A Caribbean Delight
When you step onto the Caribbean island of Aruba, you will hear the warm welcome, “Bon bini!” Aruba is like a fine host whose greatest pleasure is making sure that you feel at home, are well-fed, entertained, and satisfied. Whether you come to lounge on the beaches, hike volcanic hillsides, scuba dive to shipwrecks, or dine on Johnny cake and the catch of the day, you will likely come to the same conclusion as many of Aruba’s visitors. You’ll want to come back.
The Land and Sea
Aruba is a southern Caribbean Island, approximately 16 miles off the Venezuelan coast. Formed by volcanic action and coral limestone, Aruba is almost 20 miles long, six miles wide, and fringed with white sand. All beaches are open to the public. On the west, the gentle surf and wide beaches invite vacation living, palm-tree shaded golf rounds, sunbathing, and water sports, including deep sea fishing. The cities are along this coastline and offer abundant accommodations, dining venues, and activities for all ages.
The windward side, the northeast, is a dramatic contrast with wild surf and undertow, craggy cliffs, and a cacti-studded desert landscape. Arubans have set aside 18 percent of the island as the Arikok National Park. Much is accessible only by hiking or off-road vehicles.
Highlights include two volcanic peaks, caves, and a natural pool protected from the strong surf. In the center of the island is Hooiberg Mountain. A delightful hike is up this 165-meter volcanic formation. Concrete stairs lead up the side to the lookout at the top. Many make this their daily run and catch the stunning sunset from the peak.
The Caribbean Sea of Aruba is warm and intense azure blue. It also has a split personality. On one side of the island, it is lake smooth, though the currents can still pull you out if you aren’t paying attention.
At Moomba Beach where we did upright paddle boarding, the waters were well-marked with buoys and our instructor monitored us for safety.
On the windward side, the water is so fierce it carves into the cliffs and pulls back with a dangerous undertow. A famous island feature was the Natural Bridge that collapsed when pummeled by waves in 2005. Nearby, a smaller natural bridge still stands, its carved underbelly a testament to the power of the unrelenting sea.
The Fury of the Sea, the Collapsed Natural Bridge
History and Economy
Aruba has a long history, dating back to the Arawak tribes who left paintings in caves situated in the national park. Though pirates and treasure-seekers explored the land, Europeans mostly ignored Aruba until the gold rush of 1824.
The Bushiribana gold smelting ruins are an interesting site from this era. After the mining ended, much of Aruba was turned into aloe plantations. Aruban aloe is still prized for its quality. Oil production and refining followed.
In the last half of the Twentieth century, Aruba developed as a tourist destination. Cruise ships came to the deep harbor at Oranjestad, the capital city. With the building of the Queen Beatrix International Airport and the scores of daily flights, resorts and time-shares blossomed along the coastline and transformed Aruba’s economy.
Part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Aruba runs her internal affairs independently. The populace is quite diverse with over 90 cultures represented. Though the two official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, Aruba’s delightful tongue, most Arubans are multilingual and eager to communicate. (If you are called, “dushi,” it is a compliment meaning “dear” or “sweetie.”) Arubans are proud of their reputation for being welcoming and friendly.
Truly a multi-cultural country, Aruba has traditions and architecture from all her peoples. You can be part of a Carnival celebration in February and dance down streets with Dutch names. Buildings are brilliantly colored with Mexican adobe structure and roof lines from Holland. The graveyards are especially interesting. The graves are above ground and in the shape of homes of the deceased. When a family repaints the homestead, they also go to the cemetery and repaint the grave so the spirit will feel at home.
Music is everywhere in Aruba. Live music venues are plentiful. Every Tuesday night, a culture and music festival is held in the capital city, Oranjestad. It is sure to get you dancing.
Since 2015, the city of San Nicolas has invited international mural artists to paint the walls of the downtown in celebration of Aruban heritage. Some of the works are luminescent and sparkle with the Carrubian Festival every Thursday night
Work in Progress, Local Artist Vanessa Paulina
The foods of Aruba are a key element of the island culture. Chefs create foods that please their international guests, but also search the neighborhoods to find those who do the best home cooking. We were fortunate to be invited to October’s Eat Local Restaurant Week, (which is a month long in Aruba). During this celebration, chefs create set menus featuring favorite dishes. Throughout the island, over 60 participating restaurants offer lunches for $15 and dinners for $30-$40. At each of the restaurants, menu items reflect Aruba’s epicurean heritage with dishes such as Johnny Cake, fried funchi, and keeshi, an elaborate shredded chicken, prune, and cashew mound wrapped in a gouda shell.
Chef Croes, a Passion for the Past
Executive Chef Urvin Croes of The Kitchen Table by White and White Modern Cuisine is making sure the local flavors, especially the unique spices and art of pickling are retained. He interviews locals to discover the best traditional recipes, including those he learned from his grandmother. He believes he found the very best recipe for Johnny cake and stewed (salted) cod, an island favorite.
For our meal, I chose the delicious Stroba Di Carni, a rich and savory Aruban beef stew and fried funchi (Aruban polenta).
The bread pudding, Pan Bollo Cu Sauce Di Ponchi Crema, is a delight. Chef Croes shared two secrets from traditional Aruban cuisine:
1. Use the spice mixture of five spices and cinnamon along with rum.
2. Marinate the entire mixture for the bread pudding overnight. (Yes, use leftover bread.)
Each month, Chef Croes designs a traditional Aruban eight course meal for a maximum of 16 guests per evening. (It is often sold out, so you will want to reserve your spot early.)
Wilhelmina Restaurant: Upscale dining with excellent wine list and welcoming atmosphere. Excellent Caribbean lobster bisque. Bowl presented with lobster bits arranged in the center and hot bisque brought to table separately. Filet Mignon au poivre was delicious, a fine cut of Angus beef. The lady steak was perfect for this diner who prefers room for dessert. The ever-present Aruban French fries were crisp, hot, well-paired with the filet. Bananas Foster prepared with great flare at table-side.
Nos Clubhuis: Fish and chips featured a large, fresh filet. Aruban Papaya hot sauce was a good match. Beach nearby had cabanas, a protected swimming area, availability of upright paddle boarding lessons, and sand tennis.
The West Deck: All the food was hot and delicious. Aruban Keeshi Jena was satisfying and unique. “Shredded chicken, prunes, local spices and cashews wrapped with Dutch Gouda cheese on fresh tomato, garlic and basil sauce.” Chef Harlen’s featured dessert, mint Panna-cotta, was refreshing, light, and beautiful.
Divi Aruba Phoenix Beach Resort Delicious creations by Chef Tony, (Chef Anthony de Palm, executive chef) Shrimp bruschetta, chicken satay with peanut sauce, and other delicious appetizers at the beach near Pure Ocean. At the Bartender competition, Chef de Palm and his crew presented an elegant beach feast. Favorites: Spinach and gorgonzola ravioli in truffle creme sauce and ceviche, a cool fish salad with fresh-catch tiny bits. Well-balanced flavors.
Aqua Grill: Cosmopolitan and crisp. Highlight: delicious coconut flan with light, crisp edge of coconut.
Garden Fresh Cafe: Healthy choices such as fruit smoothies displayed with apple wedge crowns.
Windows on Aruba (I was unable to join my colleagues for this dinner, but they shared that the meal was excellent.)
Aruba is also the land of pretty and tasty drinks. Rum is plentiful. At the Bartender’s Crawl on Punta Bravo Beach, competing bartenders created drinks with fine spirits and elegant simple syrups with such ingredients as pear with rosemary and pomegranate. At restaurants and bars, garnishes are elegant, often flowers. Classic tiki glasses delight the patrons. For those of us who prefer wine, the options are excellent and pair well with the flavorful foods.
Visitors to Aruba have a wide range of places to stay from casual boutique hotels to all-inclusive resorts. Prices vary, depending on the amenities and extra packages you desire. The resorts are large, modern, and varied to the needs of the guests. (For example, a suite at Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort included a large bedroom, two baths, a complete kitchen, washer and dryer, a living room, and private deck.)
Some resorts are for adults only with activities such as golfing, water sports, gambling, cocktail gatherings, and night-life socializing and dancing. The Divi Phoenix Beach Resort is a popular site for weddings. On our visit, a wedding reception was being held on the beach under a full moon with the white crescent beach stretching out in the distance.
An elegant downtown Oranjestad hotel, The Renaissance, has a canal running through the lobby of the adults-only facility. There is another tower that is family-friendly. Adult Guest can take a shuttle boat to Renaissance Island, a private beach off-shore. (Non-guests may buy tickets to the island.) Once there, you can swim with nearby flamingos or chat with Chief, a large resident iguana.
Family-friendly resorts offer large play areas, planned events, and protected beach access. Baby beach is especially suitable for children because of the calm, shallow waters formed by the lagoon.
Unlike some vacation destinations, you don’t have to be part of a resort to enjoy the activities of Aruba. Many community events are free and open to all comers. Other possibilities such as tours, golf courses, and casinos are available at a guest and non-guest price. Often, there are reciprocal arrangements with facilities.
There are many traditional hotel rooms available at modest prices. They are located throughout the island. Beach rentals, condos and houses are a popular option for family groups. Arubans love to camp during Easter week, but camping does not seem to be available at other times. Time shares are a significant portion of vacation housing because so many guests return to Aruba and bring their friends.
Aruba has good roads and a reliable public transportation system. If you are staying at a resort or hotel, shuttle services will take you to and from the airport and to key destinations. Taxis and hired shuttle services are plentiful and have a set fee. For off-road (hold on!) or sea-going experiences, several companies have tours and excursions. Aruba has an efficient entry point at the Queen Beatrix international Airport. For those traveling back to the United States, a customs site at the airport lets you fly home as a domestic passenger. Check for Visa requirements
If you want to know about Aruba, just ask someone. The island is a natural beauty and her people want you to love it as much as they do. Maps and brochures are free and plentiful, but those we met wanted to tell their stories as they showed us the way. We met several people who came back every year because they are enchanted by this lovely island. If you get a chance to visit, take it. Then, at the end of the day when the moon hangs over her dark still waters, listen for the soft “Bon nochi,” Good night, and feel satisfied that Aruba is the right place to be.
What about Zika?
For now, it is important to protect ourselves from mosquito bites. Aruba is a drier climate than most of the Caribbean islands and generally has a moderate wind. That helps somewhat. However, our group did use bug repellant on our outings. We found wipes saturated with repellant which made the application quick and more thorough. Long sleeved shirts made with light fabrics and evening wraps were attractive and effective. If you are hiking or horseback riding, you might consider buying clothing that is pre-treated with chemicals. (This traveler is a mosquito magnet, but was not bitten in four days.)