a fantastic, rustic fish restaurant on one of the piers. A forest of eclectic, amazing bric a brac climbed the walls all around me as the noon sun ghosted in through huge, louvered windows. The fish- fresh caught and landed that day- was stupendous, especially washed down with a cold Heineken. The whole thing was a feast for the senses as well as the palate.

ImageBack aboard, I realised that a couple of days in Catalina would probably be a great idea, especially in the summer. Any longer would probably be too much. Not a lot seems to happen. I suspect that the sense of languid charm would wear off after a few days.

ImageSo then we proceeded on down to Ensenada. I took the most sensible option open to someone who has been here before, and stayed on board. Sheer bliss ensued.

ImageAs the ship emptied and the on board vibe slowed to something quite pleasantly agreeable, I simply sagged down into the wonderful little Serenity area that all Carnival ships have. I enjoyed the solace and the sunshine, a lazily thrown together lunch, and some quality hot tub time. By the time our frazzled, sometimes slightly sozzled Mexican adventurers returned on board, my bathrobe and I had bonded quite wonderfully. And yes, I still got some sun.

Recommended? Oh yes. Absolutely.