by Brian Day
Arjen Hof scratches his shaved head, then tells me all I need to know about riding on Aruba in a few well-chosen phrases. “It never rains and the roads are oily and slick like snow, there’s sand in the corners so don’t use the front brake or you’ll go down BOOM. You must ride defensively, watch out for aggressive drivers. Slather every exposed body part with SPF 45 sunscreen. Pay attention! The wind can blow you right across into the oncoming lane, and if you want a girl go to a Chinese restaurant and ask for the Colombian special…”
Ten-four good buddy. Hof, head wrench for Aruba’s official Harley Davidson dealership “Big Twin,” leers wickedly at me as I fire up the Road King and timidly idle away from the curb. Am I certifiably nuts for renting a monster cruiser on this tiny Caribbean island? 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 well-packed swimsuits frolicking on the white sands of Aruba’s Palm Beach. But Hof is watching me like a hawk, and my ego refuses to fold. So I say a little prayer and give the Twin Cam 88 a nice handful of throttle. Those two massive American-made pistons start to jitterbug, the exhausts roar and off I hurtle towards my hot, windy date with Aruban motorcycling destiny.
Aruba is part of Netherlands Antilles, one of the “A-B-C” lower Caribbean islands that includes Aruba, Bon Aire and Curacao. Nestled 19 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it’s well sheltered from hurricanes and almost boringly wonderful weather-wise: unfailingly 80-odd degrees with a mild breeze. The glorious beaches stretch out for miles, all long, white squeaky-clean sand. The lee side of the island is home to Palm Beach, an enclave of resorts and hotels boasting clear, warm, gentle ocean that has 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.
I’m initially baffled to find that Arubans are road warriors of the highest degree since there are less than 150 miles of pavement on the whole island. Regardless, everyone under 70 is absolutely car-and-bike crazy, and one wealthy Aruban owns a 160-mph Dodge Viper. Another supposedly bought the Mustang used in the film “Gone in 60 Seconds.” I see street bikes with long drag-style swingarms, polished frames and wildly flamed paint jobs. There’s a modern, fully sanctioned 1/4 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.
Trying to decipher this deep-seated motor-mania, I’ve been talking 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 singlehandedly created Aruba’s upscale H-D market over the last 8 years. Hardeveld was turned on to the American twins 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…”
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.” Hard to argue with that sentiment, especially since I’d already experienced firsthand how locals went way out of their way to be really helpful. Aruba’s official motto is, in fact, “One Happy Island.”
Big Twin is a tidy 2500 square foot dealership encompassing a top-rate service shop, retail store and rental center on 124A L. G. Smith Blvd. just outside Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital city. Hardeveld started it as a service center with a limited bike inventory, but sales have been good and he’s planning an expansion move soon. He’d like to split the business up and have an accessories boutique selling clothing. collectibles and H-D logo’d items in an upscale mall location downtown. Motorcycle sales, rentals and the service business would stay at the current highway location. Eventually he plans to build his own facility and is constantly working on his vision for a bigger and better Big Twin.
Hardeveld’s avowed mission is to share his deep passion for Harley Davidsons with Aruba’s well-to-do professional class. Prominent local lawyers, doctors, hospitality executives, restaurant owners, even the former Prime Minister of Aruba– all have bought bikes from Big Twin. He leased the Aruba police department 6 Harleys, plus the service contract to keep them running smoothly. But it wasn’t easy, he says. Just a few years ago, he was one of a tiny handful of Harley fanatics living on Aruba and dreaming of the time when the island might have a real dealership with easily-available parts, honest service, sage advice and genuine factory support. Tired of waiting for the scene to flower, Humphrey Hardeveld decided to kick-start it himself, and opened Big Twin in December, 1995.
One of the things Hardeveld soon realized is that Aruba is, well, small. “It works both ways,” he says. “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 having a more compact facility than mega-sized H-D dealers in the U.S., Big Twin operates under a different set of economic rules. There’s no used Harley market on Aruba, something Hardeveld would love to change. “With our 40% import duty, new bikes are very expensive. There are used Japanese motorcycles for less money but not many Harley Davidsons on the market.” Big Twin gets squeezed on parts sales by the internet, too. Arubans surf the web and sometimes buy parts mail-order from Miami. Besides sales, parts and service for privately-owned and fleet machines, Big Twin is the center of Aruba’s growing Harley rental business.
The spunky, friendly dealership enjoys a sterling reputation shared between enthusiasts. Shade tree mechanics abound on Aruba, and Hardeveldt has seen his share of repair and upgrade work grow dramatically as riders acknowledge his commitment to quality service. “If someone brings a bike to me then has a problem later, most of the time I’ll just fix it with no questions asked.” One of the few times Hardeveld balked was when he found out through the island grapevine that a certain buyer had been drag racing his showroom-new Harley. “He brought it back and complained the engine was no good but I knew he’d been racing. I said he’d been seen competing at the drag strip, so that was that.”
I soon found out that riding a Harley on Aruba makes you 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. As I get comfortable with the big touring bike, my picture is taken at stop lights and a couple of voluptuous bikini-clad young women flirt outrageously, then ask for a ride. I manage to stammer back “no helmet, no putt.” I’m wary of taking anyone on the back whose total riding outfit consists of twenty square inches of thin cloth over acres of smooth, tanned bare skin.
After checking out the main highway and beach roads, Aruba’s outlands beckon. I turn the hog for a run through Arikok National Park at the Eastern tip of the island and bordered by a long, isolated swath of sullen North coast. This windward stretch 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 assaulted relentlessly by the perpetual tradewinds. The scenery is stripped-down, starkly beautiful with vast harsh volcanic plains ending abruptly at snaky cliffs just above the boiling sea. Huge waves smash themselves into plumes of steamy 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 touring cruiser over twenty-odd miles of rutted hilly dirt road along the isolated Arikok coast is a challenge I can’t turn down. The bike jounces and bumps along at a pace closer to walking than driving. The only other vehicles visible on this leg of my adventure are a couple of 4WD Jeeps and one or two brave–or dumb?–tourists in rental cars. If the Harley breaks down, it’s one very long and thirsty hike out. 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 unprepared for this kind of adventure moto-travel. My stock of 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 glimpse a parking lot filled with cars and Jeeps… is it just a mirage, courtesy of my overheated imagination?
Luckily the bar at Boca Prins is real, a friendly rock-ringed oasis halfway between nowhere and desolation on Arikok’s dirt road. 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 of locals who make the dirt drive out for cold beer, cheeseburgers and conversation with other locals. As the resident nut case riding a plush American cruiser through the wilderness, I’m treated to many rounds of bottled water and soft drinks while regaling my impromptu hosts with tales of motorcycling in the USA.
Refreshed, I saddle up and hit the dirt road again. The terrain is smoother on the outward segment but no less empty as I chug majestically past turnoffs for the 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 Aruba’s NHRA-sanctioned drag strip. It’s deserted and locked up tight but I can easily imagine the thunder of over-revving engines, an acrid smell of race gas and burning rubber. Sweaty, sore and dusty, I head over to Baby Beach near San Nicolas for a refreshing swim. Baby Beach is a calm, shallow circlet of pure white sand and crystal-clear water. I park the Harley, strip down to my skivvies and spend an hour splashing in the warm Caribbean.
Perfect beaches and swaying palms aside, riding a motorcycle in Aruba means re-calibrating 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 4 lanes of traffic. The polite and efficient Aruban traffic police divert 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 West.
When I finally reach my beachfront hotel 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 soft breeze, smell the warm, salty air and enjoy stunning scenery in a way that’s not possible looking through smudged rental car windows. The roads are mostly straight and flat, and parts of the island are virtually traffic free. Meeting 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 video.
Big Twin’s rental fleet of Harleys is modern and well-maintained, and the personnel at the dealership– especially Humphrey Hardeveld and Arjen Hof–are outgoing, friendly and very low key. They are dedicated to making sure your rental experience is a good one and the miles you ride in Aruba will create memories that last a lifetime.
Side Bar 1
The Caribbean’s Only Drag Harley
by Brian Day
Big Twin’s master mechanic is Arjen Hof, and he’s built the only Harley Davidson being campaigned in the Caribbean drag racing circuit. Hof, 31, originally hails from Holland where he wrenched on bikes at The Hog Farm and also created one of the wildest full-tilt custom big twins ever seen in the Netherlands, complete with hub-steering front end and bushels of handmade parts.
Loosely based on a ’97 Sportster, Hof’s drag H-D runs in the Super Gas category. It boasts a custom-fabricated chrome-moly gas and air bearing frame with a 70 inch wheelbase. The engine cases are stock H-D, but most everything else has been specially made or heavily modified, including the 5″ stroker S&S crank, S&S barrels and S&S heads. With these mods, the engine displaces a hefty 103 cubic inches, runs on 114 octane racing gas. The gearbox uses an air shifter to insure cogs are swapped quickly and solidly.
Hof’s development methods are methodical and linear. He keeps a computer database to track each separate run, noting all the variables like track temperature, humidity, spark advance, jetting, shift points and more. Currently turning 10.16 et’s, Hof thinks it’s capable of mid-9’s after he gets the heads re-flowed by a specialist back in Holland. “They should be pulling 230 cfm,” he says, “but right now they’re at 160 and strangling the motor at the top end.”
Teething problems have kept the machine from fulfilling it’s full potential, but still it’s one of the favorite runners at the twice-a-month races held at Aruba’s sanctioned strip. According to Hof , “All the other guys run Japanese bikes, and when we fire up our H-D and stage it, heads swivel and everyone grins.” Hof is a one-man show: he built the bike, tunes it and also rides, but he’d like to find a couple of reliable crew members to help further development. He comments, “The job doesn’t pay anything, so it’s hard to find people to stay with the program consistently.”
Hof sometimes pools funds with other racers to rent the whole drag strip for one evening. Most of the runs are done at night when Aruba’s heat and humidity aren’t so high and there’s a bit more “free” horsepower available. “We can run all night for about $50 each,” he says. Hof and Hardeveld hope that the Harley’s thunderous drag strip appearances will help stimulate the sales of official Screamin’ Eagle performance parts at Big Twin. And finally, Arjen Hof has his own theory on why Arubans are so bonkers over fast cars and bikes: “What else is there to do here?” he says with a sly smile.
Side bar 2
The Black Hog
by Brian Day
Tuesday or Thursday nights on Aruba mean it’s time for the Black Hog Saloon’s all-you-can-eat bar-b-que and H-D motorcycle mania show. This event is as wild as anything on two wheels anywhere. The Black Hog faces highway B2 just South East of Palm Beach. It’s a huge, rambling tin-roofed wooden building raised off the ground and open on all sides to the ever-soothing Caribbean breeze. Decor is funked-up and terminally eclectic, with every square inch of the interior festooned by odd and unusual objects: hundreds of old signs, mannequins riding rusty motorcycles, the ever-popular flaming skulls, bike parts, stickers, beer kegs and more. Stools around the long, rectangular bar are topped with real motorcycle seats.
The Hog’s staff slow-cooks mounds of juicy chicken & ribs in a secret sauce that includes lots of red wine, so bring a hearty appetite. $37.50 buys all the food you can eat plus all the beer (or soft drinks) you can drink, and the trick is to come early and leave late. A friendly and outgoing “Hog Host” m/c’s the show, organizing participation games. Some are family-oriented but a few get pretty raunchy. It’s a biker-friendly crowd of both locals and tourists from the hotels, and when the alcohol kicks in you’re guaranteed to see funny and often outrageous shenanigans. The mildest-looking people do the wildest things after they’ve chugged a few cold ones.
The real show comes around 10, when a bunch of local Harley owners fire up their big bikes and ride up the ramps and straight into the bar itself. They circle the crowd, polished wheels rumbling across the wood plank floor, revving their engines loudly. Women get free rides down the ramp and around the block if they’re game. There’s even a specially-built “burnout trough” where riders nose their motorcycles against a sturdy wall then gun the engines to send clouds of billowing tire smoke out into the night air. One by one the riders shut down their Harleys, parking them in a long row at the bar, then circulate among the crowd grinning broadly. It’s all huge fun and remarkably non-threatening, as long as having a big-inch modified big twin roll by two feet from your bar stool doesn’t rattle your sensibilities.