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ABC - the Dutch Caribbean

As TUI plans new holidays to Aruba and Sandals opens on Curacao, we take a look at these interesting Caribbean islands.

Dismissed by the Spanish in the 16th century as Islas Inutiles - ‘useless islands’ - because of their lack of precious metals, The Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao conceal treasures undiscovered by most British tourists who flock to more high profile Eastern Caribbean destinations.

Aruba Bonaire and Curacao form a trio of islands with one foot in the tropics and one in the desert.

Each of the Dutch islands has its own distinct character but they share an arid, cacti rich landscape more akin to their South American neighbours than the tropical lushness of the Caribbean we think we know

First stop on my tour of The Caribbean’s Wild West was Aruba; only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. First impressions of Aruba belie its hidden charms. Hugely popular with North American vacationers the capital Oranjestad is a bustling cruise ship port with glitzy casinos, big hotels, and shopping malls The Dutch Caribbean island is now starting to entice British holidaymakers, although it has been a firm favourite with the American market for decades. Visitors from the UK have grown by more than 60 per cent in the last two years, attracted by the island’s pristine white powder sandy beaches and the idyllic turquoise sea.

Situated less than 20 miles off the coast of South America and just outside the hurricane belt, Aruba is blessed with a gentle breeze, bathed in year-round sunshine and temperatures averaging a glorious 28°C.

The sun-drenched island boasts unique contrasts, from miles of idyllic beaches to secluded coves and a colourful underwater world, and from distinctive Dutch colonial architecture to a dry, arid interior and indulgent spa treatments.

The island, 20 miles long by 6 miles wide, is just the right size to explore off the beaten path

I trod carefully in The Arikok National Park which makes up 20% of the island’s landmass, keeping my eyes peeled for the Cascabel Aruban rattlesnake. The Cobobo lizard also lives here, who makes an endearing waving motion with his little arms, for a reason which apparently mystifies naturalogists. Here we find the Fontein and Quadarikiri caves, which feature ancient AmeriIndian paintings

On Aruba’s south and west coasts there are miles of pristine white beaches perfect for snorkelling and swimming. Searching for a Different Caribbean experience I hit the back roads of the island which run along the rugged north coast, passing eerie rock formations and watapana, or divi-divi trees, permanently sculpted into graceful, southwest-bending shapes by the constant trade winds.

Aruban landmarks dotted along the coast include the picturesque yellow Alto Vista chapel overlooking the sea and The Baby Natural Bridge. California Lighthouse is named after a ship called the Californian, which received distress signals from the Titanic as she went down in 1912. The Californian's radio operator was off-duty at the time of the disaster and this bad luck sealed its fate, as it went down in rough seas off the Aruba coast a few years later.

Hoping for better good fortune I find myself stacking stones in the surreal ‘wish-stone garden’, a stretch of coastline covered almost entirely by small piles of rocks. Legend has it that you can have as many wishes as rocks you can pile on each other – but if the tower falls down, your dreams disappear with it!

Curacao sits in the middle of the ABCs and stepping into Willemstad, the islands capital is like waking up in a children’s picture book. Dutch merchants established trading towns on the ABC islands and grew wealthy throughout the 19th century. In the historic centre of Willemstad -- called Punda, which means "the point" -- the bright architecture is unmistakably Dutch, recalling that of Amsterdam. Rumour has it that in 1917 the colonial governor general of Curacao, Albert Kikkert, found the sun’s reflection on the whitewashed buildings gave him migraines and decreed that all buildings be painted ‘any colour other than white’

These days Willemstad is a thriving town with fashionable shops, restaurants

But the chocolate box prettiness of the surroundings masks the island’s grim past. The trade that made the island affluent was at the expense of African salves that were brought to Curacao when it was one of the most important slave markets in the New World and transit port for the rest of the Caribbean. I learn the gruelling story at The Slavery Museum which also houses fascinating African artefacts.

Like Aruba, Curacao attracts plenty of cruise ship tourism, but away from the port natural assets delight such as the Hato Caves, an elaborate network of stalactites and stalagmites with drawings at least 1,500 years old. The trails of the 4,446-acre Christoffel National Park, teeming with exotic wildlife and gardens.

There’s dive sites here galore. Enthusiasts will love the Mushroom Forest, an underwater jungle of 10-foot, mushroom-shaped star coral


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