Aruba

“Aruba doesn’t know what it wants to be,” my wife expounded, “they are like Vegas there, Thailand there, they have luxury shopping but then that crappy mall, and then carriage rides.” A bit of everything to sample, though no coherent theme. The beaches are king and with them are mega resorts, some of the few major US chain hotel properties in the Caribbean.

Important: Aruba is a desert, you better like it hot and dry! And its location spares it the hurricanes so it is a year-round destination.

Aruba is a desert, better like it dry

Aruba bring in major cruise ships and many flights, all timed to arrive at the same time and overwhelm immigration. Our Delta flight from JFK arrived 6 minutes ahead of American and Southwest flights by the immigration status clock, those people were stuck in the gallery above the immigration hall, while were behind United and a flight from Venezuela. Aruba and Curacao have become major hubs for the few international flights still running out of Venezuela. It took us 40 minutes, of the two agents working our block, one was bogged down by the guy you see on flights from places where many people want out: looking nervous and no carry-on of any kind. The other agent left to take a brake, saying a cheerful, “Hello,” as he strolled by. I had procrastinated on Aruba because I had heard the stories of the arrival and the US preclearance departure hassles. Stories confirmed.

Huge immigration lines

The representatives at National were friendly and there was no line. My only request was where to get my wife some fresh seafood. Zeerovers, a 10-minute drive south of the airport was the quick response. An hour-plus after touchdown we were ordered fish and shrimp by weight to be prepared our choice of fried, fried or fried. Not deep fried in these sense that they did not come encrusted in batter. Fish a bit dry, shrimp well-reviewed. Like much of the Caribbean, good seafood is hard to come by, and variety even harder.

Zeerovers, a great airport stop

Fish and shrimp

Fresh off the boat seafood

Along the road from the airport to Zeerover there was a Latin restaurant that looked promising, a roadside seafood fry, and a few Chinese places. This is the opposite direction of the capital and the resorts. Like much of the Caribbean, Chinese entrepreneurs run much of the retail and wholesale trade.

Chinese cooperative association

We rolled back past the airport and through tiny Oranjstad. The Renaissance hotel, with its terrace party pool, was thumping with an electronic music festival that in the night moved to the stadium.

Good sign that no cruise ships were in port.

Our target was the Hilton Aruba (former Radisson), see my Hilton Aruba Guide for Club Carlson Bookings.

While my wife relaxed over the weekend, I did the rounds of the islands.

The main beaches start at Divi Beach then round the bend to the west side of the island and progress up as the condos and small hotels transition to large resorts, the most horrific the Vegas-pastiche Rui. All beaches are public, so I look a tour.

Rui looming behind the Hilton’s pools

Divi Beach has industrial views:

Machebo beach has small condos, some rocky parts and decent waves:

Divi Beach

Best friends at Manchebo Beach

Eagle Beach has huge expanses of sand though beware many hotels require a street crossing to the beach:

Broad Eagle Beach

Palm Beach is the major resorts and busiest beach, with few waves, feels like being in a crowded bathtub:

Palm Beach weddings

Palm Beach denizens

On it continues, leaving behind the resorts for residence, finishing at the northern point with Arashi Beach and the California Lighthouse, the surrounding area used for various adventure sports.

Only if you are desperate for a view

“Spectacular views and amazing flow of energy”

A wind surfing friend who used to constantly visit said the giant Ritz-Carlton messed up the winds and she no longer goes to Aruba.

For shore-side snorkeling, go to Bonaire.

There are activities in the interior such as Arikok National Park and the Aruban Donkey Sanctuary. I could not convince my wife to spend time in the desert.

Food is the major target for my wife and we hunted. We were there Sat-Mon, not ideal as many local restaurants close either Sun or Mon.

By the resorts there are many chain restaurants open daily, even some you may not know (The Sopranos?). These sit in several shopping malls that bring in locals as well as tourists. Expect prices to be around 15-30% more than their US counterparts. By the main highway, in the same cluster as the KFC and Domino’s is a Chinese restaurant with Cantonese chef. My wife wanted steamed fish but wouldn’t pay $20+. The is a small Chinese grocery next door.

Down the highway, a bit too far for a reasonable walk, is Super Food, a supermarket with some takeout food options. Great fruit selection: try everyone that is new to you, and do not miss the granadillas.

Granadillas!

My birthday fruit platter

My wife plays with my platter

Further along is Red Fish, which we did not try because of it being closed on Monday.

Oranjsted is quiet at night. Driftwood is the classic seafood place that hasn’t been refreshed since the 1970s. It reminds me of Captain’s Tavern in Miami. Popular with locals it has a broad menu. The escargot, scallops, fish soup, and fish were all excellent. The calamari was tasty though a small portion. The locals mostly go for steak and Italian dishes.

Driftwood sampler

Closer to the port there are places designed to attract tourists, things like ceviche and one place offering every kind of fussy dietary preference from gluten free on up.

My flight seatmate, who is a part-time resident, chipped in recommendations for Pam Pam at the Perle d’Or and the Pelican Nest Seafood Grill on the pier in front of the Marriott. Pelican Nest has a lively bar and the front and sit-down dining at the back.

On the way to the airport we passed the waterpark.

Watch the drop

US preclearance departure was faster than I though though comic in its execution. We were not going to waste half a day showing up early. Delta’s flight was near the end of the daily rush and we showed up 70 minutes before departure. You go through Aruba immigration, security, US checked baggage claims and customs, US immigration (Global Entry is there, but then you still have to wait for an officer and we were even questions), through the terminal towards US gates, security again, and if you have lounge access, in to the airport lounge with spectacularly unhelpful young women who refuse to find out or announce flight status even though departure monitors never show boarding status.

Aruba is great for that stay on the beach and do nothing vacation. The casinos are a bonus for gamblers. It is not the spot for dining, diving or partying (except in town), and that may boost the appeal for families. The people are as friendly as their reputation and I’ll have a story on that to share in my quest for soursop.

Rapid Travel Chai newsletter ¦ Twitter ¦ Facebook ¦ Instagram

  • ucipass

    Hmmm. It feels like you were a bit disappointed by the whole experience?

    Thanks for sharing!

  • aeroman380

    Another American trying to compare a Dutch Caribbean island (which maybe you don’t understand it is the kingdom of the Netherlands.) to expectations of maybe what they were hoping to expect if they went Vegas or Mexico. Yawnnn

  • Jay

    I spent 10 days there in 2011. 7 at in a Marriott lockoff studio ($199 through Interval) and 3 at a locals B&B. Eagle and Palm are nice but our favorite two beaches were much quieter. Ashari (sp) in the North before the lighthouse and baby beach in the far south. Definitely some of the best beaches you’ll encounter anywhere. Aruba is limited as you suggest but a good destination for wind sports and some water sports. I learned to kite surf there and there’s some surfing on the Atlantic side. We enjoyed exploring the island.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @aeroman – the only thing I have to say about the Dutch as regards Aruba is their near invisibility in people and culture compared to the Spanish, and in contrast to Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, and even St Martin, I suppose. My point was there is no coherent theme like some of the others, just a mediocre mishmash for general purpose beach holiday.

  • GetToThePoints

    The wind blows like 40 mph ALL the time and I found it to have the highest concentration of the rudest tourists of anywhere I have ever been. Think most of them were from Venezuela. And, the airport sucks.

  • john

    Thanks. I always enjoy your trip reports its too bad you no longer have the time for us peasants.

    I think your take on Aruba is fair. Its NOT Dutch (yea yea I know its part of the kingdom of the Netherlands but thats about it…). Its an overdeveloped island that has no character whatsoever. The beach is great. Some of the hotels are nice. The town/suburbs what have you are crappy like other islands. The economy is in the dumps since all they have is tourism now that even the refinery is closed.

    Oh, and Arikok national park is OK, but it is in no way worth the $20 per person fee. Its kind of like that mall across from the Radisson, waaaaay overpriced. I never went to the donkey sanctuary but on the road to baby beach there are usually some donkeys wandering near the prison.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @GetToThePoints – I thought I was just getting a special blow dry while I was there. My wife mostly did not set foot outside. The island is a very Latin America feel rather than Dutch.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @john – I haven’t given up trying to catch up. They take so much time and as the pile grows, so does the burden. That one may not look like much, but especially with all the photos, it took 2 or 3 hours to get it together. Maybe I will do a reserve countdown from my country count. I’ve added two since and keep digging a hole. At least I will get up Bonaire and Curacao so aeroman380 gets my take on the ones that have a Dutch feel. The only Dutch part in Aruba either of us noticed was the royal pictures in the immigration hall. And a dive bar near Super Food.

  • leana

    I really debated on whether to book a family trip to Aruba while the BOGO Club Carlson benefit was still alive. Ultimately, I decided to pass and based on your trip report, I’m kind of glad I did. Aruba just doesn’t seem to be remarkable enough to warrant all the crap you have to go through while flying with small kids. It’s flat, and I like mountains, it’s kitschy, and I prefer authentic.
    While getting Raidsson for 25K points per night was a steal, I just didn’t feel drawn to the island itself. Though, I’m sure the kids would go crazy for pools and beach. Oh well, we have those in Florida too!
    Thanks for the trip report, now I just have to erase the speedo photo from my mind.

  • Shannon

    Sorry you didn’t try the Flying Fish while you were there. We thought the seafood was excellent, especially the Shitake, Shrimp & Bleu Cheese casserole.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Shannon – we did not come across that one, menu looks great, too bad we missed it.

  • Marvin

    Thanks for this. I think exploring the different islands is interesting in that they’re not all cookie-cutter the same. After doing too many touristy excursions and leaving more tired than when we got there in the Dominican, hiking the rainforest until we were sore in St.Kitts, we’re looking forward to a rock where there’s nothing to do but relax.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Marvin – for really relaxing I like some of the tiny ones such as Saba and Montserrat, and also Dominica. You can chill out on cool settings without crowds, though none are the best for beaches.