Aruba: Island Indulgence
This March, Aruba celebrates a youthful 64th birthday that commemorates the day when the Kingdom of Netherlands granted this tiny island in the southern Caribbean autonomous status. The pursuit of complete independence has been waylaid since the 1990s, but that doesn’t stop Arubans from embracing its centuries-old island culture.
A trip to Aruba feels like visiting a party buddy who lives at home with his parents. The island spirit abounds, whether it’s an afternoon on the beautifully maintained white-sand beaches, an evening feast of traditional foods like giambo (a gumbo-like fish soup), or dancing until the wee hours of the morning at one of the many nightclubs downtown or along the high-rise strip. At the same time, the Dutch influence can’t be missed as Aruba is a go-to resort destination for those seeking respite from the cold winters of northern Europe.
Landing in Paradise
I caught a direct flight on JetBlue from New York City to Oranjestad and in less than five hours I had left the concrete jungle behind for a Caribbean paradise. The island, approximately 75 square miles with a population that hovers around 100,000, is a far cry from my hometown of Manhattan, which is 23 square miles and home to more than 1.5 million residents.
While there are few guarantees in life, I had confidence that my weekend getaway would be picture perfect. The island lies on the southern fringes of the hurricane belt and receives a minimal annual rainfall of 16 inches. Temperatures comfortably nestle in the high 80’s and the occasional afternoon thunderstorm is Mother Nature’s reminder that you haven’t died and gone to heaven.
Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
While most of my weekend plans involved nothing more than strolling down to the beach to enjoy the calm waters and warm rays, I also wanted lodging that was modern and offered amenities to enhance my carefree getaway. The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino was the perfect combination - indulgent without feeling ostentatious and a staff so friendly and accommodating I thought I was back at the summer camp of my youth (with the added bonus of ever-flowing frozen cocktails).
Located on Palm Beach and less than 10 miles from the airport, the Aruba Marriott underwent a $50 million renovation in 2009 and now exudes warmth amid the lobby atrium’s soaring ceilings and contemporary artwork. The property boasts some of the most spacious guest rooms on the island, many of which feature ocean view balconies. I didn’t plan on spending much time inside, though. I dropped off my bags, lathered up with SPF 30, and headed to the beach.
Whether you are content to lay under an umbrella with a Stieg Larsson novel or burn some calories as well as some skin under the searing Aruban sun, the options are endless. You can try paddle boarding or ocean yoga. How about sailing or snorkeling? Maybe you’d prefer to see the coastline while whipping through the wakes on an inner tube.
One-stop shopping for all of your recreation needs can be found through De Palm Tours. With more than 50 years serving Aruba’s tourism industry, this family-owned company runs the gamut from half-day adventures to excursions that will keep you on the move from morning until dusk.
I preferred low and slow and planted myself near Waves Beach Bar & Grill (one of the Marriott’s nine restaurant and lounge options), where I could wander over for a signature drink and light snack before nestling back into the sand for a few more chapters of Swedish suspense.
Luck be a Lady (or Not)
After an afternoon siesta (I needed some shut-eye after all of that laying around) I decided to check out the Stellaris Casino, located just a few steps from the lobby. The casino recently underwent a $4 million renovation and the facelift paid off. New gaming spaces and the addition of Lounge 101 feel fresh and inviting and the well-trained staff will be sure to guide you through classic card games without the pressure of a high-stakes Vegas table.
"In addition to providing our valued guests with ultimate service, the resort’s continued success is also contingent on providing a superior quality product," shares Antoinette van den Berg, Director of Sales and Marketing for Aruba Marriott Resort. " This renovation and the addition of Lounge 101 further emphasize our goal of enhancing vacation experiences."
After a few unsuccessful rounds of Blackjack, I settled in to Ketsu Sushi Bar, ordered myself a Sneaky Tiki (a deadly combination of rum, banana liquor and various juices) and watched the comings and goings of other guests. Maybe it was the cocktail, but sitting back and taking it all in, I couldn’t help but think that in spite of losing in the casino, I had hit the jackpot.
The following morning I had a leisurely breakfast on my balcony and strolled over to The Mandara Spa, which lies within the Aruba Marriott Resort complex. Renowned throughout the world for unique treatments and healing techniques the Mandara offers a massive array of indulgences.
Signature treatments include a Balinese Boreh Scrub and Aloe Cucumber wrap; Neo-Marine spa treatment for the face and neck that utilizes active ingredients extracted from seaweed; and the resort’s Massage de la Aruba - a balancing of the body, mind and spirit.
To stick with my adults-only theme, I took a sneak peek at H2 Oasis, the property’s brand new 10,000-square-foot adults-only swimming pool and recreational area that opened shortly after my visit. It looked like the perfect oasis of serenity and exclusivity (except for the fact that there wasn’t any water in it yet) and a fantastic addition to the grounds.
If you want to take a break from your respite by the sea, Aruba offers inland adventures to keep your hearting pumping strong. The country’s unofficial national sport is beach tennis - a curious combination of tennis and beach volleyball. There are four permanent courts at Moomba Beach. There are various tournaments throughout the year, but all are welcome to pick up a racket and give it a try. Even I, with the hand-eye coordination of a toddler, managed to have a great time, especially when quenching my thirst with Balashi, Aruba’s local brew.
For an off-road adventure, consider a safari... Aruba style. ABC Tours has been offering Jeep tours since 1998. Whether you opt for a half-day adventure that takes you to Natural Pool or Baby Beach, or spend an entire day exploring the Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins, Indian Caves and Arikok National Park - you’ll get a deep sense of the island’s natural beauty and history.
Dining and Dancing the Night Away
On my last night I plunged into the local culture and discovered some hidden gems that captured the vibrant pulse of Aruba’s Caribbean lifestyle. For afternoon drinks and Dutch snacks, a visit to Café 080 is a must. Opened in 2009 by Sjoerd Rutten and Jaap Rikken, the local watering hole is off the beaten path and serves traditional fried snacks like kroket (potato croquettes) and frikandel (chicken and pork sausage) along with an equally eclectic clientele.
For a different kind of island fare, I continued the night’s feast at Soenchi’s. "Soenchi’s is all about healthy, flavorful dining choices, all with a wink at Aruba and the Caribbean region," says chef/owner Harmen Gieske. His wife and business partner Daniela is an inviting presence and brings an even greater authenticity to her husband’s modern interpretation of classic Aruban dishes like Keshi Yena (chicken with cashews, raisins, olives and cheese) and their signature dessert, the "Aruba reef crystal tear" - papaya, saffron banana salad and passion fruit sherbet.
After an afternoon and evening of food and drink, I was ready to seek out the one and only gay bar on the island, Jimmy’s Place. I imagine that gay men visiting from more metropolitan areas might not find much interesting at Jimmy’s. It’s a bit ramshackle with license plates and assorted collectibles adorning the walls, but there is something simultaneously endearing about the place. It is a watering hole for all ages - gay, lesbian and transgender alike. A riff raff melting pot, it is not unlike Aruba as a whole and offers a friendly vibe to all who enter.
For an island getaway where you can easily get by speaking English and using U.S. currency, Aruba offers a temperate take on Caribbean fun. Whether you choose to spend most of your time at a resort destination like the Aruba Marriott or venture out to explore the more remote parts of the island, you’ll be sure to return home with a glowing complexion and a disposition as calm as the deep blue sea.
Go. See. Do.
Click below to explore Aruba and special happenings throughout the year:
Aruba Tourism Authority
Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
Aruba Carnival Schedule
Caribbean Sea Jazz Festival
Red Sail Sports