Sara Shoemaker

Aruba would be a finalist if there were a watersports capital of the world contest. With scuba diving, windsurfing, banana boating, jetskiing, parasailing, sportfishing and sailing as just a few of its ocean activities, its diversity is a large part of its appeal. Add its many other family activities, pristine beaches, shopping, casinos, nightlife and myriad restaurants, and you have a cosmopolitan destination.

Of course, I went to Aruba to dive, and I could have been distracted, but the biggest wreck in the Caribbean beckoned. The Antilla has been underwater since the early part of World War II, and the growth on the wreck is impressive. At 400 feet long, this German freighter not only holds the distinction of being the largest wreck in the Caribbean, it also has historical significance. It was in the Dutch waters of Aruba in May 1940 when Germany invaded Holland and, subsequently, was scuttled by its crew. Fortunately for future generations of divers, it sits in shallow water at 60 feet with its highest point just breaking the surface.

I have never seen colonies of Blue Bell Tunicates like those on this wreck. From a distance these densely packed colonies of delicate purple rimmed tunicate appear to be big mauve patches. They are in bigger numbers than I have seen anywhere in the Caribbean. They compete for space with many other sponges and an assortment of other invertebrates.

The wreck is sitting in two big halves and the holds are teeming with small fish. For those divers who don’t get as excited about the little colorful stuff, there are enough big fish cruising around to keep things interesting.

Although the wreck and marine life are not technically protected by any conservation designation, people seem to respect the area, and there are a number of moorings for boats visiting the wreck. I dived the Antilla with Red Sail Sports, one of the dive operators on the island who visit the wreck almost daily. Pelican Adventures, the other large watersports center, offered me another wreck adventure. The Pedernalis, touted as a beginner’s paradise, is very shallow at 25 feet with a combination of big chunks of wreck spread out over the bottom and reef formations in between. There are some interesting angles from a photographer’s perspective and a large area to cruise around. The Pedernalis was an oil tanker torpedoed by a German submarine, yet another World War II wreck.

There are many other wrecks and reef sites. The South Coast reefs are of particular note for their health and beauty. There are about 30 dive sites regularly visited by the dive operators, and since most sites are accessed by boat, it is your best bet to go with those who know.

Aruba has quite a history and played a big role in World War II with its oil refinery producing one in every 16 gallons of motor fuel used by Allied Forces. It has an oil refinery still in use today although tourism has become the biggest part of the economy. Tourists come in big numbers, which means there are many amenities not found in less frequented places. If you are craving a Dunkin Donut you are in luck, and if you need to access a business center, all of the larger hotels can accommodate you.

Aruba’s arid landscape is dramatic and desert-like in most areas, but the striking blue of the surrounding sea makes rugged views inviting.

There are two ways to see Aruba—by land and by sea—and both offer great views. The California Lighthouse is an unmistakable landmark at the north end of the island, and the Natural Bridge, created by coral and carved by the sea, is also famous. There are a number of old churches around the island, offering stories of the history and heritage of Aruba’s settlers. The natural history of Aruba is in the unique topography of dunes, caves and lava piles. Arikok National Park is the largest nature reserve on the island and is a great place to get acquainted with Aruba’s natural beauty. Cactus and other flora decorate the environment, and lizards, birds and butterflies are frequently encountered.

Although some people go to Aruba to shop, most people go for the water—the warm turquoise water of fantasies. And a large group of these visitors go for the wind on the water. The windsurfing mecca of Malmok is just past the main cluster of hotels, and even if you are not a windsurfer, it is fun to watch people zipping past with their bright sails.

Although I often try, one cannot spend all their time in the water. When the sun goes down on Aruba, the party lights come on. Sunset sails or cruises are popular ways to end the day and begin the night’s festivities. Pelican Adventures has a way of turning nice normal people into singing, dancing fools shaking their moneymakers at other boats before the sun even sets. But when everyone gets back to shore, there are bars, casinos, Las Vegas-style shows, dancing and even cocktail and cigar lounges on the island. Most major venues are found in Oranjestad or inside the resorts.

Balancing out the evenings with some good food and fun is part of a Caribbean adventure. The range of Arubian culinary delights runs from McDonald’s and standard mall fare to numerous fine dining establishments—there is something for everybody. For adrenaline junkies there is skydiving available, or for some hog thrills you can rent a Harley Davidson motorcycle to cruise the island. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you spend some time in the water—Aruba’s finest feature.