Riding through the dusty red earth of Aruba's interior, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd passed on to the film set of a cowboy movie. The flat, arid landscape, studded with giant cartoon-like cacti, looks more Texan than Caribbean, and the sheer number of ranches (there are five on an island just 21 miles long and a few miles across) is equally surprising.
Aruba's coastal resorts deliver the Caribbean dream in spades. The island lies just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, safely tucked below the hurricane belt. Yet the riding trails, which pass through rugged ravines and quiet, unspoilt beaches offer an escape to Aruba's natural attractions, a world away from the cruise ships and the high-octane casinos.
My destination was the Rancho Notorious in Paradera, its name burnt into a piece of driftwood and embellished with faintly comedic bull horns at the entrance gate. Despite these initial misgivings, the ranch offered great riding trails and was committed to ensuring that would-be cowboys wouldn't break any bones.
"Wakey, wakey!" the twinkly-eyed Venezuelan head ranchero yelled at our chattering 30-strong group, as we assembled in the stables. "This is a horse! See, he's got four legs! When horses and humans come together there can be problems but that is because you do something stupid, not them. So you listen to me and you have a nice time. You don't want to listen to me you go back to the beach, have another cocktail. Bye, bye. OK?"
After a safety checklist and basic riding instruction, he sized each of us up for a horse based on our body weight and level of experience. As a sort of seasoned beginner – I've enjoyed annual riding trips for years – I refrained from boasting about any equestrian prowess lest I be lumbered with the stroppy mare or wayward buckaroo. Saddled-up on Prince, a fine-looking beast with a gentle nature, I joined the rest of my group for a turn around the paddock.
For anyone even moderately acquainted with British horses, riding a paso fino – the Colombian breed favoured by all ranches on the island – is like swapping a manual VW Beetle for a Mercedes automatic. Paso finos have the smoothest gait of all breeds, which means you don't have to learn the standing trot – a basic skill that can take weeks to master. They are also one of the most comfortable breeds to ride in the world.
The ranch ranks beginners as those who have ridden fewer than 20 times. I joined one of the beginners' groups and we followed our guide out of the ranch. We soon found ourselves picking our way through rugged, rocky terrain that occasionally opened up to glorious coves and gallops along solitary beaches.
Yes, I did say gallop. This style of riding is certainly relaxing. You can, if you wish, simply sit back and enjoy the scenery. But having settled in to the saddle and gently built up your confidence, even a beginner can rapidly progress to a full-throttle stretch of the legs.
You ride paso finos Western style, with longer stirrups held in the balls of your feet rather than your heels, with your legs sticking out away from the horse. This laid-back, yee-hah gait also means you don't have to invest in riding boots or specialist kit; you can even ride in your trainers.
The first gentle hour of the trail wound through acres of hot dusty earth, then we explored the long, empty golden sands of Wariruri beach and raced along to the Bushiribana ruins.
There used to be gold in them there hills. In the height of the 19th-century gold rush, pirates used this area to stash their loot. Today, the ruins of an old gold smelter at Bushiribana provide a convenient spot to tie up the horses and stop for a welcome slug of water and half-time break.
Having mastered my speed control with short bursts of cantering, I was determined to overcome any residual nerves and up the pace for the ride home. For horse-lovers such as myself, the fantasy of charging across golden sands, whipping up the surf, wind in your hair was intoxicating. So I did it – without injury.
Back on two legs again, I continued my exploration of the island's interior by visiting Arikok National Park, a protected area covering almost one-fifth of Aruba's land mass. It's home to wild goats and donkeys – not to mention its own breed of rattlesnake – and there are cycling, walking and hiking trails that reveal stretches of rock-hewn coastline, rolling white sand dunes, impressive rock formations and limestone caves covered with the drawings of the Arawak Indians.
For me the highlight was Cura di Tortuga, a hidden pool protected from the sea by rocks, where I could peel off my boots and take a dip.
I had arrived as a tourist, but felt I could leave as a cowboy.
Aruba's trade winds mean life is a breeze
The trade winds that blow across the island have two key benefits: they keep the high temperatures bearable and they produce excellent conditions for windsurfing. Palm Beach, 11km north of the capital Oranjestad, is the focus for much of this, as well as diving, parasailing and kitesurfing. Nearby Eagle Beach provides a quieter stretch for snoozing and reading but for those looking for cove to call their own, the quiet beaches of San Nicolas in the south deserve a day's excursion.
Boca Grande – "big mouth" – beach is the best place for kitesurfing while shallow Baby Beach is a calm, wading pool of a bay that's perfect for children.
Whatever daytime activities you choose to indulge in, the Oranjestad waterfront is the place to party when the sun goes down. Hefty cruise liners dock alongside the upmarket hotel and casino resorts. It's an Americanised, air-conditioned playground with high-end restaurants serving super-sized feasts.
There are also a handful of local Aruban style restaurants still intact, and if you want to catch your own supper, head to Driftwood. The owner, a Colombian racehorse breeder, offers boat trips on the Driftwood yacht and the chef will cook your catch for dinner in the restaurant. Bag yourself a mahi mahi and you can devour a classic dish with creole sauce, bell peppers and garlic.
The writer flew with KLM (0871 222 74 74; klm.com) which flies daily from a wide range of UK airports to Aruba via Amsterdam.
Renaissance Resort and Casino (00 297 583 6000; renaissancearuba.com) at Boulevard 82 Oranjestad, Aruba, has double rooms from $270 (£180) including breakfast.
Rancho Notorious (00 297 5860 508; ranchonotorious.com) at Boroncana, Noord, offers a two-hour ride for $70 (£47).
More information: Aruba Tourism Authority (aruba.com)Reuse content