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Our Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 arrives at the gate at Queen Beatrix Aeropuerto in Aruba. The cabin door opens and the first thing you hear from the outside is: "Welcome to Aruba!" It is spoken with enthusiasm, exuberance and sincerity. This was the start of our 8th visit to the island. That's what Aruba is all about -- friendly people. The license plates proclaim that Aruba is "One Happy Island." And indeed it is!
The key words to describe Aruba would be friendly, windy, affordable and despite the Natalee Holloway case--safe.
Since our first trip to the island in the 1980s there have been many changes. Many new hotels, several new restaurants, clear water off Palm Beach, cloudy water off Palm Beach and now clear water off the same stretch of beach! I think the booming construction in the 80s and 90s caused a lot of sand to muk up the water. But things are much better now for snorkelers. One nice change is that Arikok National Park is now much more accessible to even regular passenger cars and you can observe everything from goats and sheep to wild donkeys cavorting with one another.
Aruba is located in the extreme southern section of the Caribbean just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Its out of the hurricane belt so tropical storms and hurricanes are rarely a threat at any time of the year and its quite arid. The lack of lush terrain is made up by a lack of rain---an entire day of rain is rare in Aruba.
They opened the brand new airport in 2000 and it was a real shocker touching down and finding that they now had jetways -- 9 of 'em! We kind of miss the old Aeropuerto where you had to walk out on the hot tarmac and climb up the steps of your jet.
The new airport had been formally dedicated only a few days prior to our arrival in 2000 and it's goal--happily--is to get passengers thorough all the formalities and onto the beach in the least amount of time.
It used to be that when you left Aruba, you cleared U.S. Immigration before ever leaving the island but had to reclaim your bags upon arrival back in the U.S. to clear Customs. Now you do all of it before leaving Aruba which is nice but it's a little weird. So when you arrive back in the U.S. there are no immigration or customs formalities. It's just like you've flown from one domestic city to another. A word of caution, however. This is one airport that you'll need to arrive at early. I'd allow a couple of hours.
Here's the Reader's Digest version of how the airport works in Aruba. You check in at the building to the right as you face the airport. They take your bags and put 'em on a conveyer belt just like any airport. You then exit the check-in building and go outside and wait in a long line. There you will pass by an Aruban inspector of some sort. Next comes Aruban immigration. Then you're in a nice shopping and restaurant area. You head straight through this duty free arcade zone and then into a baggage reclaim area. There your bags, which you've just checked in at the ticket counter, come down a slide just as if you'd flown somewhere and were claiming your bags at U.S. Customs. With bags in hand you stand in a long line waiting to clear U.S. Immigration. Remember, you now need a valid U.S. passport to visit Aruba and return home. Next you pass by U.S. Customs and may or may not get your bags opened. Then you put your bags on a conveyer belt and you won't see 'em again until you're back home in the U.S. Again, you're done with all immigration and customs business at this point and just head upstairs to the gate area to await your flight's departure on runway 11 in Aruba.
While there are many palm trees on the island its very dry and youll find a ton of cactus. In fact some farmers actually line their roadways and fields with cactus fences.
One popular attraction on the rough side of the island is now caput. The Natural Bridge collapsed from centuries of pounding by the ocean. It came down February 9, 2005. Too bad.
There are "divi-divi" trees everywhere on the island and they always point to the hotel zone on the peaceful side of the island where the waves are very small. Divi-divi trees are bent over because of the always strong wind on the island. And since the wind always blows from the rough side of the island toward the peaceful hotel zone, you can always head toward your hotel by following the bend of the divi-divi trees. If you want to get technical, divi-divis are called watapana trees.
Aruba is an island with Dutch roots and you can either spend the local currency--the Aruban Florin or the good old American Dollar. Both are accepted with a warm smile. Technically Aruba became an independent nation in 1986 but still has strong ties with the Netherlands. Kind of like the British relationship between Bermuda and the U.K. Aruba has one of the highest living standards in the Caribbean with locals enjoying full benefits of Dutch citizenship. Most Arubans speak English, Dutch, Spanish and the local dialect--Papiamento, which is a bastardization of all of the above plus Portuguese and Arawak Indian language.
The beaches are great in Aruba and there is some good snorkeling especially at Baby Beach and off a residential area called Malmok. If you have a rental car, just head from the hotel zone through San Nicolas (the refinery town). Head toward Seroe Colorado and then look for Baby Beach. Once at Baby Beach, you have to wade for a long time until you get out to a narrow opening that separates the protected portion from the open Caribbean. Head out to that opening and you're in for a treat. All kinds of parrotfish, wrasses, angels, butterflies, etc. All the usual "suspects." If you're Malmok bound, it's closer to the hotel zone. Just head the other way (toward California lighthouse) and keep looking on the left. You'll see beautiful water along a jagged coast. Before you get to California lighthouse, keep an eye out on the left for nice houses. Turn left at your first opportunity and then go straight just a few feet. You'll see a small parking lot. Park there and head out into the water. But be careful, there are plenty of rocks in the sand and they really smart on the old tootsies as you venture out far enough to begin snorkeling.
Snorkeling is perfectly safe. About the only thing that might be a problem is the scorpion fish. These guys are so well camouflaged that they just sit on rocks and attack small fish as they pass by. They have a nasty dorsal fin that can inflict pain. But unless you're traipsing around on the rocks (and you should never walk on any structure, especially coral) you won't have a problem. And in fact, you'll only see them if you're very observant. I've personally seen three or four at Malmok in the past 8 trips. During our most recent trip I saw a "squadron" of squid. Caribbean reef squid about 8 inches long and there were 16 of 'em all lined up side by side in the water. They're neat to watch in action.
If it's cloudy (doesn't happen often) and you're looking for something to do you might find a visit to the Aruba Aloe company interesting. They offer very informative tours and you'll learn some mind blowing facts about aloe and its properties. I loaded up with various products to bring back to friends and everybody just loves the stuff.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, the island boasts a huge national park--Arikok. The park occupies 20% of all land on the island. In past years there was very limited access. You would just drive up a small road and then get out and hike around. Now, however, there's a road that winds through pretty much the entire park taking you past mini-mountains, cliffs, bluffs, sand dunes, and the pounding of the Caribbean on the rugged side of the island. You can even take this route with a normal passenger car but take it easy. This is a rugged road that could easily rip your axels off if you're not careful. The road also passes by three caves. We inched into one of them to look at the ancient writings on the ceiling and walls. It felt like a steamy oven in there and smelled like bat guano.
Never say never...but it has been our experience that crime practically does not exist on Aruba. We’ve never even heard of any crime--period! And there are no beach vendors to drive you crazy while youre trying to relax.
Hotel costs, while certainly not cheap, are inexpensive on Aruba compared to many other islands. Water is perfectly safe to drink and the island distills its own drinking water from seawater at the world's second largest desalination plant.
One weird thing about Aruba is the cold water at the hotel. It almost always comes out hot. Thats because Aruba is a stubborn old gal and the dirt isnt very deep. A little ways down and you hit solid rock. Pipes are buried fairly close to the surface so the sun quickly heats the water up in the pipes as it heads to your hotel! Tip from my wife, Cindy. Before you go to bed at night, fill up a few glasses of water. The warm tap water will at least cool off to room temperature. Then, at night if you get thirsty, at least you've got mildly chilled water to drink if your room doesn't have a fridge. You'll thank me for this tip!!!!
Arubas wildlife is interesting. Iguanas are found all over the island and theyre pretty tame, especially since its now against the law to shoot em and eat em. (I had iguana one time on Aruba and it was okay. Hated the thought of eating the beautiful critter, though!) Aruba has other lizards which are absolutely beautiful, a bright blue-green with spots. Youll have to see them in person to realize their true beauty. Photos never do em justice.
On one trip I was snorkeling at Malmok and when I came out of the water Cindy said: "Check this out!" She was sunbathing on her belly and one of these beautiful blue-green lizards had climbed up on her butt and was using it as an observation tower, I guess! I love Cindy! She's great. Most women would have cringed at that close encounter. But not Cindy! You go girl! On our most recent trip she had a large iguana crawling up her leg and one of the Aruban lizards actually climbed up onto her hand, schlepped up her arm and crawled over her head before jumping off! They're not shy.
There are the usual goats and sheep roaming all over the island just like everywhere in the Caribbean. How their owners keep track of whoze whoze is beyond me! And you have to be careful not to run ‘em over in your rental car. During one trip I asked a local about keeping track of goats and he said: "Well it's not a problem until someone decides to take one for meat. Word gets around over the whole island and there is a big argument over the actual owner." One thing's for sure. They do taste good! They're on the menu at several Aruban restaurants and are especially popular in a local stew.
Parrots are very common on Aruba. Theyre bright green and very loud usually and fly in flocks of 4 to 15 or so. You see them cavorting in palm trees around hotels and if you look carefully at the tops of the cactus, youll see em up there dining on the fruit of the cactus. Another beautiful bird found in Aruba is the trupial.. Its kind of like a brighter version of the Baltimore Oriole. Banaquits are everywhere on the island. Fast moving little birds about the size of a small, stubby sparrow with yellow colors on them. If youre hotel has a restaurant thats out in the open theyll be darting from table to table looking for what youve left behind. Some locals call em Sugar Birds because they especially are fond of sugar spilled on the table. They have a distinctive song and youll hear em all over the island, especially during the morning. For more information on birds on the island go to a new web site called Birds of Aruba. It's packed with info.
Aruba has many excellent restaurants and here's a brief review of some of our favorites:
Gasparito (web site here) has been around for a long time and up until our most recent trip, we avoided it fearing that it might be too "hoity-toity" since it's billed as a restaurant and art gallery. It was the latter term that scared us off for all these years. This time we decided to give it a shot and it was excellent. Our personal review here.
Brisas del Mar (web site here) is or used to be a a truly local Aruban seafood restaurant located a rental car drive or cab ride from the hotel zone. You head toward the Aeropuerto and pass it. Brisas del Mar is located in the town of Savaneta and it's right and I do mean right on the water's edge. Our personal review here. Keep in mind this place has changed vastly since our many past visits. I have a hunch they've ruined it for us now. Too fancy schmancy. Give us the old Brisas but we'll try it next time we're in Aruba.
El Gaucho (web site here) is now--by far--the most popular restaurant on the island. It's located in downtown Oranjestad and is a steakhouse specializing in Argentinean beef. Our personal review here.
Valentinos (web site here) is an Italian restaurant located not from the hotel zone in Noord and in and I'm sorry we waited so long to try it. This is the finest Italian on the island (and there are some other very good Italian spots) and one of the finest Italian meals we've ever had (including a recent trip to Italy!). Our personal review here.
Buccaneer (their web site has evaporated for some reason but you'll find a take-out menu here to give you an idea on prices, etc.) is a sentimental favorite and still a good choice for seafood. It's located near the hotel zone toward Noord and features tons of giant aquariums with all kinds of local fish milling about. Our personal review here.
Marina Pirata has been a "must visit" in past years although we failed to make it this time around. It, too, is toward and past the airport. Navigating there during the daylight hours is fairly easy. But at night, forget it. You will get lost returning to your hotel but just keep on keepin' on and you'll eventually get back to the highway! Our personal review here.
The Waterfront Crabhouse
has been there for several years now along
the downtown waterfront. For some reason we avoided it in recent
trips--until our September 2000 trip. And now I know why we avoided
it! It wasn't awful but it wasn't good, either. The white wine was
way too warm. The "clams casino" was awful. Cherrystone clams
barely steamed open (which is okay) and broiled with bacon on top. The bacon was
virtually raw. Not okay. The main courses were better. The
shrimp was pretty good and amazingly the scallops actually appeared to be fresh
(the batter kept falling off which can be a sign of freshness, in my
De Olde Molen (The Old Mill) is located in the windmill near the
beginning of the high rise hotel zone. We've sampled this place several
times over the years and it's been our experience that while it's good, it's
nothing to write home about.
Chalet Suisse is a Swiss themed steakhouse near the La Cabana hotel. We've hit it a few times over the years and it's not bad. Web site is here.
Caffe Baci is an Italian restaurant located on the lobby level of the Wyndham and a very good restaurant. They offer the usual Italian pastas plus pizzas, veal and other specialties. Interestingly one couple dining there told us that they always walk from the Radisson for the Italian food at Caffe Baci saying that it's better and more affordable than stand-alone Italian eateries on the island. Our personal review here.
Mi Cushina is an Aruban restaurant that specializes in local products. This is where I ate iguana stew many years ago. Our personal review is here.
Tony Roma's is located adjacent to the Holiday Inn on Palm Beach. It's part of the famous international chain that got its start in south Florida. As it is billed, this is "a place for ribs." Good, reliable food. Their international web site is located here.
Laguna Fish Market is located inside the Radisson on Palm Beach. After a long day of swimming and armed with big appetites, we headed to this place to sample their nightly seafood buffet. Cold courses consisted of various salads, small peel-and-eat shrimp, fresh oysters and previously frozen New Zealand green lipped mussels. Hot courses included some sort of creamy seafood pasta, stir-fried rice and various veggies. The main course was a big piece of fish carved up into chunks. It was billed as grouper but I suspect it may have been Chilean sea bass. And there was a fresh stir-fry station featuring small scallops, fish (grouper), small shrimp and what were billed as "baby lobster tails." In reality they were crawfish tails. The "chef" had several Asian sauces to choose from. The meal was okay but nothing to write home about. We probably wouldn't go back.
Charlie's Bar is in the refining town of San Nicolas is famous. It's an interesting place to visit but stay away from the signature item--"fresh" jumbo shrimp. Their web site is here. Our personal review is here.
If you like to gamble youll love Aruba. There are several major casinos. Eleven were in operation on our last visit. Most of the big beachfront hotels have their own casinos and there are some free standing casinos as well. At last check the following casinos were tempting visitors:
Alhambra Casino (a stand alone)
For more information on Aruba's casinos, go here and make your choice on the right side of the page.
As for hotels on the island we've stayed at the Holiday Inn 5 times. On our last visit there a few years ago we felt it had gotten a little rundown in appearance. The next time we stayed at the Golden Tulip which is now the Radisson. It was very nice and since our visit has been given a major face lift so it's gotta be good. Our most recent stay came at the Wyndham, the first hotel in the high rise section of Palm Beach. It started out life as a Hilton and has also had renovations.
Our first Wyndham stay came in the year 2000. We found it to be just super. Great staff, very nice restaurants, beautiful rooms, no complaints. On our most recent visit, however, things had gone downhill. I hope it's only temporary. This visit came in September of 2002. The main problem was with the parking and with the elevators.
One main parking lot was under construction and closed. Trying to find a parking place for the rental car was hellish. Of the four elevators, one of 'em was gone! There was an empty elevator shaft waiting for a new unit. Another elevator was a service elevator forced into passenger use and seemed to work normally. The two other elevators worked well on some days and were just awful on other days.
I hope you'll give the Wyndham a try and by the time you go there, I'm sure the elevators will be humming right along and the parking lot fixed. Plus, the staff always goes the extra yard to make all guests feel welcome.
One of the nicest guys at the Wyndham is "Frank the Bellman." Please tell him we said hi! He really knows how to make people feel at home.
Note: The Wyndham name is no longer associated with this hotel. It first changed to the Aruba Resort, Spa and Casino. And it's now a Westin. Web site is here.
Folks, if you're considering your first trip to the Caribbean or just want to try something new, please give Aruba a shot. The comment I most often get after sending people down there is a big "thank you" followed by a statement that they will never go to any other island again.
As mentioned at the beginning, we've been to Aruba eight times, so far, and we will return!
This is funny. After years of trying to find any negatives about Aruba, I've finally thought of one minor irritant. When you go to gas your rental car up be sure to pay in Florins and before you pay, look at the pump to see what it reads. Aruban gas stations always have attendants. They use two tricks to bamboozle us yanks. If you pay in dollars, they often round it up a buck or two. And if you don't check the numbers immediately after the gas is pumped, they tend to flick it to all zeros and then more or less just fill in a price--a buck or two more than you should be paying. But heck, if this is the worst thing about the island it's still a great place!
One other tip on gassin' up your rental car. Even though they have Shell stations on the island that does not mean that their Shell station will honor your Shell gas card. Most take only cash. Some take VISA and Mastercards.
As mentioned, currency is the Aruban Florin. Driving is on the right.
IMPORTANT: All Americans visiting Aruba now need a valid passport.
Side trip to Caracas? I asked our hotel concierge in September 2000 about going to Caracas for a day trip and she went on and on about what the trip involved with a pleasant smile. I told her I had heard about crime problems against tourists and asked her if she had ever been there. Her reply: "Well no sir, we don't go there because of the crime problem." Yet another couple we met said they went over on their own (!!!) without the benefit of a tour, walked all over the downtown area, never felt threatened and had a great time. So maybe we've got Caracas figured out all wrong! But...for every wonderful story I hear, I hear ten that don't sound so pleasant.