Pilates of the Caribbean: It's time to start talking about Aruba
It's an island paradise you've probably never heard of - but Aruba's got the best beaches, truly quirky yoga and Pilates, and mouth-watering cuisine, says Mark Evans.
Despite the freezing winter chill, the Aer Lingus check-in woman at Dublin Airport has a warm smile. But my bags' final destination has her puzzled.
"Where's Aruba?" she asks.
"The Lesser Antilles," I tell her.
Puzzled look. "Em, Dutch Caribbean," I venture.
Still puzzled. "Just off South America..."
Eventually, after scouring manuals to see if I needed a visa (you don't), she gets that 'ahhh yes' look.
"Looks exotic," she says.
She doesn't know the half of it. Ruled by the Dutch until recent times, Aruba is something special. Small enough to fit very comfortably into County Dublin, it punches well above its weight in diversity, with a desert, wave-swept cliff faces that look like they're from the west of Ireland, and beaches - wow those beaches.
Less than 20 miles from Venezuela, it's a world away from that basket case. Bits of Aruba look Dutch, there's a smidgen of America in there too, but it's 100pc Caribbean. The capital, Oranjestad, looks like Amsterdam designed by Walt Disney and the people behind Lego. Historic and colourful, it's buzzy and beautiful.
And Aruba's comfortably better off than many islands in this part of the world, a place that's got such a smile on its face that the slogan is 'One Happy Island'.
If you want that dream honeymoon or flight from the Irish damp and cold, this is the ultimate in escapism. Try as I might, I couldn't find one picture to do the beaches justice. Emerald greens, spots of dazzling blue, white sands, shoals of fish, in reality they're far more beautiful than anything in the brochures.
From touchdown at the tiny Queen Beatrix airport, you can be on the beach within half an hour. I know - I timed it from bag collection to my hotel, the Ritz-Carlton on Palm Beach. Its near-neighbour, Eagle Beach, has been voted best white sand beach in the world. Incredibly, Palm Beach is even better.
The Ritz-Carlton is ultra swish, but this being the Caribbean, luxury comes with a twist. The staff are exceptionally friendly, and much of the action is by the sea shore.
Whizzing around on Segways, the T-shirted staff will have your sun bed set up, the suntan lotion is free (this place is hotttt) and they'll have your margarita over in a jiffy. Rooms are US-style - ie, monstrously big - and the balcony bar is the place to chill with a sundowner or two. It's got pools galore, but the beach is more enticing, as well as a spa and gym. You can even have a romantic dinner on the beach and, if you're feeling lucky, there's a casino. Pampering isn't the word for it all. I was lucky enough to be there for Restaurant Week (see below) and found cuisine that's got the variety that's often lacking elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Touring Aruba (at its longest it's roughly the distance from O'Connell Street to Skerries), I got to appreciate how much it has to offer. Almost a fifth of the island is taken up by Arikok National Park (arubanationalpark.org), and the friendly rangers gave me an insight into what makes it special. First up, this would be a great location for a Wild West film - cacti as far as the eye can see, a rangers' hut that could pass as the Ponderosa, species of birds and snakes that are native to the island, turtle coves - the list is endless. We had a traditional breakfast in the park, with local fruits - while a baby boa constrictor was enjoying his lizard snack in the wild nearby.
The island's Casibari rock formation (like a mini Ayers Rocks) were important to the old native Arawak people, and they're a popular haunt for hikers. I got to eat like a local, feasting on amazing meat dishes from a barbecue by local chef Wema Winners, washed down with the popular, and really good, Aruban beer, Balashi. And check out the local coconuts - massive and soft, they're nothing like what we get at home. The food stall at the California Lighthouse (great views) is a good place to try them.
As with any island nation, you'll bump into a lot of local characters. None more so than Frank Kelly. With a name like that he has a bit of Irish ancestry going way back, and Frank is the island's answer to Bear Grylls. He keeps the idea of foraging alive, a tradition from when times were tough, especially so on an island where without modern techniques, it's hard to grow much.
The shoreline on the east coast is a world away from the white sands and hotels of the west - crashing waves, jagged rocks, weather-beaten cliffs, you can imagine the desolation of being stranded here in those old pirate days. But Frank thrives here.
Shellfish, flowers, shoreline weeds, through trial and error, Frank got to know what was a delicacy - and what wasn't so good for the digestion. And he's a dab hand at turning what he finds into a meal - the kind of guy who, if he lived in Ireland, could find dumped chicken nuggets and takeaway chips and whip up a Michelin-starred meal. (He's in demand with local chefs). Check locally and meet up with Frank - the Irish bits of him have left him as a natural storyteller.
Those in the know head to Mangel Halto, a little oasis of a beach that's tree-lined and like having a desert island to yourself. There we were wined and dined by genial husband and wife team Bas Kuurstra (Dutch-born chef) and Rosemeurys, from the Dominican Republic. If you're looking for that special dinner on your own slice of the island, check out rentachefearuba.com, and live the high life. Aruba's also partial to American imports, particularly watersports and wellness. Stand-up paddle boarding is all the rage, and Dennis Martinez's arubasurschool.com is a great way to learn.
Real-life surfing's also on offer, and that Caribbean water is just so inviting. I also tried the spa in Oranjestad's Renaissance Hotel - with sun-soaked views across the marina, lined with pricey yachts - and did yoga in the Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa, with the novelty that it was on the beach and my yoga partner was a passing iguana. Pilates also available, and I can't think of a more beautiful location to try it (manchebo.com).
An island worth tying the knot for, just for that honeymoon in heaven.
◊ thekitchentablebywhite: Seating 16, this is the in spot for gourmets and visiting celebs.
◊ Lifeisbeautiful (on facebook): The place for cheap, fresh seafood and salads, dining in the open air
◊ screaming-eagle.net: If you're really loved up (or just lazy), here you can eat... in beds. Real tables too and food that's among the best on the island. Cool bar also.
◊ tasteofbelgium.aw: Got a sweet tooth? It's crepes and chocolate galore, plus substantial brunches and dinners in a little corner of Brussels.
◊ theoldcunucuhouse.com: Like having dinner in a local's house - with a beautiful outside bar area where you could while away an hour or 10.
◊ Djiespie's Place (on facebook): Breakfast on the cheap with the locals - try meat or cheese-filled pastechi) before hitting the stores of the capital.
Not too tricky at all.
Fly from Dublin and connect at Amsterdam Schiphol. KLM's flights (klm.com) tend to be really busy, so book ahead for that dream break. The seat-back TVs were tiny for my eyesight, but inflight service (staff exceptionally friendly) was excellent.
If you want to save money on flight and hotel, get a package deal.
Heffernan's Travel in Cork (021 2300777; heffernans.ie) offers seven nights at The Ritz-Carlton from €2,247pp in a double coastal room with a partial ocean view. Price includes taxes and flights from Dublin/Cork via Amsterdam (subject to availability).
For more info, see aruba.com.