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The ABC Islands of the Caribbean

By Brian Major

May 29, 2022

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Divi divi trees line the edge of Eagle Beach in Aruba.

Photo by David P. Smith / Shutterstock

Divi divi trees line the edge of Eagle Beach in Aruba.

Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are outside the hurricane belt and well within reach for U.S. travelers.

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The “ABC Islands”—Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, the three westernmost islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea—have an easy, breezy nickname for a grouping of three distinctly different spots. Yes, there’s plenty of sunshine and postcard beaches, and they have a shared language (Dutch) and ancestry (the Arawak people, mostly farmers and fisherfolk), but each island has its own flavor and vibe.

Like diamonds cast in the blue waters north of Venezuela’s coast, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are brilliant reflections of their respective cultures. Aruba is now a blend of 90 nationalities across just 70 square miles. Bonaire, with its Afro-Caribbean heritage, has become a destination for divers and adventure travelers. Curaçao is a laid-back island blending of European and Latin American culture. All three countries share ties to the Netherlands; Aruba and Curaçao are autonomous, self-governing constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands.

One last thing these islands share? They’re all outside the hurricane belt. Let’s explore what each island has to offer.

Zeerovers Aruba

Aruba

Aruba may feel familiar on arrival, be it the friendly beach community, high-end retail, global cuisine, or a charged nightlife scene. It’s also a disarmingly unusual landscape of natural parks bordered by blue coastal waters, with endless moon-like stretches filled with cacti and wind-blown divi-divi trees. Which Aruba a traveler prefers is strictly a matter of taste.

Trendy shops, colorful beach bars, and dozens of dining options are available in and around Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital and largest city: from popular restaurant chains to family-run eateries featuring local cuisine and fine dining.

The island’s beaches range from large and long white-sand stretches lined with luxury resorts and water sports operators, to secluded coves set amid limestone cliffs. Eagle Beach is ideal for stand-up paddleboarding and kitesurfing. Visitors can also snorkel Mangel Halto’s reefs and shallow waters or enjoy Baby Beach’s quiet solitude.

Nearly 20 percent of Aruba is designated as National Park territory, highlighted by Arikok National Park, 8,400 acres with rocky cliffs, deep caverns, natural stone bridges, and other unusual land formations made from lava, quartz diorite, and limestone.

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Travelers can arrange guided hiking, horseback riding, and ATV excursions across the expanse to view geometric and zoomorphic cave drawings Arawak Indians created 2,000 to 3,500 years years ago. Follow up an afternoon of rugged cave exploration with a cooling wade in the secluded waters of the Moro, Boca Prins, and Dos Playa coastal bays.

For lovers of local culture and cuisine, Zeerovers (a Dutch word for “pirates”) is an open-air wharf restaurant in Savaneta, Aruba’s oldest village, where local anglers prepare, clean, and cook fresh fish.

The eatery has evolved into a local hangout, attracting visitors and residents alike to “lime” (relax), drink, and enjoy the day’s catch. Fresh fish is served finger-food style from colorful baskets. Patrons dine from picnic tables offering panoramic Caribbean Sea views.

Book now: Ritz Carlton Aruba, from $574/night

Jibe City is a beachside windsurfing instruction and rental center in Bonaire.

Bonaire

Scuba diving in Bonaire is a world-class experience. With the island’s coral reef positioned only a few feet from the shore, travelers can easily access pristine scuba sites without the aid of a boat. Less adventure-inclined travelers can still experience underwater thrills by snorkeling in the island’s warm blue waters, which are filled with marine life.

As on the other ABC islands, Bonaire travelers can find their inner explorer outside. Jibe City is a beachside windsurfing instruction and rental center that also features a colorful beach bar shop. The facility rents stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment.

With an estimated 400 island caves, Bonaire is well suited to spelunkers. Guided tours lead visitors through wet and dry caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites formed over thousands of years.

Ready for some offshore exploration? Venture aboard a water taxi to Klein Bonaire (Dutch for “Little Bonaire”), an uninhabited protected island within the Bonaire National Marine Park. Ultra-flat (no more than seven feet above sea level), Klein Bonaire’s only structures are the haunting ruins of colonial-era one-room slave dwellings. A small shelter on the beach faces Bonaire. The islet is otherwise deserted, with no running water or sanitation facilities.

Embark to the island for some uncrowded fun and sun, though pack a lunch (Klein Bonaire lacks food facilities). Keep in mind the last boat back to the mainland departs at 4:45 p.m.

Book now: Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and Casino, from $208/night

Curacao

Curaçao

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At a glance, Curaçao is known for its 35 exemplary beaches—many set in achingly beautiful, isolated coves. Playa Porto Marie is a lovely white coral sand beach near the village of Sint Willibrordus at Porto Marie Bay. The beach features scuba diving and snorkeling operators, plus a small bar.

The quiet beachfront belies Porto Mari’s important link to Caribbean history. Tula, an enslaved African, launched what became known as the Curaçao Slave Revolt on August 17, 1795. By that evening the group had freed thousands of slaves, who encamped on the present-day beachfront, where they defeated a Dutch attack. A monument to the leader is located amid quiet beaches and a flamingo reserve on Curaçao's south coast.

The island is in fact filled with a mix of African, Caribbean, Creole, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese culture, plus colonial-era architecture in capital city Willemstad, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site .

The iconic, colorful Handelskade waterfront strip features an eclectic collection of museums, monuments, restaurants, and trendy shops. But fascinating history and food can be found throughout the city, almost all within walking distance of Handelskade.

These include Willemstad’s Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue, the oldest in continuous use in the Americas. The waterfront Rif Fort in Punda, separated from Willemstad’s Otrobanda district by Sint Anna Bay, dates to 1828. The Maritime Museum’s maps, archival photographs and letters, and maritime equipment—including a wooden “Neptune’s angel” taken from the prow of a 19th-century ship—create a multimedia panoply of Curaçao’s maritime history and settlement. The museum is located in one of the oldest houses in Scharloo, a neighborhood of residential neoclassical mansions.

The Kura Hulanda Museum offers African artifacts chronicling slavery’s devastating impact on Curaçao’s African population, as well as the island’s post-slavery transition.

Make a pit stop at Plasa Bieu, an open-air dining hall off Willemstad’s Plasa Godett. Several restaurants operate in the casual venue: Under a metal roof, wooden picnic tables are covered with distinctive tablecloths to distinguish each eatery. Cooks prepare meals using huge barbecue grills with charcoal-fed fires. Popular with locals and visitors, the venues offer reasonably priced Curaçao fare, including fish, peas and rice, goat, plantains, and other dishes.

Book now: Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort, from $410/night

>>Next: Which Caribbean Island Should You Visit?

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