Fancy a drink at Aruba’s most legendary bar?
As the self-proclaimed ‘most-famous bar’ in San Nicolas, Charlie’s is a 70-year-old Aruban institution. To celebrate BA’s new direct London to Aruba route launch, Hannah Marriott stops off for a beer
A prosthetic leg hangs from the bathroom ceiling of Charlie’s Bar, the most famous pub in Aruba. It sits among thousands of other idiosyncratic objects, from puppets and fossils to old guitars, most of which have been donated by customers.
Charlie III – a 50-something Aruban whose family has run the bar for three generations – describes the place as “a time capsule”. Highlights include a piece of 700-year-old pre-Columbian pottery, a 500-year-old musket ball, bricks said to be from the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center and an original photograph of the outlaw Jesse James that, the legend goes, was donated by a descendant of one of the people who caught him.
Charlie’s grandfather – Charlie Broun – opened the bar in 1941, before his father, Charlie Junior, took over in the 1970s. The bar’s collection of extraordinary items began with Charlie Jnr. He was an artist who loved to travel, and hung his own paintings on the wall. The bar, says Charlie, was “his showcase”. And then things sprawled, with patrons bringing number plates and puppets and guitars. Though, says Charlie, a verbose man with a shorn head and a tendency to despair about the modern world while wagging his finger, “I have no idea who started that part.”
Charlie wears a T-shirt with a QR code leading to the bar’s website when we meet (yes, there is merch). He wants to make clear that not just anyone can leave items here. “I have thousands of number plates; I don’t need more,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m a curator. I put things here that I deem important and have a history behind them. And that have transcendence.” I am trepidatious, then, when I ask if they will take a small toy British Airways plane I have brought with me. Raul says he rather likes it and will hang it up over the bar later. Phew.
Some contents are grisly: a Heineken bottle behind the bar contains the remains of a good friend, whose dying wish was to rest in his favourite watering hole. Above the bar is a shrunken head – or at least Charlie and fellow bartender Raul swear that it is – which dangles above patrons as they drink local Balashi beer. There are rarefied items, such as a landscape by Jean Georges Pandellis, which hangs in an inauspicious spot by the loo and might be worth a pretty penny, and an old-fashioned Wurlitzer jukebox that Charlie turned down an offer of $20,000 for. Once an item is accepted into the fold, he says: “You cannot touch it. You cannot borrow it. It belongs to the bar. It’s not mine to give. It’s sacred.”
Though Charlie’s Bar is a small pub in San Nicolas, a quiet southeastern town in an island off the coast of Venezuela (Aruba is just 21 miles long by six miles wide), it has an outsized cultural impact. Celebrities of all stripes have visited, including porn publisher Larry Flynt, who arrived with a huge entourage and a gold wheelchair, the rapper Rick Ross, the actor Virginia Madsen and the entire Netherlands’ soccer team, twice, in 1978 and in 2000. “We don’t get star struck,” says Raul, who has worked here for more than ten years. “Virginia Madsen asked for a picture with me, not the other way around,” he laughs.
The atmosphere is entertainingly gruff. Raul has become internet-famous for giving customers short shrift if they come just for Insta pics. Buy a beer, though, or, even better, a meal, and Charlie’s Bar is your oyster. The ribs are made by Les Cyntje, a childhood friend of Charlie’s, who smokes them in coconut bark. Everyone agrees they are the best on the island.
“We have a lot of party time”
The crowd here would know because so many of them are repeat visitors. Sarah and Ryan Grady, a young couple from Nashville in Tennessee, are on their fourth visit during one week’s holiday. “It’s just so welcoming,” says Ryan. “Yesterday we were talking for hours with an elderly gentleman from Montana.” Pat Heritage, who lives in New Jersey and has had a house in Aruba for 20 years, keeps coming back for “Charlie, Raul and the rest of the barmen, and for the uniqueness of it, and the great food. We have a lot of party time.”
Charlie says customers want “to hear stories, to be part of the culture, for the kaleidoscope of emotions that come when we gather at a table.” What stories do they want to hear? I ask. He shakes his head, telling me that, of course, it depends on factors including his mood that day. “I’m not a tape recorder. I’m sorry for being blunt but, if you’re shallow, I will hide in the kitchen.”
Luckily, Charlie soon gets in flow, telling me about his family story and how it intersects with Aruba’s history. It’s fascinating stuff. As with many Brits, I was only previously aware of Aruba as a pop culture reference (the Beach Boys sang about it in 1988 and Rachel missed her honeymoon here in the first episode of Friends in 1994). For a long time, it wasn’t easy to get here from the UK, though that has recently changed with the launch of British Airways’ first direct year-round route from the UK, running twice a week from Gatwick.
Aruba was originally inhabited by the Arawaks, an Amerindian people, then colonised by the Spanish in 1499 and by the Dutch in 1636. It remains a constituent country of the Netherlands. It became a tourist hot spot for Americans in the 1990s for its weather: it is outside the hurricane belt and averages 31°C year-round, with little rain and famously cooling trade winds. Its long, white beaches are picture perfect, its water is as clear as glass, and colourful fish and turtles make snorkelling fruitful on most beaches. The dollar is accepted everywhere, and there are many international hotels in the capital, Oranjestad, and up the coast to Palm Beach, offering Americans a home from home with casinos, malls and coffee shops.
Before the tourists came, its major industry was oil. The Lago Refinery, built in 1928, made San Nicolas – the now sleepy area where Charlie’s Bar sits – its boom town. The now dormant refinery still looms large in the area, its spooky, apocalyptic towers in the background at nearby Baby Beach, the businesses it spawned now covered in bright, imaginative street art.
The area was bustling when Charlie’s grandfather migrated here from Holland in the 1930s and opened the bar. He says Charlie I was a “visionary”, finding ways to serve a unique international community, getting hold of the liquor they loved from home - Scotch from Scotland, Aquavit from Norway – and accepting “eight or nine currencies”. The beer here was at least five cents more expensive than that at neighbouring bars because there were glasses and service and a clean loo. By the time Aruba pivoted from oil to tourism, Charlie Jnr, who died in 2004, had taken over the bar. He became something of a local hero for his efforts to bring some of Oranjestad’s tourist dollars to San Nicolas: a huge red anchor at nearby Seroe Colorado bears his name, as does the street that the bar is on.
When his father first said: “We are going to bring tourists to San Nicolas, it was ludicrous to anyone who heard it,” says Charlie. But his imagination, perseverance and the bar’s collection of extraordinary items have created an unforgettable place in a fascinating island.
Book your stay
Where to stay: Renaissance Wind Creek Aruba Resort
The highlight of this two-location resort is Flamingo Beach, a private island a short boat ride away, which feels like something from Dr Dolittle, with flamingos, iguanas and stunning, brightly coloured birds flitting around, and colourful fish swimming in the glass-clear waters. There are great restaurants, too: the steak at L.G. Smith’s Steak & Chop House is sublime. Choose an Ocean Suite room for island atmosphere and uninterrupted access to the large pools directly on a lagoon beach, or the more city-flavoured, casino-focused adults-only Renaissance Marina Hotel across the road if you want to party.
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