Aruba: My Home Island
Join me as I take you on a tour of Aruba, the island I grew up on.
Maybe it's simply sentiment that makes this such a special place to me, but I don't think so. Aruba is just...magical. I grew up on the southern tip of the island known as 'The Colony,' and I can remember having miles of island desert, caves, and caribbean sea for a backyard. The whole island was a never-ending playground in paradise, with seemingly limitless sunshine and space to run, swim, dig for treasure, picnic and camp on the beach. And the stars... I didn't know it at the time, but nights cloaked in inky black silk rent in a thousand places where diamonds sparkled through aren't commonplace. A piece of Aruba never left me... and apparently it showed, because my Husband, who knows me better than anyone, suggested we go back for our honeymoon so I could share it all with him It was wonderful visiting the island again and experiencing it with him. If you are planning a trip, here are a few of our favorite spots and experiences.
From the moment you step off the plane, the air feels different, and it’s not just the humidity. The smiling faces and slower paces of the residents, the smell of scrumptious local cuisine wafting on salty sea breezes, and the sense that the busyness of the world has somehow receded somewhere that can’t quite reach you interweave to embrace you in a warm island welcome all its own - Bonbini!
One of the ABC islands off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is known as ‘one happy island’ for good reason. The island offers something for almost everyone. With its soft, sandy coastlines and translucent waters, you can lose yourself in a landscape awash in brilliant shades of blue and white as you lounge on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Along another stretch of coast, you can explore jagged crags where walls of water hurtle themselves against the rocks, crashing in a hypnotic cadence. The weather is almost always fine and the people more so, laid back and on island time.
If you tire of lounging leisurely in the sun’s basking glow, you can snorkel, scuba, go horseback riding, feed flamingos, rent a four wheeler, para-sail, hike, tour the lighthouse, explore the caves, or a host of other outdoor adventures. And don’t forget to bring your appetite because the island offers a smorgasbord of gastronomical delights. From pastechis (possibly my absolute favorite food on the planet - get the gouda!!!) to roti to swordfish to bami, the food reflects the island’s culture and history, as several flags have flown over its shores. The local dialect. too, is a tapestry rich with Aruba’s heritage as Papiamento blends elements of Spanish, African, Portugese, English and Dutch languages. (Locals often speak English, as well as Spanish, Papiamento, or Dutch, too.)
TOP THINGS TO DO
The Natural Pool
The Natural Pool, also known as "conchi" or "Cura di Tortuga", is a natural pool located in the Arikok National Park on the east coast of Aruba. A remote area formed by volcanic rock circles, you can only reach the pool by hiking, horseback or in all terrain vehicles. We rode out on horseback, and it was stunning!. A few tips - there are craggy hills on the route so if you get nervous on horseback, you may not enjoy every moment, but the horses know their way - let them do the driving. When you arrive at the pool, you’ll have time to explore the beach and take a dip, so bring/wear a suit, sunscreen, and shoes good for a little rock climbing, and/or bring a light weight change of clothes. After years of being trained about what a proper southern women wears on horseback, I was a tad overdressed, and wished I’d had a suit once we got to the pool. You might consider picking up some Aruba Aloe while on the island, too - after long beach days under the sun’s rays, my mom used to cut aloe off the cactus that grew in our front yard to soothe our burnt - I mean sun-kissed- skin. It works wonders!. The sun in Aruba means business.
My husband and I apparently have an affinity for precipices, towers, and lighthouses. If there is a summit in the nearby radius, it’s on our ‘to do’ list. They usually offer breathtaking views and a humbling dose of perspective and the California Lighthouse is no exception. Named after a shipwreck off the point, the lighthouse tends to be a busy tourist destination. It’s a steep climb to the top, but it offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. Be prepared for strong trade winds and dress accordingly (I recommend shorts or slacks, hair pins and braids. Warning: Skirts and hats can be problematic to hold on to, and you should just accept that your hair will almost always be blowing in your face and/or in a perfect line 90 degrees to your head. It’s why the divi divi trees grow with their leaves all to one side - and you will definitely sport the divi divi do during your stay if you ever leave the hotel room).
While native to Bonaire (another of the ABC islands), flamingos are not indigenous to Aruba, but you can still see them up close on Renaissance Island, a 10 minute water taxi ride off the coast of Aruba. Several years ago, a flamboyance of flamingos (not kidding, it’s what a ‘flock’ of flamingos are called) landed on this private island, and a small population has remained to this day. The 40 acre island is now owned by the Renaissance Aruba Resort and Casino, and a visit to the island is complimentary to guests staying at the resort. Non-guests can purchase a day pass for about $125 US a person, but you need to get tickets early. Tickets can be purchased at the Renaissance reception desk day of or online the day prior to a visit, but the limited day passes are usually gone by 7am. (My wonderful blurry-eyed husband and I were at reception at 6:30 am and were the 2nd family in line - but we got tickets for that day - worth it!!)
Water taxis to the island leave from the hotel about every 15 minutes. If you want to feed the flamingos (and since you are already upanatem early for tickets) I recommend you get to the island before 9:30 am, as guests to the island arrive and start feeding the flamingos around 7:15 am. By mid-morning, they are less than peckish (although if you insist on trying to feed them past that time, they make take a peck at you. We found them incredibly patient and gentle, but we did see one little girl of about 9 persistently shove pellets at a flamingo, who finally expressed his displeasure. She was unharmed - and her dad was stifling giggles - but be mindful of how you approach them. They will gently come to you when you extend your hand of food if they want a snack - don’t force them.. Tip: Bring US quarters with you since the vending machine for flamingo food pellets only takes these.
Baby and Rodgers Beaches (and the Point)
Further south on the island is San Nicolas, the second largest city in Aruba, and just beyond its outskirts are two beautiful beaches I grew up playing on - Rodgers and Baby Beach. Both offer glistening, soft white sand and crystalline waters. Of the two, Baby Beach is smaller and is named for its tranquil, shallow waters, which make it a perfect spot for families with small children. The water at its deepest point is about five feet deep, and the waves are almost always calm. (My dad, who’s 6’3” once pulled us on a raft across the entire cove and his head never went below the water). The beach is not overly crowded on weekdays or early morning, but it’s popular with locals so may get busy on weekends. A small snack shack has been built on the beach since I lived there, and we stopped in for a bite of roti while on our last visit (I recommend having roti at least once before you leave the island).
If you have an interest in history, before you leave the southern tip of the island, you might also visit the remnants of two gunnery embankments (less than a 5 minute drive from Baby Beach) at the Point, which once kept watch over the Venezuela coastline. There’s not much left, two large circles in the ground, but the view from the cliffs as you overlook the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea is nothing short of stunning. Tip: We rented a four-wheeler to explore the island through Arubiana.com and had a positive experience - don’t forget to read their tips and waiver and download their app for navigating on the island).
An easy adventure for the whole family, Hooiberg,with a whopping elevation of 541 feet (which to my child’s eyes constituted a mountain until I moved to Denver!) is one of the largest (and only) peaks on Aruba. The hike to the summit is not rigorous (~570 concrete steps constitute the climb) and offers panoramic views of the island as far as the coast of Venezuela.
Many tourist accommodations are located around the northern end of the island near Palm Beach, as this end of the island tends to be more touristy with several small shops and restaurants, and there are several hotels and inclusive packages from which to choose, including the Ritz-Carlton Aruba, Playa Linda, Hilton, and Marriott. We chose to stay a little further south by Eagle Beach at Amsterdam Manor.
The distinctive hotel, with its bright Dutch-inspired architecture,is situated between the north end of the island (~ 7 minute bus ride) and Oranjestad, the capital city (~10 minute bus ride to the south). With a bus stop in front of the Amsterdam Manor hotel, it offers easy access to shops and restaurants in both locations.
(Tips: We found the bus to be an easy, affordable way to get around the island. Florins - local currency - are best for the bus, but they will accept US dollars. Drivers, however, will return change in local currency and at a loose exchange rate). We found Eagle Beach to be less crowded than Palm, and the Super Food grocery store & pharmacy was a convenient walk from the hotel so we could stock up on extra snacks and sunscreen for lazy days on the beach. The walk to the grocery is about 10 minutes, but does involve crossing a busy street (and the most direct route did have us hopping a short concrete wall), so if you have small children, you may choose to drive. Tip: Direct flights to Aruba aren’t available from most locations, so you’ll likely be traveling for several hours and want to freshen up before exploring so check with the hotel about when you hope to arrive. We found staff very friendly and flexible - in fact, they greeted us with free drinks and ‘I love Aruba’ t-shirts!
There are many restaurants where you can simply walk in and be seated with minimal wait. Most have wonderful patios and there is a thriving nightlife on the island. Some of our favorite places, however, are booked well in advance so I would recommend making reservations well in advance - and packing your appetite!
Flying Fish Bone - Enjoy elegant dining while barefoot on the beach as you dine on surf and turf with your toes not only in the sand but in the tide on the shores of this beautiful blue bay. Tables are placed so that as the tides shift, the surf laps your feet, tickling your toes. We made friends with a small hermit crab who shared our table as we watched the sunset. (Tip: Dress for walking in a couple of inches of water. I wore a maxi dress and sandals, both of which could get wet, and my husband wore a button-up long sleeve dress shirt, cacky shorts and flip flops - our ensembles fit in perfectly with that of other guests.)
Wacky Wahoo’s - can you say barracuda a la Dutch au gratin and plantains? You will when you dine here on the fresh catch of the day melded with local Caribbean flavors. Wacky’s was a happy accident for us, as we stumbled across it after a day of exploring on an evening where we had no dinner reservations. It was fast food or Wacky’s, and Wacky’s won out. When we entered, the vibrancy of the aromas and decor immediately enveloped us. The joint was jumping, and we were lucky just to snag a seat at the counter. While the environment is reminiscent of what might be characterized as a Caribbean mom-and-pop establishment, with wise-cracking wall art offering hilarious marriage advice to us newlyweds the food is prepared and plated as if to the exacting standards of a culinary master chef. Just ‘wow.’ Next time we visit, we hope to dine here again, and this time, we’ll make sure to have a reservation.
Madame Janette’s - Further inland, Madame Janette’s offers an intoxicating casual outdoor ambiance as you dine on beautiful covered patios where you’ll want to linger over seafood and pasta dishes flavored with a dash of the Caribbean. Since it’s a bit off the main tourist track, your taxi driver may volunteer to pick you up at the end of your dinner or send a colleague to do so - this is very convenient as you’ll avoid a long taxi wait at the end of the meal. If you accept, the driver will likely accompany you in to the restaurant to give the hostess their information. While unexpected, we found this incredibly convenient.
Pastechi House - we went three times, not gonna lie; casual walk-in spot along the trolley line in Oranjestad that offers an array of pastechis, including pizza, meat, and gouda filled options. (Gouda, y’all - just sayin’). While in Oranjestad, you can check out the Kate Spade shop in the island ‘mall’ and the tourist shops along the main drag where cruise ships port.
Passions on the Beach (Eagle Beach) - Passions is located on the beach nearly immediately in front of Amsterdam Manor, and makes for a romantic, leisurely dinner spot. We watched the sun set and with our feet in the sand and then enjoyed a moonlit evening surrounded by the glow of tiki torches and the sound of the waves. Swathed in candlelight and the roar of the waves, It felt like we were the only ones on the beach for miles. Fun fact: the menus, when opened, are backlit to make ordering after sunset quite easy.