We just returned from ten days split between the Caribbean nations of Curaçao & Aruba. While both islands are now quasi-independent nations, they were Dutch colonies for much of the past 500 years. In terms of distance from home, this was the shortest trip we’ve ever taken outside the US, even though flying down there still felt like it took forever. We ended up flying American Airlines, SFO to Miami, then to Aruba. The flights were the typical US based carrier, cattle class experience. I definitely didn’t have any burning desire to fly AA, and nothing on the flights in either direction changed my feelings. We arrived in Aruba at nearly 10PM, thankfully found the driver who took us to our accommodations for the evening, and passed out shortly thereafter. However, the way we planned the itinerary, we needed to catch yet another flight (on the regional airline, DAE) at 9AM the next morning to Curaçao. So we were up at 5AM, got a ride back to the airport for the 30 minute flight. This was a rather quaint flying experience on a rather small prop plane. It was so small that we couldn’t even carry on our bags, since the overhead bins were too narrow. Also, there were about 10 passengers on the flight, and we boarded, oddly, from the rear of the plane. Regardless, the flight took off on time, and we were on the ground in Curaçao before 9:30AM. The first surprise, upon landing, was the huge number of cacti everywhere. Curacao (and Aruba to a lesser degree) are relatively dry islands, and with the tropical temperatures, make an ideal environment for cactus to grow readily. A representative from the car rental agency was waiting for us, and in what was the most efficient, laid back rental experiences of my entire life (he never asked to see any ID, or my driver’s license), we were driving away from the airport in a somewhat less than new Hyundai Elantra before 10AM.
Our first stop was literally across the road from the airport, at the Hato Cave. This was a guided cave tour, which wasn’t bad, but I’ve seen far more impressive caves elsewhere. The cave was used by escaped plantation slaves, and the area outside the cave was mostly surrounded by thick jungle forest. We spotted a few absolutely huge iguanas hanging around in the trees. Next we drive south to the other side of the island, to the capital, Willemstad, where we had lunch. It was at lunch at an outdoor cafe, that we experienced what was to become an annoying & expected type of dining service. Basically, the wait staff bordered on rude, and almost entirely ignored us. To compound the problem the food took forever to come out. Our best guess is that this is an island thing, because the same behavior was present at nearly every place we ate for the entire duration of the trip. However, at lunch this day it was far worse. We sat down at a table, and proceeded to wait nearly 20 minutes simply to have our order taken. Then it was another 30 minutes before our food came out. The food itself was decent (more on this in a bit), but our server never came back to us again after dropping off the food. We finished the food, and sat waiting for the bill, which never came. After waiting another 20 minutes, Denise got sick of waiting, and walked inside to demand the bill, and paid on the spot. One interesting quirk about many of the restaurants (and the islands in general) is that the menu items were often not in English, but instead Dutch. Most of the time we could figure it out but occasionally we came across something that made no sense. Apparently “Br.” is an abbreviation for the Dutch “broodje”, which means “sandwich”, and “stoba” means stew (although I can’t find how this is a dutch word at all). Also, even though both Aruba & Curacao have their own currency, US dollars were almost universally accepted everywhere we went (and often menu prices were printed in only dollars). To add to the bizarre cultural norms on the islands, Spanish was an unofficial 3rd language which appeared all over the place (billboards, radio stations, and even some road signs).
After the lunch debacle, we drove up to the northeast side of the island, to Kasa Kuba, the bed & breakfast where we’d be staying for our time on Curacao. One of the things that I liked about Curacao, was that the island was much less developed than Aruba. Whenever we were more than a few kilometers from Willemstad, the island was mostly rural, with tiny towns. The B&B was in a fairly isolated area, and was quite pretty, with bold vibrant colors.
The next morning we drove down to the southeast coast of the island to take a Bounty Adventures snorkeling sail. None of us had ever been snorkelling before, and both David & I experienced severe sea sickness when we went on a cruise off the coast of Kauai 2 years earlier, so we were somewhat worried. However, everything went quite well. David was initially a bit apprehensive about snorkeling, but once he got the hang of it, and started seeing fish everywhere, he had a blast. The weather was gorgeous, and we had a great time. In the afternoon, we went on a tour of an Ostrich Farm. The tour was fun & informative, although it was a bit on the expensive side at $15/adult & $12/child for less than an hour.
On our final full day on Curacao, we drove all the way to the west side of the island, to spend the day exploring Christoffel National Park. The park includes the tallest point on the island (Mount Christoffel) and a large chunk of very rugged coastline. We started with an attempted hike to the summit of Mount Christoffel. You’d think that ‘climbing’ a 1220ft mountain would be fairly easy, but no. Just getting to the base of the mountain’s trailhead required driving through very dense forest (almost jungle) on a poorly paved, narrow, steep road. Then since this was the tropics, it was both hot & humid, as we started the hike. The first mile or so wasn’t too bad, with relatively trivial rock scrambling, but as we neared the summit, the trail was more vertical than horizontal. Some hikers were coming back down, and told us that the hardest part was yet to come, but we were maybe 15 minutes from the summit. I looked at the “trail” and it was little more than vertical boulders, and decided that we had enough. We were sweating like mad, and I didn’t want to risk falling from a rock. So while we only made it about 90% of the way, we still enjoyed some amazing views all the way out to the northeast coastline, including views of a few Dutch colonial towns. Afterwards, we had one of the best lunches of the entire trip, at Landhuis Daniel. Great Dutch food, with pretty good (for Curacao) service. We spent the afternoon along the coast in the Shete Boka section of the national park. The northeast coast of the island is very rugged, with huge, violent waves. This has created jagged cliffs. It was beautiful, and we could see for miles at the various short trails.
We spent our last day on Curacao relaxing at Play Porto Mari which is a “maintained” private beach. This basically means that they charge an entrance fee, and keep the beach clean & pristine. While Denise & David got settled and played, I hiked the (very short) Seru Mateo Trail. The trail runs up the cliff behind the beach, and along the forested ridge. The area was literally covered with iguanas and lizards, scrambling all around me. Best of all were the fantastic views of the beach & bay below. Once I came back down, I spent some time in the water with David. Over lunch (at the horrible restaurant overlooking the beach), Denise commented that apparently most of the people at the beach were Dutch tourists, and a few of them were all too eager to go topless. Of course they were all middle-aged women. By the time we finished lunch, it was time to get changed, and make the drive back to the airport to catch our 5PM, 30 minute, flight back to Aruba.
One thing that I neglected to mention thus far is the bizarre (to us) way gas stations work on both islands. First, all the gas stations are full service only (even though they had signs for self service in places). This alone makes the process rather inefficient, since you have to wait for the attendant to do everything. It proved to create huge lines at every gas station we passed. Also, there are very few gas stations outside of the capital, Willemstad. Second, and far more annoying, is that you must pre-pay, in cash, before the attendant will pump any gas. While this might work out ok in the long run once someone is familiar with how much gas their car holds, in a rental car, its a complete guessing game. And as with most rental car contracts, we had to return the car with at least as much gas as it had when we received it. The only solution was to give the attendant an obscene amount of cash, so that I’d be guaranteed to get change back when it was more than the car would need.
We got to the airport just before 3PM, and the rental company rep was there waiting for us, as planned. We did a quick exchange, and headed into the terminal. Apparently late afternoon is peak period for flights, and it was quite the circus. We got our boarding pass, and then had to pay the exit tax. Following this, we noticed that the security lines were segregated by sex, which was initially a bit confusing, but it worked out ok in the end. Part of the reason the airport was so crowded was because a huge KLM 747 was scheduled to depart in less than an hour, so there were a few hundred Europeans milling about. On top of that, there was a smaller AirCanada 737 boarding, and an AmericanAir 757 also boarding. We, of course, were flying DAE again, on the super tiny prop plane. We found our gate, and shortly before it was due to start boarding, there was an announcement that it was delayed by 30 minutes. Finally when it was ready to board, we were marched out onto the tarmac, directly below the monster KLM 747, and loaded on a bus, to be driven out to the DAE plane. I’d never seen a 747 from this angle before, and it was quite the sight, especially with our tiny plane off in the distance. Since our flight was running late, we ended up getting pushed back after waiting for the KLM flight to leave.
Upon landing on Aruba, we went to baggage claim to get our 3 bags. Two came out immediately, but the 3rd never came out. Somehow, DAE had managed to lose the baggage of 3 people on a flight that only had 12 passengers. This was the first of several problems and annoyances which haunted us on Aruba. Denise filled out the missing baggage form, and we went outside to meet the representative from the car rental agency. A quick drive off the airport, and we were at their office to pick up the car. But instead, we had to wait as there was just one person behind the counter. Finally when it was my turn, I was informed that they didn’t have any of the car size (small) that I had reserved, so they were giving me a free upgrade to a larger car. This is rarely a good thing, as it usually means that we’re going to end up spending a lot more on gas. We were led outside to a beat up looking Chrysler Pacifica. The car had about 62k miles on it, and an obscene number of dings & scratches outside. Inside was worse, as half the knobs & buttons were missing, and the “flat tire” warning light was on, even though the car seemingly had fully inflated tires. The guy told me to “ignore” the warning light, and sent us on our way. This car was a complete junker. The AC made a horrible grinding noise whenever it was on (and in the tropical heat, we wanted it on al the time). The brakes were very soft & spongy, and made grinding noises whenever I used them. The transmission kept slipping out of gear around 30MPH, and again around 42MPH. Despite all these problems, I really wanted to ignore it all and enjoy our time on Aruba. However, since we were hoping that the airline would find the missing suitcase, and notify the B&B where we were staying, we needed to stop in there before heading to dinner. We drove a few kilometers from the airport to the Hidden Eden B&B. Upon arrival we learned that the proprieter was out of the country, and his wife would be taking care of us. After we were checked in promptly, we headed off to dinner.
We were up and waiting for breakfast the following morning at 8AM, except that there was no one to be found anywhere. After waiting several minutes the wife wandered over and very casually asked us what we wanted for breakfast. This might have been great, if this happened the night before, or she hadn’t told us that breakfast would be served at 8AM. But to come out late, and then ask us what we wanted was annoying. She then took forever to prepare our breakfast, and gave us the excuse that she overslept her alarm. In the end, this turned out for the best as the airline called just as we were getting ready to leave for the day, saying they had found the missing bag and we could pick it up at the airport. We swung by the airport, and at first DAE kept insisting that someone else’s green suitcase was ours. Finally Denise convinced them that, NO, that isn’t mine, and they tracked down the correct one.
After all that chaos, we headed off to the southern tip of the island, to Baby Beach. This is a man made lagoon, which has incredibly shallow, calm ocean fed water. It was a fairly pretty beach, and the water was never more than 4ft deep anywhere. After a rather overpriced lunch, we drove north to Arikok National Park. The park itself was quite nice, and fairly isolated from what is a pretty urbanized, congested island. The highlights of the park were two different caves (the 2nd of which had two rooms with skylights), and a long stretch of rugged coastline. If we had a decent 4×4, we could have explored a lot more of the park, but even the small portion that we did see was nice.
The next day we needed to get up & out early for a 9AM snorkelling cruise off the west coast of the island. Had the B&B actually served breakfast starting at 7AM (as they stated in their emails), we could have eaten there, but since they now couldn’t even manage to serve by 8AM, we ended up driving out to the Palm Beach area, and getting breakfast there. The cruise on Red Sail Aruba was somewhat similar to the one we did on Curacao. However, we actually went to three different snorkelling sites (two deep, one shallow), one of which was over the wreckage of a sunken WW2 era ship. The snorkelling was quite nice, with huge schools of fish all around us at times. Although we were definitely in a very high traffic tourist area of the coast, as there was always at least one other large boat nearby, blasting obnoxious music. Afterwards, we went on a (brief) tour of the last remaining commercial Aloe Vera plantation on Aruba. At one time, Aruba produced nearly all of the world’s Aloe, but now its been reduced to a niche operation.
On our last full day on Aruba, we had a slow, lazy start. It was the usual annoying routine at breakfast, where we were ready at 8AM, and around 8:15, we were asked what we wanted. As we were finishing our lunch, we commented to the owner’s wife, that we’d be skipping breakfast the next day, as we had to be at the airport before 7AM for our flight home. We were completely floored when she told us that she’s be willing to get up early & prepare us a “huge” pancake breakfast at 5:30AM the following day. She asked us to make sure to knock on her window just in case she slept through her alarm. We were pleasantly surprised, and very grateful.
Later that morning we drove down to the downtown harbor area of the capital, Oranjestad, for a submarine off the coast. The basic gist of this was that we’d get in a submarine a few miles off the coast, which would dive near the ocean floor where we could see tropical fish & plants in their native habitat. On paper, it sounded like a really nice opportunity, but in practice, it was a ridiculously overpriced tourist trap. While technically they delivered what they promised, it wasn’t nearly as nice as it could have been. For starters, the “2 hour tour” was really about 45 minutes of actual dive time in the submarine, padded on both ends by 10 minutes waiting on the dock, another 10 minutes to board the boat out to the submarine, 10 minutes on the boat out to the submarine, 10 more minutes to board the submarine, and then much of the same lengthy routine all the way back to the island afterwards. On top of that the entire thing was super cramped & crowded. While the submarine was capable of holding 48 passengers, the only way that worked is because they had everyone crammed in like sardines. On top of that, the majority of people on the submarine were incredibly rude, loud & obnoxious tourists. Even when we were down under water in the submarine, we didn’t see all that much that was truly unique or exciting. I’ve seen far better at an aquarium, or a fish store. Considering how we spent nearly $300 for this experience, and in the end I felt ripped off. However, David loved it, and Denise was reasonably pleased, so I guess it wasn’t a complete waste. After the submarine, we had a late lunch at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes. This was easily the best lunch that we had on the island, with some truly awesome pancakes. Following lunch, we drove out to Hooiberg, which is the 2nd tallest mountain on the island, at 541ft. As an added bonus, there’s a staircase leading to the summit, which David & I raced up in just a few minutes. It was a great little workout, as the staircase has 562 steps. That evening we had a nice dinner literally on the beach at Barefoot.
Our last day on Aruba we got up at 4:45AM, got showered, and packed, and Denise knocked on the window of the owner a little after 5AM. Come 5:30AM, we were waiting for breakfast, and noticed that their house was dark, and no one was making breakfast (much less serving it, as promised the day before). We knocked on the window a second time, and there was no answer, nor any indication that anyone was awake. We waited a few more minutes, and when there was still no sign of life just before 6AM, we gave up, and left for the airport. We were disappointed and frustrated. They didn’t have to offer breakfast (that day or any other), but when all the advanced emails noted that breakfast was served starting at 7AM, yet they couldn’t manage to even be awake on time, that’s just blatantly unprofessional. We felt as if we were always this afterthought. Its easy enough to rent out a room, but providing actual good customer service, and delivering on what you commit to do is important too.
Our flights home (via Miami) went relatively smoothly, and we got home that night just before 9PM.
All the trip pictures are posted HERE.