ORANJESTAD, Aruba, May 24, 2012 — “Hug a divi divi tree for me.” That’s what a friend told me before I set off for Aruba.
Although I’d never heard of the divi divi, if it prompted affection like that in my friend, I suspected that the tree was worth finding. I was told that it looked like a gnarled and twisted bonsai on steroids, and that it was so ubiquitous that it could be found just about on every beach.
Sitting beside me on the plane to Aruba was a woman who’d spent the past ten years’ worth of her vacation time in Aruba. I asked her about the divi divi. “I don’t go looking for trees,” she said. “I go looking for my happy place. They don’t call Aruba one happy island for no reason.”
As the plane swooped close to the island before landing, there was no mistaking that this island’s focus is tourism. After spotting a circa 1910 lighthouse that emerges from boulders on one end of the island, the next thing in sight is the cluster of high-rise resorts.
This island caters mostly to visitors who are looking to soak up the potent near-equatorial sunshine, the gleaming crystal waters of the Caribbean and the soft white sands of Aruba’s famed beaches.
The Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is an ideal base to explore the island. Although it’s a large resort with more than 400 rooms, it is set at the far end of popular Palm Beach, this picture-perfect strip of sugar white sand along the Caribbean.
Although you are close to the action, like the Sunday night dance parties at the pulsating beach club called MooMba, you’ll also be lulled by the tides, locals windsurfing before work, the small fishing boats plying the water and the little coves where families frolic.
This Marriott recently underwent a major face lift, bringing the rooms into the 21st century. Think granite counters, vessel sinks and flat screens.
The main pool is a fun spot with a volleyball net, hidden grottoes and a swim-up bar. There’s nothing quite like sipping a Balashi, a local beer brewed with desalinization water from the Caribbean, while gazing at the sea.
One of the biggest struggles for any resort is how to simultaneously please family travelers and romantic couples. Marriott has struck that balance with a new addition to an adults-only pool. There are sexy pergolas draped with linens, which couples can reserve for some alone time. For those, like me, who were looking to steal away from our desks to get work done poolside, there’s WiFi.
Another concept for adults is the conversion of the eighth floor. Here, there’s a lounge reserved solely for adult travelers, which provides five small meals a day, from breakfast through a light dinner of apps and champagne in the evening.
The Marriott has six restaurants. There’s a Ruth’s Chris on property’s as well as small cafe with fresh sandwiches and a sushi bar in the lobby.
Lunch doesn’t get better than La Vista. Sit out on the patio that’s buffered by lush gardens. Try the blackened fish wahoo wrap made with shredded cabbage and Gouda cheese (remember, Aruba is a Dutch island). Ask for some local papaya hot sauce that’s so fiery there’s a reason it comes out in tiny jewel-like drops the color of a sunset.
There isn’t a better date night on the island than dinner at Simply Fish. As the sun goes down, the Marriott’s beachfront is transformed into an elegant restaurant. Guests kick off their shoes and plunge their feet into the sand, a lovely contrast with the starched table cloths, twinkling candlelight and silver wine buckets. Order the “triangle,” a dish designed to show off the best of the natural bounty with a trio of grouper, swordfish and Caribbean lobster tail.
Good food is only part of the experience at the Marriott. The gym, spa and Aruba’s largest casino make this resort one of those places that you never have to leave if you don’t want to.
But the Marriott has wisely dedicated an entire team to helping guests discover different facets of Aruba, arranging everything from sunset sails to horseback rides to forays into local neighborhoods for culinary exploration.
Rapid growth, spurred by tourism, has put pressure on the ecosystem of this small (20 miles by five miles) island. The Aruban government has responded by stepping up environmental initiatives that include setting aside 18-percent of the countryside, mostly desert on the northeast of the island, protecting it in the Arikok National Park.
Visitors can take Jeeps, horses and ATVs through the unpaved roads, along the way passing what few expect to see on a Caribbean island: a desolate lunar landscape with cactus, rattlesnakes and scorpions.
Along the route, one of my guides called out, “divi divi.” She gestured towards a craggy tree near a rocky beach where some wild goats were grazing.
“That one?” I asked, still on my quest.
“Could’ve been,” the guide said. Our Jeep rumbled on.
It turns out the so-called ubiquitous divi divi tree of Aruba wasn’t so ubiquitous after all.
We stopped at Guadirikir Cave, a limestone cave formed before the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, leaving it standing one hundred feet above the ground.
Bring a flashlight because this dank cave is pitch dark. It was a sacred hideout of Indians, a place they retreated during the Spanish occupation in the 1770s and the petroglyphs on the walls are a testament.
Stopping as you inch your way along slippery rocks to navigate a long tunnel in complete darkness pays off. You emerge inside a cave within a cave. Clap your hands loudly and a colony of fruit bats awaken from their slumber, their flapping wings creating an eerie sound like rushing wind.
Beaches in Aruba are also afforded special protection. With more than one million visitors every year, the fragile reef systems needs attention.
Three of Aruba’s beaches have been so successful in environmental stewardship that they have been classified as “Blue Flag” beaches, an international certificate for environmental management.
One of them, Baby Beach, may be set in the shadow of an abandoned oil refinery, but that doesn’t stop the party on the beach, nor locals for snorkeling among vibrant reefs close to the shore.
But it was land that I was most interested in. As my trip wound to a close, I was determined to locate the elusive divi divi.
My final afternoon as I was walking back to the Marriott, my guide stopped me outside of a gift shop. “Here’s a divi divi,” she said.
This tree was groomed with such exuberance that its puffy cluster of leaves resembled the tail of a show poodle.
I inched closer for that divi divi hug, but before I could wrap my arms around it, my guide faltered. “I mean, maybe. It could be a divi divi. ” I took a picture, but spared this manscaped specimen my hug.
After three days on the island, I’m still not 100 percent sure that I found the elusive divi divi tree, but one thing is certain: The woman on the plane was right. Aruba made it easy to find my happy place.
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