Looking for a relaxing holiday – if such a thing is possible with 3 kids under 10 – we headed off to the Caribbean for some sand and sunshine. We’d selected Aruba based not only on the photographs we had seen of glorious sandy beaches, but also because there was a fair amount of fun things to explore. The rocking clubs and casino scene wasn’t too relevant for our young family, so instead of staying in a high rise hotel we rented our own house with a pool. The island is so tiny (just six miles wide) that you don’t really have to worry about being far from beaches or restaurants no matter where you stay (as long as you have a car). When we landed, on Christmas Eve, we descended into utter chaos in the Arrivals Hall. The place was so full of tourists waiting to be processed that we could hardly get off the elevator and a body-crushing experience looked imminent. It took us an hour and a half, amid many fraying tempers, to officially arrive in the country – though I am assured this is unusual and simply because in Aruba “to get anyone to work at Christmas is impossible”, as the local immigration official told me when it was finally our turn. Stressed and hot, we picked up our rental car and attempted to find our own way to our house as our landlord was unreachable by phone. Luckily, I had got directions in advance. Unluckily, they were incomprehensible. But, with a few circular tours of the north-western tip of the island, we managed to find the housing development named Esmeralda. Finding #32 amidst un-un-paved roads – if you can call sand paths with giant holes a “road” – and random numbering was less easy. However, once we found the house and the key in the letterbox, we entered a clean and pleasant one-story establishment, with a lovely shaded back terrace and small pool. Exactly as in the photograph. After a brief swim, we headed to the California Lighthouse, which is sadly now not open for climbing, but marks a high point in the North of the island (fifteen meters would be a high point, Aruba is pretty flat with gentle undulations rather than hills and valleys). There’s a terrific Italian restaurant right next to it, La Trattoria El Faro, which has delightful views as long as you don’t mind sitting out in a gale. (The “gentle breezes” that Aruba Tourism use to describe the winds on the island are vastly understated.) Sunset was spectacular. Soon, we had established a happy routine: breakfast in the house, a morning filled with adventures, followed by lunch at one of two places, ice-cream at the Haagen-Daz in XX Mall or the Baskin Robbins in YY, and then back to the house for swimming; out again to the beach and for dinner; pool again for another swim and then kids to bed and mum & dad to relax with a quiet drink on the terrace. Our lunch selections were Dushi Burger in the promenade in front of all the other high rise hotels, as the food was good (burgers and fries, I can’t vouch for anything else on the menu as neither we nor any other customers picked them) and it was quick – perfect for young kids. We also enjoyed DeliFrance, (outside the Certified supermarket). It has the best crepes in the world – having lived in France, I believe I am an official expert. Pick the apple cinnamon kind if you are luck enough to find it on the specials list. My mouth is watering even as I write. DeliFrance also has a mini-playground consisting of a small platform with attached slide, blackboard and playmate. Perfect for keeping our can’t-sit-still two-year-old busy while we ate, and fed her chips as she came back and forth to our table periodically. We also sampled a variety of local beaches. Baby Beach, a forty minute drive down to the Eastern tip of the island, was a big favorite due to its calm waters, protected by a natural reef. All the ocean water in Aruba is deliciously warm –the swimming pools are chilly in comparison. The kids could swim without risk, and the beach had the added bonus of having a small area with shells (the area around the leafless tree on your right as you face the water), so we could make some nice additions to our Caribbean shell collection. Palm Beach is “the” beach in Aruba, meaning it is where all the high rise hotels are located and massively crowded and loud. Try finding a beach chair here after 5.30 in the morning. It made us glad to be in our quiet house away from it all –my husband is, alas, no longer in his mid-twenties and interested in sizing up the babes and strutting past them (not that he admits he ever was) so this was not the beach for us long term. It has all the usual sea adventures for those so inclined – snorkeling, diving, banana boats, parasailing as well as a tonne of beachfront restaurants. You name it, you got it. Eagle Beach is like mini-Palm Beach, less of everything including people and noise. Both beaches are practically wave-free so the kids could have fun splashing around. Further up the Western shore, there’s Malmok Beach and Arashi, both of which have the same white sand and snorkeling opportunities of Eagle or Palm, but thankfully without the crowds. Beaches on the northern shore are more naturally beautiful, with crashing waves and jagged rocks and coral. We enjoyed picking our way through the sandy patches and watching the sea as we hunted unsuccessfully for more shells. Aruba’s famous Natural Bridge is located on the northern shore. I should say ‘was located” as it fell down in 2005. However, there are enough bits left to make the place enjoyable (and touristy, the café on the spot draws the crowds on motorized vehicles of all kinds – cars, buses and the tourist favorite: ATVs). The coastal route to the bridge is the best part of the trip. Cacti rise to 20 feet through the rocky ground, and the blueness of the water contrasting with the grey of the rocks and deep green of the shrubs and plants is eye-catching during the rainy season. One morning we set off for the ostrich farm, a local endeavour run by ex-pat South Africans. We were the first people to arrive in the morning (one advantage of having children is it does make you into an early riser, habits aside) so we got a personal tour.. Many ostriches wander wild and free. I asked why they had wooden pens to hold some of them, when the slats were so narrow and far apart that any big bird could easily wiggle through with room to spare. “They’re ostriches, their brain is the size of a pea, they can’t work that out,” X explained, to the great amusement of our children. Both our boys got to feed the ostriches, first forward-facing, where our eight-year-old panicked as the bird approached and dropped the entire dish of feed on the ground. The ostrich did not reach down to the ground to peck up the pellets. Too stupid, I guess. Then our guide had our six-year-old stand with his back to the birds, holding the metal dish full of feed. Half a dozen bird descended over his shoulder to peck up the feed, making for a fantastic photo opp. Our guide did ask my husband if he wanted to ride on one of the animals. “I didn’t know that was possible!” he gasped. “Well, first you have to sign this form with fifty waivers in it, and then it’s at your own risk,” explained the guide, “We had one chap dislocate his shoulder last month and get airlifted out, but that’s by no means the worst of the injuries. Ostriches aren’t really farm animals.” My husband wisely decided to pass. We’d had such a good morning, we decided to double our exploits and set off for the Bushiribana Ruins the same day. These are the remnants of an 1800s gold smelter. Dad went ahead with the boys and climbed up the stone steps of the ruin and disappeared inside. Anyone thinking I would hang around with baby and miss out on the adventure has surely not been married to me for more than a decade. I grabbed our daughter, stuck her under my arm like a rugby ball, and marched firmly forward, scrambling up the steep steps and ledges. When I proudly got to the top, my husband was not impressed. “What you just did was insanely dangerous!” he yelled. Luckily, we discovered that the back of the top of the smelter was set into the hillside so we could take the gentle grassy path down and back to the car. Another day, we climbed Hooiberg, the highest peak on the island – mind you, this IS Aruba that we are talking about, not Hawaii. Once again, I tucked baby into my armpit, as we began the 561-step climb to the top. The steps were crumbling and narrow stone, without a guide rail for most of the journey, and the winds were fairly strong. At step 200, my husband said, “Have you looked down?” I turned. We were already pretty high. “You are even more insane than I thought at Bushribana,” he exclaimed. “Give me baby. Take the boys up if you have to”. I had to. With the boys a few paces ahead of me I continued in the insane belief that if they slipped I could simply scoop them up in my arms and prevent catastrophe. Clearly, my husband knew me well. Nevertheless, we made it to the top. On step 561, I made the boys sit down and would not let them stand again due to the wind, as I took a thirty second look around. Magnificent views, all the way to the ocean in every direction. On the route down, I grasped my six-year-old’s hand tightly in mine. We took several rests, and made it safely back to the bottom, though his face was pretty red and sweaty by the time we hit the ground. “See, easy,” I said smugly to my better half. He was still not impressed. We also climbed the rocks at Casabari and saw the cave paintings at Ayo. The former was pretty low key compared to the Hooiberg peak, and the latter was nothing liket he famous Lascaux cave art in France, but much like mini-pacmen, making me wonder if those cavemen were a lot more electronic than I ever had realized. There was even a small cave which the children could climb into and pretend to be cavemen themselves. If I had had Noah’s GameBoy, the picture would have been complete. For our dinners, we ate fairly simply in the Hard Rock Café, where the blaring music and eye-catching star accessories kept our children entertained and the burgers and fries sated their appetites; or TGI Friday’s where the menu was identical, best I could tell. We did try A Taste of Belgium one day. The salad and soups tasted pretty American to me, though the high prices might have been Belgium and the mosquitos were local, so we didn’t repeat the experience. We looked into Buccaneer, described as a tourist favourite for the kids, with its “aquarium of turtles and fish surrounding the tables”. I popped my head inside to see tiny tanks housing congested fish and squished turtles, with just one lonesome family of diners sitting subdued in a corner. The damp sour smell inside was enough to put me off bringing the family. Perhaps the peeling paint on the anchor chains outside the front should have been enough to convince me that this place has seen better days. We dined in Oranjestad amid the cruise-ship crowds one night. The Paddock had a lovely waterfront setting, and fairly decent seafood. The fried grouper was particularly good. That was it for our explorations in the capital city, as every other day, hordes of tourists descended from the nearby hotels and ships and it was impossible to get a parking place in town. For the sake of a few jewelry shops and some t-shirts, it did not seem worth fighting the masses. That was not why we had come on an island holiday. Two bucks for a container of the un-watered down juice of twenty passion fruit at the local supermarket was, though. Back home they cost the same per item! Having saved a few dollars by eating breakfast in the house, we decided to blow it all – and then some- by spending an afternoon at Morgan’s Island waterpark. It “only” cost us $168 for two adults and two kids (under two’s are free) since we arrived at 3pm, thus saving an impressive $40. It just opened in December, and though some of the slides and the second wave pool were still under construction, there was plenty for everyone to do. It wasn’t that crowded compared to an American equivalent – since its prices were about three times an American equivalent, that might count as an explanation. Our brave boys tried every slide that their height allowed. Our six-year-old had such a good time on the yellow dipper, that he had multiple slides. As he waited his turn, two young women ahead of him were panicking about the steepness of the slope. “See that little kid?” asked the employee manning the slide, pointing at our younger son. “He does it with no problem, so surely you can manage?” Our little boy felt so proud – until he went in the wave pool with his brother and the lifeguard told him he was too young and had to come out. Shame on them! As the males in the family ransacked the big slides, the females hovered around the family play area. Our daughter loved the fountains and tunnels, and the fact that she could walk around in the 28 inches of water by herself with no hand-holding. Less successful was our outing to Adventure Golf for a quick round of mini-golf. The setting was perfect: a series of holes set on water: “the longest minigolf course in the world”, proclaimed the sign. Why that was an advantage was hard to tell. We were the only players and were set for a fabulous time – which we would have had if our eight year old had not had a meltdown since he was losing, our six year old had not lost it because the ball did not do what he wanted, and our two year old had not insisted on grabbing all the balls and throwing them in the canals. An exhausting experience, only sweetened somewhat by the fact that I won. Beating the children – not important. Beating the husband – priceless. And the bottom of the barrel wa sour attempted visit to Kibaimi Miniature Village, which supposedly had animals for the kids to pet. I got there to find a dirty tiny pet shop with sad-looking animals hidden out back. I found out later the Village had been accused of badly treating its animals (especially the camel) and shut down a few months earlier. Seems like a wise decision to me. We also forced some culture on the kids, visiting Elisa Le Juez’ art gallery in her amazingly designed modern home at Malkomweg 42. She’s just launching an all-leather clothes line, so that could be one to watch. We took a tour of the Aruba Aloe factory and got to see how aloe vera is made from a plant stalk. We visited the crowded 1750 Alto Vista chapel – actually, it’s a copy made in 1952 but you can’t find that information anywhere. Shhh! Don’t tell the tourists. To complete a fabulous holiday, we couldn’t resist a peak in the jewelers near the Haagen Das ice-cream parlour (Pearl Gems)…and thus, we ended the holiday, a bit poorer than expected but with a shiny happy thing around my neck. All’s well that end’s well. So what would we do differently next time? (1) Bring stronger mosquito spray – the feeble offering in the local supermarket seemed to have no effect on our little girl, who end up with eighteen mosquito bites on her face alone. She was almost not allowed into the local kids’ club when we returned home amid fears she had the pox. (2) Get a house that is actually on the beach so that we would not be taking sandy bodies back and forth in the car, and so the frequent sudden ten-minute rainstorms did not catch us unawares. This would also have the benefit of not having to travel to see the sunset, my favorite part moment of the day.