Monday, March 23, 2009

TRAVEL: Discover the island of Aruba

Tired of work, stress, and/or concerned about the economy. Well, we've decided to bring some relief by highlighting travel destinations we know you will like. And we start our regular series with the beautiful island of Aruba, the tiny island in the Lesser Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela whose diminutive size doesn't translate into a lack of fun in the sun, both on-beach and off.

Global warming may be all the talk, but in Aruba, there's no such thing as climate change. Thanks to consistent trade winds, the island enjoys one of the most stable climates on the planet at an almost-constant 82 degrees F year-round.

And there are only a few of those pesky afternoon thunderstorms to deal with, as rainfall is limited to just 16 inches annually.

The vacation buzz kill -- Atlantic hurricane season -- runs from June 1 to November 1, but Aruba rarely gets more than a passing wind or surfer-friendly surf from the big storms.

Thanks to the island's position in the Lesser Antilles, Aruba is pretty much out of harm's way -- and officially out of the hurricane track -- during prime hurricane season.

Aruba's desert environment and the island's continuous exposure to the blazing Southern Caribbean sunshine combine for the perfect atmosphere in which to grow aloe vera.

The first succulent aloe plants were planted in Aruba in the mid 1800s; by the turn of the century aloe production was under full swing as the plant's healing properties gained a world-wide reputation.

Where did Caribbean stud poker start? In Aruba -- not surprising, since the island is known as the tropical version of Vegas.

Most large resorts on the island -- including the Hyatt Regency, the Renaissance Seaport and Renaissance Crystal -- offer luxurious gaming spaces. A few casinos are open 24 hours, but most open at 11 a.m. with table games well into the night.

Aruba is the envy of other Caribbean islands for its repeat visitor rate; boasting the most returning visitors than any other island in the region.

Return visitors account for over 40 percent of Aruba's tourists, who report returning for not only the weather, but for the nightlife and the friendliness of the Aruban people. Seventy-five percent of Aruba's visitors come from the U.S.

Surprisingly, there's not a single river in all of Aruba, an unusual geographic feature in the region.

The relatively flat, dry island boasts almost 70 miles of coastline and very little vegetation, save for a few succulents including the aloe plant and cacti; the highest point on the island is about 616 feet.

Much of Aruba's off-beach charm exudes from its pastel-colored villages -- a reminder of its cultural heritage as a Dutch colony.

Today, the island has its own special status as an entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the local language -- Papamiento -- is a lyrical mix of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Arawak and African.

The island experienced its own 1800s gold rush. Legend has it that Aruba was a treasure island -- and aptly named Oro Ruba, or red gold.

Prospectors once mined ore from the small hills on the northern coast, and in 1824 it gold was finally discovered. Two mills -- which produced more than three million pounds of gold -- are open for tours filled with tales of the adventurous prospectors.

Aruba's just a two and a half hour flight from Miami, and 14 major airports offer direct flights to the island's Queen Beatrix International.

Plus, year-round charters are available out of Boston and Chicago. The best part is that it's the only place with a U.S. Customs and Immigration pre-clearance check-in, meaning travelers are cleared through customs before ever hitting U.S. soil.

Aruba has the highest standard of living in the West Indies; the median annual income is over $21,000.

The island's educational system gets much of the credit for the literacy rates of this highly educated population, while the booming tourism industry brings with it the potential for workers to make an excellent living.

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