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Aruba Beyond the Beach

Cruise ship passengers stop at Aruba to reap duty-free treasures from shops that look like Amsterdam in the tropics. Others arrive to veg out on the hotel strip’s world-class beaches or dive to shipwrecks like that of the California, the vessel that ignored the Titanic’s call for help—now, ironically, itself lying on the bottom of the ocean.

But those travelers who wish to delve beyond the island’s famous sand and casinos now can gain a sense of the place and its history by exploring the newly-opened Arikok Nature Preserve, a 3,500-acre national park. By hiking or horseback riding (road and trail maps are available at the visitors center), one can get a feel for the rugged beauty of the island’s untouched hills and valleys. The magnificent stands of cactus and wind-blown divi-divi trees, which cover the sweeping hills of sand and boulders, have earned the island the nickname “the Arizona of the Caribbean.” Freely roaming wildlife include goats, donkeys, iguanas, lizards, and a wealth of birds that draw avid bird watchers.

Among the absorbing man-made artifacts are petroglyphs left by the original Arawak Indian inhabitants in Fontein Cave, an abandoned gold mine, a reproduction of an early island-style mud cottage, and a new educational center containing Dutch and Arawak artifacts. The stunning park is still little known, so visitors encounter few others. It’s easy to reach with a rental car or scooter.

For visitors turned off by Aruba’s slick chain eateries or “continental” food, here are a couple of recommendations of fine restaurants committed to preserving the local, Dutch-based food and culture: Gasparitos occupies one of the old-style houses in a suburb of Orangestad, the capital, and also functions as a gallery showcasing paintings by native artists. The menu features dishes like fish soup, conch stew with papaya, and keshy yena—-a Dutch casserole consisting of a hollowed-out Gouda cheese filled with a seafood or chicken mixture—and funchi, the Aruban version of cornbread.

Papiemento, in another Orangestad suburb, occupies a gracious, 150-year-old home furnished with antiques brought over by its owners from Holland (Queen Beatrix eats here when she’s on the island). Its menu focuses on seafood such as wahoo, marlin, mahi mahi and other fresh catch, as well as its own version of keshy yena and stews.

 
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