Aruba: "One Happy Island" with Countless Adventures
Take a trip below the belt - the hurricane belt, that is - and you’ll quickly realize why Aruba bears the national slogan "One Happy Island" and claims the most return visitors of any Caribbean island. Though quite touristy in certain areas, Aruba is the perfect pick for a gay-friendly destination with year-round good weather (around 82 F most of the time), pristine beaches, world renowned cuisine, and as little or as much activities as you can handle. With an area of just 75 square miles (about the size of Washington, DC), this small Caribbean nation packs a mighty punch.
Originally claimed by the Spanish in 1499, Aruba’s real identity was shaped after it became a Dutch colony in 1636. Though Aruba seceded from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986, it’s still a separate, autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and its Dutch influence isn’t disappearing any time soon. Not just architecturally and economically, but culturally too - Arubans are some of the most warm, friendly and tolerant people you’ll meet. Even though Dutch is the official language, most of the time you’ll hear Spanish or Papiamento (the native Aruban language...a mélange of Spanish, Dutch and other languages)
It’s the smallest and southernmost island of the Lesser Antilles, also known as the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), and just 15 miles from the coast of Venezuela.
If you’re expecting a lush tropical paradise, look elsewhere. While the northern coast is marked by a jagged coastline with wild waves, Aruba’s rugged eastern interior is often compared to a Martian landscape. It’s really beautiful in its own way, not to mention some of the natural landmarks you shouldn’t miss. Of course, some of the biggest draws are Aruba’s miles of gorgeous, white and honey-colored beaches on the south side. The compact size of this island makes it easy to get around on your own on the safe, well-marked roads. If you get lost, the coast can’t be more than 3 miles away to show you the way back!
International flights arrive at Quean Beatrix Airport, outside of Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital. American Airlines has frequent direct flights from Miami and New York City. www.aa.com.
Visitors will mostly stay in the low-rise and high-rise sections east of Oranjestad (Palm Beach and Eagle Beach), but downtown Oranjestad is also an increasingly common choice. Getting from one area to the other means a short taxi ride (or long, long walk), but don’t let that keep you in the area right around your hotel: To enjoy Aruba to its fullest, you need to see it all by walking, swimming, boat, jeep, ATV or even on horseback.
Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino
The Renaissance sits smack dab in the middle of downtown Oranjestad, with a pool looking out over the harbour and main shopping road. This resort really offers the best of both worlds: if you’re in an urban mood, take advantage of the location by walking to the city attractions like bars, clubs, restaurants and casinos...then get away from it all by taking a complimentary 5-minute boat ride to Renaissance Island, the resort’s secluded island accessible only to guests. Except for the occasional roar of airplanes, it’s easy to spend a whole day on the private island and forget there’s a bustling city a short distance away. Adults and most gay visitors will opt to stay at the main Renaissance (rather than the separate building for families with children). In the chic lobby, make sure to enjoy some of the lobby bar’s great cocktails as you look out over the main drag below.
Westin Aruba Beach Resort & Casino
If downtown isn’t your style, head over to the high rise area and stay at the recently renovated Westin Aruba. The Westin now has a sophisticatedly modern lobby with soaring ceilings and stunning marble floors. During renovation, Westin did away with the tacky pastels and island prints of the previous hotel, and updated the rooms with soft colors and casual elegance. Most rooms look out toward the sea and pool area. The pool is so enticing that it’s hard to choose between lounging by the pool or walking out to the beach and picking out a cabana for the day. Plan your day right and you’ll have plenty of time to laze around the pool or beach. The Westin has some good restaurants and a fantastic casino, but if time is limited, make sure you take a stroll down the winding path connecting all the hotels in this area.
More after the jump...
Sun and Fun
When it comes to activities, Aruba has a diverse selection for an equally diverse type of visitor. Parasailing, kiteboarding, scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing are the main water attractions. But don’t leave without taking a trip into the interior and north coast. Even with a few days on Aruba, you can see a variety of things without being too rushed (another benefit of Aruba’s small size).
On the untamed northern coast, start out at the California Lighthouse then head east to the Ayo Rock Formations, the ruins of a gold mine, the Quadiriki caves and the stunning plant life of Arikok National Park (encompassing 25% of the island). One good way to see all this is on the Aruba Safari Off-Road Adventure with De Palm Tours (www.depalm.com), but if you’re more adventurous, contact Kini Kini Tours (www.kinikini.com) for a private half- or full-day tour of the island on ATVs. After hours navigating the rugged and dusty terrain on your own ATV, you’ll be eager to take a dip in the Natural Pool - one of my favorite parts of the route. Also called "Cura di Tortuga," it’s a remote area of the coast where a group of rocks enclose an area of seawater, making it (as the name implies) a natural pool. If you get there at the right time, it can actually feel like you’ve discovered a secret spot amidst Aruba’s harsh coastline. Make sure to wear sturdy shoes or water sandals - getting down the pool is a slippery experience, but worth it! Carefully climb to some of the taller rocks and you can (even more carefully) jump into the pool instead of just stepping in.
Take the Plunge
Aruba’s most famous site for diving and snorkeling is the Antilla wreck. At 400-feet long, this German freighter (scuttled in 1940) is one of the Caribbean’s largest wrecks. The best thing is that it’s in such shallow water that visitors can see it by snorkeling or diving.
Diving, of course, is a lot more fun but you’ll need to be certified for this one. Red Sail Sports (www.redsailaruba.com) offers single dives and dive packages to this site as well as others.
JADS Aruba is a small, family-run dive shop operating out of less-visited southern coast. If friendliness, small groups, safety and experience are high priority, look no further. JADS doesn’t offer trips to the wreck sites by Palm and Eagle Beaches, but diving on the south side of the island is a unique experience in itself. It’s also a guarantee that you’ll have a small group (unlike the package dive outfits that market mainly to the high-rise area), and a better chance of seeing some exciting sea life in an unspoiled part of the island. www.JADSaruba.com.
Aruba Gastronomic Association
Eating out in Aruba is one of the best parts of the Aruban experience, but be warned: It’s not cheap.
The Aruba Gastronomic Association’s Dine-Around program is worth a look.(www.arubadining.com).
Ruinas del Mar
The Hyatt Regency’s signature restaurant, Ruinas del Mar (Spanish for "Ruins by the Sea") is a beautiful restaurant styled to look like ancient ruins and surrounded by lush gardens, fountains, a calming waterfall and a lagoon with swans. It’s an oasis after a busy day activities or sunbathing. The Spanish-influenced cuisine pairs wonderfully with local fish and Aruban spices. Try the Red Snapper or Seabass with a white bean ragout and choice of sauces like Mango Chutney or Coconut Curry.
Don’t miss this eclectic open-air restaurant a short drive from the high rise area. Each dish is creatively presented and (thankfully) just as much effort goes into the food itself. Try the homemade lobster ravioli for starters, butterfly shrimp, Mahi Mahi vegetable strudel, or one of many other scrumptious surf and turf options.
Walking up to the pirate ship façade of this seafood restaurant, I prepared myself for a tacky evening. The décor is a mix of fish nets, pirate attire, and sea life. It’s kitschy...very kitschy. And boy was it fun! The Buccaneer has 8,500 gallons worth of aquarium inside. Nearly every table sides up to a fish tank, while one room has even larger tanks with sea turtles. The food is pretty much what you’d expect from a good seafood restaurant, though there are some interesting surprises like Swordfish Meuniere, Paella Arubiana and a Marinated Seafood Tempura with local spices.
Other good eats: Nos Conuco (site), L.G. Smith’s Steak & Chophouse at the Renaissance (Oranjestad, www.lgsmiths.com), The Waterfront Crabhouse (Oranjestad, www.waterfrontaruba.com).
Aruba is by no means a gay party destination like Ibiza, but it’s definitely a gay friendly island and welcomes gay marriages both for its citizens and tourists. If two men get attention while walking down the beach holding hands, it’s from that sun burnt tourist from Middle America, not an Aruban. The gay scene is small (as is Aruba’s gay population). Jimmy’s Place (www.jimmysaruba.com) in Oranjestad is the only bar officially labeling itself as LGBT. It’s a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, but filled with friendly people and worth a try if you get tired of the overpriced hotel bars. Some Dutch establishments, also very friendly and not overly touristy, are known for having some gay clientele: The Paddock (www.paddock-aruba.com) and Café Twister (Dominicanessenstraat 10).
Get on the Party Bus
If you’re in the mood for a fun night on the town, and possibly a laugh or two, try the Kukoo Kunuku party bus. The brightly colored bus picks you up from your hotel, heads to the California Lighthouse for a sunset champagne toast, takes you to dinner then to a series of bars. It’s definitely touristy and the guides are pushy when they "ask" you if you want to buy the souvenir koozie that gets you a discount on the drinks (it does, really...) but it’s a fun way to get out of your hotel and see Aruba at night. E! Entertainment even rated it the #1 tour in Aruba. And if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll get to sit next to and play maracas with a loud, middle-aged lady from New Jersey who’s resembles Dina Lohan (but much more obnoxious).
After all of the time in the sun, eating fabulous food and hitting up the town at night, we all deserve a little pampering. Your one-stop shop for ultimate pampering and relaxation is the Larimar Spa, a $5.2-million oceanfront oasis at the Radisson Aruba Resort (Palm Beach, high-rise area). Choose from the tried-and-true massage or facial, or try something a little different like the Aloe Vera and Rum Massage (combining eclectic massage techniques with hot black beach stones, pure liquid aloe vera, lime and local rum) complete with a reparative aroma-aloe scalp massage. Larimar Spa also offers an array of packages combining spa treatments with a stay at the Radisson.
For even more information on Aruba, visit the Aruba Tourism Authority’s Web site at www.aruba.com.