If you accidentally fell off a cliff off the Northern coast of Venezuela, it wouldn’t take too long for currents to wash you off on one of the powdered-sugar beaches of the Dutch Caribbean.
After a moment or two to recover from the tumble dryer motion of the waves hitting the water’s edge, you’d probably start looking around and realise that you pretty much ended up in Paradise. Endless stretches of white sand, palms and straw-fringed beach cabanas would be all around you, together with the hustle and bustle of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire Caribbean area.
I did not exactly get there by falling off a cliff in Maracaibo, but, at Christmas time 2016, an almost equally exhausting 16 hours trip via New York landed me and my family in the very Dutch-sounding Queen Beatrix airport in Oranjestaad, capital of Aruba.
It was my first time in the Caribbean, and let me tell you that while I was not exactly expecting lush wilderness and unpaved roads, I was extremely surprised by the sleek roads, Colonial style houses and ultra-modern hotels that flashed past our car’s window on the way to the hotel.
One thing you will surely notice, especially as a European – if you ever adventure down to Aruba – is that it is extremely tailored to the American tourist, with popular fast food chains and European luxury and Highstreet brands sprinkled pretty much all over the Southern coast. This can probably be explained by the fact that oil refinery is the second biggest industry after tourism, with Venezuelan and American oil workers having had a pretty big influence on the island’s history to this day. But as off-putting as giant Taco bell signs and Oil refineries may be, they should not discourage you from exploring this beautiful island, that still retains a lot of the local flavour.
Aruba retains much of the colonial heritage from its past, with Dutch being the administrative language, and most of the cities and places of public interest are named after Dutch royalty. However, like many of its neighbours, Aruba has been visited, colonised, contended and lived on by tons of different races and cultures, resulting in a mesmerising mix of over 100 ethnicities. The official language since independence, the so called Papiamento, is a tongue-twisting mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English, and will most likely make you do a double take the first time you happen to hear it. Like its people, Aruba’s language is an exotic and unique mix, definitely one of the most interesting local languages I have ever heard.
So why should you go to Aruba, you might be asking?
The island can be pretty much divided in two, with a still-not-too-heavily developed Southern coast, characterised by low and high rise hotels, endless stretches of white sand (Eagle and Palm beach are the most famous beaches on the island, and some of the best in the world) as well as the capital city, and a wild and wind-swept Northern coast, a kite surfing paradise with dramatic cliffs and natural caves. Right dead in the middle is Arikok natural park, with some gentle hikes and pretty great observation points.
I definitely took advantage of the diversity of the island, and spent 10 days pretty much savouring what anyone else with a little sense would do in the Caribbean….
I laid on my sunbed like a beached whale (mmm sexy, I know). We all know we need some TLC at time, and what does it for me is soaking up the sun with a great playlist and a good book, occasionally venturing towards the water for a refreshing splash. Aruba certainly offers plenty of opportunities for this sort of indulgence, especially on Eagle beach. If you feel like doing that while watching pink flamingos stroll around you, you can pay a day ticket to visit the artificial island of the Renaissance hotel, where these interesting birds roam “free”.
When I felt like being lazy was getting out of hand, I took early morning and sunsets pilates and yogas classes on the beach. Pretty much every hotel offers yoga classes open to the public for a small fee, and there are plenty of studios from disaffected hippy Americans that came to hide on this little paradise island (i suspect we will see a rise in that in the next 4 years). I am not the biggest fan of yoga, but let me tell you that it is much easier to “inhale compassion and exhale love” when you are looking at a breathtaking sunsets on the ocean.
I Dived, and met some pretty curious manta rays. I absolutely love diving and I try to take any opportunity to do it. Aruba would probably not figure in the lists of most amazing diving destination for its aquatic life, but it is certainly unbeatable when it comes to wreck diving. Some impressive plane and boat wrecks can be visited, but visibility really depends on the weather and the currents, since the sand at the bottom of the sea is very very fine. I was somehow unlucky on that front, but I can warmly recommend going for a dip while there. Unfortunately, given the strong currents, snorkelling is not really a super popular options, save for very secluded nooks in the western tip of the island (and for very good swimmers).
I explored Arikok Natural park on a jeep. Aruba is normally very dry, with a semi-lunar landscape with tons of huge cacti everywhere. It can best be observed by the elevations in Arikok national park, which covers approximately 20% of the island’s surface and contains some of its most famous attractions like lava and limestone formations, the natural pools and some bat-infested caves. Saying that roads and paths in the park are rough would be an understatement, so I was glad we chose to go on a Jeep tour with ABC Tours. It lasted just over 6 hours, and we explored the dramatic cliffs of the norther coasts, the natural pools, Fountain and Qadiriki cave (do not go in the last chamber if you are afraid of bats. I repeat myself, DO NOT GO IN) before stopping for a dip at Baby beach, a strangely suggestive beach overlooked by a giant oil refinery.
I did not do that, but if you are a kite surfer, make sure to pack your stuff and head to Boca Grandi or Palm beach for some impressive out of water leaps.
All in all, while not one of the cheapest destinations in the area, I was very impressed with Aruba, and I consider it a good introduction to the Caribbean. It is relatively easy to reach, with great infrastructure and friendly, tourist-oriented locals, and it has a good balance between catering to the ever-homesick American and retaining its unique local character. As much as I would have loved to see some big shark or get a little more disconnected from modern life, I am definitely missing the place, and my Saturday morning pilates classes back home would never be the same again I am afraid…..
Some useful tips if you decide to go:
- We stayed in one of the low rise Hotels on Eagle beach, Manchebo Beach Resort and Spa. I would wholeheartedly recommend to do opt for a low rise hotel too, and avoid the gigantic high rising builds towards Palm beach, very Vegas-like.
- Unless you self cater or you want to venture in Arikok on your own, I don’t recommend renting a car. We barely used ours as most of the activities you might want to try ,like diving, would come and pick you up at the hotel as needed
- I recommend diving with Mermaid dive. It was a friendly service and good diving spots
- Make sure to grab a dinner at The Flying Fishbone restaurant, in Savaneta. Hands down one of the best restaurants I have ever tried. Not the cheapest, but totally worth it. ask for a table on the beach!
- Embrace the style and get a tacky Caribbean shirt!