Oranjestad, with its powder-pink faux facades and busy boulevard, offers a glitzy, non-Aruban side to Aruba. If you want true island charm, go south.
Oranjestad is where the cruise ships dock – and it shows. Everything within a half-mile radius is geared toward cruise tourists and their bulging wallets: casinos, souvenir shops, restaurants, jewelry stores and, of course, the all-important American-style shopping mall. In short: everything to lure tourists into parting with their cash. I find it a bit disheartening when a ship arrives and thousands of loudly dressed passengers scurry off to promptly take over the city.
All around me, burgers are hastily being tossed onto grills, burritos are flung into ovens and frozen margaritas are quickly stashed away in fridges. Oh, but how entertaining! Especially with the comforting realization that within five minutes I can be safely nestled on the warm sands of Palm Beach. Another bonus: with the rapid departure of the tourists back on board ship to sail off and repeat their adventure on another island, the Gucci and Versace stores are mine once again.
The further south you travel from the polished glamour of Oranjestad, the more Aruban the island becomes. This area is dominated by a Caribbean atmosphere of days gone by and offers little in the way of tourist attractions. Great plumes of acrid brown smoke spiral up from the Valero Oil Refinery. Visible from afar, the smoke discourages most tourists from visiting.
While the refinery itself may not be a pretty sight, the neighboring town of San Nicolas is lovely, authentic and certainly worth a visit. Stop in for a beer at Charlie’s Bar, started in 1941 by Charlie Brouns, the grandfather of the current owner, where their slogan is “If you haven’t been to Charlie’s, you don’t know Aruba!”
In the early days, the bar served as a refuge for soldiers, seamen, laborers and prostitutes. It now caters to tourists looking for a good steak or shrimp dinner and, like many a Caribbean bar, its walls are decorated with jetsam from all over: Florida licence tags, European football jerseys, national flags and New York police badges. And not to fear: the prostitutes and their clients only come out around closing time to enjoy a private nightcap behind closed doors.