The tourist office likes to promote Aruba as 'one happy island' - and the reality matches up to the hype, with seriously smiley people as well as idyllic Caribbean beaches
Some destinations these days fail to live up to the lavish hype heaped on them by their own tourist offices. Fortunately Aruba is not one of them. They boast that this is ‘one happy island’ and it is instantly clear on arrival that Aruba is blessed with a level of friendliness and high service that puts much of the Caribbean to shame. Throw in sweeping white beaches, first class seafood, rugged deserts, as well as a wealth of activities, and Aruba is a Caribbean holiday island that more than justifies the tourist office hype.
Aruba may be winning a legion of fans today with its obvious charms, but for much of its existence it has been little more than a political and economic backwater. The Spanish flirted with setting up a colony here as early as the 16th century and the British also considered establishing their own outpost for a while; but it was the suitably laidback Dutch who eventually made it part of their Dutch Antilles in the 17th century.
Today tourism is by a long distance Aruba’s number one industry and something that the locals are justifiably proud of being very good at. Here the smiles are beaming and the ‘have a nice day’ farewells from the staff are genuine.
Flying into Aruba, the first thing that you notice is the legendary beaches. The island may only be six miles by 19 miles in size, but a large chunk of the coastline is made up of the sort of puffy white sand you normally only see in holiday brochures that have been touched up on a computer. There are beaches for everyone, whether you are looking for a bold and brash stretch with bustling bars and bountiful watersports or quieter strips of sand that make the perfect venue for romantic sunset strolls.
Perhaps the best, or at least the most famous, is Eagle Beach, which is popular during the day with everyone from sun-worshippers through to joggers, but even better at night when the sun melts into the ocean in a collage of fiery reds and deep oranges.
The capital of Aruba is Oranjestad, where the Dutch colonial influence is most keenly felt. This is the Caribbean, though, so the ornate facades and gables of the traditional Dutch buildings are often brightened up with striking pastel colours that fit in with the tropical climes. Oranjestad is not only home to the island’s most popular bars and restaurants, but its most interesting cultural institutions.
Perhaps the most captivating is the Numismatic Museum, run today by the granddaughter of the man who originally trawled the globe to amass this impressive collection of over 40,000 coins and banknotes. The collection also sheds light on the island’s richly historic past, including World War Two, when Aruban oil helped fuel the Allied war effort in Europe and German submarines attacked the island.
Moving on from Oranjestad, one of the best ways to explore the island is on a jeep safari. Sealed roads are left behind at the first stop by the landmark California Lighthouse, a voluminous beacon that wards off ships from this treacherous coast. Hundreds of vessels have sunk off the island over the years and a skeleton of wrecks still litter the shallow waters, as popular with snorkellers and scuba divers as they are with the myriad species of fish that call them home.
The rough tracks bounce the jeeps around as they negotiate steep drops and sweeping turns on the approach to the Arikok National Park. Impressively, 20 per cent of Aruba is protected as part of the national park, with everything from steep hills through to cacti-strewn wildscapes and wave-battered rocky coastline. The tours stop off at an old gold mine – a legacy of the days when gold was the island’s only real industry - as well as at a natural rock bridge, which is impressive enough in itself, but not half as impressive as the much larger version that now lies crumpled into the ocean nearby used to be, until its collapse in 2005.
The trade winds that whipped up the storm that took down the arch are what gives Aruba a distinct advantage over some other Caribbean destinations. They blow for most of the year, serving the dual function of providing a cooling breeze to ease a sun-soaked day on one of the island’s necklace of beaches, but also to blow away any clouds or rain showers.
Lying on the beach is a pastime that seems to eat up most visitors’ time on Aruba, but there are even more relaxing ways to spend an hour or so. The island is awash with health spas. Perhaps the finest is the Larimar Spa. Their speciality is the Aloe Vera and Rum massage, using Caribbean rum and locally sourced aloe. The 80-minute treatment both exfoliates and relaxes, leaving the skin moisturised by the aloe gel and spirits lifted by rubbing with Larimar stones.
Fans of aloe are in heaven on Aruba, as after experiencing its healing powers in the spa you can also visit the aloe factory. Here you can delve deep into the history of aloe production on the island in the on-site museum, with its information boards, old black and white photos and audio-visual presentation, before heading upstairs to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the factory in action. Today aloe has become the island’s biggest export, though it was only brought here as late as the 1840s by African sailors.
If you are thinking of visiting the Caribbean, but don’t want to end up on a humid island where there is no wind to break up the heat, then join the smart set and head for Aruba. The tourist office slogan of ‘one happy island’ for once rings true, with your lasting memories of beaming local smiles merged into thoughts of endless sun and crystal-clear waters.
Where to stay
Bucuti Beach Resort
Perhaps the finest place to stay on the island. The best rooms, which are spacious and modern with their own sea views, are in the Tara wing, but all guests enjoy use of the private facilities on the beach.
Enjoy the central Oranjestad location before catching a boat straight from the lobby out to the hotel’s private island, where beaches and a spa await. The hotel also boasts its own casino.
Where to eat
Top class steaks and fresh lobster are on offer in this stylish central restaurant in Oranjestad. Excellent French wines help complete the experience; the highlight is the Premier Cru from the vineyards of Beaune.
Named after the lilting local language, this pleasantly schizophrenic family-run eatery offers a balmy terrace by the pool or a characterful historic Dutch-style space inside. Huge portions and legendary grilled meats and seafood.
This eatery takes full advantage of the local weather by having an open side overlooking the golf course that it is part of. As well as burgers and ribs to sate golfers’ hunger, they offer more interesting grilled seafood and exotic salads, and excellent beer from nearby Venezuela.
A variety of treatments are on offer, and the relaxation rooms use the bountiful local light to full effect.
Bucuti Beach Resort
Intermezzo run most of the spas on Aruba and this is one of the best. Choose from a variety of treatments, from simple sports massages through to skin wraps and special three-hour programmes for couples.