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Aruba: Not Just Awesome Beach Concerts

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Three small Dutch islands in the southern Caribbean are huge when it comes to hosting world-class music festivals. Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- known as the ABC islands -- offer much more than resorts, beaches, gambling and diving. ABC might as well stand for "Awesome Beach Concerts."

Artists and fans alike descended on Oranjestad, Aruba, for the 2012 Soul Beach Music Festival. When R. Kelly and hip-hop legend LL Cool J arrived, the temperature rose a few degrees. R. Kelly sang the first verse, then dropped his head and microphone, as his loyal fans belted out the lyrics to "I Believe I Can Fly." He joined them 30 seconds later to sing the chorus. For three days, the crowd at Nikki Beach had anticipated this concert finale.

Just a few years ago, people mainly visited Aruba for endless gambling in resplendent casinos. Considered the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, Aruba remains a popular place for gaming, but luxury shopping, beaches and unique attractions are also a strong draw.

We stayed at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, located at the north end of Palm Beach. The hotel has deservingly received the AAA Four Diamond award for the past four years. We swam in the sea and downed delectable delights like lobster seafood salad at the private Tradewinds Club.

Blessed with a beautiful coast, Aruba is a photographer's paradise. Its desert terrain, decorated with various species of cacti, enhances the splendor. The Bushiribana gold-mill ruins, Baby Natural Bridge and Ayo Rock Formations are framed by an untamed Caribbean Sea.

Since we do not dive, we were excited to board the Atlantis Submarine to explore the reefs. We saw hundreds of tropical fish in a rainbow of colors, as well as sharks, groupers and barracudas. We also passed two sunken ships which the marine life has converted into hotels.

The Aruba Ostrich Farm is another captivating attraction. This species of bird, which can stand more than nine feet tall, may have been strutting around the planet for as long as 120 million years. The creatures never bury their heads in the sand, as myth would have it, and their beautiful skin is five times stronger than cowhide.

The Butterfly Farm was also engrossing. Colorful varieties of butterflies from all around the world fly and dine on exotic Caribbean flora within a large netted area. Many will land on your shoulder and even eat out of your hand! Giant Swallowtails and white-spotted black-and-pumpkin Zuleikas flutter about with impunity. Our favorite was the Blue Morpho, which is really brown, but has a blue reflection.

We later visited the Aruba Aloe Museum and Factory, which sits alongside a huge plantation. Our guide sliced a fresh leaf and rubbed the gel directly on our sunburned arms for instantaneous relief. Aloe was introduced to the island more than 170 years ago, and is today its largest exporter. The tour ended with a visit to the product store.

Earlier in the week, a boat arrived in the lobby in Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino to pick us up for Private Island. This 40-acre retreat holds Aruba's only private beaches. Once there, we headed to the adult beach, where some sunbathe topless. We counted seven pink flamingos wading along the shore. Are we color-blind or are they really orange?

Another popular site is the California Lighthouse. It takes its name from an English steamship that shipwrecked nearby. The lighthouse is near Arashi Beach on the northwest tip of Aruba. Whiptail lizards in aquamarine suits run rampant among discarded coconut halves near the refreshment stand.

On a hill near the northeast shore of the island stands Alto Vista Chapel, also known as Pilgrims Church. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon a religious service taking place there.

Another charming destination is the restaurant Papiamento. It is housed in a cunucu, or farmhouse, filled with Dutch antiques. Outside there is romantic dining around a pool, where succulent, colossal shrimp with lemon butter were grilled and served on a sizzling stone.

A highlight of our trip was meeting executive chef Hector Espinoza of the Radisson's Sunset Grille, the island's only AAA Four Diamond restaurant. The grounds of the hotel, replete with gardens and parrots, complemented the gastronomic adventure. The Chilean sea bass with glazed balsamic mustard and chimichurri sauce was memorable.

While the sun was setting over aquamarine water, epicureans reveled in the romantic atmosphere of Pinchos Grill & Bar, an outdoor restaurant that juts out into the sea. The grilled Black Angus tenderloin steak on a skewer, ordered rare, was cooked to perfection. Pinchos, which means skewers in Spanish, is one of the many international aspects of Aruban charm.

Colonized by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, Aruba later fell into the hands of the Dutch East India Company. In 1942, the oil-producing island fell under attack by the Germans. Only as late as 1986 did Aruba achieve separate status as a country of its own as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Aruba is a perfect spot, not only for a vacation but a second home. We toured the beautiful villas at Tierra del Sol. Overlooking the Caribbean Sea, they are nestled in distinctive neighborhoods surrounding the island's only 18-hole golf course. Aruba beckons us back for more than a visit!

Join a host of stars, including R&B artist Ne-Yo and comedian Sinbad, at the 13th annual Soul Beach Music Festival May 22 - 27.

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