Aruba is truly “One Happy Island” with beautiful beaches, unparalleled weather, and some of the most unique terrain we've ever seen! This island of relaxation and exploration just off the coast of Venezuela was a perfect quick trip and quick break from a busy fourth quarter back in the States!
Dates: December 15–18, 2018
Time on the Ground: 68 hours
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 – Aruba was by far our favorite Caribbean destination to date. It has a great mix of beaches, snorkeling, outdoors activities, and culture. You can really find something for everyone on this gem in the southern Caribbean!
Pizza Rating: N/A – This was one of the few quick trips that we did not find time to grab a bite of pizza. (We were too busy eating delicious seafood.)
Walkability: 1/5 – Although the beaches are very walkable and the island is relatively small, it is large enough that must-see sites are spread out. As on most Caribbean islands, public transportation is limited, so your best option is to rent a car if you really want to explore.
Airport Rating: 3.5/5 – AUA was a nice little airport. The customs process was a little disorganized, as it often is in smaller airports, but other than that the airport was easy to get in and out of. AUA is also a pre-clear airport, so U.S. citizens can go through customs in Aruba, avoiding the mania back stateside. Aruba is also a hot destination for weeklong vacations weekend to weekend. To cut down on the crowds at the airport travel midweek!
Free Walking Tour: Again, this was one of the few quick trips where a free walking tour was not part of our plan. While there are paid walking tours available of the largest city, Oranjestad, we did not find any free walking tours.
Lay of the Land
Aruba is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. The island was originally a Dutch colony and is part of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). The island is small enough to drive across in an hour or so—only about 20 miles long and 6 miles wide. Unique to most of the Caribbean, Aruba has an extremely dry climate. It gets little rainfall and the red sandy hills are covered in cacti for much of the island. If you ignore the beautiful water surrounding the island, the landscape is reminiscent of Phoenix, Arizona. Aruba combines this arid landscape with a mild climate. Winds from across the Atlantic keep the average high temperature in the low 80s year-round, but the island is far enough south to avoid the hurricane band that impacts the majority of the Caribbean. Overall, the island was a great mix of mild temperatures, beautiful water, and interesting landscapes!
The largest city and the island’s capital, Oranjestad, is located roughly in the middle of the southern coast of the island. Oranjestad is the transportation hub with both the airport and the cruise ports. Because of this, the area is well-maintained and built up with shopping and restaurants for cruisers when they come into the port. As you move out from the city, the landscape turns more “normal” with cities and towns of locals. From Oranjestad along the southern coast up to the northwest corner of the island are the majority of the resorts, beach hotels, and multimillion-dollar homes. The northern side of the island is buffeted by Atlantic winds and seas, creating a much rougher coastline. The majority of the northern side of the island is uninhabitable because of this and the national park, which is about 20% of the island! Along the remainder of the southern coastline are some industrial areas (mostly oil refineries) as well as several beautiful public beaches.
As you can see, the island really has something for everyone!
–Want a shopping and “cruise-like” Caribbean experience with nightlife? Stay in Oranjestad.
–Want to experience the wilderness? Head to the national park.
–Want a more traditional Caribbean beach experience? Head to the beaches northwest of Oranjestad!
–Want a less touristy beach experience? Head southeast of Oranjestad.
–Want a luxury island vacation? Head to one of the resorts or rent a private house on the northwest corner of the southern side of the island.
Or, if you want a bit of everything, rent a car and stay in the middle of it all like we did! Because of the countless offerings on the island, so we could not make up our mind on where to stay. We opted to rent a studio apartment on Airbnb in Turibana, which was several blocks off the beaches northwest of Oranjestad. The option was about half the price of staying at a beachfront hotel, but still kept us near the action. Aruba is also extremely tourist-friendly (their national motto is “One Happy Island”), with parking available at nearly every beach. In a couple of minutes, we could go from our apartment to sitting on a beach! Having a rental car allows for the flexibility to stay anywhere on the island and does not make it more difficult to visit the beach since there is a good amount of free parking on the island. Just be prepared: the local practice is to let people out in front of you (or to pull out in front of people even if they aren’t slowing down) and people expect you to adapt quickly!
Our apartment was Suite 1 at the Turibana Plaza Deluxe. Our host, Alex, and his family have recently redone the apartments in 2017, and it really showed. The studio apartment had a king-size bed, TV, couch, and full kitchen with a dining table. Check-in was a breeze. There is an office on the first level, and the building is very secure. Your stay includes plenty of beach towels, snorkeling equipment, basic kitchen dishes, and even two beach chairs! We really enjoyed the location and amenities of the apartment and would definitely consider staying there on our next trip to Aruba.
Our flight arrived a little late after performing a “go around” because a tall cruise ship was in the path of the runway (only in the Caribbean, right?). A “go around” is when the pilot has to abort the landing process due to some issue. In this case, we were pretty far from the runway, so there was little excitement, and it just provided us with some excellent island views as we circled for another approach.
Once we had landed, cleared customs, picked up our rental car, and found our way to the apartment, it was already close to 5:00 p.m., so we went straight to the nearest beach for some food and a tropical drink! We spent the evening enjoying some good food, exploring Moomba beach on foot, and decompressing from the stresses of work.
Sunday morning, we woke up to one of the few pre-planned activities for the trip: a snorkeling half-day trip on an old 100-foot sailboat that included lunch and an open bar for around $65 per person. We booked the trip on Viator a few days before our arrival, and there were only three other couples on the boat with us. The trip included three stops: a World War II shipwreck, some shallow coral reefs, and some corals along a beach ledge. Overall, the trip was well worth it. The snorkeling and food were excellent and the crew was amusing. The shipwreck, SS Antilla, was very impressive. At the beginning of WWII, the island was still controlled by the Dutch. Unaware that Germany was about to invade the Netherlands, the crew aboard a German ship pulled in to Aruba to refuel. Once they got word that Germany had invaded the Netherlands, the crew realized the Dutch were not going to be selling them any fuel. Rather than head back to certain death in the open ocean or let the Dutch get their hands on the technology in the ship, Germany ordered the crew to sink the ship, so that’s just what they did!
After jumping off the boat into the water, we were directed to start swimming past the bow toward some other boats anchored nearby. The water was extremely rough, so for the first minute, we couldn’t see anything. Just as frustration began to set in, we spotted a huge dark shape, and before we knew it, we were mere feet away from the 75-year-old shipwreck! It was one of the most memorable snorkeling experiences we have ever had. The other two stops had some of the best shallow water snorkeling we have done, sometimes in just a few feet of water. There was a good variety of fish—we even saw almost a dozen of puffer fish! (Stephen’s favorite fish, of course.) Although the sailing trip was definitely worth the money, all the snorkeling spots were accessible from the beach, except the shipwreck. If you wanted to do some great snorkeling without spending money on a tour group, you can visit some of the northwestern beaches on the southern side of the island, including Malmok and Boca Catalina. After the trip, we decided to head to Baby Beach, which is on the southeast corner of the island based on a recommendation at check in to our apartment. The name Baby Beach probably refers to the fact that the beach is a protected cove with thin line of rocks protecting it from the open ocean. Even with the wind blowing the waves were minimal in the cove and we saw dozens of families with young children playing in the water. If you are on a family trip to Aruba with young kids this is a great beach to check out! After a few hours relaxing at Baby Beach we packed up and headed back to the apartment for a relaxing evening of reading and making some homemade spaghetti.
Rum, Aloe, and the Desert
The next day, we embarked on a day full of serious exploration. First, we made our way to The Arubian Taste to sample and pick up some authentic Aruban rum. The store is off a dirt road a block or two away from the ocean and is known for its free tastings for potential rum buyers. They are rumored to even let you try all 30+ kinds of rum if you dare! Unfortunately, the store owners were not in when we stopped by. Since they are the ones who produce the rum, they would have had great insight into the different items we tried. The cashier manning the store seemed to know only two things about the rum: to offer free “tastings” and how much the bottles cost! After a few tastings, we grabbed a couple of bottles and headed out. The Arubian Taste was an interesting stop if you are nearby, but it’s probably not worth a trip out of your way unless you know the owners are working. The rum was decent, but it was not as good as some of the northern Caribbean islands. To be fair, though, Aruba is not known for its rum. Arubans are probably much better at drinking it than making it!
As we made our way back to the main road to Arikok National Park, we passed a sign for the Aloe Museum. While Aruba is not known for rum, it is known for aloe, so we made a quick detour to check it out. The museum also includes a working aloe farm, a processing plant, and a high-end store selling aloe products. The store had all kinds of skin care products, and if you are looking for quality, authentic Aruban gift, this is the place to go! After picking out a few presents for our families for the holidays—and a bottle of burn relief aloe for Ashley’s snorkeling sunburn—we were back on the road, The museum was free, but after a late start and excessive rum tastings, we were behind schedule and did not have time to check it out.
As we approached Arikok National Park, houses were replaced with rolling hills of dry red dirt and various cacti and shrubs. Once you leave the neighborhoods of the southern side of the island and head northeast, the island really starts to look a lot like the southwestern part of the United States. That is, until you come over a hill and see beautiful blue water and crashing waves! The entrance to the national park is easy to find. Google Maps will take you right to the main entrance beside the visitor center. The entry fee is $11 per person and can be paid with cash or card. The visitor center also has a few small exhibits and a cafe, although that was closed when we were there.
The main road from the visitor center through the park to the coast is paved, but a 4x4 vehicle is suggested online. Usually, we ignore these warnings because they typically signify there is some gravel and rough spots, but nothing too rugged. Boy were we wrong this time. In hindsight, one of the few things we would have done differently in Aruba is we would have spent the money to rent a 4x4 for the day somewhere near the park for two reasons. First, although the main road is paved, it had the enormous V-shaped dips with rocks the size of softballs and larger cemented in the bottom of them for runoff. These dips were constantly and appeared out of nowhere, sometimes separated only by about 30 feet, which made for a very trek in our economy Kia rental car. After a few scrapes and close calls, we finally made it to the other side of the park to the coast and, most importantly, to lunch, which we ate at the one restaurant inside the park. Surprisingly, the prices were reasonable and the food was good! The second reason we wished we had rented a 4x4 is that nearly half the park is accessible by 4x4 only. This part includes the famous natural pool—Conchi. Not to mention they looked like an absolute blast to drive. Unlike national parks in the US, the park was not very busy, so the 4x4 and dune buggies could drive wide open with no traffic or obstacle concerns. We asked a few people we ran into, and they found a half-day rental for around $95 USD, which was the cheapest they could find.
Even with our regrets, the national park was exceptional and worth the visit even if you are not in an adventurous mood. The sights of the park are breathtaking by themselves, but the caves are also unparalleled. The first cave near lunch was called Fontein and holds man-made cave drawings thousands of years old just a couple feet over your head. The caves were created by seawater when the oceans were higher thousands of years ago and were inhabited by the first indigenous people to live in Aruba. Although a bit of a drive away (and on a gravel road), the second cave—Quadirikiri—was even more impressive. Up a short set of steps, you come to a series of dark tunnels that open up into rooms lit from roof openings. The cave was eerily quiet because there was hardly anyone else in the cave with us—except for a few hundred of our closest bat friends! After exploring the cave, we hopped back in the car and drove out of the opposite side of the park. On a whim, we decided to head for a new addition to the park, the Spanish Lagoon, on our way back to the apartment. The Spanish Lagoon turned out to be the most disappointing part of the trip. After an off-roading foray and some unsuccessful searching, we decided the Spanish Lagoon was not really a sightseeing stop. It seems like the national park took advantage of an opportunity to purchase and protect more land, which is great, but they did not develop it for visitor use.
Dinner in the Ocean
The finale of our quick trip to the beautiful island of Aruba was an experience like no other. As the only thing we booked in advance, the Flying Fishbone did not disappoint. When we made our reservation, we were warned that no prime seating was available on our requested day. Imagine our surprise and delight when we arrived at Flying Fishbone and found ourselves right in the middle of the action—with our toes literally in the water through the course of our meal. The food, view, and service were all top-notch, and it was one of the most memorable dining experiences we have ever had. If you are in Aruba with a reason to celebrate, or just want a fantastic dining experience for the heck of it, we cannot recommend the Flying Fishbone enough!
Overall, Aruba was an amazing quick trip. The island has a ton to offer and the people are extremely friendly (remember, One Happy Island!). The trip was exactly what we needed after a few tough weeks at work. We cannot wait to go back to explore the national park on an ATV and enjoy the sunshine and beaches again.