When most people think of Aruba, they envision white sandy beaches and clear waters. They’re not wrong, but some people assume that’s all there is to the destination, like Dude-Who-Swiped-My-Window-Seat on the flight there. He apologized and asked if I’d ever visited this “little piece of Heaven.” I had not, so he informed me that there wasn’t much to the island, just “a strip and some casinos.”
I played along. “Like Vegas?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Exactly like that.”
I was pretty sure he was full of crap, especially when he switched on his in-flight entertainment to that Vince Vaughn movie about couple’s therapy in paradise.
Needless to say, Dude’s assessment of Aruba was a limited one, which I already knew as part of a group bound for “island exploration.” There must have been more than beaches to explore. Of course, Aruba beckoned to me under the usual pretenses — rest, relaxation, and warmth — which prompted me to leave my icy neighborhood at 4:00am one morning to get the hell out of dodge.
I also left with a desire to escape the current American political climate. Everyone’s social media feeds are (still) full of unyielding ugliness, but after covering the election for 18 months, I pounced on the opportunity for a getaway. All of the hatred left me shivering, inside and out, and this lady needed a break from America.
It goes without saying that I had high expectations for this Caribbean jewel’s scenery and climate, all of which were easily met. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the Aruba Marriott Resort, too. The accommodations and service were so personalized and unexpectedly friendly that it felt like a boutique experience that happened to carry the benefits of an all-inclusive property. Exactly what I needed.
If you’re into adventure, you’ll find plenty of it miles away from Aruba’s hotel strip. This, I soon learned though an appropriately terrifying exploration of the island’s rugged eastern side after whipping past fields of cactus in a Land Rover. The car held a group of bona fide travel writers, a pro photographer, a publisher, and me. We all shared a thrill during one perfectly timed moment when our driver (Richi, of De Palms Tours) precariously paused our vehicle halfway up a rocky mountain.
Richi showed us his hands, sticking straight up in the air and sideways out the window. He then shouted, “All hands like this. If you move them, my hands will be like this too!” The group complied — what choice did we have? — and he screeched forward, hauling a screaming gaggle of writers towards the island’s apex.
It was at that moment when I wondered exactly what this trip had in store for me … a beautiful death? Possibly. Yet the feeling (sort of) passed when this view materialized.
This warning sign greets those who prepare to descend many steep steps to the island’s famed Natural Pool, a tough-to-reach destination by touristy standards (you gotta go by UTV or horse). Richi — who took us tearing on a dusty ride through Arikok National Park — does this every day. Along the way, he took every possible bump in the road and even swerved to hit some bonus bumps. At one point, he pretended to almost veer into the water, which added to the shout-filled experience.
While we drooled over the wonders alongside the island’s rugged coast, Richi humored our questions. While doing so, he unabashedly raved about how Arubans adore Americans because we keep their economy alive. As he put it, when America does well, so does Aruba. Such a truly symbiotic relationship between countries doesn’t happen often enough.
Indeed, about three-quarters of Aruba’s GDP comes from tourism, with most travelers hailing from the U.S.
Richi’s positive attitude is not a universal feeling from islanders regarding tourists, particularly Americans — who tend to be perceived as obnoxious. Some experiences have left me cold rather than comfortably sun-scorched, due to barely-hidden eye rolls from locals.
Aruba is different. From tour guides to drivers to fellow shoppers, and even the group of residents who stood with high-powered water guns along the highway — merrily soaking our Land Rover with water from their pool — it was the island’s residents that made my trip.
If you’re not into rough surf and even rougher UTV drivers, one could easily make a full-on vacation out of the Aruba Marriott Resort itself. The grounds not only boast a casino, hammock garden, and an adults-only pool but multiple shops, restaurants, and cafes. The resort’s crown jewel, a pop-up beachfront restaurant called Atardi, opens each evening at sunset. The dress code is casual, but one must remove shoes for a toe-in-the-sand experience.
Aruba’s sand is so cushy that it feels like baby powder, unlike the grungy variety you can find in many other destinations. The restaurant’s view is unbeatable, and once the darkness arrives, so does the sax player.
At Atardi, my seafood-loving companions raved about the grouper, and the waiter promised me “a surprise,” which was a plate overflowing with veggies, quinoa, a gorgeous potato concoction, and an array of sauces. Cocktails were perfection, including the Kahlua-spiked hot cocoa for dessert.
Every night after our bingefests at various eateries, our group returned to plush rooms with ocean views and beds so comfy that they threatened to erase chronic sleep deficits. I felt pampered — exactly what I needed after a long election cycle.
The people of Aruba seemed incredibly accommodating as a whole. They have plenty of incentive to do so, since Aruba wouldn’t thrive without tourism, but residents generously share all the pluses of a tropical destination that arrives with none of the drawbacks. Plenty of sun and an absence of mosquitoes with barely perceptible humidity prevail. Aruba also boasts some of the cleanest drinking water on the globe, perpetual 80-degree temps, and a location outside of Hurricane Alley.
Seriously, the island’s “One Happy Island” motto would be disgustingly perfect if it wasn’t also so accurate.
Adjacent to the resort, my group enjoyed a windsurfing excursion at Vela Aruba, where Palm Beach’s calm waters — typical of the island’s west side — barely ripple, despite the breeze. This presents an ideal environment for learning the ropes, though that wind (which causes the island’s iconic divi-divi trees to slant like “natural compasses”) will knock you right off the board.
Fortunately, instructor Enri possessed an infinite amount of patience for klutzes. He told us that the truly adventurous can even windsail to Venezuela, a mere 20 miles away.
Later, at the resort, we took temporary refuge indoors with Sous-Chef Miguel Garcia, another gloriously kind person who gave up a vacation day for us. Miguel dealt us a tutorial on the authentic Aruban dish of Keshi Yena, a savory dish with a melty gouda shell, filled with a billion goodies that will delight carnivores and vegetarians alike.
If you visit Aruba for more than a few days, I highly recommend taking the new downtown walking tour in the capital district of Oranjestad. There, one can learn all about the island’s rich history (from Spanish exploration to the arrival of the French, the Portuguese, and finally, the Dutch, who claimed the island as a colony in 1636). The island carries some dark moments in history, including slavery and animal cruelty. None of this is hidden from tourists and, in fact, proves how much progress the Aruban people have made.
Several blue horses — symbolic of the ones who were pushed off ships and made to swim ashore — are scattered throughout Oranjestad as an eternal reminder.
If there’s one drawback to visiting Aruba, it would be that the sunsets don’t last long enough. They’re truly of the blink-and-you-miss-’em variety, but that’s just one more reason to grab ahold of every moment and refuse to let go.
What does last is the impression that Aruba loves America more than America loves itself — which makes this island the ideal destination for the overstimulated USAer, who needs a getaway from stateside drama and all of the arguing.