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Most people miss the quieter side of Aruba. It’s easy to understand why, with the seduction of cruise ships, casinos and malls in the capital city of Oranjestad and the many resorts and beaches along the southwest coast. Even frequent visitors are surprised to learn about Aruba’s wide-open spaces. To explore the myriad dirt roads in the desertlike interior and the rugged windward shore — the most pristine parts of Aruba — it’s best to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Expect plenty of surprises, though the weather won’t be one of them. Aruba is located well outside the hurricane belt. Usually the mercury hovers around a sunny 81 degrees, with constant trade winds — no wonder this small Dutch island is a top windsurfing destination. For an overview of the landscape, climb several hundred steps to the top of 550-foot-high Mount Hooiberg (Haystack Mountain), a cone-shaped peak that’s visible from almost any point on the island. The trip is well worth it — you can see Venezuela on a clear day. Alternatively, drive to the top of Mount Jamanota — the island’s highest hill, located within the boundaries of Arikok National Park — for even better views. To enter Arikok, Aruba’s premier wilderness retreat, drive via San Fuego (or take a tour with Horizon Tours, 297-584-0540). Explore the park on foot and you’ll find many treasures, including limestone caves, Arawak Indian petroglyphs, white sand dunes, pristine beaches, an abandoned gold mine, and traditional adobe homesteads, or cunucus. You can arrange a guided hike — there are 18 miles of trails — with a ranger (297-582-8001) who will point out birds and lizards found only in Aruba. Walking past candle cacti and black sage, you may think you’ve accidentally entered Arizona. (One tip-off: Aruba’s signature tree, the divi-divi, which bends at a 45-degree angle.) Another option is to visit the park on horseback from Rancho Daimari (297-586-6284), located on a coconut plantation dating to the seventeenth century. (The trek includes a snorkel stop at Natural Pool, where black lava rocks protect you from the rough surf.) Elsewhere on the island, Aruba offers several natural mysteries, including two Stonehenge-like sites where massive rock jumbles seem to have come out of nowhere. At Ayo and Casibari, climb up, around, and over these giant boulders, which have been weathered into odd shapes. Aruba’s restaurant scene doesn’t veer far from its traditional roots. Restored cunucus are home to two popular restaurants: The Old Cunucu House in Palm Beach and Gasparito Restaurant and Art Gallery in the town of Noord. You’ll want to try the local specialty, keshi yena, made with baked chicken, olives, curry, and Dutch gouda, at The Old Cunucu House. The Gasparito chicken with its family secret sauce and the Aruban delicacy stoba di cabrito, or goat stew, are favorites at Gasparito. The elegant Chez Mathilde occupies one of the last original nineteenth-century buildings in Oranjestad. Dining in the garden pavilion on duck with citrus honey sauce will remind you of Paris. And it’s not just the sweeping views at Ventanas del Mar, the restaurant at the Tierra del Sol golf course, that entice guests. While the crispy whole fried snapper has been a longtime favorite, new menu offerings, including ginger shrimp tempura, have an international flavor. Visitors who become hooked on Aruba’s vast expanses can buy one of Tierra del Sol’s condos, which start at $275,000. But for short-term relaxation, you may want to rent one of its villas, which include unlimited golf (297-586-7800). Aruba also has several unique villas that make the most of the island’s scenery. (Two- to three-bedroom villas are $165-$570 a night in low season: 297-583-8700.) Overlooking Arashi Beach, Villa Alexandra, with its old-world ambience, comes with a cook who serves Aruban and South American cuisine. Constructed of exotic woods, the villa is built into a blue granite cliff. Alto Vista Private Retreat is for the guest who wants total seclusion (donkeys and sheep typically roam the neighborhood). This contemporary house, built atop the Alto Vista hills, provides ocean views from all sides. Bakval Garden Villa, located across from the Marriott, is noted for its garden, which is lush with bougainvillea and offers plenty of birdwatching opportunities. So much of Aruba maintains a back-to-nature feel. Even the designer of Tierra del Sol left undisturbed the native habitat of the rare burrowing owl as well as the saltwater marsh, home to wild egrets. And yet, on this small island where the sandy beaches give way to cacti and lava rocks, you’ll never be far from the blackjack tables or shops selling Cuban cigars, should you give in to these seductions. INFO TO GO Dutch is the official language, but most Arubans are fluent in English and Spanish. Air: All major airlines fly into Reina. Beatrix International Airport, 15 minutes from Oranjestad. Ground: Local buses, a five-minute walk from the airport, run to Oranjestad; a taxi from the airport to Tierra del Sol is $25. Buses also run from San Nicolas to Oranjestad and continue on to the hotels along the coast. You can rent a four-wheel vehicle at the airport. On the Web: www.aruba.com

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