Wednesday, March 31, 2010

(No.86) Visiting the ABC islands

It seems to Pat and me that most of the advertisements for winter Caribbean sun destinations directed at central Canadians promote stays on the Mayan Riviera, in the Dominican Republic and Cuba plus an assortment of islands like Jamaica and the Turks & Caicos.

Occasionally one sees something involving Aruba or Curacao off the the coast of Venezuela, two of the three 'ABC islands' of what used to be popularly called the Dutch Antilles (the 'B' in ABC refers to the island of Bonaire).

In the 1950s the Dutch grouped their six island colonies in the Caribbean into a political and administrative unit called the Netherland Antilles: the three ABC islands plus Saint Maarten (shared with France), Saba and Saint Eustache. This remained unchanged until ca. 1986 when Aruba became independent but with a continuing defence and political/monarchial relationship as one of three countries (along with the Netherlands and the Netherland Antilles) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The other five islands have since continued as the Netherland Antilles. Curacao and Saint Maarten are now headed toward the same status and relationship as Aruba while the remaining three islands will in future have the status of provinces of the Netherlands.

Both Curacao and Aruba, being in the southern Caribbean just off the coast of South America, are generally more expensive destinations for Canadians (and some Americans) to reach than the vacation resorts of the eastern and western Caribbean. That has not apparently affected Aruba's development as a major resort location or its attractiveness as a place for second (vacation) homes for Europeans and Amercians. Houses that are near the beach but far from being mansions start at $500,000 (U.S.) while a modest non-beach front property in Curacao can run $100,000+ (U.S.). American currency is widely accepted as well as being used to denominate prices on both islands.

The resorts in Aruba (far more numerous than on Curacao which is not blessed with as much sandy beach) ) are located on what we thought were attractive beaches and come in three categories: high rise, low rise and 'time shares'. They are concentrated near Oranjestad along the Palm, Eagle and Machebo beaches.

The American hotel chains are well represented as are an assortment of less expensive but far from cheap choices. Indeed, one of the newest competitors for the punters' dollars is the Riu. In size, ugliness and similarity of appearance, it reminds one of the much advertised Paradise Island resort near the harbour in Nassau, Bahamas. Curacao has not achieved the resort cachet of Aruba but it does have vacation hotels both in and out of the capital of Willemstad.

The house colours on the islands (especially Curacao) are cheerfully bright in what has come to be regarded as typical Dutch colonial style. Indeed we saw similar colours in an older historic area of original Dutch settlement in Cape Town, South Africa. The countryside on both Aruba and Curacao tends to be arid with cactus and scrub vegetation. Both islands are volcanic in origin.

The islands have an interesting mix of languages and peoples. Curacao lies 35 miles north of Venezuela and is 37 miles long and 7 miles wide at its widest point with a population of 170,000+. It seems to us inferior to Aruba only in being less well known in North America. By comparison Aruba, which we liked somewhat less than Curacao, is 21 miles long and 6 miles wide with a population less than the province of Prince Edward island at 100,000 or so.

In terms of things to do and to visit that don't involve merely a beach, Curacao is the superior destination. Both islands have international airports with direct flights to Europe and North America -- including directly to and from Canada via the odd 'vacation' air carrier.

Tourist safety, in spite of one Aruba case wildly over-publicized in the U.S. by CNN, is not an issue. The Dutch government maintains troops in the islands while in Curacao the Americans have a base from which they try to act against the drug trade originating from South America which apparently tries to move its products via airport smuggling on these islands. The U.S. presence is also directed, one Curacaon told me, at gathering intelligence on Hugo Chavez's regime in Venezuela which lies to the south of the island.

Based on my experience of Caribbean destinations both Aruba and Curacao are different enough destinations from those in the Caribbean that predominate with Canadians to be at least moderately more interesting. Based on the same shared experience Pat agrees that there is more to see.

Depending on whether one's only travel objective is to bake in the sun without regard to the location of the beach, either island might be considered an alternative to the more usual if their greater distance and comparatively higher cost are not a deterrent. Pat agrees again but notes that she still prefers the Canary Islands to any she has visited.

Alastair Rickard