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The Aruba you never knew

The Ins of Dining Out

I pass underneath the balcony of Mambo Jambo, a favorite in-town eatery, just as the bustling crowd gathers at the railing for that magic moment when the sun plummets into the ocean and gives up its mysterious green flash. I've been on that balcony many times, and it's a barrel of laughs - literally, since the bar is constructed from barrels painted in an assortment of vibrant colors.

But tonight the Marriott's know-everything concierge directs my epicurean exploration to Nos Cunucu, an out-of-the-way eatery in Ponton, near Oranjestad. Here the menu is written on a chalkboard in Papiamento, the local patois that has been cobbled together over hundreds of years from African, Spanish, English and Indian.

Entrées are priced in Aruban florins, a rarity on this very American-oriented isle. The staff greets me like a long-lost friend, and soon I'm engrossed in a meal that articulates the heart of Aruba. There is giamboo, a thick vegetable gumbo flavored with pork and seafood, and galina stoba, a kind of stewed chicken. Funchi, the local version of polenta, costs less here than appetizers do at most of the swanky joints in town. I know this is authentic; I'm the only foreigner here.

In between local haunts like Nos Cunucu and the many outstanding hotel-based restaurants are several topnotch dining options that range to either end of the food spectrum. Experiencing a cozy, tucked-away spot like Madame Janette Restaurant - named for one of the world's hottest peppers, which were named after a famous courtesan - will make you wonder how many other culinary riches this island is hiding. A wooden boardwalk leads down to candlelit tables. Tiki torches burn in the yard and tiny lights glisten in the trees. In the background, a man softly plays guitar. The ambience makes you feel like you're at a private garden party. Your chef has catered a repast of spicy baked shrimp, homemade gravad lachs marinated in dill and cognac, long rolls of cordon bleu and Chilean sea bass in a spinach/parmesan cheese crust. Pure enchantment.

"Dance through the menu", says my charming waiter at Le Dôme's wonderful all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch. The brunch, known more to locals than to tourists, is not the usual buffet style but offers a menu from which you order as you like. The offerings seem endless, from the smoked duet of mackerel and trout, to carrot soup, to marinated seafood. The mingling of cultures is reflected in the food: the European catfish on steamed leeks; puffed pastry filled with mushroom ragout; and Poire Belle Helene, a poached pear with ice cream and warm chocolate sauce.

The Cover of Darkness

Nightfall brings many choices on Aruba, from the infamous Booze Cruises to Oranjestad's many bars and clubs. All are filled with sunburned faces giddy over rum-fueled mixtures garnished with fruit. I resolve to look for action a bit less predictable.

I start at The Paddock, a hard-to-miss multicolored building with a cow and a car on its roof. Inside are spinning disco balls and walls and ceilings covered with shoes, trumpets and T-shirts. The mob of blond heads bouncing around the dance floor reveals a primarily Dutch crowd.

Next is the newly opened and intriguingly monikered Choose a Name Bar, where nightly specials - from Wednesday karaoke to Sunday after-beach parties - keep things hopping all week. The crowd is blossoming beneath the blaring music as I arrive, but owner Ton Rojer tells me it doesn't really get going until around 11. The cozy upstairs lounge is not quite as loud; I beat it up there so conversation becomes less a contact sport.

But this is just the start of the Aruban night. There are dance clubs, Las Vegas-style extravaganzas and, of course, casinos. Everywhere you look coins clank into slot machine trays and eternally upbeat music provides a backdrop for dealers coolly laying out cards for Caribbean Stud Poker. Even the names of the slot machines are designed to titillate and tantalize with a slightly racy promise of riches: Double Wild Cherry, Midas Touch, Triple Diamond.

In the end, I decide that the kind of action I'm after is best supplied by the wind and waves. So I set out for the California Dunes lying just below the lighthouse of the same name on the island's northwest shore.

As the full moon climbs high in the indigo sky, I walk through the dunes on a sandy path dotted with rugged little pebbles. Divi-divi trees bend with a grotesque beauty on a distant cliff above waters tinged with silver. An offshore circle of rock girds a still pool like some seabound Stonehenge. Ridges in the sand catch the moon's blue-white luminescence. There's something about the vastness here, the untamed quality on an island that in other ways is so very tamed. It's very reassuring. It's a perfect Aruban night to cap off a day of discovery.

In retrospect, it's no surprise that my brunchmates Mike and Lisa back at Le Dôme used words like "exotic", "erotic", and "intoxicating" to describe this island. I must admit I had never thought about Aruba in quite those terms.

These first-timers seem to have "gotten it", a deeper sense of Aruba, much more quickly than I did. "Spice", rhapsodized Lisa, "spice in the language, spice in the architecture, spice in the food, spice in the music."

I think about her words as I spend my final hours back on Palm Beach, enjoying the activity that first brought me here. It's like finding out that a dish you thought had only cinnamon in it is also laced with nutmeg, mace, cloves and a dash of sugar. It may have taken me awhile to figure it out, but the taste of discovery is sweet nonetheless.

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