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ABC ISLANDS:  Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao: The Leeward Antilles

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ARUBA

ArubaI have just returned from a cruise visiting these Dutch islands.  Aruba is downright charming, with its warm dry climate and sunny weather, not to mention the duty free shops (where I shopped until my husband dropped) situated only 17miles (27km) north of the Paraguana Peninsula off Venezuela.

Aruba has had a long connection with the Netherlands . Oranjestad, its capital is replete with quaint pastel architecture of mostly Dutch style, with picturesque gables overlooking narrow streets with Dutch names.

According to archaeological records, human beings first reached Aruba about 4,500 years ago.

Their ancestral roots can be traced back to Dabajuro , Venezuela , through fossilized stone implements used by members of successive societies found at Sero Muskita, and Arikok National Park .  Their communities were small and the people survived on collective hunting and fishing.  Fresh fruit was also abundant.  The Caiquetios, Amerindians, from the Arawak tribe,   known as peaceful people, lived on Aruba for centuries until the Caribs who were fierce warriors, eventually took over many of these islands, leaving a legacy as conquerors.    

The language spoken on the island is a curious blend of Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish, known as Papiamento, which has its own written language.  The island has fabulous duty-free shops, gorgeous beaches with silky white sand and aquamarine waters, where I went snorkeling off a catamaran.  I was quite surprised to see cacti growing in their dry, arid countryside, after seeing the tropical rain forest in Roseau , Dominica , which reminded me of many Caribbean islands.  Because of almost no rainfall, Aruba was saved from plantations and therefore the slave trade. 

Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda sailed to it in 1499, claiming the territory for Queen Isabella.  Ojeda referred to it as “oro hubo” (gold was there) thus the name was corrupted to “ Aruba .” Spain colonized it for over a century.  In 1508 it was called “Nueva Andalucia.”

In 1528 the “House of Welser” claimed it, and it has since been under Dutch administration when Peter Stuyvesant administered it from 1636.  In 1642 it was renamed “New Netherlands” coming under Dutch regulations, but appointed an Irishman as “Commandeur” in 1667.

To further complicate matters, Britain occupied Aruba in 1799 to 1802, and from 1805 to 1816. 

In 1933, Aruba sent a petition to the Queen for its autonomy.  During WWII, its exporting oil refineries, which can still be seen today, were the main suppliers of refined products to the Allies.  Aruba became a British protectorate from 1940 to 1942, and a United States protectorate from 1942 to 1945.  In 1942, its oil processing refinery was attacked by a German submarine.

The sub was destroyed by a US airplane as its crew was sunbathing on the beach. 

In 1947, Aruba decided on its “Staatsreglement” as a “status aparte” from the Kingdom of the Netherlands .  In 1972, Aruba wanted a full autonomous state but still under the crown.  With the support of the United Nations in 1981, it introduced its own national flag and anthem.  In 1986, after a long and arduous struggle, it finally gained independence, but established a new constitutional order in the Kingdom of the Netherlands , conducting its internal interests autonomously on the basis of equality, but affording each other reciprocal assistance.

Aruba ’s law lies within its Court of First Instance (Gerecht in Eerste Aanleg); Common Court of Justice of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba ) and the Supreme Court of Justice of the Netherlands .  In 2007, new immigration laws were introduced to help control the population growth, restricting foreign workers to three years of residence on the island.

Aruba enjoys an excellent educational system copied from the Dutch.  Its government finances the educational system, consisting of a good solid primary school education; secondary schools including vocational training and college prep.  It also has a Professional Education program, a teachers’ college, and the University of Aruba , which offers bachelors and masters programs in law, finance, economics and tourism management.

Within the Caribbean region, Aruba has one of the highest standards of living with low crime rate and poverty. Most of their tourists come from Venezuela and the United States .  Aruba has the second largest desalinization plant in the world, producing 42,000 metric tons of water per day. 

Their Queen Beatrix International Airport is near Oranjestad and has daily flights to San Juan, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, New York, Boston, etc., and connections with daily flights to Spain, England, and most of Europe through the Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.  In 2005, 61% of the tourists were Americans.

BONAIRE

This small island, ringed by a coral reef, just 24 miles long by 3 miles wide, is located 30 miles (48 km) from Curacao and 50 miles (80 km) north of Venezuela , away from the hurricane belt.  In 2006, the census office reported a population of 14,006 inhabitants.  Its airport is called: Flamingo International Airport .

The water temperature is 80 degrees F, and the temperature is a warm 82 degrees F, with steady trade winds, making it an ideal location for windsurfing, especially on Lac Bay .  Kite surfing is common on Atlantis Beach , on the western part of the island.  It is world renowned as a “divers’ paradise” for scuba diving.  Divers and snorkelers can enjoy the pristine reefs of this marine sanctuary to identify Orange Sponges, French Angelfishes, Reef Squid, Pederson’s Shrimp, Long-lure Frogfish, Cup Corals, Seahorses and Wahoos, and many other colorful fish.

Hundreds of brilliantly plumed pink flamingoes can be photographed standing on the salt flats.  Iguanas sun themselves on the desert rocks, and fences are made of cacti. During the 1500s, the Dutch raised sheep, goats, pigs, horses and donkeys, whose descendants still roam the island today. 

The only towns on this island are: Kralendijk and Rincon. Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda claimed Bonaire in 1499 for Spain , enslaving the natives and transporting them to Hispaniola .  In 1633, the Dutch, losing St. Maarten to the Spanish, retaliated by capturing Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba; later making it a plantation of the Dutch West India Company.

A number of African slaves were made to work with Indians and convicts cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting salt. During the German occupation of the Netherlands in WWII, Bonaire became a protectorate of Britain and the United States .

The coral reef around uninhabited Klein Bonaire draws divers and boaters from all over the world.

CURACAO

Normally, I avoid tours, preferring to get lost on my own with my camera in hand, but with a sprained ankle from jogging on the ship, I decided to take an air-conditioned bus to see Curacao. 

This island is the largest of the three “ABC islands” of the Lesser and Leeward Antilles.  Its capital is Willemstad .  In 2004, its population was about 130,644 inhabitants.   Although it also lies outside of the hurricane belt, sometimes an unfriendly hurricane such as Hurricane Felix can leave its disagreeable calling card.

The origin of its name is debatable.  Some say it is derived from the Portuguese word for heart:

“coracao,” referring to the island as the heart of trade.  The original inhabitants were Arawak Amerindians.  Alonso de Ojeda visited this island in 1499, but the Dutch occupied it in 1634. 

The natural harbor of Willemstad became an ideal spot for trade, commerce, shipping, and also piracy; lending itself to the most intricate international slave trade. The Dutch West India Company made Curacao a center for slave trade in 1662.  Dutch merchants brought slaves from Africa under a trading agreement with Spain called “asiento.”  Slaves were sold and shipped to South America and the Caribbean .  This slave trade made the island affluent, leading to construction of colonial buildings, some of which still stand today.  Curacao ’s architecture is an impressive blend of Dutch and Spanish colonial style.  I visited a “landhouse” of a former plantation owner, a rich Dutchman who lived an impressive life of luxury in a mansion replete with Dutch oil paintings, blue delft, carillon bells, china plates, crystal glasses, lace tablecloths, mahogany furniture, an organ, a baby grand piano, silver jewelry, hard wood floors, and a veranda surrounding 3 feet thick walls keeping his mansion cool, and servants for his every need.

The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, which caused economic hardship prompting many people to emigrate to Cuba to work in sugarcane plantations.  But in 1914, when oil was discovered in the Maracaibo Basin of Mene Grande, fortunes reversed themselves.  Royal Dutch Shell and the government built an extensive oil refinery installation on the former site of the slave-trade market at Asiento, thereby creating job opportunities for many people of surrounding nations.

With its natural harbor accommodating large oil tankers, affluence once again returned to this island.

In 1980s, Royal Shell sold the refinery to a local government consortium, which currently leases the refinery to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.  Curacao now concentrates mainly on tourism but due to a recent economic slump, emigration to the Netherlands has been high.

Like Aruba and Bonaire , Curacao is a transcontinental island that is geographically near South America , but in terms of climate, flora and fauna, more akin to Isla Margarita and Paraguana Peninsula , with a semi-arid climate. 

Curacao is also known for its excellent scuba diving and snorkeling, but its sea floor drops off within a few hundred feet of the shore and the reef can be reached without a boat.  However, this drop-off, known as the “blue edge” has strong currents and is very dangerous for swimming and diving.  Only experts should venture out. 

In 2005, its residents voted for a separate status outside the Netherlands Antilles , but rejecting full independence remaining part of the Netherlands , thus becoming an autonomous associated state under the Kingdom of the Netherlands .

Salt mining was an extremely lucrative export becoming a major factor for international commerce.  Today, the main industries are oil refining, financial services and tourism. 

Curacao has strong business ties with the United States and the European Union, offering free import duties and quotas.

As in the Netherlands , prostitution is legal.  There is a large brothel called “Campo Alegre” near the airport existing since the 1940s. Needless to say, this was not included in our tour route.

Curacao is a polyglot society with languages such as: Dutch, Spanish, English, and Papiamento.

Many people speak all four, but Dutch is the sole language of instruction in its educational system.  Novelists and poets from Curacao have contributed to Caribbean and Dutch literature, such as Cola Debrot, Frank M. Arion, Pierre Lauffer, Elis Juliana, Guillermo Rosario, Boeli van Leeuwen and Tip Marugg.

The majority of its inhabitants are Roman Catholic (85%) but there are also practicing Muslims and Hindus.  The Sephardic Jews arrived in the 17th century and have had a major influence on its culture and economy. 

But perhaps Curacao is best known for its liqueur: Curacao with 21% alcohol, flavored with dried peels of Larahas, developed from the sweet Valencia oranges transplanted into nutrient poor soil in an arid climate, creating the Laraha orange tree.  I visited one of its plants and bought some blue Curacao , but the beverage is made clear.  Initially discovered by accident, it was developed by the Senior family, a Jewish family of Sephardic Spanish descent in the 19th century.

As our ship docked in Curacao I was delighted to see the pastel-colored townhouses greet me at the pier, reminding me of my visit to Holland .  As the legend goes, the first governor of Curacao developed migraine headaches when looking at the white houses reflecting in the strong sun, so he asked everyone to paint their houses a different color.

I highly recommend this cruise to anyone who is in need of a peaceful, tranquil, and sun-filled vacation.  Also, to all shopaholics, since we also docked in the US Virgin Islands, where I bought a watch and a Tanzanite blue stone.

After being pampered for ten days at sea and touring around these delightful islands, it is time to get back to the grind of typing my next novel.

Alinka Zyrmont

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