Swoosh. A black blur flies by, giving us a bit of a start. It's just a small bat, now hanging on the other side of Fontein Cave, a safe distance from our heads. My group goes back to looking at the rock paintings above us, created by Awawak Indians about 1,000 years ago. It's dark, and the passageways are narrowing, but our guide encourages us to explore further. Suddenly, a scuttle on the wet ground grabs our attention. Cockroaches. Big ones. We are seven women in flip-flops. Several shrieks and a few seconds later, we are back out in the daylight. I laugh to myself: Another reminder to be careful what you wish for.
My desire? Adventure. Or, at least, something more exciting than days spent shopping and lying on the beach. About 30 minutes into my flight to Aruba, I wasn't sure I'd find it here. The glossy tourism magazine handed out by the attendants featured page after page of ads touting luxury watches (I stopped counting after 26) and waterfront steak restaurants. Two lowly pages in the back talked about natural wonders. My hopes sank. What was I getting myself into?
Aruba, a small Dutch island in the Caribbean, is known for its beaches – and for good reason. In the south and east, they're white and vast, made of coral and limestone, which means the sand stays cool to the touch. The water is shallow and clear and just the right temperature. But these strips of sand represent only a small fraction of the land. Aruba is a desert island, and the interior makes that clear: cacti, a few shrubs, lots of pale, dusty earth. If not for the ocean in the distance, you'd swear you were in Arizona. It is not most people's idea of a tropical paradise. But intrepid travellers who tear themselves off the chaise-lounges will discover a different, unexpected kind of beauty.
Fontein Cave is the halfway point on a tour that takes us to the northeast, windward side of the island. Here, the shore is rocky, the land bumpy; the air is so salty that maintaining property is almost impossible The only signs of life are tiny crab tracks in the wet sand and a few tall cacti in the distance.
In 1824, a boy discovered gold in the area and by 1872 the Aruba Island Gold Mining Company had set up shop, erecting a smelting works at Bushiribana. More than three million pounds of ore was extracted before mining stopped in 1916. We climb the brick ruins and take pictures of each other sitting in its empty window frames, blue waters in the background. Nearby is a collection of "wishing rocks:" You think of a number and then pile that many rocks into a tower. If it stands, your wish comes true, or so they say. At that moment, I wished for ice cream.
This is an area of no roads: Most visitors come to the north by Jeep or ATV; a few saunter through on horseback. Aruba is not a large island – 33 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide – but when you spend much of the day off-roading under an intense sun with fierce tradewinds (one companion's sunglasses blew off the top of her head), getting around can be exhausting.
After a couple of hours, I am now wishing for a swim. We cross the island back to Palm Beach, the three-kilometre long strip populated by high-rise hotels. The turquoise water is invitingly warm, yet still refreshing. I use what energy I have left to try stand-up paddle boarding (easier than anticipated).
And then I decide to just chill. I escape to the Aruba Marriott's H2Oasis pool, an adults-only refuge in the middle of a packed stretch. I sit in the shade of a cabana, eat fruit and feed my leftovers to rival iguanas. The largest one, bright green and about a metre long nose to tail, poses with me for a selfie.
But I am not ready to succumb to sitting under a palaypa just yet. The next morning, Anton Lampe, a congenial, chatty guide, picks me up in his bright green Jeep, eager to show me the side of Aruba most people miss. "I have friends who have been coming to the island for 12 years and never leave the resort," he says, shaking his head.
Lampe starts my grand tour at the Casibari Rock Formation, one of two heaping piles of boulders found on the island. As we climb through narrow passageways, I am half expecting Fred Flintstone to come by on a brontosaurus and pick up one of the giant rocks. It's a quick, easy climb to the top, and the reward is a sweeping view: Hooiberg Mountain, 165-metres high, towers over scrubland and low orange-roofed houses.
From there, it's back to the neglected north for the natural pool, one of my must-sees. Lampe warns me that the route, through Arikok National Park, is not easy, and I quickly learn why most tourists give the attraction a pass. Forget off-roading – this is like driving on Mars. My camera nearly bounces out of my hand, the clatter of car parts reverberates in my ears and the dashboard is soon covered in dust. It's one hell of a thrill ride.
The pool – a depression in the Caribbean Sea encircled by volcanic stone – is equally turbulent and fun. Touted in brochures as "tranquil," today it is anything but. Waves crash into the rocks, shooting spray metres into the air and nearly knocking me over. I don't mind – I can still snorkel – and the conditions mean I have the pool all to myself as other would-be swimmers have chickened out.
We head further still up the coast, and Lampe takes a picture of me on one of the island's natural bridges. If the south's blond beaches are like Sports Illustrated bombshell cover girls, these auburn volcanic arches are jolie laide runway models. They are not pretty, per se, but the striking contrast of rich red rock against the brilliant azure sea is still breathtaking.
One of our last stops is a favourite of Lampe's. Andicuri Beach has the same white sand of Palm Beach but is much smaller and, at this moment, empty except for the two of us. No hotels, just hills.
"Here in Aruba," Lampe says, "if you're stressed the doctor will tell you to go to the north side and just sit and watch the waves."
Now that's a beach I can get on board with.
If you go
Air Canada and WestJet both fly direct to Oranjestad, the capital city. From there, the Palm Beach hotel strip is about 15 minutes by car.
Where to stay
The Tradewinds Club, a hotel-within-a-hotel at the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, offers a sort of all-inclusive-light experience for adults only (guests must be over 18). The rooms occupy the top floor of the resort, and amenities include private check-in, a separate beach area, access to the H2Oasis adult-only pool and an open bar with juices, soft drinks and alcoholic beverage. Tradewind guests also have access to an exclusive lounge, where complimentary food is on offer five times a day (including breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea). If you're a light eater, you might find you only need to visit a restaurant at dinner time. All Marriott guests can enjoy a large pool with artificial waterfalls and a swim-up bar. Rooms from $509 (U.S.) a night; Tradewinds Club from $734 a night. marriott.com
Also on Palm Beach is the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba, which just opened in November. The 320 guestrooms all boast private balconies with views of the Caribbean Sea. From $649 a night. ritzcarlton.com
What to do
To properly explore Aruba you'll need an off-road vehicle and a driver who knows where he's going and what he's doing. Both Aruba Allstarz (ask for Anton Lampe; allstarztours.com) and De Palm Tours (depalmtours.com) are excellent options.
Stand-up paddle-boarding is not as hard as you think – and tons of fun. Rent a board – or windsurfing gear, if you're really adventurous – at Vela Windsurf, located right on Palm Beach. velawindsurf.com
Where to eat
It's hard to imagine a more romantic meal than dinner at Simply Fish. At dusk, the lounge chairs are cleared from the beach and replaced with tables and candles. You check your shoes (yes, really) and enjoy fresh fish cooked in your preferred style (grilled, steamed, etc.) while wiggling your toes in the sand. At the Marriott.
If you love breakfast in bed, don't miss Screaming Eagle. Instead of tables, part of the restaurant features what are essentially canopy beds with lots of cushy pillows. Food is served on a tray, and you can unfurl the white chiffon drapes for extra privacy. And, yes, the food is good, too. screaming-eagle.net
The writer was a guest of the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. It did not review or approve this article.