Aruba surprises, far beyond its beaches
If you like to loll on magnificent white-sand beaches, visit the tiny Caribbean island of Aruba.
When you’re seeking immersion in a fascinating multi-racial culture, think Aruba.
Want to combine flashy casinos and a long-list of activities with an other-worldly moonscape setting? Yes, head to Aruba.
With an area no larger than that of Washington, D.C., the island makes up in variety for what it lacks in size. No wonder the miniscule enclave is a magnet for vacationers from the United States, attracting more repeat visitors than any other Caribbean destination.
Stretches of white sand shaded by towering palms and wind-sculpted divi-divi trees cover the island’s western and southwestern shorelines. Those in the know rate Aruba’s beaches among the most outstanding in the Caribbean, which means they rank highest throughout the world.
The water that laps the beaches ranges in color from light green to turquoise to deep blue, and serves as the playground for a something-for-everyone list of activities.
Jet skis and motorboats zip back and forth offshore, some towing people in rubber rafts, on water skis or parasails above the waves. Sailboats catch the constant breeze, and excursion vessels offer ersatz pirate cruises, deep-sea fishing expeditions, and snorkeling and diving experiences.
Further inland, the scenery changes dramatically. There Aruba presents an arid, extraterrestrial landscape of volcanic rock-strewn desert pocked by towering cactus.
Goats graze in fields surrounded by stone fences, while not far away some of their cousins roam free. They’re joined by hens pecking at edible scraps on the ground, and roosters that provide early morning wake-up calls.
Aloe museum, national park
While resorts are where many visitors spend the most time, the interior of the island — what I call the real Aruba — offers much more to explore and enjoy.
Attractions range from commercial tourist sites for people of all ages, to historical remnants that trace the story of the island and those who have called it home.
My introduction to the off-the-beach places to visit began at the Aloe Museum and Factory, which turned out to be more interesting than I expected. After watching men use machetes to remove leaves of aloe plants in the fields surrounding the museum building, I joined a tour group and learned about their uses in medicines and cosmetics.
Aloe has been cultivated and processed in Aruba for 160 years. After a free tour, stop in the store for lotion, soap and other products.
Much older chapters of Aruba’s past come alive in Arikok National Park, an ecological preserve that encompasses nearly one-fifth of the island.
Among its attractions are Jamanota Hill, the highest point on the island, which offers spectacular views from its peak; the Conchi pool, a tranquil inlet encircled by volcanic stone; and Dos Playa (“Beach Two”), a nesting site for sea turtles.
The park terrain is inviting to some of the 230-plus species of birds that reside on the island, or those that pass through for rest and refueling during their migratory journeys to North or South America.
While I’m far from a serious ornithologist, I enjoyed keeping my eyes peeled for glimpses of high flyers with quirky names like Ruddy Turnstone, Bare-eyed Pigeon and Black-faced Grassquit.
Shallow ancient caves dotted about Arikok recall the time when indigenous people lived there. Brownish-red drawings that they made on the walls and ceilings are said to date back to about 1,000 B.C.E.
The Arawak people were still living on Aruba when the Spanish claimed it in 1499. Great Britain and Holland later gained control, and it has remained a relative of the Netherlands for most of the time since 1636.
Melting pot of ‘one happy island’
Aruba’s background, and its close proximity to South America, account for the melting pot of people who make up its population. Many of its 110,000 residents speak the official Dutch language, as well as the native Papiamento, Spanish and English.
Their proficiency in English — along with the fact that Aruba has a well-deserved reputation as welcoming and safe for visitors — helps explain its popularity among Americans. The locals truly exemplify the country’s motto: “One happy island.”
The capital of Aruba is Oranjestad (locals say orahn-yuh-stod). With fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, it ranks more as a large town than a small city. It tends to get crowded when the docks are lined by cruise ships — towering multi-storied vessels that loom over the low-rise buildings.
The hotels, restaurants, casinos and shops that line the two main streets along the harbor display the whimsical shapes and subtle pastel colors of Dutch colonial architecture.
Other hints of the island’s close connection with that country include signs identifying the names of streets (Bilderdijk Straat, Copernicus Straat), and items on the menus of restaurants that would be at home in the Netherlands.
The oldest structure on Aruba is Fort Zoutman, which was built in 1796-1798 to ward off pirates. Oranjestad then evolved around the solid fortification. A turret that was added to the fort later to serve as a lighthouse is called the Willem III Tower, in honor of a 19th-century king of the Netherlands.
Another lighthouse, perched on a seaside elevation overlooking Aruba’s northwestern tip, provides 360-degree views over the island. It’s known as the California Lighthouse in memory of a steamship that was wrecked nearby in 1891.
One lofty landmark has an even more colorful history. The Old Windmill (De Oude Molen) was built in the Netherlands in 1804 and used first to drain water from that country’s lowlands and later to grind grain.
After suffering damage from storms, the windmill was disassembled and shipped to Aruba, where it was reassembled and serves today as another reminder of the Dutch connection.
A good way to take in much of the sites, and sights, of Aruba is to join a guided excursion. De Palm Tours (depalm.com) is the proverbial king of the island in terms of variety and quality. Its offerings range from half- and full-day trips in comfortable buses, to self-driven, off-road Utility Terrain Vehicle outings, and from catamaran snorkel itineraries to sunset sails.
The company even has its own island. There, a water park, “body drop slides” and banana boat rides delight young visitors, while salsa lessons, guided snorkeling tours and pleasant beaches appeal to their parents and grandparents.
Add-on activities include Sea Trek underwater walks wearing a diving helmet for face-to-face meet-ups with sea life and “Snuba” swims. Snuba is a combination of snorkeling and Scuba diving — swimmers breathe through a regulator to avoid having to surface to take a breath.
For those who wish to relax on some of the most inviting beaches anywhere, Aruba has much to offer. But a visit to the island can include much more.
Whether getting close up and personal with fish, exploring a diverse and different landscape, or delving into the enticing history and multicultural lifestyle of the people, visitors are left wondering how so many alternatives share such a small plot of land.
If you go
The weather in Aruba doesn’t vary much throughout the year. Fall and early winter are the rainy season, but that usually means a shower that stops after a few minutes.
A round-trip flight from Reagan National Airport to Aruba in March starts at $599 on American Airlines. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test is required for entry to the country.
Accommodations run the gamut from high-rise hotels and small luxury resorts to all-inclusive properties and villas.
I chose to rent a privately owned three-story condo through Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com). The four-bedroom property, located close to outstanding beaches, had air conditioning, a full kitchen, two pleasant outdoor decks and other amenities for a reasonable $170 per night.
The culture of a destination may be experienced when dining at restaurants. That certainly applies to Aruba. Along with fresh-from-the-sea fish, many menu items merge Caribbean, Dutch and South American cuisine with local touches.
Dining is often outdoors, and portions are large, so my wife and I usually shared an entrée. Our favorites: Papiamento (Washington 61; 297-586-4544) has a fairyland setting and lengthy menu. A shrimp scampi appetizer ($18) can be a full meal.
The menu at Madame Janette (Cunucu Abou 37; 297-587-0184) is expansive, and somewhat expensive. It features several fish entrees ($39) and a selection of gourmet hamburgers adorned by an assortment of toppings ($29).
For more places to stay and dine, visit aruba.com/us.