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).

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