Aruba: Far away, yet right at home

The California Lighthouse stands sentinel over Tierra del Sol.

The California Lighthouse stands sentinel over Tierra del Sol.

ORANJESTAD, Aruba - One of tourism’s ancillary benefits often comes when we return home, at which point we can kindle our friends’ envy with tales of some exotic locale we found in a corner of the Caribbean, where the weather is perpetually balmy, the golf is memorable and, at the end of the day, there’s always a comfy beach chair where you can enjoy the sunset.

With that in mind, I give you Aruba, a Caribbean sanctuary with a Dutch pedigree, a desert-like topography, a dependably sun-soaked coastline and a windswept Robert Trent Jones Jr. links. Travel agents would be hard-pressed to find an easier sell.

Mention of the Caribbean often stirs images of the tropics, but here the climate is arid – more like Baja.

photo

High-rise resorts line the Palm Beach area along the Aruba coastline.

Strong currents buffet the island’s north and east coasts, which are lightly inhabited. But the beach resorts on the other side of the island benefit from gentle waves. If you stray too far from the beach, however, keep your head on a swivel; reliably stiff breezes make Aruba a haven for wind and kite surfers.

Aruba also is popular with couples, owing in part to this happy geographic fact: The resorts along the western and southern coastlines are ideally situated to enjoy the dramatic Caribbean sunsets.

Americans, who are 75 percent of Aruba’s tourism business, should immediately feel at home here. English is one of four languages spoken by most Arubans, auto traffic moves on the right, the tap water is potable and the dollar is widely accepted.

Traveling is made easier by the fact that at the end of their stays, Americans can clear Customs in Aruba, sparing them that headache when they return home. And Arubans’ good cheer is complemented by their clear thinking; they take a decidedly dim view of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who frequently rattles sabers only 17 miles off their coast.

Various industries – oil refining, gold mining – have come and gone. Tourism emerged over the past 20 years as the country’s dominant industry, contributing 70 percent to Aruba’s gross domestic product and, directly or indirectly, accounting for 85 percent of jobs. So the locals have a vested stake in ensuring that guests leave satisfied. It apparently works; roughly half of visitors to Aruba become repeat customers.

They’re people like Jeff and Peggy Brown, who 15 years ago sought refuge from their wintry Connecticut outpost on Aruba’s dependably toasty beaches.

When the course opened at Tierra del Sol, they returned regularly to a condo off the 10th fairway, hitting the links by day, the casinos by night. They’ve recruited friends – first Sandor Bali and his wife, Karen, then this year Kevin and Sally Hartman – to join them.

Inevitably, a theme emerges.

“I’ve never been anywhere that has guaranteed weather like this,” Sandor Bali says.

While Florida and much of the Caribbean were waking to temperatures in the 30s earlier this month, mid-80s temperatures prevailed in Aruba. The country also is outside of the Caribbean hurricane belt, and the average annual rainfall is only 20 inches.

During their stays, members of the Connecticut group start every morning on the first tee at Tierra del Sol, which is carved into the island’s northwest corner. A dependable two-club wind out of the northeast buffets the course, which at various times reminded me of Scotland and Scottsdale, sometimes on the same hole.

The par-71 layout, which opened in 1995, is anchored by five terrific par 3s that will have players reaching for everything from an 8-iron to a hybrid. Alternate tees on Nos. 3 and 15 further enhance the variety. Late in the day, the third is a particularly sweet little hole, where the elevated tee, which sits just below the California Lighthouse, plays directly into the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea.

What the par 5s lack in length – the longest is the 600-yard first – is more than offset by the fact that they tend to play into the wind. Good luck getting home even at the 479-yard 12th.

The best of the bunch is the dogleg-left, 534-yard 14th, with a hazard lining the left side that makes for an uncomfortable second shot.

The 600-acre Tierra del Sol property – which already has 250 homes and condos, with plans for 350 more units – appears close to finalizing an agreement to bring a luxury hotel to a 25-acre parcel along Arashi Beach.

Given Aruba’s many assets, you can file that news under the rich-get-richer department.

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