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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Touring 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although 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
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