By Nicolle Monico
If you would have told me a year ago that I would be traveling to Aruba in 2014, I wouldn't have believed you. Don't get me wrong, I travel frequently and have plans to explore every part of the world; but the small Caribbean island of Aruba? It was nowhere near the top of my list of excursions in the coming years.
If you live on the east coast, the Caribbean is a quick flight away, so you've probably enjoyed your share of mini-trips to the warm, humid islands each year. But as a California native and resident, my wanderlust has pulled me more toward European countries, South American cultures and the ever-exotic destinations of the South Pacific. However, when the opportunity presented itself to visit Aruba, I couldn't turn down the chance to see what makes the island the most touristed in the southern Caribbean.
If you're considering a trip to this #OneHappyIsland, here are few things to think about before booking a flight, as well as suggestions on where to stay, eat and play:
First thing is the country's weather and topography. Unlike its neighboring islands, Aruba's terrain is rugged and rocky on the northeast coast, closely resembling a desert-like climate and less like the tropical paradise you may expect. Yet, on the south and west coasts, you'll find your typical sandy beaches and azure waters. While it's cooler near the water (obviously), the temperatures everywhere are hot enough to keep you ducking into shade any chance you can get, with the hottest months being from May through October. When it comes to getting around, the island is small, so from the airport to any destination is generally a quick trip. Taxis are readily available and many of the bigger hotels will offer transfer services.
Ladies, if you're looking at what to pack, avoid short flowy dresses as the strong winds will cause some Marilyn-Monroe moments while you're exploring the areas. Opt instead for high-low dresses and loose cotton-based tees that you can sweat in. Also, rain can occur at any moment, so if you're wearing all white, be prepared to throw on a scarf lest you find yourself exposing more than just your stylish island apparel.
There are currently around 108,000 inhabitants on the island and 96 different nationalities, and most residents speak the native Dutch and/or Papiamento languages. But Spanish and English can be heard throughout the streets as well, so unless you can't speak any of those four options, make sure you have a handy translator app available. Speaking of internet access, most places have Wi-Fi if you just ask; but to avoid missing out on important calls and e-mails, buy an international phone package (yes, we know you probably already have one -- this is for those other guys).
When it comes to accommodations, our choice is something in the high-rise district. Here, you'll see more of the bigger resorts and properties in the four- and five-star categories. Depending on what you're looking for, our two choices would either be the classic Ritz-Carlton, Aruba or the quaint Boardwalk Small Hotel. Located across the street from the other, they couldn't be any more different.
At the Ritz, you know what you're getting from the moment you arrive: pure luxury. From its grand entrance to its floor-to-ceiling lobby windows viewing out onto the blue sea and the property's signature scent floating through the air, the hotel is one of our favorites on the island. Of its 320 guestrooms, 55 are suites that range from 760 to 2,390 square feet, with the latter being one of two Ritz-Carlton Suites on the top floor. All suites include marble bathrooms, oversized soaking tubs, a Nespresso coffee maker, balconies, a parlor, dining area and plush terry robes and slippers.
On property is also The Ritz-Carlton Spa which is a must-do while visiting. After a day (or a few days) of sightseeing, their facility is a breath of fresh air from the crowds and hot Caribbean sun. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the 15,000-square-foot spa is a destination in itself. Working off of four natural elements, treatments focus on incorporating sky, water, earth and fire essentials into the therapies. Along with separate men's and women lounges that offer a relaxation area, steam and sauna rooms and shower facilities, the venue also includes a joint room for both men and women to interact while enjoying a spa day. There's also an oxygen bar that is worth checking out (even if sticking the tubes up your nose makes you feel like a hospital patient).
If traveling with family or if you would prefer something a little more private with that true Caribbean feel, look into a room at Boardwalk. The boutique property currently has only 14 casitas, individual accommodations ranging from studios to two-bedrooms. The two bedroom is a great option for families as it can accommodate up to six guests all in one small home, so there's no need to book two suites for your vacation.
Each house is filled with Aruban character and is different from the next but they all include dining/living areas, a charcoal BBQ, hammock, daily housekeeping, a fully-equipped kitchen (love this), a patio and air‐conditioning. Guests also have access to complimentary membership to Moomba beach club on Palm Beach, beach towels, snorkeling equipment, beach chairs and Wi-Fi throughout.
What makes this hotel really special though, is its owners. Run by twin sisters, Kimberly and Stephanie, the women were born and raised on the island but moved to Belgium in the early '90s. While on a return visit, both fell in love with the hidden gem which at the time held a surf shop on what was once a coconut plantation. A few years later, the property went up for sale and they bought it together at the age of 26. After a USD $1.3M overhaul and complete refreshment of the casitas, Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba was born. The love and care that was put into Boardwalk is evident, and the sisters' bright smiles and joyful personalities will make any guest feel right at home.
As this is the Caribbean, there are plenty of water activities to experience. Hop on a catamaran for a day of sailing, swim in a natural pool at Conchi inside Arikok National Park, or spend your afternoon snorkeling/scuba diving with JADS Dive Center. With over 24+ dive sites, JADS has the widest selection of explorations on the island and caters to all levels of underwater guests. Aruba is known for having beautiful reefs as well as a variation of fish such as barracudas, stingrays, Moray eels and turtles. The center offers guided and non-guided excursions as well as night dives for the truly brave.
Probably one of my personal favorite destinations on the trip was Bugaloe Beach Bar & Grill. It's the kind of place you imagine having a cocktail at while in the Caribbean. A sexy locale right on the water in Palm Beach, Bugaloe has that true sense-of-place feel. Each night the bar plays host to live music and on Wednesday nights, guests can try their hand (ahem, feet) at salsa with a free Merengue and Salsa workshop from 8:30-9:30 p.m. Because of its location, you'll enjoy some of the island's best sunsets on its patio, and when the band starts playing Bob Marley, you'll really begin to consider extending your trip a few extra days.
Anyone who knows me, knows I love food (it's a running joke in our office), and knows that on trips it is one thing that will really make a destination special. Aruba has no shortage of good dining venues, but when it came to standouts, two made the list for return visits: Screaming Eagle Restaurant and Flying Fishbone.
For a more fine dining atmosphere and a night out in your favorite heels, the Screaming Eagle is where you should head. With a very South Beach-vibe, the red- and blue-lit restaurant is draped in white linens and features a section of canopy beds strewn with white pillows so that guests can enjoy dishes "in bed" if they choose. Everything on the menu is superb (yes, just about every dish was tried) and the atmosphere is perfect for a date or a ladies night out on the town.
Considered the first Aruban restaurant to popularize on-the-beach dining, Flying Fishbone is a toes-in-the-sand venue where outdoor tables rest directly on the beach. Guests are invited to kick off their shoes and enjoy a meal underneath palm trees and next to the water's edge. At night, the area is lit by tiki torches and romantic table lanterns. The real winner here though is the food. Offering a fusion between Caribbean and European cuisine, the fare is innovative, fresh and mouth-wateringly good. If you're a seafood-lover, you'll really enjoy dining here.
Just over two weeks later, having had time to mull over the destination, I can honestly say it was an unexpected treat. While my personal travel choices may still lean toward countries and locations outside of the Caribbean, those interested in visiting Aruba should have no trouble enjoying it. The locals are some of the most welcoming around and are quick to offer suggestions on where to go and what to do while there. If you can, do some island hopping and break up your trip by visiting the neighboring hotspots. Masha danki for the good time, Aruba!
(Top photo courtesy of Shutterstock)