It's no wonder a place nicknamed "One Happy Island" draws lovebirds, families, retirees and just about anyone looking for a place to get away and relax.
What's delightfully unexpected is that Aruba actually delivers. Everyone I met on a recent four-day visit, from the uniformed airport limo driver to our adventurous snorkeling guide, was smiling and at least appeared to be happy. That marketing motto, as I learned later from the Aruba Tourism Authority, has been around for nearly 40 years, and there are survey results backing it up.
Aruba is best known for its silky, white-sand beaches. But there are also plenty of activities to fill up a weekend, a week or more. Glitzy casinos, gourmet restaurants, designer shops, spas and adventure sports, from kiteboarding to wreck diving, can be sampled. On the wild, northeast side of the island, visitors in all-terrain vehicles can bounce over rough, cacti-studded hills and explore secluded coves.
Blessedly outside the hurricane belt, Aruba is also a pleasant place to do absolutely nothing except loaf under a beach umbrella.
The island, which is a constituency of the Netherlands, has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the region. Tourism replaced gold mining and later oil refining; today Aruba's southwestern coast is lined with resorts. The newest, the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba, is in the luxury high-rise area; smaller properties reside in the low-rise area closer to Oranjestad, the capital.
Any reason to stay at a Ritz is good enough, but the Aruba resort is especially popular for destination weddings and/or honeymoons. Guests can tie the knot at the Beach Gazebo after walking down the Eternity Bridge or get married barefoot on Palm Beach at sunset.
Other romantic options include the adults-only Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort. (The island has a website just for weddings: www.aruba.com/weddings.)
Aruba’s landscape ranges from cacti-studded desert terrain, pictured, to white-sand beaches. Photo Credit: Barbara Redding
Visitors not tied to an all-inclusive resort can find many scrumptious dining options. Barefoot is known for its sunsets and seafood; you can dine at tables set in the sand or inside under cooling fans. A team of chefs at the Kitchen Table by White prepares an eight-course dinner with wine pairings that pays tribute to the distinctive flavors of the West Indies. At Yemanja, in downtown Oranjestad, locally caught triple tail fish is seared on a wood-fire grill. Be sure to try the locally brewed Balashi beer and the island's namesake drink, the Aruba Ariba.
Constant trade winds, which have sculpted the island's divi divi trees into works of art, also make for good sailing and other watersports. On a daytrip aboard the Montforte II, we snorkeled, kayaked and plunged into the cool blue sea from a rope swing off the bow. Kiteboarders and wind surfers crisscross beach areas. Yoga devotees can take a class conducted on paddleboards.
What Aruba offers that most greener islands can't is the chance to explore desert terrain. In an ATV, we cruised the island's "outback" with stops at the Ayo Rock Formations, the abandoned Bushiribana gold mine and tiny Alta Vista chapel (the island's first church). To cool off, we climbed down a handmade ladder and jumped off a cliff into a hidden cove.
Aruba attracts 1.1 million visitors a year, including cruise passengers. The port area in Oranjestad can be crammed weekdays with people browsing the craft markets for trinkets and ogling designer goods in the Prada, Gucci and other high-end shops. Cosecha, an artisan cooperative in a restored Dutch colonial building downtown, sells local art and offers art classes. We painted our own island keepsakes on miniature canvases.
I'm no artist, but I found myself smiling after completing my watercolor of an Aruban sailboat. There's definitely something to the island's slogan.
For more information, visit the Aruba Tourism Authority's website at www.aruba.com.