Aruba, September 2003

I first got the idea of going to Aruba from the First Choice brochure. One of their cheaper hotels, the Mill Resort, looked promising. I wasn't that keen on the charter flights with Air 2000 because they left mid-week, so I decided to see if I could do it cheaper myself on the Internet. I found flights with KLM for £558.50 that left midday on Saturday and got back around 2pm on Sunday. I also contacted the Mill directly. They quoted me $102 a night, so I decided to book the flights and leave the accommodation until later. A few months later, I did a search on and found they had rooms at the Mill available significantly cheaper. The first night was £46.74 a night and subsequent nights were £40.51 including all taxes on a room only basis. So for two adults it was £910 each, which compared well with the First Choice brochure price of £1104, even if that did include breakfast.

Cacti and one of the highrise hotels
Aruba is located about 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It's only 19.6 miles long and 6 miles across. Rainfall is low, so most of the island is desert with cacti and scrubby trees. All the of water is supplied by desalination, so is perfectly safe to drink. It is generally thought to be outside of the hurricane belt, though hurricane Lenny hit nearby Bonaire in 1999, so nothing is certain.

It was originally colonised by the Spanish, but they didn't really know what to do with it and officially declared it “isla inutil” (useless island). It was taken over by the Dutch in 1636, when they took nearby Curacao for a naval base. Dutch is the official language, but most things are in English in the tourist areas. The local language is called Papiamento, which is a kind of pidgin Spanish. Spanish itself also seemed to be spoken quite widely.

Aruba is now an autonomous part of the Netherlands, so we first we had to flew to Schipol Amsterdam airport. It was then about 9½ hours to Aruba. Both the flights left on time. Service was reasonable and we certainly got more legroom than we would have had on a charter flight. Arriving at Reina Beatrix airport, everything went smoothly and we got a cab to our hotel. It cost $20, which is quite expensive considering how short the journey was.

Before the trip, I'd tried to find out on the web whether my mobile phone would work. According to the Orange website, there was no coverage, but coming out of the airport, there was a big sign with all the UK networks' symbols including Orange. Switching it on, I found I did have a signal from a company called Digicel. Coverage was good, but trying to make international calls proved hard work. Of the few I tried to make, about 40% were dropped, unobtainable or it connected but was completely silent. Surprisingly text messages worked, but it would take the phone about 30 minutes and repeated attempts before it managed to send them.

Palm Beach
The Mill is located in Palm Beach, which is where most of the high rise hotels are. The Mill is low rise and not directly on the beach, though it's not that far to walk. The beach is public, but each hotel, including the Mill, has an area with umbrellas and sun beds. Aruba is known for the quality of its beaches, and Palm beach is your typical white sand, tropical beach. At the Mill there are also two pools, one for adults and one for children, both of which were always very clean. Our room came with a shower, toilet, fridge, couple of washbasins, balcony, kingsize bed, television and a large Jacuzzi for some reason. Other rooms have a kitchenette instead of the Jacuzzi, but who wants to cook anyway?

Around the pool was a bar and an open air restaurant. During the afternoons, music and nonsensical babbling were provided by a DJ. He also organised bingo games and swimming competitions if there were enough kids to take part. Happy hour in the bar was 5pm-7pm. The draught beer was Aruban and called Balashi. It was OK, but it wasn't cheap. A 8oz glass, or plastic cup during happy hour was $3.45. So even when you were getting 2 for 1, it still wasn't cheap. Unsurprisingly, the bar was busiest 5pm-7pm. Then everyone would go to dinner and by about 9pm, the place was quiet as a grave. There was also a shop in the hotel. Apart from souvenirs, they also did drinks and ice-creams. A can of Coke was $1, which was much cheaper than the bar.

All drinks and meals in the restaurant were subject to a 15% service charge. In spite of this, they still had the cheek to print “Tip not included” on the bills. A continental breakfast was $6 (+15%), an American was $10. They also had a set menu every night where you could get a starter (usually salad), main meal and dessert for $12. One night a week was “all you can eat” ribs night.

In Palm Beach itself, there were other bars, restaurants and a mini-market. There were also two ATM machines. One took both Visa and Mastercard, the other was Mastercard only. The currency of Aruba is the Aruban Florin. It's fixed at 1.77 to the US dollar and the cash machines have the option to dispense either florins or dollars. Normally I get the local currency, but in Aruba you also get your change in dollars, sometimes even when we paid in florins. So I gave up and stuck to dollars.

The nearest commercial block contained three restaurants, an Argentinian steakhouse, a tapas bar and a fish restaurant. The steakhouse had main meals starting at $20. They also charged 15% service charge, so the food wasn't cheap, but it was delicious. This fish restaurant was also very good, but slightly more expensive. The tapas bar was called Salt and Pepper and was the cheapest option. The last two bars didn't add a service charge.

Black and yellow coloured moray eel
Other options included an Italian restaurant, a couple of other steakhouses, a reasonably priced Chinese restaurant, MacDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, a bagel shop and Dominos pizza. I became a bit of a regular for breakfast at MacDonalds as it was one of the few places you could get something for $3. Prices were actually quoted in florins there and they had to especially go round the back and get dollars for your change, so it seemed to be where the locals went.

We didn't hire a car, though we did catch the bus into Oranjestad one day. The buses run regularly and it's only $2 for a return ticket. I wasn't that impressed with Oranjestad. It was a fairly typical cruise ship stop town. There were several shopping malls, loads of jewellery stores and a casino. Since very little is actually made on the island, just about everything they were selling was imported. We did do some shopping at a supermarket and found the prices much cheaper. A six pack of Amstel beer was just under $8 and food prices were reasonable. If you wanted to self cater, you could eat and drink fairly cheaply.

Obviously I'd planned to go diving, so I wandered over to the beach. The nearest dive shop was Unique Sports of Aruba. They had a weekly schedule of dives. They did two tank dives leaving at 9am on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and single tank dives on the other days. They also did an afternoon dive at 2pm or 2.30pm. They told me that I could sign up for a single dive for $40 and if I liked it I could then upgrade to a package. I didn't think I had much to lose, so I signed up.

The boat had some shade, though not much. All the sites are permanently moored. The boat would tie in and then they would let out a line at the back with a buoy on it. Underneath the buoy was a vertical line with a couple of large weights on it down to about 10m. This meant that you didn't ever have to hold onto the mooring lines which were probably encrusted with sharp coral. All the dives were typically in small groups of about 6.

The Debbie Wreck
The first dive was Blue Reef and the Debbie Wreck. We dived along the reef first, with lots of sponges and brain coral. There was a big shoal of grunts, a stonefish, black and white morays and a yellow and black moray. After this we went onto the wreck which was a 120 foot oil barge sunk deliberately in 1992. It was quite interesting and I had a swim in and out of the holds. The viz was pretty good at around 25m and I had a maximum depth of 21m and a dive time of 47 minutes. The water temperature was 27°C, which was fortunate because I'd somehow forgotten to pack my wetsuit.

As the first dive had gone pretty well, I decided to sign up for a 10 dive package which cost me $260 with my own kit. The next day there were only a couple of us on the boat, so we were going to dive the Tugboat Wreck instead. This is situated just outside Oranjestad harbour and it sank after catching fire. We dived in along the reef and made our way to the small wreck. There were sergeant and night majors all over it guarding their purple patches of eggs. Dive time was only 42 minutes as the wreck lies in almost 28m.

Our surface interval was very short. They plan on only waiting 30 minutes between dives, though my computer recorded 34 minutes before I actually submerged again. The second dive was the reef just outside the harbour, which has the inventive name of Harbour Reef. We stayed fairly shallow, about 14m, and did a 51 minute drift along it, though there wasn't much in the way of current. The fish life included a a snake eel, more black and white morays, a shoal of grunts and what I think was a white spotted file fish.

The next day, I did the afternoon dive to the Antilla wreck. On the far south east corner of the island is an oil refinery. During World War II this was important because it supplied the RAF with aviation fuel. This made Aruba the target of U-boat operations and the Antilla was a U-boat supply ship. When Germany invaded Holland on May 10th 1940, it was anchored off Aruba. The captain was given 24 hours to surrender. He decided to fire up the boilers, put everyone ashore and open the sea cocks. When the cold water hit the hot boilers, they exploded sinking the ship.

The wreck of the Antilla
The result is a WWII wreck 400 feet long in only 16m of water. Part of the superstructure still sticks about the surface. We tied in near the bow. The wreck is lying on its port side and we made our way down to the large holds. Then we swam through the holds, which are big enough to drive a car through, emerging in the central section where the boilers had been. The wreck is quite broken here, so we made our way around the starboard side, round by the rudder and prop and then back along the decks.

There's plenty to see with masts still sticking out of the deck, winches and various other bits of equipment. I saw my first green moray of the trip, though only its tail, various groupers and a lot of goatfish. One of the divers in the group had pretty bad buoyancy control and so kept kicking the bottom. I was amused to see several goatfish following in his wake looking for an easy meal. There was a slight current on the wreck, but nothing to worry about. My maximum depth was 15.5m and my dive time was 51 minutes, though I still felt there was plenty that I hadn't seen.

The next morning was a two tank dive. The first dive was the Jane Sea Freighter, a 250ft cement freighter sank deliberately after the engines failed whilst in port. We went down in the shallows, along the reef and onto the wreck. Basically we just swam around it, past the prop which was still intact, and then into the holds, which were open, so there was no penetration involved. I felt we'd not spent enough time on the wreck really. If it had been up to me, I would have spent longer. It was the deepest wreck we did. I got 23.5m, but could have had about 5m more if I'd gone down to the prop. Our dive time was quite short at 42 minutes, but it was only 37 minutes before we were back in the water.

The second dive was Bacadera Reef. We drifted along in minimal current and saw quite a lot of fish, including small brightly coloured blue ones, yellow tail, plenty of parrotfish and some grouper. Maximum depth was 14.2m and we did 55 minutes. The visibility was good, at least 30m on both of the dives.

The next afternoon I was the only person booked on the boat. So rather than do the very shallow Pedernalis wreck, they asked if I wanted to do the Star Gerren. I'd seen this wreck advertised by other shops, but it wasn't on Unique Sports' schedule. It is 243 ft long and was sunk deliberately in 2000. However, they didn't make a very good job of sinking it because it's side on to the surge and not upright. That was why Unique Sports said they didn't normally go there. It must be nice to be able to be that fussy!

Green Moray on the Star Gerren
Going down the line, the wreck lies a long way over on its side, almost upside down in places. The surge has started to break up the structure in a relatively short time. It's still a nice dive though with plenty of fish and I was pleased to see two large, green morays, the first ones of the trip whose heads I'd seen. One of them didn't seem as pleased to see me and my camera though. There were schools of grunts swimming through and around the wreck and some barracuda. We then came off and swam around for a bit. It was quite sandy, but I did see some enormous parrotfish, grouper, loads of spider crabs and a couple of squid. It was a nice dive. I can't understand why they don't go there more often. Maximum depth was 19.4m and dive time was 51 minutes. Visibility was a bit down on the previous day, though still about 25m.

The next morning, the first dive was the Sonesta Airplane. This was a DC3 which was sank by the Sonesta hotel off a small island they owned for snorkellers. Since then, the 1999 storm broke it up and it settled deeper. Just to confuse the issue, the Sonesta hotel is now called the Renaissance. It's still worth diving though. The tail section as fallen off and there is a gap between the cabin and the fuselage, so you can swim through from the rear and exit to the side of the cabin. There was also a couple of propellors by one of the wings. I found it an interesting change. Maximum depth was 24.4m, dive time 41 minutes and the viz was about 20m.

The second dive was a return to Harbour reef where there were lots of yellow tails, a green moray, a white and black one, angelfish, spider craps and lots of prawns. It was a nice reef dive and we lasted 47 minutes with a maximum depth of 15.9m.

The following afternoon was a site called the Malmok Airplane, otherwise known as Arashi reef. There had been two smaller airplanes here, but all that was left was some scattered wreckage after the 1999 storm. The most recognisable parts were some propellors. However, it's still a nice reef dive and we saw my first ever seahorse outside of an aquarium, which was nice. Other highlights included an octopus, green morays and shoals of grunts. It was pretty shallow at 12.1m and we did a 55 minute dive.

The next morning was a two tank dive to two reef sites. The first was called De Palm Slope and was a gently sloping reef. There were plenty of fish including some midnight parrotfish, barracuda and another green moray. Dive time was 43 minutes, to a maximum depth of 20.9m and the viz was about 30m. The second dive was called Dark Mangroves. We stayed shallower at 14.3m and longer at 49 minutes. There were more barracuda, a couple of green morays and two turtles, the first I'd seen on the trip. At the end there was a strange noise and the Atlantis submarine went past us, which was a novel experience.

Divers swim past the props of the Sonesta Airplane
The next dive was return to the Antilla wreck. There seemed to be even more fish on it this time with big shoals of grunts, french angelfish, grouper and snapper. I used up my last frame on a small moray eel that had taken up residence in a hole near the entrance to the holds. Then we finished off the dive along the bow by the railings in about 5m. There are loads of bright, yellow sponges there and I also spotted another stonefish.

The last dive of the trip was the Pedernalis. Thus was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1942. The ship caught fire and was eventually brought into the shallows where it sank. The bow and stern sections were salvaged and used to make a landing craft which saw action in the Normandy landings. The wreck is now in 3 sections and there's still quite a lot of it, at around 125 ft in length. Descending down the line, it became obvious that the fish were used to being fed here. Grouper, which are a bit shy at other sites, actually follow you around. Sergeant majors also appeared to be looking for a free meal. The wreck is broken up, but it's still quite interesting and there are lots of fish around, including big shoals of grunts. I also found a lobster hiding in the wreck. The dive is really shallow. I somehow managed to get 7.3m, but most of it is less than 6m. It's a really nice, easy dive for beginners.

So in the end I did 14 dives, which cost me $360 in total, with my own kit. I thought the diving was good. The reefs were healthy and there were plenty of fish about, especially by Caribbean standards. The Antilla wreck was particularly good, and some of the others were reasonably interesting too. The diving was a little restrictive. Dives were supposed to be a maximum of 40-45 minutes, but usually were longer in the afternoon and on second dives in the morning. It was only the first dive that they stuck to the time, probably because the surface intervals were so short.

As a holiday destination, Aruba has nice beaches and the weather was great. September can be quite wet in other parts of the Caribbean, but it didn't rain once. On a couple of days the sunshine was a bit hazy, but that was all. Situated in the trade winds, it was always windy, sometimes very windy. This didn't affect the diving as most of the sites are on the leeward side of the island. It did mean that it was easy to spend too long in the sun because you didn't feel that hot.

However, there isn't a lot to see there and the landscape is semi-desert and very flat. All the scenery is underwater. The island wasn't very heavily settled until recent years and the advent of tourism. Palm Beach is a high-rise, holiday resort complete with all-inclusive hotels with casinos. It's certainly not picturesque.

The prices of food and drink are high. The 15% service charge doesn't help. Although service charges are common on other Caribbean islands, they're usually 10%. On Aruba it was by no means universal and seemed to be the more touristy places that imposed it. My suspicion was that it had more to do with US tipping customs than any Aruban custom. It wouldn't have been so bad if the prices weren't pretty high to start with. If you're just there for one week, it probably wouldn't bother you much, but it did get expensive over two weeks.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday there. I was pleased to find somewhere with good diving and nice weather at that time of the year. I think I'll go back sometime in the future. In the meantime, I think Bonaire and Curacao are worth looking at for the next couple of years.

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