Destination Aruba

The family-friendly island entices visitors with white-sand beaches and a variety of activities

By: Kevin Brass

Even for the Caribbean, Aruba presents an unusual mix of cultures. Most Arubans speak at least four languages fluently Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento, a native language used only on the “ABC Islands” of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.

On my first visit to the island, I was surprised to find all the languages in active use, often in the same sentence. Between the local dialect, the old world architecture and rugged eastern coast, it was instantly clear that Aruba is different from other islands, with its own twist on the typical Caribbean themes.

Aruba is a Dutch protectorate located only 15 miles from the coast of Venezuela, and, until Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in 2005, it was primarily known for its oil facilities, tourism and aloe plants. In the jumble of Caribbean island landscapes, Aruba is desert primitive, with none of the lush jungles or dramatic peaks found on some islands.

Aruba’s main allures are the pristine beaches of white sand and the beautiful waters, which are filled with wrecks and treasures for divers. It is also one of the most family-friendly islands in the Caribbean and the locals are used to catering to the specific tastes of Americans--the vast majority of the tourists on the island are from the United States, even more so than other islands.

Most visitors stay in the hotel district north of the capitol city of Oranjestad, which is split into two distinct zones. The largest and most well-identified is the row of hotel towers on Palm Beach, Aruba’s famous strand of white sand. Standout properties include the Occidental Grand Aruba, the former Allegro which reopened in 2006 as a luxury all-inclusive, and the Hyatt Regency, which has also gone through extensive renovations. Both are sprawling properties with peppered with exotic birds and meandering pools.

The alternative hotel area is known as the “low-rise” zone, across from less touristy beaches. All the facilities are on a smaller, low-key scale in this area, although several are no less swanky. The low-rise area is also home to Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort, which features a nine-hole golf course, one of the few courses on the island. (The Divi also offers villas with kitchens and rooftop Jacuzzis.)

When I arrived I was booked into the Renaissance Marina Aruba, which I was surprised to find was one of the few Aruba resorts not located on a beach. It was in the heart of Oranjestad, across from the marina, with its own casino and a wide poolbut no beach.

But I soon discovered an alcove beneath the main lobby where motor boats docked to transport guests to the Renaissance’s private island, a 40-acre stretch of beaches and secluded coves where real pink flamingos wander on the sand. It was a spectacular, remote setting with tennis courts, spa, a restaurant and welcoming hammocks perched on quiet peninsulas.

For fun, Aruba offers just about every type of water sport imaginable. I’m not a scuba diver, but it was thrilling to snorkel around the wreck of a massive German freighter located in the shallow water a few hundred yards off the beach, near the hotel zone.

The next morning I took a jeep tour, getting a better sense of the island’s history and rocky landscape. An overly-enthusiastic tour guide blasted out information about sites through an intercom as we bounced along the coast. I regretted not having more time to spend in the Arikok National Park, a wildlife preserve with ancient caves and windswept coves.

When I wasn’t exploring the island, downtown Oranjestad, which is about a 15 minute taxi ride from the hotel zone (cost: $11-$13), provided a pleasant diversion. It’s primarily a high-end shopping area, including Ferragamo, Kenneth Cole and Gucci and other swanky brands. It was easy to spend two hours walking around the quiet streets and enjoying the gabled Dutch architecture, although I quickly learned to avoid the mid-day crowds from the cruises ships.

At night, the nightclubs and casinos of Oranjestad blazed into the early morning. But I was more interested in the wide assortment of cozy restaurants around the marina, featuring the Dutch, South American and European influences that give Aruba its distinct charm.


Aruba Tourism Authority

DePalm Tours provides easy one-stop shopping for island excursions, ranging from snorkeling and scuba trips to jeep tours of the island. In addition to transportation and guides, the company offers an all-inclusive package to a private island off the coast. They can also arrange ATV tours, which may be the best way to explore Aruba’s rugged landscape.
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For an authentic Aruban dining experience, Papiamento Restaurant is located inland on the grounds of a beautifully restored 19th century mansion, not far from the high-rise hotel zone. The menu includes oven baked onion soup with Gouda cheese, seafood cooked in a Cognac sauce and a tenderloin steak topped with melted Gorgonzola. Meals are served in a beautiful outdoor courtyard.