I was walking through my Philadelphia neighborhood recently when I ran into a man wearing an "I Heart Aruba" T-shirt. I told him I grew up on the island. He gave me a puzzled look and asked, "So what are you doing here?"
Good question. I spent my childhood chasing iguanas outside my family's little whitewashed bungalow in Seroe Colorado, a town wedged between Aruba's rocky desert and the uncrowded beaches on the island's southernmost tip. We were just north of the harbor town of San Nicolas and the oil refinery where my father worked. On very clear days--pretty much every day--we could see Venezuela's mountains from our lush backyard. It was the 1980s, so Burger King and Taco Bell hadn't set up shop yet, and the one TV station, TeleAruba, broadcast only a few hours each week.
These days, when I visit the capital city of Oranjestad or Palm Beach, a cruise-ship port with casinos and nightclubs, that feeling of tropical isolation is harder to come by. My solution is to head south again. San Nicolas is the oldest town in the area, with buildings painted in bright Caribbean oranges, blues, and yellows.
At the longstanding sailors' haunt, Charlie's Bar, patrons sit at the wooden booths I remember, eating hearty cazuela (seafood chowder) and creole-style calamari with island-brewed Balashi lager. Random objects discovered by divers and vintage refinery signs cover every inch of the walls.
Down the street from Charlie's Bar is The Astoria, a restaurant that was a popular hangout with American soldiers stationed on the island during World War II. I always go back to the Astoria for two reasons: the courtyard dining area is perfect for stargazing, and the crispy, egg-battered sweet-and-sour chicken (which hasn't changed since I was a kid) is delicious.
My favorite beachfront restaurant, with tables on the sand, is The Flying Fishbone, just north of San Nicolas in the seaside neighborhood of Savaneta. Entrées run about $30, but the catch of the day--often grouper or mahimahi cooked in a zesty red-pepper sauce--is worth the extra Aruban florins. Some nights, Delbert Bernabela, a saxophonist who also performs at Aruba's Caribbean SeaJazz Festival, plays a fusion of modern and classic jazz up until the last patron has made his way back home.
The oldest hotel on the island, Talk of the Town, has a laid-back vibe. When it opened in Oranjestad in 1956, it was the center of Aruba's social scene, where tourists could hobnob with the local elite while sipping thick piña coladas at the poolside bar. Today, it's more reminiscent of a casual beach club, with cabanas right on the sand.
The hotel is a 20-minute drive from Arikok National Park, an 8,400-acre desert that's populated with goats and donkeys. It's best to hike the tough terrain of volcanic rock and petrified coral after the morning trade winds have cooled the air to around 80 degrees. In the southern part of the park, there's a network of caves where Caquetios Indians painted vibrant murals that are still visible more than 1,000 years later. DePalm Tours runs Jeep trips to Arikok, with a stop at Baby Natural Bridge, a 60-foot-long arch made of coral. Another postcard sight in the area is the tiny Alto Vista Chapel, built by Spanish missionaries in 1750 on a hill above the rough waters of the western coast. The winding road to the church is dotted with white crosses.
Of course, I don't fly 2,000 miles to Aruba just to hike. Like most tourists, I return for the sand and the sea. My Girl Scout campouts were held on Rodgers Beach, where large mangroves provide shelter from the wind. On Saturdays, I'd take my dad's sailboat to one of the sandbar islands less than a mile from shore and picnic with my friends in the tall grasses that concealed pelican nests. Jads Beach Store in Seroe Colorado leads snorkel tours near the islands.
My most prized hideaway, however, is the secluded half-mile stretch of coast just south of Baby Beach, where bent divi-divi trees cling to six-foot sand dunes, growing in the direction of the wind. I pictured that wild landscape as I tried to explain to my neighbor why I traded Aruba for Philly. The truth is, I find myself asking that very same question each time I visit.