A Dirty Little Tourist Secret (Serenity)

After watching enough episodes of House Hunters International, Diane and I began to wonder if we should give equal consideration to a Caribbean Island in our quest for an early retirement destination. As two very poor swimmers, we love the beach but water sports are usually limited to shallow water snorkeling, pools and an occasional kayak trip if the water is calm enough. Thinking we’d be bored sipping drinks with friends and reading books every day, island claustrophobia seemed likely before too long. Not wanting to spend too much time in New York City on one of our rare visits to see my family, we looked for an excuse to sneak in an Expat Destination Research Vacation anyway.

Aruba's rocky coastline

Unfortunately, September is the peak of hurricane season and Caribbean Islands are usually best avoided unless you enjoy standing out in the gale force winds like a CNN weather reporter. Lo and behold, the solution lies in the islands known as The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba is a favorite with folks from the Eastern United States. Lying closer to South America than all the other popular destinations, the islands are out of the hurricane belt and there have only been a few isolated cases of destructive storms ever recorded. Thinking we solved the problem of how to extend the vacation and simultaneously preview an island as a possible retirement home, we said goodbye to The Big Apple and headed down for a bit of Dutch Caribbean hospitality.

Known for its “perfect weather” every day of the year, Diane and I were looking forward to some relief after spending a torrid week in 90 degree heat with humidity. Unusually hot for late September, New York proved far too uncomfortable for tourism and we marveled at the thought of tropical breezes and warm sunny beach days. Seeming unusually inexpensive, we discovered a dirty little secret they don’t tell you on the websites and travel brochures. Lasting roughly eight to ten weeks, the “hurricane season” brings a wave of extreme high humidity and rising temperatures that even sends many locals off to vacation elsewhere.

sunset

Another little known fact they forget to tell you is that all Caribbean Islands thrive on the constant wave of cruise ships that spend time docked in port. Almost all cruise lines avoid the Caribbean Islands in September due to high risk of weather related interruptions. Although out of the hurricane belt, they all need to pass through the region to visit Aruba. Unaware of the secret weather lie or lack of visitors, Diane and I arrived expecting a typical island vacation. Instead, the nicest beach on the island looked like this:

lonely beach 2

Stepping off the plane, a wave of heat and humidity akin to our soon to be new home in Malaysia whipped into our bodies like a vicious weather front from hell. Thinking perhaps it was just a one day thing, we wondered what happened to the “perfect weather” scenario they seemed so proud of as we made our way to the hotel. Choosing Manchebo Beach Resort and Spa for its pristine location, excellent spa services and fine dining, sweat poured down as we checked into our room.

manchebo4

 

Beautifully appointed, the hotel didn’t disappoint but once we settled in and took a stroll around the grounds we wondered what happened to the other guests. Explaining the little known secret of low visitation and uncomfortably high heat and humidity, the friendly but extremely lackluster front desk staff told us to sit back and enjoy the serenity. Venturing out to the beach we found an enormous white sand beach almost totally deserted and a temperature way too hot for sunbathing.

Realizing our week of relaxation was already ruined by heat except for perhaps an hour or two after breakfast, we decided to explore the island. Relatively small, the capital city of Oranjestad is an odd-looking collection of European mixed with island charm. Easily reachable by taxi from almost anywhere, the strange colored buildings reminded me more of shop houses in Singapore than your typical Caribbean island.

cactusTouring the city requires little effort and we found it quite average and nothing close to what we think a visit to the Netherlands would be like. Although dissolved from Dutch rule in 1986, the island seems like a perpetual state of political confusion and the resident population didn’t seem to be either pro or con when it comes to its status as “overseas countries and territories”.

Boasting absolutely delicious food, reservations are totally unnecessary during “hurricane season”. Despite the weekend date, we found ourselves at a slightly off the beaten path restaurant where we were so welcomed they literally bent over backwards. Pampering us everywhere we went, all the food was excellent and the lack of crowds almost makes it feel like you’ve discovered some unknown resort town that the tourists forgot. Actually, CNN and American media was directly responsible for a sharp drop in tourism after the Natalee Holloway fiasco ten years ago. (If you’re unfamiliar with the incident, click here if you must).

good food

Touring the island is easy due to its small circumference and living here as an expat would get boring quickly for me although there’s no shortage of Americans and Canadians. Like Hawaii, one side of the island is geographically different and winds make habitation unreasonable. Looking like a moonscape, the eastern shores boast beautiful rocky coastlines similar to the coast of Maine.

 

Oddly named, the “California Lighthouse” after a shipwrecked steamship from 1891, the structural highlight of the northern tip of Aruba looks like any other lighthouse.

lighthouse

Aruba’s main place for nightlife is Carlos and Charlie’s, a Mexican themed restaurant and club with decent food. Usually packed, the first night we went there it felt like a ghost town but our luck changed the next night when one of the few cruise ships of September docked. Based in Puerto Rico, the cruise had mostly young party-goers and having grown up in New York City I can assure you that Puerto Ricans love to party. There are some smaller clubs but they didn’t look very enticing.

carlosandcharlie

Besides enjoying the amenities and quietness of a beautiful beach resort that’s mostly empty, we found two great things to do on the island. Not expecting to find such an enjoyable animal experience on a small Caribbean Island, we both loved visiting The Aruba Ostrich Farm. Located on the rugged side of the island, the island apparently sports a perfect climate for the large birds. Both fun and educational, guided tours are only $12 and allow visitors a hands on opportunity to feed and touch them. Surprisingly fun and a bit intimidating, we ranked this place up there with other great animal experiences we’ve had Thailand, Ecuador and Borneo.

Designed almost exclusively for pathetic souls like Diane and I that swim poorly or not all, the other activity that held our interest was De Palm Tours’ Sea Trek Underwater Helmet Walk. Promoted as a way for non divers to experience the ocean floor and a cornucopia of sea life, it’s actually just a small patch of water off a pier where a limited amount of colorful fish swim. Donning silly helmets they physically lower you down 20 feet below the surface where you can walk on a 375 foot walkway. Highlighted by a souvenir photo of participants sitting at a table making a toast, the attraction was interesting but not really fascinating in any way. Shallow water snorkeling in Hawaii is a better option for poor swimmers to see lots of cool sea life. Priced at $49, it’s almost worth doing.

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After a few days we finally grew accustomed to the blazing heat and humidity (which never happens according to Aruba’s tourist bureau) and settled in for some quiet time on a mostly deserted beach before the sun rose too high. Completing the island experience we also attended some cheesy tourist shows at night because there wasn’t much else to do when after the Puerto Ricans boarded their ship and left the clubs empty.

Expect a myriad of New York and Boston accents in Aruba since the core crowd comes from those areas. Overall, the island was pleasant enough and certainly different from many typical Caribbean islands with dirt poor residents, beautiful mountainous terrain  in the center, expats in condo complexes and expensive tourist resorts.

happy islandAlthough there are plenty of expats there, Diane and I decided we’d be way too confined living on a small island with a European accent and a handful of New York accent expats. However, the dirty little secret of an empty island with good food, a few great beaches and excellent food is enough to satisfy budget conscious travelers. Just make sure you like heat and humidity. Touted as “One Happy Island”, most residents seemed content enough but compared to Bali or Krabi, I’m guessing they don’t know any better.

Are you an expat living on an island? Or have you ever been one? Please share your experiences by commenting, sharing or just saying hello 

Coming next:
Our potential television debut as International House Hunters
and why selling a house in California costs almost as much as buying one in other states 

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “A Dirty Little Tourist Secret (Serenity)

  1. Guy

    Enjoy reading your travel blog Rob, you definitely have a wicked sense of humor and call a spade a spade which is brilliant. A Dirty Little Tourist Secret is right, Aruba (Natalee Holloway) and Italy (Amanda Knox) is permanently off my travel itinerary. I totally agree with you on HUMPTY DUMPTY is a person that has mental issues.

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  2. Elizabeth Ginocchio

    Ahhh… Expat Living on Aruba here… Expat life is NOT the tourist life! There is so much more!! Yes we live and work within the tourism industry, however… We choose to live the “Aruban” lifestyle and not the US/Canadian Tourist or European lifestyle. So sorry you chose to arrive in September…Normally, including October our HOTTEST months BECAUSE of hurricane season! We are 12° north of the equator… and the hurricanes suck our wind away… so it can feel as hot as 115°F!!! As an American Expat a workday is really no different than that in the US… we work, but our commute is much shorter (10 minutes vs 1 hr). There are a couple of things we do different.. Like take a little bit of a longer lunch at “local” restaurants away from the tourist area.. (Fermins, Don Juacinto, and so many more).. We like to chill and relax with Aruban friends at local “snacks” and have a beer or too… We also love to just hang outside and talk to our Aruban neighbors.. we love our neighborhood. It has a mix of Aruban, Dutch, American and South Americans, but mostly Aruban. Our weekends… well we go places tourists don’t usually, quiet local beaches, we volunteer, we help others out, sometimes we just plan ole’ chill at home… We normally shop at local grocery stores (usually referred to as
    “Chinese” – as they are mostly owned by Chinese. We love to find the little clothing boutiques in Santa Cruz, San Nicolaas or Paradera… or find a local bargain store. Garage or porch sales are a blast… and Toasting a sunset at Mi Dudu restaurant.. inland but amazing inland sunset views.. Next time you are on island… if you choose to return… I’d be glad to show you the “expat” life.. for real.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Elizabeth
      Thanks for the comment. We don’t get too many views on my one story of Aruba. It was based solely on memory and one five day visit in 2005. It’s been so many years I barely remember much but we did like the food. It was also right after the Natalie what’s her name story that killed the tourism industry for awhile. Anyway, I doubt we’ll ever see that island again but if we do I’ll be sure to look you up
      Cheers

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  3. Year 24

    Hey there! That is really too bad about the heat – a bit worried about Indonesia for that reason (rainy season also) but it can also be nice to have a place to yourself! Da Nang was like that and it has been my favorite beach so far. Such a great form of research to be doing! I haven’t forgotten about the photo of Pho – I am just waiting to have all sorts of food type photos to post them all together. The food is really sooooo good here though!

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      1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

        Glad you are enjoying everything so far. Sounds great. The last months here are dragging and selling the house is stressful and expensive with all the crap that needs to be done and fixed. Hopefully our paths cross somewhere in Asia

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