BY ANGELA CARAWAY-CARLTON
Aruba surprises vacationers with its dramatically different sides.
If you’ve ever vacationed in the Caribbean, you know the blissful, but often predictable, routine: sunning under swaying palm trees, swimming or snorkeling in turquoise water, and sipping fruity cocktails by the pool. But if you think all islands are created equal, then you haven’t experienced the Dutch-influenced island of Aruba and its multiple personalities and geological wonders.
At first glance, Aruba does look like any other idyllic tropical paradise. On the western coastline, where most of the high-rise hotels and resorts are perched, you’ll find covetable white-sand beaches and pristine calm water ideal for sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling or catamaran cruises. But if you want to break away from the typical hammock-swinging vacation, venture to the island’s eastern side and its fascinating interior, where a completely different landscape—one that’s wild and untamed—is revealed. During my first few hours on the island, an off-roading Jeep adventure took me careening over jagged rocks to a natural pool surrounded by pounding waves; I posed for pictures in front of prickly cacti that you’d expect to find in Arizona, not on an island; and I randomly encountered curious wild donkeys who poked their heads inside our vehicle, angling for a hand-out. Turns out, a trip to the Caribbean can still surprise you.
The good news for travelers? Aruba is just over 19 miles long and six miles wide, so visitors don’t have to pick a “side.” Depending on the day’s mood, you can easily experience the best of both distinct worlds, doing as much, or as little, as you desire.
The Wild Side
For jaw-dropping views and exhilarating adventures, rent a four-wheel drive or embark on a guided Jeep Safari Tour with De Palm Tours through Arikok National Park, an ecological preserve that remarkably makes up nearly 20 percent of the island’s landmass. With its rugged terrain dotted with hills, towering cacti and dramatic rock formations, you’ll instantly feel as if you’ve left the Caribbean and landed in the desert. (Warning: You will get dusty and dirty, but that’s part of the fun.) Head toward the park’s wind-and-water-battered coastline, and after a bumpy ride navigating down steep rocks, you’ll arrive at one of the island’s most striking wonders, the Natural Pool, known to locals as “Conchi.” While this volatile side of Aruba isn’t good for swimming, you can take a dip in secluded pools sheltered from the ocean’s turbulent waves by a wall of volcanic lava rock formations.
For a piece of Aruba’s storied history, keep driving to the limestone Fontein Cave to discover native Indian etchings on the walls and ceilings (watch out for the bats who also hang there)—and just outside the cave, follow a small path to a pond where you can soak your feet for a free “Aruban pedicure” by the cleaner fish.
Nothing embodies Aruba’s wild side more than its trademark leaning fofoti trees, which have been perfectly sculpted by the island’s constant tradewinds that blow across the island. Those same strong winds create adrenaline-pumping experiences such as windsurfing and kitesurfing, and you’ll find rental companies on many of Aruba’s beaches. Depending on your skill level (and fear-factor), you can choose from flat-water to challenging wave conditions. If you’re more of a spectator, one of the best activities on the island is watching kite surfers perform acrobatic-like moves high above the water (arubanationalpark.org; depalmtours.com)
The Softer Side
For a slower change of pace, slip back into “island time” on the island’s serene side. Aruba is famous for its wide beaches, like Eagle Beach and tranquil spots such as Baby Beach, a half-moon shaped expanse in a calm lagoon that’s perfect for swimming, snorkeling or a picnic under the trees. For the ultimate in romance, book a private catamaran with Red Sail Sports, where you can watch the sun fade into the horizon while sipping Champagne or take a refreshing plunge into the water. If you’re looking to take for Instagram-worthy photos, opt for a boat ride to the private Renaissance Island to mingle with the bright pink flamingos that flock to Flamingo Beach. Once you’ve had enough sun and fun, stroll through downtown Oranjestad, the island’s capital, to explore high-end shopping centers, historic museums and vibrant art galleries. (redsailaruba.com; arubaprivateisland.com)
Arikok National Park.
A few notes about Aruba’s unique personality:
• Unlike South Florida, Aruba lies outside the “Hurricane Belt,” so you can plan an island escape during the unstable hurricane season.
• Aruba gets the least amount of rain of any island in the Caribbean, so expect mostly sunny days.
• Winnings aren’t taxed at the islands many casinos — meaning winner takes all.
• Aruba is (surprisingly) home to a Donkey Sanctuary, so friendly donkeys may greet you while you’re exploring the island.
• Don’t forget to look for Aruba’s biggest landmark of its Dutch influence —the windmills.
If You Go
• Where to Stay: Situated on Palm Beach, the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino offers stunning views of the Caribbean Sea, five restaurants and bars, a casino, an 8,000-square-foot water complex with a maze of pools and waterfalls, and endless water sports. It’s also conveniently located across from many shops, restaurants and bars.
• Where to Eat: Aruba’s population comprises more than 90 nationalities, so when it comes to dining, you can indulge in everything from Dutch pancakes and hearty Italian pasta to spicy Caribbean or Creole dishes, and of course, plenty of fresh seafood. For a romantic evening, reserve a table at Pinchos Grill & Bar, a waterfront stunner that’s located on a pier in Oranjestad where the lights over the water twinkle at night. The restaurant serves up some of the best seafood on the island, such as crispy conch fritters, assorted grilled fish and shrimp skewers and pan-seared grouper with an apricot and ginger dipping sauce. For a South Beach-style experience, try the trendy French-fusion restaurant Screaming Eagle, where you can dine on the breezy patio or book “dinner in bed” on one of their private lounge beds. Standouts are the skirt steak with crispy polenta and truffle sauce, and the Norwegian halibut with truffle risotto and Champagne sauce. pinchosaruba.com; screaming-eagle.net
Pinchos Grill & Bar.