Sun, sand and sailing on one happy island

A colorful bus takes visitors to see the sites in Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba.Photo by Ben G. Frank
A colorful bus takes visitors to see the sites in Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba.
Photo by Ben G. Frank

If ever there was an island for sun, sand and sailing, it’s the small Caribbean isle of Aruba which has become an “in” destination for travelers who love nothing more than wonderful beaches, beautiful hotels and pretty good weather throughout the year.

It is said that this small nation averages 82 sunny degrees year-round. Outstanding are the underwater sports, such as windsurfing, kayaking, kite surfing, tubing, parasailing, water skiing, sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming and fishing.

Well-groomed tennis courts and golf courses complete the offerings of Aruba, whose population is a little more than 100,000 residents living 19 miles from Venezuela and 42 miles west of Curacao.

The first words I heard on a recent visit to Aruba were, “Get your head beneath the sea,” voiced by a travel expert. No wonder Aruba stands as the most visited island in the Dutch Caribbean.

Realistically, the center of Aruban tourism remains its legendary Palm Beach, which stretches for 7 glorious miles full of sun-umbrellas and deck chairs surrounded by hotels such as the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, Hyatt Regency Aruba and Holiday Inn Resort Aruba-Beach Resort & Casino.

Located farther from the hotel zone is Eagle Beach, rated one of the best beaches in the world because of its soft, white sand. Visit around June and you may see new baby turtles hatch and crawl to the ocean.

In contrast, on a city tour I had a chance to travel to the windward side of the island which is more secluded and underdeveloped. Here I saw caves carved out of limestone, inlets formed by pounding waves and craggy desert terrain.
For those who love shopping, downtown Oranjestad, the capital, remains a magnet. Walk along L.G. Smith Boulevard, a broad street replete with Royal Plaza and Renaissance malls, as well as stores displaying Bulgari and Jaeger Lecoultre watches. Tourists flock to Little Switzerland and Diamonds International.

Many of the shops are owned by Jews whose grandparents and parents settled here after World War I, when a large group of Eastern Europe Jews, mostly from Poland, arrived, as did Sephardic Jews from Holland and Suriname. One such popular establishment is Gandelman Jewelers.

Walk the streets and beaches of Aruba and you hear Dutch as well as Papiamento, the local Creole language. More than half the population is of Indian stock, the rest being of Dutch, Spanish and mestizo origin.

Discovered by Alonzo de Ojeda in 1499, the island of Aruba was claimed by Spain, but not settled. The Dutch took over the island in 1634, but did not really populate it with Europeans for about 200 years. From 1828, Aruba was a member of the Dutch West Indies and from 1845, part of the Netherlands Antilles. On Dec. 29, 1954, it achieved self-government. Today, Aruba is an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The first permanent Jewish settler in Aruba was Moses de Salomo Levi Maduro, who arrived on the island in 1753. He was authorized to have farming land, but not cattle.

Jews from nearby Curacao, then a Dutch possession, began arriving around 1790. By 1826, there were about 30 Jews on the island, a number that did not increase until the end of World War I. The installation of the large refinery in 1929 attracted Jews from Poland and Romania. Many of those newly-arrived Jews became peddlers, selling to islanders on credit. Although the Jewish community was officially recognized in 1946, it was not until Nov. 4, 1962 that the first Orthodox synagogue was built. At that time there were 35 Jewish families.

On my recent visit, I sauntered over to observe the statue of Anne Frank of Amsterdam, the author of The Diary of a Young Girl who perished in the Holocaust. The memorial is located in Wilhelmina Park in Oranjestad.

What makes Aruba attractive to Jewish vacationers is a Jewish presence that includes two congregations. The oldest, Beth Israel Synagogue at Adriaan Lacle Blvd., No. 2, is located in Oranjestad. Services are held every Friday at 7:30 pm.

The synagogue holds services on Jewish holidays and Torah study sessions on Shabbat afternoons as well as a Saturday morning service once a month. One Friday night a month, the community sponsors a Shabbat meal.

At Beth Israel, I met Rabbi Daniel Kripper, who is a graduate and former dean of the noted Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, Marshall T. Meyer, in Buenos Aires. The rabbi speaks English, Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew. He also served as rabbi at Adath Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Membership at this Conservative synagogue and Jewish center is figured at about 65 household units, plus another 20 or more (a unit can be a single person or a family) who visit during the year. Many U.S. citizens own houses or timeshares in Aruba. According to Kripper, there are about 200 overseas members who help support the synagogue, which contains a modern-designed sanctuary, as well as three other rooms for study and activities. B’nai mitzvah and weddings for overseas residents are frequent.

Some kosher food can be obtained in local supermarkets, said Kripper. Many Jewish tour groups are housed at the beach hotels with supervised kosher facilities. The local Chabad center offers a variety of kosher meats that are not available locally.

While Chabad had made visits to the island over past decades, it opened a permanent location in Aruba about two years ago at Salina Cerca 13F, Noord. Prayer services are held every Shabbat, as well as on weekdays during the high tourist season, said Rabbi Ahron Blasberg. He added that Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch remain “open to all every week.”

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published, Klara’s Journey (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); and other Jewish travel guides.

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