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Aruba remains undiscovered by British tourists. MARY GRIFFIN takes a trip to the Caribbean to see what we're missing.

ASCARLET sun slowly sinks into the sea as the clinking of glasses ushers in another warm Aruban night. We are sitting on a jetty over the Caribbean, feasting on seafood and nestling into the evening's warmth.

At year, compared with Jamaica's 180,000 and Cuba's 150,000.

Unlike Jamaica and Cuba, Aruba lies outside the hurricane belt, offering a rain-free 28degC all year round. It also boasts one of the world's top 10 beaches, Eagle Beach, according to Tripadvisor.

The lion's share of tourism comes from the Netherlands and the US (it's less than three hours from Miami), and English is almost as widely spoken as the national languages of Dutch and Papiamento. moments like this you can't help but fall in love with a place - - and there are lots of moments like this in Aruba.

This little corner of the Caribbean remains largely undiscovered by Brits, with just 10,000 UK visitors a

In Aruba's main resort, Palm Beach, US tourists can feel at home with a strip of shops including Benetton, Skechers, and fast food joint Wendy's.

But the beauty of this little island is that it's off the tourist trail and you don't have to go far to find your own corner of paradise.

We start with a two-wheeled tour, taking mountain bikes from the edge of Palm Beach up into the island's central section, passing clusters of brightly coloured homes.

A cactus-lined lane bordered with the 14 stations of the cross leads us down to the little yellow Alto Vista chapel and, from here, we leave the roads behind, taking dusty red tracks to the rugged north coast.

Aruba measures just 20 miles long and six miles wide and hugs the northern edge of South America, lying just 15 miles off Venezuela, giving it a sheltered south-west side that's ideal for swimming, and a weatherworn north-east coast that's ideal for exploring.

The far north's arid, craggy landscape is lashed by boisterous waves and the only signs of human intervention are the remains of a black stone gold mine - the Bushiribana Ruins - and hundreds of neatly stacked piles of pebbles.

This squat army of stone soldiers, standing to attention and saluting the sea, is the work of visitors who have created a 'Wish Rock Garden', taking a handful of stones from the coast and piling one on top of another, with each pile representing a dream.

We make our own before carrying on to Aruba's northern tip, dominated by the 99-year-old California Lighthouse.

At its foot a man with a machete is slicing open fresh green coconuts to quench our thirst and we wind our way back via the idyllic Arashi beach, a favourite with the locals, who should know.

Aruba also offers some real culinary treats. At Pinchos restaurant, with it large wooden jetty surrounding a central bar with tables, we watch the blood-red sunset.This is just about heaven on earth.

A starter of conch fillets is followed by blackened red snapper and to end the meal we sip mint tea, wrapped in the warm evening air, dazzled by a black night sky full of bright white stars.

(I've decided to get married here, by the way).

Further down the south coast, towards San Nicholas, is Zeerover, another eaterie that's built on the beach, with a pier allowing diners to sit right over the turquoise waters.

Half a dozen little boats are moored up alongside, and each day their haul is delivered straight from the boats to a heavy wooden table, where a man with a large knife is waiting to fillet it and pass the cuts to the kitchen.

That's the extent of the menu: fish of the day. And it's the freshest fish possible.

Perched on the pier, a basket in placed in the middle of our table, brimming with thick barracuda steaks, gigantic shrimp in their shells, chunks of sweet fried plantain and wedges of fresh lime, served with spicy papaya chutney, garlic mayo, pickled pink onion and salty cornbread.

It's one of the best meals of my life.

(This will be the venue of my second wedding, should my first marriage hit the buffers).

In the centre of the island is Papiamento restaurant, a stunning venue outside an old colonial "cunucu" house, where tables surround a bright blue swimming pool.

This is fine dining Aruba-style. A delicate oyster soup is followed by a hearty cazuela (casserole), all accompanied by excellent wines from the cellar of owner Eduardo Ellis.

(Should my second marriage perish... well, you get the picture).

To work off our feasts we go trekking in Arikok National Park, which takes up a whopping 20% of the island, making it the largest national park in the Caribbean.

We wander for miles through this cactus-rich wilderness, spotting bright yellow orioles and learning about the healing properties of the plants.

Exploring Arikok's colossal bat caves is like travelling to another planet.

Afterwards, we climb the Casibari boulder clusters, just north of Hooiberg (or haystack) Mountain, where wild parrots hide and electric blue lizards scamper across the rocks.

We spend a day on a catamaran, touring the southern coast and snorkelling the gigantic shipwrecked Antilla; we tour the capital, Oranjestad, with its striking colonial Dutch architecture and traditional trams; we try our hand at beach tennis, Aruba's fastest growing sport.

I should admit, we also take a full day to do nothing but lounge on Lilos, sipping "Aruba Ariba" cocktails made with the island's signature coecoei crimson liqueur. Bliss.

The wish I left piled in stones on the rugged north coast is simply to return to Aruba. Possibly for a wedding, or three.

Unlike Jamaica, Aruba lies outside the hurricane belt

CAPTION(S):

| Arashi Beach is a favourite with the locals

| The sunset from Pinchos restaurant

| A Coconut seller at California Lighthouse, visitors pile up stones to represent wishes, creating a Wish Rock Garden on the north coast
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Geographic Code:5ARUB
Date:Nov 9, 2013
Words:985
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