Welcome to Aruba
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Welcome to Aruba
The Dutch island of Aruba has only 75 square miles of land, but its 43 miles of coastline offer some of the best beaches and most luxurious hotels in the Caribbean. Aruba's nearly perfect climate is moderated by Atlantic trade winds that keep the temperature almost constant at just over 80 degrees Fahrenheit and contort the island's signature Divi-divi trees into their deep westward bows.
Incredibly, Aruba's people are just as hospitable as the weather. In the early 1990s, tourism became the island's mainstay, and Arubans never looked back. That means that the competition is tight, and hoteliers are anxious to please and to welcome visitors back again and again. Like the Divi-divi trees, they bend over backwards to please the guests that wash over the island year-round.
The majority of Aruba's hotels are located in one of three places along the islands western coast. The first, Oranjestad, is the island's capital city. It generally attracts visitors who want the wide and easily accessible selection of restaurants and nightlife that can only be offered in a more urban setting. Oranjestad is not a big city by most Americans' standards, but this is where the cruise ships let loose thousands of land-lovers to eat, shop and be merry. For this reason, its entertainment options are the most varied on the island, and its hotels are situated close to the action. That's not to say they're far from the beach; on Aruba, one is never far from the beach.
Just west of Oranjestad is the series of beaches collectively known as Eagle Beach, where a cluster of low-rise hotels, ranging from small boutique to vast resort, offers a quieter escape. The area is popular with vacationers of all types and has as many options for retired couples as it has for new families. The beach here is actually wider and, with less traffic, also tends to be cleaner. There are casinos here and some great restaurant, but this isn't Vegas; college co-eds looking for a party will have better luck in Oranjestad or even on ritzy Palm Beach. Eagle Beach isn't entirely sedate, but the thrills here have more to do with a week of wet bars and no work than with long nights of wet t-shirts and no sleep.
A quarter-mile down the sand to the west, a string of high-rise hotels hosts high-class accommodations along famous Palm Beach. It's more crowded here than on Eagle Beach, but for lots of us, that's part of its draw. Most of these hotels are all-encompassing luxury resorts, sporting their own casinos, restaurants and clubs, not to mention the obligatory spas and swimming pools. Most of these resorts are directly on the beach, where guests laze away the sunny days and speedy jet-skis bounce atop the waves. Nights, on the other hand, are for glitz and glamour at clubs and casinos that ooze class and absorb cash.
Beaches in Aruba
All of Aruba's beaches are public, and all share the same white sand and turquoise waters. Because the Aruban authorities charge a stiff fine for littering, most of them are also extraordinarily clean, although beach-party remnants are occasionally found left behind. The beaches are crowded during the high season, when it is especially difficult to find a free chair or vacant palapa (hut). Those provided by the resorts are reserved for guests, so any non-guest caught using one will be expected to give it up or cough up some dough. Smaller beaches do not generally have much as far as facilities, so day-trippers should pack ahead. Aruba's shore is a series of practically uninterrupted beachfront, but the beaches on the northern shore are too rough for swimming, although many offer stunning views.
On the southwestern coast, by most accounts this is Aruba's best beach. By some accounts, it ranks as high throughout the Caribbean and beyond. It is more than a mile long and sometimes seems as wide. The soft, white sand glitters in the sun, and it's surprisingly quiet here despite its immense popularity and ideal location next to some grand resorts. There are a few bars right on the sand, so drinks and snacks are easy to come by. Shaded picnic areas are open to the public, so lots of people like to pack a basket and park here for the day. During the weekend, locals often do the same.
In spite of Eagle Beach's reputation as Aruba's most beautiful, Palm Beach is its most popular. Sure, there's great swimming and sailing, and lots of options for various other water sports, but the real reason is its unparalleled people-watching. There are almost as many open-air bars as palapas, and the sand is groomed every day to make it as soft and as clean as possible. This is also the location of most of the island's high-rise luxury hotels, so there's no shortage of glamorous guests. Of course, thanks to this popularity, Palm Beach qualifies as Aruba's noisiest and most crowded beach. To some this is a drawback, but for throngs of visitors, that just means more people to watch.
Dining in Aruba
Aruba has lots of good places to eat. In fact, it's one of the best dining locations in the Caribbean. If size were taken into account, it might just top the list. It's no wonder, either, with so many restaurants in such stiff competition. The service is friendly, the food is phenomenal, and there's something for everyone. Live entertainment is the norm, and tableside serenades are common. The chefs feel the pressure to please, as well, and so make constant improvements to their menus. All kinds of international cuisine are represented here, and represented well. Of course, there's Aruban food, too. Every visitor should try an Aruban original such as keshi yena, an exotic and improved version of a beef or tuna casserole.
Aruba's resort hotels have excellent restaurants of their own, and these should be thoroughly explored, but venturing outside of their compounds every now and again is advisable. On such a small island, a superior restaurant is never far away. More often than not, it's a quick cab ride; in some cases, it's just a short walk.
The prices on Aruba's fabulous meals are their only shortcoming. When every ingredient must be imported because of the anti-agricultural climate and only the best will do, every added cost comes back to the customer. Many independent restaurants, and some in the resorts, are not open on Sunday or Monday. Reservations are always necessary for dinner in the high season. At the swankier restaurants, there may be a dress code--nothing too formal, but it never hurts to ask.
Nightlife in Aruba
After a day of sunning and swimming on the beach and a satisfying dinner at one of Aruba's great restaurants, it's time to find a way to while away the night. Luckily, it's not much of a challenge. First, there's a casino in every major resort, and the shows that come with them. Then, of course, there are the bars and the clubs.
First, the casinos. They're a good option even for people who don't like to gamble; with all the lights, sounds and eager people, just watching the games is entertaining. But in order to keep everybody interested, they also offer live bands and Vegas-style revues. One casino even has its own movie theater.
Then there are the bars. There's one of these at or very near every hotel. From saucy beachside bar to laid-back lobby lounge, there's one to please all but total teetotalers. Most have some form of live entertainment, be it a jazz band, comedian or DJ. Most also celebrate Happy Hour, the magical time in the late afternoon to early evening when cocktails and appetizers are two-for-one and the blurry sun melts behind the horizon. For those who want a cocktail before the sun gets so low, most of them open at noon. They close at 2am.
And the clubs. The clubs in Aruba offer some variety, too, mostly in the type of music they play. Techno and hip-hop are fairly ubiquitous, but there's still a lot more Caribbean flavor than the average New York dance club, and the selection varies by night or DJ. The action doesn't really even start until 11pm or later, peaks at about 2am, and usually ends sometime before it begins again the next night.
Oranjestad has, by far, the biggest and best selection of nightlife in Aruba. Outside of the city, casinos are a good bet for entertainment after dark. Inside the city, it's hard to miss a good spot to stop for a drink or a dance. Along the harbor front on L. G. Smith Boulevard, where most city side clubbers and bar-hoppers end up, it's impossible.
Shopping in Aruba
Shopping in Aruba is not the best in the Caribbean, but prices on some items may be better here than in the U.S. because many large shops are duty-free and sales tax-free. Luckily, the duty charged by most remaining shops is only 3.3%, but in some small specialty shops, there is also a value-added tax of 6.5%. Aruban retailers are friendly and readily accept U.S. dollars in the form of cash, credit and traveler's checks.
For U.S. shoppers, the best bargains in Aruba are on goods produced in Aruba, the Netherlands, or Indonesia. The most popular of these are Dutch cheese or chocolates, Delft porcelain, and Aruban linens. Aruba has also established a successful aloe vera industry with good products worthy of stockpiling at the low local prices. Of course, there are considerable selections of electronics, jewelry, cigars, liquor, and all the other fine goods one would expect, but low prices are not guaranteed. Shoppers should know what they want and the prices at home before buying any of these items in Aruba.
In Aruba, the products of souvenir shops and crafts stores are varying grades of kitsch, although there are some very well-crafted exceptions to the rule. Shoppers will be less likely to regret their purchases if they decide beforehand whether they are shopping for trinketish souvenirs or artwork and where they draw the line between the two.
Aruba's large luxury resorts have their own shopping arcades, but Oranjestad has better options and more variety. The best place to start is Caya G. F. Betico Croes (a.k.a. Main Street), which is a half-mile of various shops. When the cruise ships are in port, it overflows with waves of land lovers beckoned by buoyant vendors. If that's not enough, there are several malls downtown with stores, restaurants, even casinos. For T-shirts, key chains, or similar souvenirs, more competitive prices are sometimes available at the stands that line the waterfront, where fresh Venezuelan produce is also sold.
Attractions in Aruba
Aruba's white sand is not all the little island has to offer. The economy depends on the thriving tourism industry, and locals are loath to forget it. In Oranjestad, shopping is the biggest attraction. Marinas, malls, and dining establishments run the length of Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard. Here and throughout the city, shops inhabit quaint and colorful Dutch colonials, and avid shoppers explore them with fervor. For urban sight-seeing, there are the colorful gardens of Queen Wilhelmina Park and its harbor views. For a bit of culture, the city also has a few museums. At night, shoppers become clubbers as they hit the same streets for drinks and dancing.
At least one day in Aruba should be spent outside of the city and resort compounds. The island's stark landscape, studded with cacti and leaning divi-divi trees, provides a stunning contrast to the luxe accommodations of the city. Sights include the ruins of a gold smelter, unusual rock formations, and island architecture; Arikok National Park also features many of the islands natural attractions on a protected reserve.
The unpaved roads that cross the countryside beg to be explored, and many visitors choose to do so in a convertible (or just roofless) jeep. Basic rental cars may be okay on most island roads, but four-wheel drive is essential for traversing the more rugged terrain. The wind keeps the temperature fairly comfortable but it can also stir up a lot of dust, so don't wear your clubbing gear for an off-road adventure. If your inner compass is faulty, there are frequent guided tours to highlight the island's most popular sights, or you can rely on the divi-divi trees to point you west, where most of the hotels are.