They came bearing clubs. Twenty-one meeting planners, along with their guests, relaxed in the VIP lounge at Aruba's Queen Beatrix International Airport while golf bag after golf bag wended its way through customs. Their ultimate destination: the 1996 Adams/Laux Aruba Golf Showcase, held at the Tierra del Sol Golf Course in late September.

A Caribbean golf tournament during hurricane season? On Aruba, yes. The island lies far enough south and west to be out of the path of the big storms.

The no-muss, no-fuss island entry impressed planners. "The meet-and-greet was a great experience. It was almost as though we weren't entering a foreign country," said Thomas Duffy, vice president with Citibank, N.V. in New York City. "There was no waiting in line." Sometime in the next two years, all U.S. visitors will be able to pre-clear U.S. Customs on the way home, pending improvements to the airport, according to Adriaan Arends, director of the Aruba Convention Bureau and head of the island's meetings/incentives marketing effort in the U.S.

After checking in at the 360-room Hyatt Regency Aruba on the island's beautiful Palm Beach, planners met for a site inspection and dinner at the 803-room La Cabana All-Suite Beach Resort and Casino on Eagle Beach.

"A Great Island Course" The next day's main event was golf at Tierra del Sol. This 18-hole championship course, designed by the world-renowned Robert Trent Jones, Jr., is a true oasis in the desert, its greenery fed by 650,000 gallons a day of wastewater from Aruba's hotels, treated at a plant tucked away in a corner of the property.

"This is a great island golf course," says Van Mayros, an experienced golfer and president of the Infomarketing Conference Division of MKIS User's Forum. "Right now it's my favorite in the Caribbean. This is a unique experience. It's a desert course with Scottish conditions-target golf in a strong wind." Duffers fear not: "The course was built with the wind in mind," says Tierra del Sol's Warren Stanley. "It challenges you when you're against it, and makes you feel like John Daly [the long-ball artist of the pro circuit] when it's behind you."

The course itself was not the only selling point for planners. "The clubhouse is excellent," says Barry McKennitt, executive director, National Association of Petroleum Investment Analysts. "The site would be perfect for a group meeting or product launch," says Duffy. Even nongolfers were attracted by the high ceilings and cool colors of the club's bar/dining room. Course management received kudos from Steven Parks, regional institutional healthcare consultant for Pfizer's Roerig division. "In the days we played, we never saw maintenance people out mowing, moving tees, getting in the way," he says.

Tierra del Sol is also unique in the way tee times are scheduled. Aruba hotels own the tee times between 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Guests can arrange to play through the hotels, and Stanley advises negotiating tee times as part of the total hotel package. Group play, on the other hand, can be arranged directly with the club. Planners interested in tournament play may schedule shotgun starts for as many as 120 or as few as 16 golfers.

Surf Beneath Your Feet After a hard day on the course, at the beach, in the shops in Oranjestad, or wherever else members of the group found themselves that day, everyone reconvened for a dinner on the patio at the 392-room Aruba Marriott Resort and Stella Maris Casino, near the northwestern end of Palm Beach. There was also a very special surprise after dinner. Eco Destination Management Services' Errol Every invited everyone in the group to attend a surprise birthday party for his wife (and business partner) Wichita, which went on into the wee hours.

The next morning began with breakfast at the 200-room Divi Aruba Beach Resort and Casino on Manchebo Beach, whose managers also operate the Tamarind, an all-inclusive resort next door.

From Manchebo Beach, the group toured the island's otherworldly north shore, a moonscape where Spanish and Dutch explorers once mined for gold. This part of Aruba remains resolutely undeveloped, making it a great playground for four-wheel-drive car rallies. All trips to the north shore include a stop at the Natural Bridge, a spot where the Caribbean surf has pounded through the shoreline to create a vantage for looking straight down at the waves rolling through below you.

The Punctual Island After a brief pause in downtown Oranjestad for a moment of emerald shopping, the bus tour ended at the nearby La Bouillabaisse Restaurant, where planners were introduced to one of Aruba's great secrets: its culinary prowess (see "Fine Dining," at right).

After lunch, the bus left for the conclusion of the golf tournament. The De Palm tour buses' penchant for on-time departures amazes many. "This can't be the Caribbean," cracked Duffy. "All the transfers are on time!"

That evening, a site inspection of the 300-room Aruba Sonesta Resort and Casino in Oranjestad was followed by cocktails on the shore and dinner at the hotel's elegant L'Espace Restaurant. A few steps from the lobby, across L.G. Smith Boulevard, is Aruba's first large convention space, the new Sonesta Conference Center, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

"They Really Pay Attention To Detail" The group's last full day in Aruba began with a visit to the 372-room Radisson Aruba Caribbean Resort and Casino, followed by a snorkeling cruise aboard the Pelican II catamaran, organized and hosted by Eco Destination Management.

Upon returning to shore, the group inspected the 444-room Wyndham Aruba Beach Resort and Casino, then enjoyed a picnic lunch on the hotel lawn. The trip concluded with a site inspection and formal dinner in the ballroom of the Americana Aruba Beach Resort and Casino, where Adams/Laux Group Publisher Peter Huestis presented the staff of Tierra del Sol with the club's first Golden Links award.

What impressed the group most about Aruba? It wasn't the beach, or the golf, or the food, or the casinos: "It's the level of service," says Cerisse Robnett, meeting planner with Amgen, Inc. "They really pay attention to detail here."

Caribbean travelers used to conch fritters, salt fish, and barbecue cannot believe a luncheon sponsored by the Aruba Gastronomic Association. At stations around an outdoor patio are samples of the work of chefs at eight Aruba restaurants. While the planners exclaim over salmon-stuffed beef filet, smoked tuna, and Italian pastries, the 1996 National Culinary Team of Aruba is in the midst of achieving a near-sweep of prizes at the Taste of the Caribbean cooking competition in Puerto Rico, including the top prize as Culinary Team of the Year.

A word to mainlanders about banquet planning: "Aruba is a desert island," says Jenny Erazo, manager of convention catering at the Aruba Marriott. "That means fresh produce must be brought in from elsewhere. If the iceberg lettuce arrives and is not up to the chef's standards, he is going to have to use romaine or something else. Planners who can be flexible about such details will be rewarded by the chef's creativity."