The thunder came rolling along the white sandy beach, and caused a few sleepy heads to pop up - some, women clutching their untied bikini tops, others not bothering as they weren't wearing tops -- but most heads tilted up in puzzlement at the clear blue skies above. There wasn't a cloud to be seen. Mother Nature didn't cause this thunder. Grandma Beatrix did. Here on the island of Aruba, a Dutch colony off the north coast of Venezuela, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is revered as head of state.
And the island's garrison of Royal Dutch Marines was firing off its howitzers on Dec. 8 in a 101-gun salute announcing the birth of Queen Beatrix's second grandchild, the daughter of Prince Willem-Alexander, first heir to the throne.
Thunder is a rare sound on this quiet island, more accustomed to the squawks of colourful exotic birds, the clatter of one-armed bandits spilling out coins in the dozen or so casinos, the deep-throated whistles of visiting cruise ships, the waves lapping on sandy beaches or crashing on the rocky north coast and the steady trade winds blowing through the palm trees.
Those trade winds make the constant 32 C temperatures bearable, and they tend to steer storms and hurricanes away from this 30 km-long island, just 12 degrees above the equator. Even rain is a rare visitor. That will be obvious when you visit the rock-strewn north shore, which is a barren desert where herds of wild donkeys and goats roam freely, the landscape interspersed by forests of tall cacti.
Despite its sharp contrast with the green, sandy, resort-lined south shore, many visitors venture out to the north shore -- usually in one of the many brightly coloured jeep-type vehicles for rent on the island. What is called the north-shore road is more like a goat trail, but when you drive that rugged coast, where the pounding waves explode over the rocky shore, you will be roaming through a unique sculpture garden.
Thousands of small inukshuks -- some not so small -- have been erected by visitors to this side of the island. The first few stone cairns were erected by local fishermen as both a salute to the fish gods and as a marker for a fishing hot spot. It must be confusing for them today as several kilometres of shoreline are now a countless mass of markers, some amateur, some elaborate. Fret not; there are plenty of stones available to build your own marker. The waves toss up a new supply each day.
It's also over on the north shore where you'll find the island's famous Natural Bridge. This wide, stone arch spans the opening to a lovely cul-
de-sac sandy beach, but don't go swimming. The narrow opening to this cauldron sends in tumbling white caps with a strong undertow.
The beach was once the floor of a cave. When the ceiling caved in eons ago, it left the opening to the cave as a natural bridge. Back on the south shore Aruba's Dutch heritage reveals itself in the language, the architecture and the cleanliness found on the streets of Oranjestad, the capital.
Learning Dutch is mandatory in schools, and most people on the island also speak Spanish and English, plus Papiamento, a local mixture of native tongue and European languages. Whatever language is used, it derives from a warm, smiling face. These people live up to the motto printed on their car license plates -- One Happy Island.
The pastel colours of the shops and houses match the bright colours of the bobbing fishing boats in the busy harbour in the heart of town. That harbour also plays host to some of the largest cruise ships on the seas. The thousands of vacationers who pour down the gangplanks are often heading for Aruba's renowned jewellery stores. Much like its big brother across the ocean -- Amsterdam -- Oranjestad is famous for its diamond shops. There's no sales tax here, one reason that a man's Cartier wristwatch priced at $13,500 in New York sells for a mere $10,000 here.
At Palm Beach, a couple of kilometres west of the downtown core, the resort hotels, each with a casino, stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the beautiful beach. Everyone is welcome. A paved walkway, lined by palm trees, meanders along the back of the beach and connects all the hotels and their outdoor restaurants and thatched-roof bars.
The Renaissance Resort and Casino is one of the island's largest and it is located in the heart of town amid the jewellery and retail shops -- and yet it has its own private beach. To reach the beach you board a boat in the hotel lobby. The boat follows a canal out of the hotel, under Oranjestad's main street, into the harbour, out into the Caribbean and off to the resort's private beach. It's a 10-minute ride and gives a whole new experience to a trip to the beach.
Up to Ash Wednesday, this island is even more colourful, happy and throbbing. At their 50th anniversary of Carnival, every day and night there were carnival events from torchlight parades to steel drum bands, rock and roll, and even Dutch oom-pa-pa bands. It all culminates in a daylong parade on Feb. 22, which includes practically every local on the island in his or her party finery. It's such an all-encompassing event that the next day is a national holiday to help celebrants recover.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/