IF you're looking for a lush green tropical isle, don't come to Aruba. But if you're looking for white powdery beaches, almost constant sun, and warm, turquoise-colored water in which to swim and snorkel, then Aruba is the place for you. This island looks like a chunk of New Mexico desert cut out by a cookie cutter and dropped into the Caribbean Sea - with the White Sands National Park sprinkled into endless sugary beaches.
What's more, the steady northeast trade winds blowing over the land remind you of those unflagging New Mexico currents. Yet here, the wind is so prevalent that it distorts the local divi-divi trees, making them flat on top with limbs growing only on the side away from the force of the wind.
The leeward side of the island, however, is peaceful and serene. An increasing number of low-rise and high-rise hotels nestle into the sand. With little tide and no hurricanes (they form north of here), some hotels here have rooms with sliders that allow you to step out right onto the milk-white beach.
With more vacationers being drawn to Aruba, especially through reasonably priced package plans, hotels are expanding. The Holiday Inn, the island's largest, with 800 rooms, is in its third phase of expansion. Also enlarging are time-sharing complexes such as the Dutch Village and Playa Linda Beach Resort, both on the popular beach strip of Palm Beach.
In just a few hours ashore from a cruise ship, you can learn much about this leeward island of the Dutch West Indies. Aruba is the farthest west in the chain of the so-called ABC Islands, with Bonaire and Cura,cao stretching to the east. Venezuela is only 17 miles to the south.
Aruba, an island about 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, was discovered in 1499 by the Spaniard Alanzo de Ajeda. He found it inhabited by peaceful Arawak Indians who were farmers and fishermen. Fortunately, Spain maintained only a small Spanish garrison, so the Indian heritage remained intact until the Dutch arrived in 1634. Even then, the Dutch kept Aruba mostly as a ``closed area'' until the 19th century.
The people who live here are a mixture of Dutch, Indian, and Spanish. Dutch is the official language, though English is widely spoken. Aruba enjoys an independent status in partnership with Holland and the Netherlands Antilles, consisting of five islands.
Since tourism is primary in Aruba, you can find numerous ways to pass the time. On your own, you can walk in the downtown area to see restored centuries-old buildings such as ancient William III Tower, once used to guide ships into the bay and now a museum; the old and new Dutch Reformed churches; and Wilhelmina Park, next to the beach where a statue of the former Dutch Queen stands in the center.
A six-block shopping center can satisfy the most discriminating buyer. Or you can take a taxi to one of the hotels and enjoy its facilities and beaches. Aruba also has several casinos that cater to tourists.
Snorkeling or scuba diving may be your interest. If so, you can head for the beach area, where you can rent equipment for any kind of water activity. Tennis, horseback riding, and golf are also available.
Curiosity about this strange-looking flat island with two odd peaks on the horizon may encourage you to take an island tour. Maria Marcus was the guide for our group of 37 on a Pelican Tour. Mrs. Marcus spilled out historical facts and details about the architecture and flora and fauna.
The Pelican Tour took us to see the forlorn northwestern windward side of the island to Andicouri. Here the surf has pounded relentlessly on volcanic rocks to form several natural rock bridges. The surrounding level land rising to hills looks like a moonscape, since no vegetation grows nearby.
On the way, the bus travels near the remaining walls of a 19th-century Bushiribana gold mine, which extracted gold from crushed ore, once an important industry on Aruba. The buildings are scheduled to be restored.
We rode through a valley called Frenchmen's Pass, where the greatest amount of vegetation on the island is found. Hundreds of chattering parakeets nest in the tall, dense cactus growth. Small goats wander everywhere, though a few are kept in place by living fences of cactuses.
En route, the bus pauses so that tourists can see unique country houses dating back to the 18th century. The tiny low, one-story houses are brightly painted stucco, with red tile roofs, and decorated white trim. Many of the houses near the main roads have been bought for relatively high prices and restored.
Other tour stops are at Casibari Rock, where the adventurous can climb an unusual high mound of rocks to get a view of the island's terrain. Not on the tour is the 541-foot-high Haystack Hill that looms over the island.
Aruba's most prolific plant seems to be a tall cactus, but in some areas there are thousands of low-growing aloe plants, descended from the ones imported to Aruba in the 1840s. A major export in the past, now again after a few years' hiatus, aloe is being harvested and processed for use in cosmetics and other products.
For years, Aruba's chief income producer was the oil industry, which began in 1929 and lasted until 1985, when Exxon closed its large refinery. It now stands in ghostly silence.
Fortunately for the island's economy, the first cruise ship arrived in the port of Oranjestad in 1979, and since then tourism has been on the rise.
If you go
Several major airlines fly into Oranjestad's Queen Beatrice Airport. Contact your travel agent for information about package plans.
Duty-free shops provide a saving of 40 percent on some items, with a selection of good-quality products available from all over the world. US money accepted.
Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.