“One Happy Island.” This, the official motto of Aruba, is plastered on each taxi’s license plate. Surely Arubans are happy to see visitors: Aruba’s economy is fueled by tourists’ dollars, and much of the island is heavily developed for them, perhaps even more so than neighboring islands Bonaire and Curacao (the three together make up what’s known as the ABC chain of islands in this deepest part of the Southern Caribbean). Most Arubans speak English and accept U.S. currency.
Arubans also speak Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento — a language native to the ABC islands. If someone says, “Bon Bini,” they are welcoming you to Aruba.
The island has a rich, layered heritage. The first people to inhabit Aruba were a nation of Arawak Indians, but in 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. Nearly 200 years later, control of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire passed into the hands of the Dutch, whose heritage can be seen in Aruba’s pastel Old World architecture.
But let’s face it — we don’t come here for the history. We come here for the diversions, and Aruba is the Caribbean’s theme park. There are casinos, duty-free shops, over two dozen dive sites and noteworthy shipwrecks, and a championship golf course lined with cacti and populated by friendly iguanas. Aruba’s trademark divi divi trees always point in a southwesterly direction (due to trade winds that blow from the northeast), but we like to think they’re leading the way to the sandy beaches that ring the island in the shape of a cheery smile.
Best of all, there really is no bad time to visit Aruba. Located only 20 miles north of Venezuela, temperatures are consistently pleasant (lows in the 70’s, highs in the 80’s), there’s no “rainy” season and its location is far below the Atlantic hurricane belt.
What to See in Aruba
Palm Beach offers water sports facilities such as scuba and parasailing. Other activities include beach volleyball and banana boat rides. Many of the large resorts are located right on Palm Beach, so gamers can duck into one of the hotel casinos for an added diversion.
A fun diversion for both children and adults is the Butterfly Farm, a huge, enclosed tropical garden that’s home to hundreds of beautiful butterflies. Tip: The best time to visit is in the morning when you can see the new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises.
It may not be Las Vegas, but Aruba is certainly up and coming on the gambling scene with 10 casinos island-wide (in fact, the World Poker Tour has made multiple stops here). Many of the hotel casinos are quieter during the day (slots open, for example, but tables closed until early evening), but Crystal Casino, located close to the cruise port, is one of a few 24-hour joints — and it’s always hopping with slots and table games.
California Lighthouse, on the northwest tip of the island, was named after a ship called the California, which sank off the coast of Aruba in rough seas. The wreck is popular among divers. (Note: Despite local lore, this ship should not be confused with the Californian, which is famous for failing to act on distress signals from the Titanic; that ship sank off the coast of Greece.) Kids with energy to expend can try “dune surfing” on the California White Sand Dunes surrounding the lighthouse, which involves sliding down the steep dunes (sturdy jeans or pants required!).
You can go horseback riding either to the California Lighthouse, along the Malmok Beach stretch or to the Alto Vista Chapel, via Rancho Notorious. Rancho Daimari offers clopping along the coast in Arikok National Park.
Baby Beach is a good stop for small children or inexperienced swimmers. The water, in a shallow pool created by man-made rock breakwaters, is no more than five feet deep. One drawback: There are only a handful of food stands.
Travelers looking for a secluded stretch of sand should head for Rodger’s Beach, on the eastern tip of the island. It’s a picturesque spot (if you can ignore the view of the refinery) known for its lovely shade palms and crystal-clear, reef-protected waters. Facilities include showers, beach huts, bars and snack stands. Arashi Beach, on the northern tip of the island, is another quiet option.
Rum may immediately come to mind when you think of Caribbean spirits, but Aruba is home to another award-winning brew. Daily tours are offered at the Balashi Brewery (or Brouwerij Nacional Balashi). Guests are walked through the pilsner’s production from fermentation and filtration to bottling and distribution. Next to the brewery is Balashi Gardens, an open-air bar and restaurant overlooking the Aruban countryside.
Go snorkeling at Malmok Beach, which has small coral bays filled with plenty of colorful fish just 10 feet offshore; the wreck of Antilla, a WWII German freighter, can be seen peeking out of the water here (note that no facilities are available). Are you an experienced snorkeler? Bachelor’s Beach is a little rough for leisure swimming, but offers adventurous snorkeling aficionados all kinds of underwater sights on its coral-covered bottom.
Golfers should check out Tierra del Sol, a Robert Trent Jones-designed, 18-hole (par 71) course. Reserve tee times in advance.
Eagle Beach, a hangout for tourists and locals alike, is one of the longest stretches of white sand on the island. All of the amenities are here, including lovely shaded picnic areas.
Where to Eat
For such a small island, Aruba has a surprising wealth and variety of restaurants, serving up everything from casual Caribbean favorites to international haute cuisine. If you’re looking for local dishes, try the keshi yena (spiced meat stuffed into a Gouda cheese rind) or the stoba (a traditional stew made with conch, goat or other meat). The Aruba Gastronomic Association offers a Dine Around Program that grants visitors a set of coupons for meals at select restaurants for a fixed price; see ArubaDining.com.
El Gaucho, Aruba’s best Argentinean restaurant, is located in an atmospheric old-town house on the east end of Oranjestad. Meats are the main draw here, including a truly enormous T-bone steak and the Pincho Torro Caliente, billed as ” the biggest shishkebab ever served.”
Foodies rave about Carte Blanche, where 14 diners each evening get to watch and interact with Chef Dennis van Daatselaar as he crafts a four- or five-course meal before their eyes. Maitre d’ Glen Bonset is also on hand to offer wine suggestions and mix drinks. The experience is like nothing else in Aruba, and reservations are essential.
Try the legendary Pink Iguana at Iguana Joe’s Caribbean Bar & Grill, a concoction of frozen strawberries, pineapple, rum and coconut cream. Or throw back a Balashi, the local brew. On the menu are a variety of sandwiches, salads and Caribbean specialties.
Located near the airport, Marandi can be a little tricky to find — but the romantic atmosphere and the views of the sun setting over Laguna Bay are worth the effort. The menu showcases a variety of meat and seafood dishes. Reservations are recommended.
Pinchos Grill & Bar, an outdoor eatery, is casual but chic. There’s a funky bar lit with Starbucks-esque lamps, and seating for diners along the perimeter with fabulous views of the water — the restaurant is actually located out on a pier under-lit by twinkling blue lights. Grilled meats round out the menu.
Where to Stay
The vast majority of Aruba’s hotels and resorts are located on the western end of the island, running from the capital city of Oranjestad up the coast. Low-rise properties are located closer to the capital, and this area is generally a little quieter; more glamorous high-rises can be found along Palm Beach and further north. For lower rates, look for a property that’s near but not right on the beach, and avoid traveling over major holidays. Aruba is a popular destination year-round.
The luxe Bucuti Beach Resort is located right on Eagle Beach and offers bright, beautiful rooms with a European ambience. There’s also a lovely spa and an outdoor fitness center. The resort is known for its romantic atmosphere and does not offer facilities for children; guests younger than 18 are not accepted.
The Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino is ideal for travelers who want to be right downtown in Oranjestad without straying too far from the beach (the resort has its own private island). Just off Oranjestad’s main street, the hotel is a destination unto itself with a lovely spa, a large casino and some of the island’s best nightlife. Adults looking for a kiddie-free vacation should stay in the Marina Hotel portion of the property, while the Ocean Suites facility welcomes families.
Budget-minded travelers can try the MVC Eagle Beach, a small property located just a short walk from Eagle Beach. Second-floor rooms offer ocean views. Both room rates and restaurant prices (the restaurant serves a mix of Caribbean and Dutch fare) are very reasonable.
Ocean 105 offers five attractive vacation rental units — a three-bedroom villa (the Main Residence) and four newly opened apartments. All offer ocean views, as well as easy access to Arashi Beach and the Tierra del Sol golf course. The spacious accommodations are a good option for families or groups.
Where to Shop
The main shopping drag in Oranjestad is Caya G. F. Betico Croes. Royal Plaza and Seaport Village Mall, across the street from the cruise terminal, are hot stops for unique jewelry and famous designer clothing stores (from Tommy Hilfiger to Guess).
In the heart of Oranjestad are Benetton, Mango, Lucor Jewelers, Artistic Boutique and many others.
Note: Look for the Aruba Cruise Tourism logo in store windows to find highly reputable shops.
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–written by Melissa Baldwin; updated by Kathleen Tucker
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