by Kevin Wierzbicki
I never thought that Robin Gibb would be the kind of celebrity that I would want to meet. Sure, as a teenager I wore out my copies of early Bee Gees records, the ones full of pop masterpieces like I've Gotta Get a Message to You, the ones laden with dozens of hits that disco-era Bee Gees fans were never aware of. I always thought that Robin, all big teeth and geeky smile, looked terribly uncomfortable in the photos on those early album covers. And the disco era Bee Gees? In those days I was a confirmed rocker more interested in the next Eddie Money single than some group that sounded like singing chipmunks. I was completely uninterested in the band that had given me so much pleasure 15 years prior. Fast forward to 2008 and I'm invited to go to the Caribbean island of Aruba to cover the Aruba Music Festival where the headlining act is scheduled to be, you guessed it, Robin Gibb. I got to attend a press conference with Robin on the afternoon of his show; the concert organizers told us that Robin would answer questions about anything but would prefer the subject of the death of his brothers Andy and Maurice not be brought up. I don't recall what I said to Robin but I remember being impressed by how genuinely congenial he was and how he graciously posed for a picture with me after the Q & A session. Six or seven hours later I witnessed an unforgettable show as Gibb performed a long set of hits and a few deep album cuts, commanding the stage with a presence that's usually reserved for people with names like Springsteen. It was a show I raved about for weeks to anyone who would listen. I guess that I was just a little surprised at the amount of heart and soul that this man who sometimes sings like a chipmunk put into his artistry. I only got to spend thirty minutes face-to-face with Robin Gibb but that night in Aruba made me realize that he had been my friend for decades.
The article that follows recounts the overall experience I had in Aruba and includes a brief review of the Robin Gibb concert and features a couple of photos of him.
Music Festival Makes Aruba 'One Happy Island'
Just about anywhere you go in Aruba you'll find him. He hangs out at beachside bars and outside of nightclubs. You'll see him lingering on the roadside, puttering around parking lots and people-watching in the shopping district. And for sure you'll catch him lolling by the pool. Who could be a better ambassador for Aruba than the charming iguana? He's got the right idea; he's spending his time relaxing and soaking up the Caribbean sun! The locals even have a little pun about the big lizards, sometimes playfully referring to their human guests as "u-wannas." As in "u-wanna go to the beach, u-wanna 'nother beer?" If "you wanna" have fun, you've come to the right place!
Poolside at the Mill Resort
With a location deep in the south Caribbean, just miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba rarely feels the effects of tropical storms. It is well out of hurricane alley so unlike many Caribbean isles it has not had to rebuild every few years. The beaches are spectacular; Palm Beach is regularly voted one of the top ten beaches in the world while the white sands at Eagle Beach, Aruba's widest, seem to stretch to infinity. Find a place like Moomba Beach Bar & Restaurant and you'll have virtually all of Aruba's surf and sun activities available in one place. Located on Palm Beach, Moomba is an open-air establishment where you can enjoy your meal barefoot just feet from the sand. This is a great place to play in the water or just lounge and Moomba offers everything to make it all easy; lounge chairs and floats, showers and bathrooms and a variety of beach games. Moomba is a good starting point for on (and under!) the water activities too as businesses very close by offer banana boat rides, parasailing adventures and wave runner rentals. The Jolly Pirates office is on the premises too; they'll take you out on their gaff-rigged sailing yacht for a sunset and dinner cruise or a day of snorkeling. Aruba's turquoise waters are full of things to explore; shipwrecks, coral reefs and dozens of kinds of fish and other sea creatures. Of course sooner or later you've got to say goodbye to the beach for awhile. That's when you'll remember that you're actually in a city with plenty of other things to do. And Oranjestad, Aruba's capital, knows how to shake it loose at night, too!
Jolly Pirates dive excursion ship
By day Oranjestad is a bustling little city, buzzing with all types of commerce. The shopping area is relatively large but clustered so as to be easily navigable on foot. There are many souvenir shops, a stretch of designer outlets and tons of places to buy swimwear and other beach necessities. You can learn about Aruba's history and culture with a visit to the Historical Museum or the Archaeological Museum and anyone with an interest in coins needs to make a stop at the Aruba Numismatic Museum. More than 30,000 coins from all over the world are displayed there along with an extensive collection of monies used at one time or another in Aruba. Oddly enough the museum's founder had no interest in collecting coins until one day when he found a couple of coins while gardening; the full story is explained at the museum. Many of the bars and restaurants in this area burn the midnight oil; if you want to dance the night away just follow the music that's booming out onto the street. Besides the nightly partying, Oranjestad occasionally hosts special events; there may be a big disco blow-out going on for fans of house music and Aruba's casinos hold a world-class poker tournament every year. Street parties are the order of the day when the whole island celebrates Carnival every January and February. A relatively new tradition is the Aruba Music Festival, held every October over Columbus Day weekend. The festival has hosted such acts as Styx, John Mayer, Peter Frampton and Lionel Richie and the 6th edition of the festival held in 2007 featured concerts from Richard Marx and Robin Gibb. The Aruba Entertainment Center, an outdoor venue with a capacity of about 5000, sold out for both evenings of entertainment. Marx played a long set filled with his hits including the song that he "broke in" with, "Don't Mean Nothin'." Noting that it was his first visit to Aruba, Marx also treated his fans to a few songs from the album he plans to release in 2008. Former Bee Gees' singer Robin Gibb worked a well-chosen set list that had the crowd mesmerized from beginning to end. Gibb opened the show with "Emotion," a tune that was written for Samantha Sang, who had a top-ten hit with her version. With a tight band and three back-up singers, Gibb performed perfect renditions of huge hits like "Nights on Broadway," "How Deep is Your Love," "Night Fever," "Stayin' Alive" and "Jive Talkin'." Gibb also sang lots of hits from the Bee Gees' very early days, pleasing the crowd with "Massachusetts," "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," "Words," "Holiday," "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and the tear-jerker "I Started a Joke." Before bidding farewell to the crowd with a reprise of "Stayin' Alive" Gibb promised to bring his brother Barry, the only other surviving member of the Bee Gees, with him next time. The festival offers a shuttle service from the hotel district and there are plenty of libations for sale on the grounds to keep the crowd from getting too thirsty. These shows do consistently sell out year after year so if you want to attend you would be well served to look into securing tickets before arriving on the island.
Aruba is a relatively small island so you can get to its inland attractions in a short period of time, either with your own rental car or on a guided tour. The California Lighthouse is one of Aruba's landmarks and it is visible from a good portion of the island. It was built after a ship named The California wrecked in nearby waters; it is now disused but a visit there offers a great view and a unique photo opportunity. The tiny Church of Santa Anna also is perched in a scenic place; the church was built in 1750 by Spanish settlers and features an oak altar that is 115 years-old. Aruba has a gold mining history and you can visit the ruins of several mines or visit caves with cave-writing in Arikok National Park. Aruba also has a significant history with the production of aloe; at one point 85% of the island was covered with aloe fields. The Aruba Aloe company still grows the plants to make some of the world's finest aloe products and you can buy them directly at the Aruba Aloe Experience. You can also take a tour that includes a brief movie and visit to the aloe museum, a glimpse of the production and packaging areas and most interestingly, a demonstration of how the aloe is cut and processed to extract its valuable liquid. One of the products sold there is sun block, which you'll need because you're on the way back to the beach! And if you're a fan of local brews and distillates you'll find lots of places along every route to taste or pick up souvenir containers of Balashi Beer and Rum Palmera.
One of Aruba Aloe's aloe fields
If Aruba's iguanas could talk they'd probably
constantly be chattering the island's motto, "One Happy Island." Alas,
the carefree critters can't speak, but if you look close enough you'll
see that they're wearing a smile and chances are pretty good that you'll
be wearing one too during your visit to Aruba.
A quiet sunset on the beach
U-Wanna's party bus
At the Aruba Numismatic Museum
Robin Gibb mingles backstage