“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Divi Beach has industrial views:
Machebo beach has small condos, some rocky parts and decent waves:
Eagle Beach has huge expanses of sand though beware many hotels require a street crossing to the beach:
Palm Beach is the major resorts and busiest beach, with few waves, feels like being in a crowded bathtub:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.