Cactus in the Caribbean? I couldn’t believe it either. But, sure enough, the arid climate creates desert-like conditions right alongside the dazzling blue waters of the ABCs, short for Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. It’s enough to have earned Bonaire the nickname “Arizona by the Sea.”
If you haven’t yet made it to the Leeward ABCs in the Southern Caribbean, off the Venezuelan coast, get onboard quick. They’re a confluence of Dutch, Caribbean and Spanish vibes, desert and ocean landscapes, and each is colorful and interesting in its own way. And best of all for those of us who like to cruise on the cheap—there’s a ton to do just a stone’s throw from the pier.
Here, in brief, are some of the walkable highlights of the ABCs:
Aruba: Shopping, Iguanas and Anne Frank
What you notice most about Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba and port city, is color. Buildings in pink and yellow, trimmed in white. Green parakeets perched on palm trees. Hues of blue sea. Princess calls it “Holland meets Disney’s Fantasia.”
But no backwater is this; Aruba is vibrant and bustling. And a lot of fun to explore. Pose for the tablet camera while you drape yourself over the giant “I love [heart] Aruba.” And if you haven’t already lost enough money on the ship, there are some casinos that, to quote a cruise director, “would welcome your donation.”
Greenery. If you walk straight up L.G. Smith Boulevard, the city’s main drag, you’ll come to Wilhelmina Park. Queen Wilhelmina herself reigns from the center of this city oasis, and don’t miss the sweet tribute to Anne Frank. Sometimes, there will be picnickers and teens with guitars, but you can always count on dozens of wild iguanas because the park staff keeps them coming by doling out handfuls of greens.
Shopping. Aruba gets an “A” for shopping. The prices are among the best in the Caribbean for knickknacks. And while most of it comes to the Caribbean by way of China, you can also get the delicate mopa mopa crafts that are made locally from tree resin, Dutch edam and any manner of faux Delft souvenirs. There are several shopping centers and vendors along L.G. Smith, as well as vendors clustered near the port.
Bonaire: No Snorkeling Needed
This lovely island is not often visited by the mass market ships and it’s really a shame. It’s by far my favorite. The ship docks in the capital city of Kralendijk (pronounced Crah-len-deyk) and the port area is positively pristine.
Ocean walk. Just off the pier is the Promenade, a walkway along the stunning sea. No snorkeling needed here; the show can be seen right from where you stroll, while you stay nice and dry. The water is so unbelievably clear that we watched, mouths hanging open, as schools of green-and-blue fish swam past us. It was as if we were at the zoo and the fish had been put there for our amusement. Shells, crabs and coral littered the beach below the walkway, across from homes adorned with cactus and hibiscus.
Shopping. You will think the ship took a wrong turn and landed in Scarsdale. Vendors’ wares are more made at home than made in China. Think painted soaps and needlework vs. t-shirts and ashtrays. The main shopping street has some interesting tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.
Bon Bini* to Curaçao
Your ship will dock in the capital city of Willemstad. Take the Waterfront Promenade past modern shops and into a small mall bordered by the 19th century Rif Fort. There are a few boutiques and cafes, but the real excitement is just a short walk through the courtyard—the Punda District, or old part of Curaçao. Its colorful fairy-tale buildings line up to greet you as you cross the channel via the Queen Emma Pontoon, a floating bridge that opens and closes to boats and pedestrians.
Strolling. The Punda has some European-style cafes along the water and many shops both for tourists and locals. There’s also the Mikve Israel Emanual Synagogue, circa 1732 and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Shopping. Unique to Willemstad, in the old town, is the floating market, where vendors from Venezuela sell their papayas and pineapples from their small wooden boats. If you’re not inspired to try some, at least pull out your cell phone for some great photo-taking. And before you leave Curaçao, consider taking home some of the local spirit; you can’t miss it in the liquor store—it’s just about the only thing that’s blue.
* Means “welcome” in the local Papiamento dialect.