A blue-eyed Dutch girl named Katja brushes and cleans her eight-year-old stallion Bincel before we set off for Malmok Beach and a ride in the surf. The small swath of sand is deserted this early in the morning, and we have the entire stretch to ourselves. Opposite the sea, cactuses abound in the desert environment of the Netherlands Antilles. On an island perhaps best known for its resort-lined beaches and shopping centers built to serve cruise traffic, this feels like another planet.
10:20 A.M. It's already 90 degrees, but the strong trade winds that continually bombard the island keep the temperature tame enough to be pleasant. Just off the shoreline, the old derelict Antilla shipwreck peeks above the water, rusted and immobile. Katja and Bincel ride ahead of me, cutting a striking silhouette as the sunlight reflects off the ocean. Before long I'm ready to plunge in.
12:50 P.M. A brisk gust bows the sail and pulls against my hands on the boom. The wide beginner board feels solid under my feet as it moves through the light chop. Color and movement draw my attention left and right toward windsurf sails cutting across the water and kitesurf kites soaring in the air. A veritable U.N. of beach bums lines the sugar-sand beach of Fisherman's Huts — Germans gesturing wildly about their rides, sun-baked Dutch men and women sheltering under blond bangs, Aruban children with dark skin, bleached hair and mad skills.
12:55 P.M. I lean back and ride. Graceful? Not exactly, but I'm windsurfing! It's my very first lesson, practically an Aruban right of passage. “Now try a tack,” instructor Matt of Aruba Active Vacations yells over the persistent whisper of the wind. If I don't turn soon, I'll end up in Venezuela. I take the first step in my three-step dance around the boom.
12:56 P.M. I'm underwater, upside down and flailing for the bright-blue surface. Again. The good news is falling in on a warm day in Aruba feels great.
4:00 P.M. Bent trees and bald hills in the distance flirt with my peripheral vision as I drive southeast on L.G Smith Boulevard into Oranjestad. The road narrows as it passes through the port area. I stop and wait as a parade of tourists carrying brand-name shopping bags shuffl es through a crosswalk toward the towering cruise ship moored to my right. I turn left. I have a reservation with Aruba.
5:20 P.M. The scent of curried goat lingers as I finish a Balashi beer. Katja sits across from me at Gostoso, a restaurant just minutes from downtown. Chef-owner Jose Nascimento does every job in the establishment with ease and grace. Compliments erupt in Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento as he visits the tables. Katja takes the last bite of her Creole sushi roll, a twist on the dish using fried plantains instead of rice, plus crab, salmon and a delicious mystery ingredient I can't place.
5:30 P.M. Right now at the port, those flocks of cruise-goers, laden with designer labels and crowned with caps from Hard Rock Cafe, are heading to their staterooms. The countdown to leave Aruba has begun for me also, but I wave the thought off. I feel a little smug for exploring the island on my own and finding this elegant spot. “Anything else for you, sir?” Jose asks, his hospitality never flagging. Riding in the desert, sailing in the surf, dining a world removed from the cruise buffet, and we still have time for one more drink.