Bon bini! Welcome to Aruba. That’s the greeting you get the moment you land on this beautiful, paradise. There’s a reason they call it “One Happy Island.” The turquoise warm ocean, cloudless sky and sugar-white sand (it doesn’t get hot because it’s made of ground coral) embrace you instantly. And did I mention the average year-round temperature of about 82 degrees. It’s hard not to smile and be happy.
Worried about hurricanes? Not here. On a recent visit, while the rest of the Caribbean was hammered by hurricanes, Aruba was untouched. It’s only 15 miles off the tip of Venezuela, so it’s out of the hurricane band and hasn’t had a serious one in decades. As a result, it’s likely to be a popular destination this year, while other islands are still recovering from storm damage.
All you need is your sunscreen and a bathing suit to have fun. It’s an easy island to visit, with direct flights from New York. The dollar is king, English is spoken, and the island is only 19 miles long so everything is a short drive away.
There are two main tourist sections. At the high-rise area along Palm Beach, you’ll find major chain hotels within walking distance to restaurants and bars, shopping areas, and casinos. Along the more laid back low-rise area closer to the airport, smaller hotels and oceanfront restaurants line the quieter Eagle Beach.
We tried both, and they’re each wonderful in their own way.
Our first stop was Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa & Casino, a high-rise resort on the water with tennis courts, a casino, five restaurants and bars, spa and a lush plant-filled garden with pools, hot tubs and a swim-up bar. They thought of everything, including motion-activated showers to clean off the sand as you leave the beach, and full-body booths that spray sunscreen all over you.
Sign up early to reserve a palapa (an open shade hut covered in woven palm leaves) to cover you on the beach. Order an ice-cold Aruba Ariba, the island’s special cocktail. Or borrow a free float to body surf all day in the ocean.
The hotel has daily activities for all ages, including swan feeding, volleyball, bingo and free frozen treats. Kids (adults, too) will love the waterslide. If you need a break to play tennis, shop or nap, Camp Hyatt has trained counselors and organized activities for ages 4-12. Teens will find the video game room with giant screens a perfect place for an air-conditioned break.
One nice feature about the high-rise area: you can stroll along the beachside path that connects all the oceanfront hotels and stop for a drink or a bite at any of the nearby bars or restaurants. I even took a water exercise class at another hotel!
Next, we tried the low-rise end of the island. Leave your kids behind (hello grandparents!) for a romantic stay at the luxurious Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort, an adults-only hotel on the wide, beautiful Eagle Beach. This 14-acre stretch of white sand is infinitely less crowded and more tranquil than the other end of the island.
At the Bucuti & Tara, you’ll find spacious suites with great views of the ocean and a delicious breakfast buffet. The main activity involves lounging on the beach and cooling off in the ocean or the infinity pool. Rooms have high-end amenities such as charging docks, iHome systems, and built-in TVs in the bathroom mirrors. The resort is eco-friendly, encouraging guests with bathroom and shower dispensers delivering locally made shampoo, conditioners and lotions instead of individual containers. The also give everyone their own metal water bottle (to use and take home) to cut down on waste.
One of our best island meals was at Bucuti & Tara’s oceanfront restaurant, Elements. We made a reservation for the sunset seating. Watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, we dined on scallops, fish and other local delicacies. If you’re celebrating something special, have a romantic candle-lit multi-course dinner under a private cabana on the beach.
The resort offers Qi Gong classes on the beach early Wednesday mornings and live music at the bar most evenings. Sunday nights they showcase Aruban arts and food around the pool. On Saturday and Wednesday evenings, they show movies on the beach. Sit under the star-filled sky in comfy lounge chairs, munching on freshly popped popcorn. If it’s your anniversary or birthday, bring the bottle of champagne or wine they leave for you in the room.
When you return home, you can still get a daily fix of Aruba watching Bucuti & Tara’s live webcam of the beach. Or set up a time to wave to your kids back home.
While you could spend all day lazing around the beach, the island is so much more. There are exciting activities and excursions you can take to keep active, including snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, windsurfing, and utility terrain vehicle (UTV) adventures on the desert side of the island. We didn’t do it all, but we squeezed in a lot.
We sailed on a party catamaran one afternoon with an open bar and snorkeled around a sunken ship. I chickened out, but my husband tried parasailing and found it surprisingly relaxing, floating quietly high above the sea.
We tried stand up paddle boarding for the first time, with Aruba Surf & Paddle School, and I got to check something off my bucket list. A patient teacher, Dennis instructed us in proper technique. In no time, we were paddling through the waves.
Adventure awaits on the wild, eastern side of the island. We went on an off-road safari exploring the untamed desert terrain, barren back roads and seaside bluffs in a UTV. As you drive along the Andicuri Trail in four-wheel-drive, you’ll see amazing views of the surf crashing against the cliffs below and stop at such landmarks as the Ayo Rock Formations, Alto Vista Chapel, California Lighthouse, and the ruins of a 19th-century gold mill named Bushiribana.
It’s such a bumpy, dusty ride that everyone gets a bandana to protect their faces. It’s a great trip for kids older than 12 (though they can’t drive). My husband enjoyed navigating the UTV, and I was happy to be a passenger.
Part of the appeal of the island is its Dutch heritage. You’ll see an occasional windmill and gabled houses in rainbow hues around the capital, Oranjestad. Bon bini, by the way, means “welcome” in Papiamento, the native language of Aruba containing elements of Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Dutch.
You can spend a day away from the beach at several museums downtown. Or do some retail damage at the high-end shops and tourist stalls, where among the t-shirts and woven baskets, you can find some beautiful paintings and wood carvings by local artists. It’s the perfect place to pick up the requisite inexpensive trinkets to bring back home, especially if you’ve left the kids behind.
Another fun and culturally educational activity is to visit one of the island’s giant supermarkets where you can find all sorts of delicacies from the Netherlands. For kids, there are also ostrich and butterfly farms on the island. Wear bright colors and citrus scent if you want the butterflies to land on you.
Since you’ll be in the sun a lot, don’t forget your aloe…or buy some locally to cool off. Aloe plants thrive in the island’s arid environment. Take a free tour of the Aruba Aloe factory and museum where you can learn about its history, how aloe is harvested, and uses beyond sunburn relief.
The highlight of every day is the Aruban sunset. Everyone flocks to the beach to enjoy the spectacle. Each night, Mother Nature outdoes herself.
As to cuisine, you’ll find talented local chefs turning out imaginative dishes of all nationalities, though Aruban food has strong influences from both Holland and Spain. Many restaurants are on the beach so check what time sunset is and ask for an oceanfront table to get the best view. Some that came highly recommended are Zeerovers, Barefoot Restaurant, Passions on the Beach, Flying Fishbone, Screaming Eagle, and Pincho’s Grill & Bar.
Aruba has dozens of major events each year, including an annual jazz fest, Carnival, golf and tennis tournaments, races, and a fashion week. There truly is something to make everyone happy here.