A Lucky Break in Aruba

So you think the Caribbean is just about lying on the beach. Well, Alex Wade went to the Dutch Antilles to play poker. He offers a tour of some islands with surprising distractions

The golden rule of gambling is "never bet more than you can afford to lose". But there is another rule, too. If you're going to gamble, do it in paradise. That way, when your chips are down, there's always an upside. It's a lesson I learned on a trip to Aruba, an idyllic former Dutch colony off Venezuela's Paraguana Peninsula, which feels as if it has almost as many casinos as it does hours of sunshine.

Given that Aruba has sunshine all day, every day, that's an awful lot of casinos. The island, a mere 19.6 miles long and six miles wide, has gambling havens at every turn. They draw a predominantly American clientele, but access from Europe is straightforward thanks to KLM flights from Amsterdam. Even better, Aruba is so beautiful an island that if gambling isn't your thing - or, indeed, if your luck is down - there is always something else to do.

My pilgrimage to Aruba was undertaken to play poker in the 2006 UltimateBet Aruba Classic. This is arguably the most popular event on the World Poker Tour. The Classic this year drew 512 competitors, all of whom had to stump up a "buy-in" of $5,200 (£2,642) in the hope of "cashing" - finishing in the top 50. First place would secure a cool $775,000, enough to fund an odyssey around the many exquisite islands tucked away in this part of the Caribbean. I checked into the venue for the Aruba Classic, the Radisson Aruba Resort on the west-facing Palm Beach, with high, if delusional, hopes that victory would be mine.

Hotels on Aruba are accompanied by casinos as much as by swimming pools, and the Radisson is no exception. There were a few days before the main event, and so I checked out what it had to offer. Inevitably, given the way the game has swept the world in the past two or three years, Texas Hold 'Em tables dominated. I counted nine, at which a largely American contingent was vying for the spoils in this complex game, "the Cadillac of poker". At the Radisson, you can also try your luck atroulette, craps and blackjack, not to mention any one of 330 slot machines. The atmosphere was warm and good-natured, not remotely intimidating and never once sleazy. If only casinos closer to home could be like this.

But if the vibes were good, my luck wasn't. I played a few games of Texas Hold 'Em before the start of the Aruba Classic, and aside from one rather fortuitous second place, was rapidly finding that I was out of my depth. There were far too many sharks at the Radisson, and they were devouring me. An American professional poker player not similarly cursed was Annie Duke, a mother-of-four who has amassed tournament winnings to date in excess of $3.1m (£1.6m). Duke was in her element, but still found time to offer these words of comfort: "If you're going to bust out early of a tournament, Aruba is the place to do it."

The opportunity to put Duke's theory to the test wasn't long coming. I sat down to play in the main event and lasted six hours, exiting at number 360. I walked out of the Radisson feeling the peculiar nausea that comes of one's demise at a poker table, and found myself on Palm Beach. Facing west, this stretch of beach is always calm, lapped by clear and warm water. I bobbed in the sea, looking back at the Radisson, and suddenly it struck me: I was in paradise, and should be glad to have gone out of the Aruba Classic.

There is much to intrigue on Aruba, not least the sing-song language spoken by its inhabitants. "Papiamento" is a beguiling blend of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and various West African languages. It is devoid of formal grammar but is also known to the people of Saba, St Eustatius and St Maarten. It is easy to learn and, on Aruba, virtually everyone speaks either Spanish, English or Dutch.

The Dutch influence on Aruba is most pronounced in the architecture of its capital, Oranjestad, but can also be found in villages on the wilder eastern shores. The Dutch West Indies Trading Company officially placed its first claim on Aruba in 1634, and - apart from a short period of British rule during the Napoleonic Wars - it remained part of the central Netherland Antilles until 1986. Since then, internal affairs have been governed locally.

Aruba's north-east coast is home to an abandoned gold mine at Bushiribana, there is a "conchi" or natural rock pool on the windward coast accessible only by four-wheel drive or on horseback, and there is the Arikok Park, teeming with unusual plants and giant green lizards, for many years a delicacy but now a protected species. Aruba's constant trade winds make it one of the world's best windsurfing destinations.

I spent three days testing Duke's theory, exploring the island, surfing, swimming and marvelling at the alluring butterflies in the Butterfly Museum, a short stroll from the Radisson. I felt recharged - and keen to try the Aruba Classic again next year.

1. Aruba

WHERE IS IT? The Windwards. The smallest of three parched strips of land off the coast of Venezuela, colonised by the Dutch and known as the ABC islands (along with neighbours Bonaire and Curaçao). Oil brought wealth here in the early 20th century, but now tourism is how they make their cash.

WHY GO? To gamble away a fortune in the many casinos (well, it beats sitting in front of the internet).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Aruba Tourism Authority (020-7928 1600; aruba.com)

2. Mustique

WHERE IS IT? The Windwards. This tiny Grenadine island has a huge international profile thanks to its enduring attraction as a playground for the rich and famous. It continues to draw an élite crowd decades after Princess Margaret first put it under the spotlight.

WHY GO? To pick up a plot for your dream home and see the in-crowd in Basil's Bar.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Tourist office (020-7937 6570; svgtourism.com)

3. Dominica

WHERE IS IT? The Windwards. A mountainous island with its own microclimate. Rainforest runs rampant here.

WHY GO? To meet the last descendants of the Carib race. And experience Champagne Reef, where sulphur belched out of hot springs in the bay causes the waters to "fizz", and Boiling Lake, a crater bubbling with, well, boiling water.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourist board (001 767 448 2045; dominica.dm)

4. Montserrat

WHERE IS IT? The Leewards. A large swathe of this island was covered in lava when Mount Soufrière erupted in 1995. Only the north is now habitable. Yet tourists are slowly returning, many to view the active volcano, and explore the island's intriguing Irish heritage.

WHY GO? To visit the observatory andwalk around Plymouth, the Caribbean's Pompeii. FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourist board (020-7928 1600; visitmontserrat.com)

5. Saba

WHERE IS IT? The Leewards. A cone rising from the sea, Saba has one thoroughfare, aptly called The Road, which winds up and round the vertiginous island, passing neat clapboard houses with uniform red roofs. The capital of this former Dutch colony, The Bottom, despite its name, sits at 850ft.

WHY GO? To climb the highest peak in the Netherlands, Mount Scenery (2,885ft).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Tourist office (00 599 416 2231; sabatourism.com)

6. Middle Caicos

WHERE IS IT? The Turks and Caicos Islands. These low-lying limestone islands have become increasingly popular with divers in search of pristine reefs - and millionaires in search of an international tax haven.

WHY GO? For the vast network of limestone caves containing stalactites, stalagmites and salt lakes, and populated by bats and owls.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Turks & Caicos Tourism (020-222 2669; turksandcaicostourism.com)

7. Harbour Island

WHERE IS IT? The Bahamas. Only 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles, this petite beauty was capital of the Bahamas until it was eclipsed by Nassau.

WHY GO? For the architecture, which harks back to the American Revolution when the Loyalist governor of Virginia sought exile here. And the pink sands of Pink Beach, a phenomenon caused by the red shells of microscopic animals, washed on to the beach.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Bahamas Tourist Office (020-7355 0800; bahamas.co.uk)

8. Bimini

WHERE IS IT? The Bahamas. Only 50 miles off the Florida coast, this chain of islands was once a world centre for game-fishing.

WHY GO? If it was good enough for Ernest Hemingway... A favourite haunt for the novelist, who was a regular visitor for the fishing and boozing and set his novel 'Islands in the Stream' here.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Bahamas Tourist Office (020-7355 0800; bahamas.co.uk)

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

KLM (0870-5074 074; klm.com) offers return flights from London to Aruba via Amsterdam from £560.

The Radisson Aruba Resort & Casino (00 297 586 6555; radisson.com/aruba) offers double rooms from $270 (£158) per night on a room-only basis.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The 2007 Aruba Classic (ultimatebet.com) will take place next October.

Aruba Tourism Authority (020-7928 1600: aruba.com).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?