A mere fifteen miles off the coast of Venezuela, the island of Aruba shimmers like a mirage — simultaneously a cactus speckled desert and a luscious tropical oasis.
Look once and you see iridescent Caribbean water tumbling languidly onto gleaming white sand, where majestic palms and curvaceous divi divi trees shade sunbathers reclining in front of countless luxury resorts. Look again and an arid, rocky landscape materializes with dust strewn cactus fields and rock formations leading to secret coves, natural stone arches, and ethereal lagoons—the incredible rewards of taking “the road less traveled.”
Aruba is a constant discovery. What is so wonderfully remarkable about the small island, is how it can transform before the visitor who looks a little deeper, revealing a vibrant culture and a diverse landscape that surprises even the most jaded traveler.
Like many New Yorkers, I am a kind of “multiple personality” vacationer. I want a little bit of everything. I dream of blissing out on a glorious beach, but after one day feel the itch to do something more invigorating. As much as relaxing is a deeply satisfying part of my vacation, getting to do things that I can’t do in New York, like wind surfing and snorkeling, satisfy another part of me – the deep yearning for actively immersing myself in a beautiful, unique landscape. After working up an appetite, one of the greatest delights of travel is seeking out the most authentic cuisine, and the colorful culture that serves it up and shares its table. Then later, at the end of a day filled with so many incredible experiences, there is nothing like coming “home” to a fabulous hotel and to all the luxurious amenities—glittering pools, top-notch spas, tropical drinks at open air beach bars—that remind you that you are not at your home, but someplace so much better.
Though less than 20 miles long, Aruba not only satisfies every side of my personality all at once, but it also continues to evolve before my eyes, surprising me at every turn. For those kindred travelers visiting this charming island nation, here is a breakdown of how to indulge each side of your personal adventurer.
Luxuriating Beach God:
For many, the name Aruba immediately conjures ultimate beachside luxury, and with good reason. The sugary white sand beaches make a stunning backdrop for a broad range of luxury accommodation.
From mammoth resort casinos (The Renaissance even has its own island complete with flocks of wild flamingos) to more intimately chic boutique hotels, the choices are dazzlingly daunting.
Preferring to avoid the homogenized atmosphere of sky rise resorts, I was delighted to discover a good number of unique, smaller hotels that encompassed the Aruban character into sophisticated design and individualized luxury. One stand out among the many fine options was the Manchebo Resort and Spa. Claiming a large and exceptionally pretty swath of beach, the design of the hotel harmoniously incorporates its natural setting with flowing open air facilities, flowering gardens, and Balinese accents that infuse an exotic, Zen-like tranquility into the atmosphere.
The holistic feeling of the resort extends across all its offerings: the sublime spa with its thatched-roof treatment rooms overlooking the sea; the restaurant incorporating healthy, local cuisine and herbs from its onsite garden; and an impressively inventive roster of yoga, pilates, dance and other classes which are held at an equally impressive pavilion right on the water.
An ideal day of blissful indulgence would include morning yoga by the beach, followed by a deliciously healthy breakfast by the pool, after which hours of beach lounging and dips in the Caribbean are broken up by a spa treatment or two. Later, an evening salsa class or a lazy stroll on the starlit beach is the perfect segue to an Aruba Ariba cocktail (though what isn’t?)
Immersed in Nature’s Playground:
The infinite assortment of vivid blues at play in the waters surrounding Aruba seems to represent the infinite assortment of ways in which to experience them.
Renowned for its natural treasures beneath the surface, SCUBA divers and snorkeling enthusiast across the world come to Aruba to witness them. The trick to finding the thriving coral reefs or mysterious sunken airplanes is to know where to look, and often such insight requires a bit of guidance. The twinkling eye and expert instruction from Rudolf of Jad’s of Aruba not only kept me quite entertained on land but also ensured I had a thoroughly engaging, brilliantly beautiful snorkeling expedition.
For those who like to keep their head above the water, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is a fantastic way to experience Aruba’s natural aquatic landscape and get some exercise. Though one of the advantages of the sport is being able to do it on practically any body of water, it’s best to let its versatility lead you places you might not normally go.
An SUP excursion with the Aruba Surf School, led by Dennis Martinez, revealed a serenely untouched side of Aruba. We glided along a brackish river and deep into a mangrove lagoon, with the gentle splash of my paddle in the water the only break in resounding natural stillness.
Prefer to have wind in your hair? The ever-present trade winds that flow across Aruba supply a constant source of propulsion for kite surfing and wind surfing. I tried wind surfing for the first time with Nick and Carlos at Aruba Active Vacations, and it was ridiculously fun. What’s really fantastic about wind surfing, above all other types of surfing, is how immediately beginners can start riding (albeit “riding” as relative term here for standing up and moving forward for at least 30 seconds). Feeling the board coursing beneath my feet and the power of the wind in my sail was such a wonderfully giddy rush that I am sure my delighted giggle could be heard well across the water before I lost my balance and crashed into it.
Footloose on the Road Less Traveled:
Skipping an excursion to Arikok National Park, would like be missing half of Aruba. Occupying almost an astounding 20% of the island, the expansive park reveals the rugged side of paradise. With a myriad of ways to explore—on horseback, mountain biking, or by UTV, to name a handful—it is astonishing how few of Aruba’s visitors actually venture into the park. Perhaps it is for the better, as those of us who take the initiative are rewarded with a feeling of discovery, and the ability to appreciate the raw, natural splendor without the crowds of Oranjestad (Aruba’s capital city).
I was lucky enough to experience the park two ways: by UTV and on a sunrise horseback ride. The fun of driving the crazy, mini, all-terrain jeeps was worth it on its own, but where they brought us on the UTV excursion by De Palm Tours was truly a surprising adventure. Bumping along trench-lined, rock pile roads, Arikok splayed out before us, disarming everyone on the tour with its otherworldly landscape of tall, spiny cactus walls and rock formations that gave way to tiny, jeweled coves.
On horseback, in the silence of the morning, we crossed hills rippling with sand and glowing in the morning sun. The handsome, well-trained horses and expert guidance of Javier from Rancho Daimari allowed us to freely enjoy galloping headily across the beach, until we reached the breathtaking Conchi.
Nominated as a potential eighth wonder of the world, the magical natural pool sits inside a rock formation on the sea’s edge. Powerful waves crash magnificently on the surrounding rocks, and every so often an especially large one breaches the pinnacle, cascading into the pool and creating a natural Jacuzzi that is the stuff of dreams.
Savor-Seeker and Cultural Glutton:
It’s no secret that the best way to get the most authentic taste of a local culture is to literally taste it. In Aruba, there is a wealth of local restaurants, showcasing the flavors and traditions of the Papiamento culture native to Aruba.
Perched on stilts at the water’s edge, ZeeRover restaurant sits right on the dock where fishermen bring their bounty in from the sea. And you can taste it. The casual, open-air eatery serves huge, family style baskets brimming over with the freshest seafood imaginable, fried to a crispy succulence and accompanied with the local papaya hot sauce and plenty of lime. Rejoice in how messy you’ll get, up to your elbows in scrumptiousness, while you’re sharing the communal style table with families and inevitably making some friends over a Balashi or two (the refreshing local beer).
For a more elegant affair, but still every bit as authentic, I was thoroughly charmed by the atmosphere and elevated take on local specialties at Papiamento. Tucked into the lavish, candle-lit gardens of a 175 year-old house, the undeniably romantic restaurant plays homage to its history with perfectly executed versions of Aruban cuisine. Dishes like Keshi Yena in which layers of Dutch cheese and exotically spiced meat almost seem to mimic the layers of cultural influences on the island, and you won’t likely find a better version anywhere else. Oenophiles will be happy to note that Papiamento also proudly holds the largest and most prestigious wine cellar in the country.
In the evenings, let the nice reggae groove, bubbling laughter, and exuberant dancing of the local nightlife seduce you. Sand Bar, a popular spot among both local and visiting surfer-types will give you the perfect fix.
– Ava Fedorov
Photos by Ava Fedorov for Socially Superlative. Additional photos courtesy of the Aruba Tourism Authority, Aruba.com