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So many islands, so little time. With all the tropical paradises you could visit, why would you pick Aruba for your Caribbean vacation?
Well, there's the reliably near-perfect weather. If you have only a week away from the job, why not guarantee yourself 7 days of ideal tanning conditions -- unwaveringly sunny skies, warm temperatures, and cooling breezes. And because the island's more of a desert than a rainforest, the humidity's low and it hardly ever rains. Hurricanes? Schmurricanes. There's rarely one within hundreds of miles. Aruba is far south of the tropical-storm belt.
Introduction to Aruba
You like beaches? Aruba's got beaches, some of the best in the Caribbean... in the world, for that matter. The photos only look as if they've been doctored. What you see is what you get: miles of white, sugary sand; warm, gentle surf; turquoise and aqua seas; and plenty of space.
When you tire of lolling on the beach, there's scuba diving, snorkeling, great windsurfing, and all the other watersports you expect from a sun-and-sea vacation. On land, you can golf, ride a horse, hike, or drive an all-terrain vehicle over the island's wild and woolly outback. Away from the beach, Aruba is a desert island full of cacti, iguanas, and strange boulder formations. Contrasting sharply with the resort area's serene beaches, the north coast features craggy limestone cliffs, sand dunes, and crashing breakers.
And such nice places to stay. You can choose from luxury resorts, all-inclusives, cozy boutique hotels, and modest budget spots. They're all well maintained and chock-full of bells and whistles to meet the whims of most travelers. With all the package tours available, they can be surprisingly affordable, too.
If you're a foodie, you may be surprised at how well you can eat in Aruba. Unlike the generally standard fare in most of the Caribbean, Aruba's culinary offerings are diverse, inventive, and often very good.
After the sun sets, there's plenty to do besides eat. You can try your luck at one of the island's dozen casinos or take in a live Vegas-style show. Bars, clubs, booze cruises, you name it -- if you're looking for a party, you'll find it.
You'll find the overwhelming majority of Arubans to be genuinely friendly and welcoming. Sure, the island's totally dependent on tourism, but nobody learns to be this nice. With little history of racial or cultural conflicts, the island has no cause for animosity. As the license plates say, it's One Happy Island. And though Dutch is the official language, almost everyone speaks English. You'll also hear Spanish and Papiamento, the local tongue (a mix of several European, African, and Native American languages), now recognized as an official language along with Dutch.
While safety is always a concern, Aruba enjoys one of the region's lowest crime rates, fueled in part by high employment. Though it's not uncommon to see solo senior tourists as well as solo 20-something women, it's always safer -- not to mention more fun -- to travel with a friend.
Enough of the good points. What's the downside? Well, if you're looking to stay in an old, converted, family-run sugar mill or immerse yourself in rich colonial history or pre-Columbian culture, you could do better elsewhere. From day one, Aruba's been pretty much of a backwater. It's still part of the Netherlands, so there's a Dutch influence, which adds a slight European flavor. A few small museums highlight the island's past and some centuries-old indigenous rock glyphs and paintings. But nobody visits Aruba for culture or history.
The people who do visit, though, come back. Aruba has the highest repeat-visitor rate in the Caribbean; the highest hotel-occupancy figures, too. Honeymooners, families, and couples of all ages and types fill the resorts during the winter high season, and in the traditionally quieter summer months as well. More than 60% come from the United States, and a fair number hail from Canada. Others come from Holland and South America, especially nearby Venezuela and Colombia.
The bottom line? Aruba's determined to make sure you have a good time. It's a great place to unwind, and few islands work as hard to make you feel as special and pampered. You'll learn your first Papiamento phrase when you arrive -- bon bini (welcome!). The last words from your lips as you board your plane back home will probably be in the local dialect, too -- masha danki, Aruba (thank you, Aruba).
Aruba is a tiny island. Only 32km (20 miles) long and 9.7km (6 miles) across at its widest point, it's slightly larger than Washington, D.C. It's the westernmost of the Dutch ABC islands -- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao -- and less than 20 miles north of Venezuela.
On a place as small as Aruba, it's easy to get your bearings, especially since just about everything for tourists centers around the two biggest beaches. Remember Mercury, the messenger god from Roman mythology? Aruba's shaped like his winged foot: toes to the east, heel to the west. Aruba's capital and largest city, Oranjestad (pronounced "oh-rahn-juh-stahd" or "oh-rahn-yay-stahd"), is on the island's southern coast, pretty far to the west, where Mercury's heel would be. The island's hotels stretch along the back-to-back shores of Eagle Beach and Palm Beach, a couple of miles west of Oranjestad, or up the god's Achilles' tendon. One of the island's landmarks, the California Lighthouse, stands at the wing on Mercury's foot, while San Nicolas, once Aruba's largest city and home of the island's oil refinery, steps on his toes. Between Oranjestad and San Nicolas on the south coast, Savaneta is Aruba's oldest town and major fishing center.
If you're like most visitors, you'll be staying in one of three areas: in Oranjestad, in the Low-Rise hotel area along Eagle Beach, or a little farther from town in the High-Rise hotel area on Palm Beach. The three locations have distinct atmospheres, so where you stay will determine the tone of your vacation. Would you rather be in the city or at the seaside? Are casinos and nightclubs important, or do you prefer quiet strolls along the beach? Are you looking for a casual beach town or a glamorous resort strip?
Let's start in the thick of the action. Oranjestad is Aruba's only town of any size or sophistication. If you want an "urban" environment with a variety of restaurants, nightclubs, and casinos, this is the place for you. The whole island has fewer than 90,000 residents, but most seem to live or work around the capital. Its waterfront bustles with cruise ships, yachts, fishing boats, and cargo carriers. Fueled by the boutiques, restaurants, bars, and casinos radiating from the docks, vehicular and pedestrian traffic in town is heavy much of the day and night. Contributing to the congestion, Arubans cruise the main boulevard to see and be seen, giving the strip an American Graffiti flavor. Much of the architecture combines Dutch gables and baroque ornamentation with Caribbean colors like pistachio, ochre, pink, and aqua. The result is a sun-drenched gingerbread confection with a touch of theme-park squeaky cleanliness. Walk 5 or 6 blocks away from the waterfront, though, and Oranjestad becomes a nondescript, workaday town with neighborhoods ranging from tony to shabby. Staying in town doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing beach time: The best beaches are only minutes away, and one hotel even has its own nearby island replete with private beaches, a restaurant and bar, a gym, a spa, and a tennis court.
In sharp contrast to Oranjestad but only a 20-minute walk west, the Low-Rise hotel area feels like a laid-back summer beach town. This district stretches over several contiguous strands with names like Bushiri, Druif, Manchebo, and Eagle, but it's hard to see where one ends and another begins, and most people refer to the whole area as Eagle Beach. As the Low-Rise name implies, the dozen or so complexes here seldom climb above three or four stories. Some are directly on the beach; others are located across a relatively sleepy road. The small boutique hotels, quiet timeshares, and sprawling resorts (including several all-inclusives) attract a diverse group of people. A couple of the smaller hotels cater to couples, while the timeshares have a generally quieter, older clientele (with kids and grandkids appearing at certain times of the year). The all-inclusives and larger hotels boast all kinds of guests with an especially large number of families and children. Many apartment-style accommodations feature full kitchens, living rooms, and guest rooms, facilities attractive to families and groups of friends who want to save a bit by eating in from time to time (large supermarkets are a $6 taxi ride or 15-min. walk away). But plenty of restaurants are in the area, and a couple of large casinos too. Low-Risers are quick to point out that Eagle Beach is wider, quieter, and less crowded than Palm Beach, and they prefer the comfortable, casual ambience.
On the flip side, the High-Rise area begins about a quarter of a mile after Eagle Beach ends. Stretching along Palm Beach, this strip of glitzy high-rise resorts is Aruba's Waikiki. The 13 hotels here tend to be swanky, self-contained resorts that ramble over acres of lushly landscaped grounds. Most boast splashy casinos, numerous restaurants and bars, and endless amenities and services. Some hotels here are definitely upscale, and others are perfectly middle-class: Whether you're a big cheese or small potato, there's a place here to suit your budget. These hotels, unlike the Low-Risers, are full-fledged glamour destinations. And if you're totally focused on sun time, you'll appreciate that all but a couple of the resorts are directly on the beach (the others are just across the street). The area also offers more places to eat, drink, and gamble, and its piers are a hubbub of dive boats and motorized watersports. However, with the increased number of amenities and giant resorts, Palm Beach doesn't offer the Low-Rise area's beach-town simplicity, and it's comparatively crowded.
Aside from the big three, you have a couple of other options when deciding where to stay. Next to the island's championship golf course, Tierra del Sol, condominiums and freestanding villas appeal to vacationers who prefer time on the links to hours on the beach. This complex looks and feels like a desert resort in Arizona, and short-term rentals are available.
For the serious budget option, a handful of motels can be found a 10- to 20-minute walk inland from the beaches. They lack the glamour of the larger resorts, but they make Aruba affordable for almost everyone.
Away from the hotels and the capital, Aruba features splendid, if modest, natural wonders, more great beaches, and a handful of authentically native towns. But more about exploring the island later in the guide.