Big Twins On A Tiny Island

Motorcycles on a tropical island. What is better than that?

Itchy sweat is trickling down my back and I’ve stalled my huge rental Road King directly in front of the Bubali Social Club. A couple of bemused locals watch me struggle to decipher the unfamiliar road map, and I feel like the only person who’s ever gotten lost on this tiny island just 20 miles long and less than six miles wide.

Big Twins on a Tiny Island
Aruba is a small island above the coast of Venezuela.Cruiser

Am I certifiably nuts for renting a monster Harley on the little Caribbean island of Aruba? Part of me just wants to slink back to the Hyatt beach resort, chug three Cuba Libres and melt into my chaise lounge, ogling the never-ending parade of bikinis frolicking on the white sands of Aruba’s Palm Beach. Then I calm down and find the road I want on the map, fire up the Twin-Cam 88 and chug off toward my warm, windy date with Aruban motorcycling destiny.

Big Twins on a Tiny Island
Man, they learn how to ride young in Aruba.Photography by Brian Day

Aruba is part of the Netherlands Antilles, one of the “A-B-C” lower Caribbean islands that include Aruba, Bon Aire and Curacao. Nestled 19 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it’s well out of the hurricane belt and offers some of the best weather around: it’s always 80-odd degrees with a refreshing breeze. The beaches stretch out for miles, all long, white, clean sand. The lee side of the island is home to Palm Beach, an enclave of resorts and tourist hotels boasting clear, warm, gentle waters that have to be experienced to be believed. It’s an island paradise where stunning desert vistas meet the flawless sea, the Aruban government rules efficiently and fairly, the food is just fantastic and everyone you meet has manners better than yours. Is this a great place to ride a big touring motorcycle? You betcha.

Big Twins on Aruba
Kick back and relax. Now all that's needed is a motorcycle...Photography by Brian Day
Big Twins on Aruba
There we go!Photography by Brian Day

It initially baffles me that Arubans are road warriors of the highest degree despite the fact that there are less than 150 miles of pavement on the island. Everyone under 70 seems to be absolutely car and bike crazy. I see street bikes with long drag-style swingarms, polished frames and wildly flamed paint jobs. There’s a modern, fully sanctioned quarter-mile drag strip at St. Nicolas on the east end, with racing every other week. Occasionally, top fuel dragsters line up to go, and if the throttle ever got stuck on one of these 6000-hp monsters, car and driver would be launched clear to Venezuela in just a few terrifying seconds.

beach front property on Aruba
Beach front property on Aruba.Photography by Brian Day

Trying to decipher this deep-seated motor-mania, I talked with Humphrey Hardeveld, owner of Big Twin, Aruba's official Harley-Davidson dealership. Hardeveld is a successful and sophisticated ex-hotel executive who followed his passion for the American-made machines and single-handedly created Aruba's upscale H-D market over the last seven years. Hardeveld was turned-on to Harleys by one of his ex-bosses, a prominent local businessman named Raymond Maduro who owned one of the first Harleys on the island. Maduro kept the machine in the garage of his large beachfront house. "He used to throw wonderful cocktail parties and invite people over," Hardeveld recalls, "and after we'd had some drinks he'd say 'Would you like to hear a little fine music?' Then he'd open up the garage doors, fire up that Harley, and we'd all stand around listening to the glorious sounds pouring out of the pipes."

View of Aruba
A breathtaking view from the island.Photography by Brian Day

Hardeveld answers my question on why Arubans love their wheels: “We have good weather 365 days a year, so you can ride any time,” he says. “And Arubans are proud. Proud to be who they are, proud of their beautiful island, proud to take care of visitors so well, proud of their machines. They’re genuine people.”

Aruba surfer bug
An island isn't an island unless it has some surfing culture.Photography by Brian Day

One of the things Hardeveld soon realized is that Aruba is a small island and that can work either for or against you. “If you fix someone’s bike and it runs poorly, everyone knows about it. And if it runs great, then everyone brings you their bikes, too.” Besides being a lot smaller physically than the mega-Harley dealers we take for granted in the U.S., Big Twin operates under different economic rules. There’s really no used Harley market on Aruba, something Hardeveld would like to change. “With our 40-percent import duty, new bikes are very expensive. There are used Japanese motorcycles for less money, but not many Harleys.” Big Twin gets squeezed on parts sales by the Internet, too. Arubans surf the web and sometimes buy parts mail order from Miami.

Riding a Harley on Aruba makes anyone an instant celebrity. Locals and tourists alike stare slack-jawed, wave and sometimes come too close for comfort as they jockey their cars for a better look. My picture is taken at stoplights and a couple of very attractive swimsuit-clad young women flirt outrageously and then ask for a ride. My standard response is “no helmet, no putt,” but in truth I’m wary of taking anyone on the back whose total riding outfit consists of 20 square inches of bikini over lots of curvaceous, tanned bare skin.

Motorcycle decorations in Aruba
You know you are in the right place when the decorations include a mannequin on a motorcycle is up in the rafters.Photography by Brian Day

After checking out the main highway and the beach roads, I want to experience Aruba’s outlands. I turn the hog for a run through Arikok National Park at the extreme eastern tip of the island, bordered by a long, isolated stretch of north coast. The windward side of Aruba is the Dark Side of The Force, a study in extreme contrasts and quite unlike placid Palm Beach. Here the churning ocean is a deep, angry blue-green, whipped into a jitterbugging frenzy and relentlessly assaulted by the trade winds. The scenery is stripped-down, starkly beautiful with long stretches of rocky volcanic plains ending abruptly at snaky cliffs just above the boiling sea. Huge waves smash themselves into plumes of mist and spray in the distance. A shiver runs down my spine in spite of the heat and I can imagine big sharks lurking just beneath the roiling waters.

Humping a big twin over 20-odd miles of rutted hilly dirt road along the isolated Arikok windward coast is a challenge I can’t turn down. I set off jouncing and bumping along at a pace closer to walking than driving. The only other vehicles I see on this leg of my adventure are a couple of 4WD Jeeps and one or two brave visitors in rental cars. If the Harley breaks down, I’m in for a very long and thirsty hike home. I am enthralled by forests of tall cactus and grotesquely twisted divi-divi trees, stunted scrub brush, bizarre lava flows and wild rock formations. It’s windy as hell and overcast gray, but still almost 90 degrees, and midway into the ride my mouth shrivels like a prune. I’m impressively nonprepared—my survival rations consist of one dried-out sandwich and a liter of warm bottled water—but even that’s starting to sound good when, in the distance, I think I see a parking lot filled with cars and Jeeps...is it just a mirage, courtesy of my overheated imagination?

Big Twin Aruba
Big Twin Aruba.Photography by Brian Day

But the bar at Boca Prins is real, a friendly little oasis halfway between nowhere and desolation on the dirt road through Arikok. I park the Harley and stumble in, order the coldest drink they’ve got and sit to recuperate at the horseshoe-shaped bar, rehydrating as fast as I can. The “crowd” consists entirely of a few locals who make the dirt drive out for a beer, cheeseburgers and conversation with other locals. As the resident nut case riding a big touring bike through Arikok, I’m treated to many rounds of bottled water and soft drinks while regaling my impromptu hosts with tales of motorcycling in America.

Refreshed, I saddle up and hit the dirt road again. The terrain is smoother on this segment but no less empty as I rumble past turnoffs for Fontein Caves and the Indian Drawings. Down the road a bit, past the flag-festooned signs for the Aruban Tunnel of Love, I find hard pavement and then the drag strip. It’s deserted and locked up tight, but I can easily imagine the thunder of straining engines and the acrid smell of burning rubber. Sweaty and covered with a light film of dust, I head over to Baby Beach near San Nicolas for a quick swim. Baby is a wide, calm, shallow circlet of pure white sand and crystal-clear water. I park the Harley, strip down to my trunks and spend an hour splashing in the warm Caribbean.

Motorcycle ride on Aruba
The motorcycle is already pointed in the right direction.Photography by Brian Day

Perfect beaches and swaying palms aside, riding a motorcycle in Aruba means recalibrating your expectations a little and staying flexible. Rumbling the Road King up to one European-style traffic circle, I find it totally blocked by...a house. A large, ramshackle mobile home being towed from one rocky plot of land to another has collapsed on its rusty axles, blocking all four lanes of traffic. The efficient Aruban traffic police are already diverting cars back to another intersection, but they wave my motorcycle through, so I launch the Harley over a couple of curbs, past the stricken mobile home and up the highway pointed in the right direction.

Big Twin in Aruba
The sites, people, and experiences you have in Aruba create memories that will last you a lifetime.Photography by Brian Day

When I finally reach my hotel again and switch off the Harley’s ignition, I feel like I’ve accomplished something special. Seeing Aruba from the saddle of a big twin is a real treat. You can experience the softly blowing breeze, smell the warm, salty air and enjoy stunning scenery in a way that’s not possible looking through a smudged rental car window. The roads are mostly straight and flat, and parts of the island are virtually traffic free. Meeting lots of friendly locals and curious tourists alike is guaranteed—the bike is a natural starting place for easy conversation, and you’ll probably end up as the star of someone’s vacation photos.

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Can't make it to the shores of Aruba? Maybe you can make it to the California Coast?