The beaches along the west coast of Aruba – which sits a mere 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela – are brochure-perfect, and they lend the tiny island an air of escapism unmatched anyplace else in the Caribbean. Sundowning on endless Palm Beach
is the quintessential Aruban experience, after all. Away from these dreamy stretches of sand, the interior of the island and the rugged east coast provide visitors with opportunities for adventures not often associated with the Caribbean. Aruban dining ranges from beach-shack casual to white-linen extravagance, and the legendary wellness scene encompasses both spas and such healthy activities as SUP yoga. Aruba is a true island paradise.
Aruba enjoys a hot and dry Caribbean climate. The weather rarely diverges much from the average annual temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit, although trade winds provide a constant breeze. The island lies outside the main hurricane belt, but it is still subject to regional storms. Prices are high during the peak season, December through April, while summer sales bring hotel discounts of up to 50 percent.
Queen Beatrix International Airport is modern and well-organized. Most major carriers offer daily nonstop flights to and from the United States and other international destinations. Hotels cannot pick up arriving guests, but fixed-price taxi services are available upon arrival. Note that it can take a long time to clear Customs at the airport. Visas are not required for visitors from North America.
Traffic in Aruba’s towns can be maddening at rush hour, when it may seem that there are more cars on the roads than people on the island. Get away from the main thoroughfares, however, and you’ll feel like you have the entire island to yourself. If renting a car, be cautious of driving around when a cruise ship is in port; visitors often wander the streets without paying attention to traffic, which can be dangerous for all parties. A bicycle is a safer and more enjoyable way of exploring the island. Many hotels can arrange rentals for you.
Depending on where you're staying, Aruba's food scene may not vary much from the familiar: many of the larger hotels have adopted North American culinary techniques, and Sunday brunch can make you feel like you’re in New York. Nevertheless, Aruba's traditional food scene—informed by Spanish and Dutch colonialism alongside Carib and South American traditions—is remarkable. Seafood plays a major role in day-to-day dining, with delicious staples like stoba (a hearty stew often made with conch and fish) and keshi yena: rings of cheese (often Edam) packed with fish, shrimp, bread, olives, and spices. For a taste of Dutch tradition, try bitterballen (deep-fried balls of meat), and kesio, a decadent caramel custard.
Before the Spanish arrived in 1499, Aruba had been inhabited by Arawak peoples for centuries, the evidence of which can still be seen on cave walls. Ceded to the Dutch in 1636, Aruba remains a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Some 105,000 people from more than 90 different ethnic backgrounds now call Aruba home, and the festivals, cuisine, dress, and language (most of the locals you'll meet speak four or more languages) have been shaped by 500 years of colonial rule, trade, and tourism. Aruba is one of the friendliest and safest places in the Caribbean, and hosts nearly 100,000 guests at any one time.
Aruba’s festivals and events run the gamut from the raucous Aruba Carnival, one of the largest annual celebrations in the Caribbean, to sailing regattas, fishing tournaments, and art festivals. There is a variety of national holidays and traditional celebrations, including National Anthem & Flag Day (March 18); Dera Gai, or the “Burying of the Rooster” (June 24); and, of course, Carnival, which begins each year at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. Enjoy lavish parades, wild street dances, parties, and more during an event that runs from November 11 to December 31.
Aruba's beaches range from the seemingly endless and opalescent sands of iconic Palm Beach
to the wild and untrammeled shorelines of Arikok National Park
. The sea to the west is littered with eerie shipwrecks, some of which can be explored by divers. The island interior is a cactus-studded desert peppered with bizarre rocky outcrops.
Shopping is an art on Aruba. With one of the largest deepwater ports in the Caribbean, the island welcomes some seriously large cruise ships. A rich selection of shopping arcades, design studios, and malls can satisfy the shopaholic in everyone. Tax and duty keep prices high, but quality is top-notch.
Tipping is expected at restaurants and for taxis, porters, and chamber services.
Passports are required for tourists traveling to Aruba, as well as proof of a departure ticket. The official languages are Dutch and Papiamento (a mix of Portuguese, Creole, French, English, and Spanish), but English is widely spoken here, and schoolchildren are required to learn it. The local currency is the florin, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. Aruba voltage is 127V, which U.S. appliances should be able to tolerate just fine – no converter needed. U.S. and Aruba use the same A and B plug types, but some Aruba outlets are the European-style F sockets.
Flash Parker is a writer, photographer, and photojournalist originally from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by AFAR, GQ Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, USA Today, Voyeur Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Get Lost Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more; additionally, Flash was nominated for a PATA Gold Award in destination journalism.