ORANJESTAD, Aruba (AP) - Given a choice between a snowy mountain and a sandy beach, I prefer the cold. But my wife is from Miami and my infant son howls when exposed to a chill. So this year I deferred to them, and we headed to Aruba.
I got a glimpse of the island's beauty some 15 years ago, as I looked out the window of a puddle-jumper circling Aruba during a stopover en route to Trinidad. About 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, Aruba is carpeted in some areas with green, scraggly vegetation and a few steep hills, while the north side is rugged, desert-like terrain, peppered with cacti and wild rock formations. White sand rings the south and west shores, and the azure water demands a visit.
It doesn't disappoint. The temperature hovers year-round at about 80 degrees. The water is gorgeous on the southern beaches with their sugary white sand. And Aruba's main source of income is tourism, so visitors are always made to feel welcome. In fact, the Aruba Tourism Authority is promoting the island with a new campaign: ''Aruba - 90,000 Friends You Haven't Met Yet.''
More than a half-million Americans visit Aruba each year. Huge cruise ships dock daily at Oranjestad and disgorge crowds of passengers to shop or grab a meal in the crowded downtown. Our group of a dozen friends and family stayed a couple miles away, right off Eagle Beach in a condo development called Oceania Residences where visitors rent units from owners - www.arubacondo.com. We had to cross a street to get to the beach, but we had unobstructed views of the sea from our rooms. On the beach, huts provided shade from the intense sun, and it was relatively quiet with few crowds.
The water is an intense light blue, but at least close to shore, there isn't much to see for snorkelers. A short drive northwest of Eagle Beach, high-rise hotels and restaurants line crowded Palm Beach. Businesses on the beach rent out sailboats and windsurfers, lead sunset cruises or provide fishing expeditions. We booked a snorkeling and sunset cruise aboard the 45-foot ''Ali Kai'' catamaran with Marcel's Watersports. At $45 a head, we got a three-hour cruise, in which we sailed up toward the northern tip of Aruba to snorkel near Arashi and Malmok Beaches. Schools of fish crowded around as we swam through the clear, warm water. Parrotfish, filefish and sergeant major fish prowled through the water as starfish lurked on the bottom. We cruised back to Palm Beach as the sun set.
But Aruba offers more than the sea for outdoor adventurers. Much of the northern side of the island is wild. In fact, about 20 percent of the island's 70 square miles lies within park boundaries. The Arikok National Park has biking and hiking trails leading up to views of the rocky north coastline. Check out the unusual rock and cave formations, including natural rock bridges eroded by millennia of waves crashing into and undercutting the rocky coast.
We rented a Jeep and went off-road for most of a day, tracking the coastline from the northern tip of Aruba to Conchi, or the Natural Pool. While less than 10 miles as the crow flies, the trip took many more miles negotiating treacherous gullies, dodging boulders and climbing seemingly vertical trails.
After a hot day bouncing around in the back of the Jeep, we were rewarded with a secluded pool of seawater protected from the rough surf by cliffs and rock formations. Big waves hit the rocks and periodically wash into the pool in a strong, yet gentle waterfall. If off-road driving isn't your speed, try one of the tour companies and let a professional negotiate the tricky paths. ABC Aruba Tours in Oranjestad offers a day trip, www.abc-aruba.com/.
Our group included two young children, so the rugged terrain of the north was out for them. But the Butterfly Farm - thebutterflyfarm.com/ - near the resorts in Palm Beach made up for what they missed. Hundreds of colorful insects flutter about in a large mesh enclosure. You can see 35 species of the creatures in all stages of development, from egg to caterpillar, pupa and finally a butterfly. Tickets are relatively expensive (adults $15, children $8) but good for the length of your visit to Aruba, so take the kids early and often. The Butterfly Farm has locations on other Caribbean islands too, including in St. Martin, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman.
When we told friends we were heading to Aruba, nearly everyone mentioned Natalee Holloway, the 18-year-old from Alabama who disappeared without a trace in 2005 on a high school graduation trip to the island. Although suspects have been questioned, no one has been tried in the case and Aruban prosecutors said recently they are near the end of their investigation. Holloway's family criticized the handling of the case by Aruban authorities and some officials in the U.S. called for a tourism boycott, but the effort fizzled. But the U.S. State Department's current travel information about Aruba describes crime there as ''generally considered low,'' and we never felt unsafe.
It's not unusual to have disappointing food in places with a lot of tourists no matter where in the world you go, and I must say we had several forgettable meals with our feet in the sand, watching the sunset. But the quality of our meals appeared to be inversely related to our proximity to the beach. At restaurants on Irausquin Boulevard, the views were not as good but the food was much better, including great tapas at Salt & Pepper and good seafood at Fishes & More.
One thing you can't see in Aruba anymore is its famous Natural Bridge, a 100-foot-long stone span that collapsed in 2005. But the sand, the sea and plenty of other diversions still make it a perfect vacation spot for beach-loving families - even those that include a snow-loving contrarian like me.