If you’re looking for summer sun and fun, look no further than Aruba. And I do mean sun – my SPF 50 wasn’t even enough to protect my fair skin from beachside rays that boast a UV rating of 10+ (with 11 being the most intense, by the way). Perhaps a fortunate coincidence, Aruba is one of the world’s preeminent manufacturers of aloe, so a trip to the factory was in order during my stay. But though the beach is spectacular and the aloe is fine (and I’m sure the 15 minute factory tour was enthralling), believe it or not, the fun does not end there. Here’s what not to miss during your next trip.
An ATV Adventure
I booked with Kini Kini Tours, and was transferred from my hotel to a fleet of four-wheelers. Within minutes, my thumb ached from pushing the gas, but there was something thrilling about going off-road and getting dusty and dirty while the sun beat down on you and the Caribbean blues beckoned from the trails. If you really want to explore Aruba (and you don’t mind getting absolutely filthy) this is the way to do it. Most of the northern part of the island is inaccessible to cars, and it just so happens that many of its treasures are located there too. Sign up for the half day and you’ll see a beach burgeoning with Zen-like rock towers left as markers by fisherman and an incredible natural pool where you can swim with fish and crabs while the sea waves crash against rock and flow like waterfalls into the pool (bring snorkel gear in a backpack to take full advantage). Stay for a full day and you’ll also go to the national park, where you’ll visit two caves and see graffiti from the 19th century among the native Indian drawings that are more than 1,000 years old. While I highly recommend this trip, be forewarned that it is not for the faint of heart. There are plenty of treacherous hills to traverse, rocky areas and huge crater holes to navigate. There will be dirt on every article of clothing and in every possible crevice you can imagine. Bring an old pair of sunglasses or invest in goggles to guard your eyes. It’s also hella-hot wearing a black helmet and having your bare legs blazed by the heat of the ATV’s engine. But so worth it.
Unwind at Okeanos
After an exhausting ATV excursion, the next day was spent being pampered in downtown Oranjestad at the Renaissance’s Okeanos Spa. Set above the hotel’s shopping arcade and overlooking the picturesque marina, the spa provided some much-needed solace. The spa offers a variety of interesting treatments, like ones that are inspired by the aloe legacy of the island or those that can be enjoyed beach-side on Renaissance’s private island cove. Though the massage and facial I enjoyed were sufficiently good, I found that it was the small details of the experience that were the ones to really wow me. There is a relaxing, complimentary foot bath and strawberry scrub before your treatment. The sheets on the massage table were silky, and felt like cool satin to lie on. I could live in the super soft robe they provided. And the shower after the treatment (with five showerheads for an all-encompassing experience) was in a stone enclosure that could have easily been half the size of my apartment. I fell asleep in post-treatment bliss for 15 minutes on their outdoor patio before heading across the street to Casa Tua tapas bar for what I insist is the best sangria in Aruba. Though the hot French bartender, who I’m convinced is Orlando Bloom’s twin, could’ve had something to do with swaying my opinion.
There is no shortage of nightlife, particularly around the high-rise hotel district. As we ambled along after dinner one evening, my travel mates and I stumbled upon Soprano’s Piano Bar. We had so much fun the first night that we went back the next to hear more of the musical interpretations and hilarious commentary of keytar master Jeff Abbott, who tours the international piano bar circuit. After a riotous time and some strong drinks there, we found that the plaza between Café Rembrandt and Segafredo, just across the street, transforms into a giant, open air party complete with DJ and an outdoor bar.
Sunset as seen from Pure Beach at the Divi Phoenix
Pleasure on a Plate
The food (and happy hour specials) in Aruba are so scrumptious I was nearly comatose after each meal. There are two restaurants I tried that are not to miss. One, Pure Beach, is located at the Divi Phoenix and cascades from the pool area to meet the sand of the beach. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset while sipping delicious cocktails and enjoying the crisp white contemporary décor. The food is also very good and surprisingly, even a bit more affordable than a lot of surrounding joints. I had a chicken sandwich with roast peppers and pineapple that was divine and under $10. Splurge a little more by sampling a variety of their appetizers – the crab cakes and grouper sticks have to be tasted to be believed.
On the other side of the island in Savaneta, there’s a dazzling fine dining option in The Flying Fishbone. Though it was after dark when I arrived, I could still see some sort of marine life jumping out of the water from our table. The tables themselves are placed right in the sand and go right down to the water’s edge – the high tide actually engulfed some of the table and chair legs as it drew further up the shore. The whole experience was sublime – it had a bit of a high-class Polynesian/tiki feel to it, and had exponential potential for romance. Dig your toes into the sand, and if you like a good Bellini, try the Sneaky Peach, a similar frozen drink but with coconut cream too. And though I enjoyed the Chilean Sea Bass I ordered, I felt my sister’s simple salmon trumped my more expensive dish bar-none.
THE BEACH AT LA CABANA
Where to Stay
If you want to stay in downtown Oranjestad near the name-brand shopping that Aruba is famous for, there is no better option that the Renaissance, which has a lovely open air-feel lobby and views of the marina. For a good beach spot, pick a hotel in the low-rise area, like La Cabana Beach and Racquet Club. In my opinion, the best area to stay is the high-rise, near the Occidental Grand or Divi Phoenix. These hotels have beach access and most are or have recently gone under renovation. They’re also within a convenient stroll to restaurants, shopping, a cinema, and a variety of nightlife and daytime activities, so you don’t need to worry about public transport or renting a car.