Exiting the airport in Aruba, there is an immediate sense of peace and happiness. Staff members greet with a warm smile and welcome, along with a certain energy on the island. It is evident within the first few moments why Aruba is referred to as “One Happy Island”. Aruba is a small, 19 mile long, Dutch island in the Caribbean, just above South America. It is not a tropical island, but rather, made up of desert and rocky terrain, with several beaches. We spent eight days and seven nights there, so I am no expert on Aruba, just sharing my experience.
Climate & Terrain
During our stay, the temperature was 82*F (Aruba’s average temperature year round) during the day and 78*F at night and sunny, pretty consistently. The air was muggy; though, there is constant wind, which helps with that and the heat (It is windy!! some areas more than others.) Aruba is out of the hurricane belt and gets little rain.
One of my favorite things about the island is the diverse terrain! I especially could not get over the idea that we could see where the desert met the sea. The north side of the island is made up of desert and is rocky and surrounded by rough seas, while the south side of the island has calm waters and white sand beaches. The island is almost completely flat, with some hills and rock formations.
We stayed at The Renaissance Resort & Casino for one night and an Airbnb in Saveneta for the remainder of the trip. The Renaissance has its own private island that is exclusive to guests. They do give out day passes to people who are not guests of the resort for $100 pp, but the pass availability is limited. There is a boat shuttle that travels to and from the resort and the island every 15 minutes, from 7:00am-7:00pm, that is included in the stay/day pass. One of the beaches at the island is called Flamingo Beach and has 6 flamingos that live on the island and interact with the people. There is food available to feed the flamingos. This beach is adult’s only, except for one hour of children time from 9:00-10:00am. There is also Iguana Beach, which is a family beach and a bit larger than Flamingo Beach. The island has bathrooms and a bar/restaurant. One day was plenty of time for us to explore the island and resort. We could have explored for one additional day there, but it was not needed. The resort itself has two separate buildings that include rooms, pools, bars and restaurants and a mall in one of the buildings. The hotel room was a decent size, had a patio and everything we needed for our stay. It is located in downtown Oranjestad, the capital, near the marina where cruise ships come in. There is plenty to do in the immediate surrounding area.
Savaneta is a charming area where we felt like locals. It is closer to the south side of the island, but still easily accessible to all other areas. We stayed at someone’s pool house that we found on Airbnb. We were pleasantly surprised with what the place had to offer, as it was budget friendly. Our hosts had the same friendly, warm, welcoming personality that we had experienced since being on the island. If you are interested in more details about this particular Airbnb, feel free to message me! There is a beach, Santo Largo, that is a 5 minute drive from the house, and Baby Beach, one of Aruba’s famous beaches, is 15 minutes away. I am very grateful that we stayed outside of the resort area because it allowed us to explore parts of the island that we may not have if we stayed at a resort. In general, I also just enjoy absorbing the local culture of any area, so it is up to whatever you prefer.
There is a section of low rise hotels near Eagle Beach and a section of high rise hotels near Palm Beach. These are both more touristy areas, surrounded by bars, restaurants, and shops, Palm Beach being the most touristy. Both beaches are between Oranjestad and Noord. There were five Airbnb homes that we were deciding between before we chose the one that we stayed at and many more that we would consider. The cities that I would recommend staying in are: Noord, Savaneta, Santa Cruz, or Oranjestad. Noord and Oranjestad would be the more touristy destinations, while Savaneta and Santa Cruz would provide a more local feel. There are several sub neighborhoods of each city.
Food & Drink
Local Aruban food has multicultural influences, primarily including, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese, with the popular dishes being stews, soups, and fish. We mostly cooked at home and ate at small roadside restaurants, but the restaurants and options are plentiful. We enjoyed the restaurants that we did eat out at, The West Deck and Matthew’s Beachside Restaurant, and recommend both. On our second to last day we ate at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes, which I highly recommend and would say is a must do! The pancakes are flat instead of puffy and more similar to crepes, but absolutely delightful. There are a variety of toppings available that include both sweet and savory. We also had fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and an omelet there as and all were tasty. The place that we frequented the most was a roadside smoothie, juice & sandwich stand in Savaneta called Mauchi Smoothies & Juice Bar. The smoothies and food are fresh and made to order. My favorite smoothie was the banana blast, which had a heavy banana flavor with a hint of nutmeg and was creamy. One thing we learned when ordering food, especially at places where ordering at the counter, is that the person ordering initiates the conversation instead of the employee.
Being coffee lovers, we were surprised by the lack of local coffee shops on the island. The grocery stores sold coffee and there are several Starbucks. Speaking of groceries, there are two large grocery stores on the island, Super Food Plaza and Ling & Sons. We opted for Super Food Plaza, which had a wide variety of both American brands and local food. The grocery store was clean and well stocked and was less expensive than grocery stores in the US. There are several small grocery stores throughout the whole island, with a major Asian influence. The smaller grocery stores are good for getting one or two things that you need, whereas, the larger ones are better for a full grocery shop.
We are not big drinkers, but did enjoy a few beverages during our trip. We found the alcohol prices to be pretty average at the resort, but beer and liquor drinks cost almost the same, so it was a good price for liquor, but expensive for beer. We heard from other people we talked to that alcohol was expensive around the island. I imagine this is more so in the tourist areas. Balashi is the beer that is brewed in Aruba; it is light and refreshing. Piña coladas were my drink of choice and were delicious at every place that I had one!
Exploring the whole island is a must, in my opinion. I am a beach lover and am perfectly content with spending dawn till dusk on the beach with a good book in my hand for the entire vacation. Yet, if the trip is limited to only Aruba’s white sand beaches, there’s a whole lot you’d be missing out on.
Arikok National Park
Filled with cactus, rocks, beaches, caves and the natural pool, the National Park is a can’t miss! It makes up approximately 18% of the island. Its beauty is not able to be described in words. This is the time a 4×4 would come in handy, but it was still possible to drive a regular car through most of the areas.
Natural Bridge/Baby Bridge
A natural bridge formed by coral limestone. The Natural Bridge collapsed in 2005 due to a storm, but the remains are still able to be viewed. Baby Bridge is a smaller natural bridge next to the larger one.
Gold Mine Ruins
There are two gold mine ruins in Aruba; we visited the Bushiribana ruins. It was interesting to see and an easy stop on our self guided tour.
The marina is located here, as well as, many shops and restaurants. It is the capital city of Aruba.
Located on the north side of the island, an excellent place for watching sunset! During the day, it is possible to go inside and climb to the top.
A rescue for donkeys that is run by volunteers. It is free to enter, but they accept donations. Bring carrots and apples along to feed them! I could have stayed there all day.
One of the top 3 beaches in the whole Caribbean! It is located in front of the low rise hotels. It is the white sand beach, with clear calm water that is characteristic of the Caribbean.
Down the street from Eagle Beach is Palm Beach, which is in front of the high rise hotels. We did some shopping in Palm Beach and walked along the path of the hotels. We did not feel a need to spend too much time here, but did want to see it. The hotels and hotel bars are exclusive to their guests.
On the southernmost tip of the island and shaped as a half moon. It is supposed to be a good beach for first time snorkelers, and is good for children due to the shallow, calm water.
A fisherman’s beach lined with huts. This is where we watched the sunrise.
Seroe Colorado Anchor
Near Baby Beach, Rodger’s Beach, and Grape Field beach is a large red anchor. It is a good spot for taking pictures and offers a picturesque view of sea, rocks, and desert.
- By the anchor, headed toward Baby Beach, there is a man with a roadside stand selling coconut related products. We had some refreshing and tasty coconut water, straight from the coconut! He also has candy and coconut oil.
Aloe is Aruba’s number one export and a plant that is highly valued by those native to Aruba. At the Aloe Museum, you can watch the production process of the products and take a tour to learn about the history. It is free to enter, but tips are appreciated. This was another one of my favorite activities! I am learning all I can right now about the healing properties of plants and learned so much more about aloe while visiting.
Alto Vista Chapel
A small Catholic chapel originally built in 1750 and rebuilt in 1952. This wasn’t on our “to see” list, but I’m glad we visited.
Philips Animal Garden
We happened upon Philips Animal Garden by chance when we saw a sign after visiting Alto Vista Chapel. Throughout the whole trip, we said “yes” to every opportunity that was presented to us because we figured if we were there, we should do it. This ended up being another favorite activity of mine, who would have guessed?! It is an animal rescue for exotic animals. A $10 entry fee gives you a bag of food with some carrots and we were told: “You can feed anything with four legs.” There are donkeys, horses, goats, reptiles, camels, llamas, monkeys, ostrich, a kangaroo, and more! We made a goat friend who had escaped its enclosure and followed us around for a while.
We did a UTV Tour in Arikok National Park, which was one of the main highlights of the trip and a recommended must do! The tour that we chose was from ABC Tours. There are several tour companies, we decided to go with ABC after seeing an ad and because it is highest rated on Trip Advisor. Our tour guides were friendly and informative and the tour destinations were great. The UTV that we drove was not in the best condition, but it got us to and from everywhere. I am not an adventure seeker or risk taker and this tour pushed me to my limit, but in a good way. The UTV’s are driven on the road with cars and then through the desert, all at high speed and over bumps, dips and rocks. It would be very helpful to have someone drive who has knowledge of UTV’s and ATV’s and has driven one before.
Our first stop was Indian Caves. There were many bats inside, they did not come near us, but we did see them fly by. It was beautiful and well worth the visit.
Our second stop was a restaurant called Boca Prins Bar and Restaurant, so that people could use the bathroom and have a beer or drink. Our tour guide mentioned that this restaurant has the best pizza on the island.
Our next stop was the Natural Pool, “Conchi”, which is only accessible by 4×4. This was my favorite part of the tour and favorite part of vacation! It was one of those once in a lifetime moments and I’m so glad I chose to participate. The natural pool is a swimming hole in the center of a cluster of rocks that block the sea. The waves crash into the rocks and over them, filling the pool.
Our last stop was a rock formation. We climbed to the top by stairs and had a scenic view of the surrounding area.
Throughout the in between time we saw miles of cactus, rocks and rough seas, which was all breathtaking.
Being that the tour was through the desert, I assumed it would be dry and dusty, but did not realize how dry and dusty it would be! We were covered in dirt; anything that was exposed on our bodies, our clothes and our belongings that we brought with us. So, if you choose to do a National Park tour, I strongly suggest:
- wearing clothes that you don’t mind getting really dirty and that you don’t plan to wear again on the trip.
- Whatever bag you bring will be getting very dirty as well.
- Put your cell phone or camera in a protective bag.
- bring a bandana to wear to cover your nose and mouth.
- You can purchase one at the ABC Tour rental office for $5.
- wear sunglasses or goggles.
- I wore sunglasses, but would probably wear goggles next time.
- There are goggles for purchase at the ABC Tour rental office.
- wear and bring sunscreen!
- bring wipes for cleaning off and a towel.
- A driver’s license is needed.
There are also ATV tours and Jeep tours. For the Jeep tours there is the option to drive your own and the option to ride along in one with a tour guide.
Some other activities offered on the island are: sailing, snorkeling, diving, submarine tour, jet ski rental, island tours in various vehicles, wind surfing, kite boarding, horseback riding, fishing, casinos and shopping.
Highlights & Tips
- A rental car is needed if you intend to explore the island and/or if you are not staying at a resort.
- If you are staying at a resort, particularly in the Palm Beach area, it is possible to still do a few activities without a car.
- A Jeep would be worth the splurge
- UTV’s & ATV’s can be driven on the road
- I heard that public transportation is not efficient in Aruba and cabs were expensive, but can’t say for sure.
- We did not see many people riding bicycles.
- I did not drive while we were there, but as a passenger, observed that the roads were something to get used to. There are very few traffic lights and stop signs and several traffic circles. We learned quickly that everyone goes when they feel it is best to go and if there is a gap in cars, someone will pull out in front of you. With that said, the system actually works well.
- They drive on the right side of the road.
- Most gas stations are full service.
- Everyone was happy, friendly and went out of their way to be helpful! There is a sense of community on the entire island.
- Most people speak English, along with several other languages.
- Aruba is on “island time” meaning no one is in a rush to do anything and service can be what one may consider slow. This is something I particularly enjoyed though.
- Everywhere we went was not crowded.
- The high-season is December – April
- The low season is May – November
- I felt completely safe the entire time we were there, no matter what part of the island we were on. We had no problem leaving our items on the beach while swimming in the water or taking a walk.
- We used common sense and put high value items in the car, but still never felt like we had to.
- Unlike some other popular tourist destinations, we were never hassled to purchase anything.
- The tap water is not only safe to drink, it tastes great! Their water is distilled in a saltwater desalination plant. No need to buy bottled water!
- The US dollar is widely accepted around the island.
- Sometimes the price is given in Florin, Aruba’s currency. A tip we learned is if it is in Florin, divide by 2 and add 10% and that will give you the US dollar price.
- You can ask if the price is in US dollars or Florin, or just tell the person that you are paying in US dollar and they will tell you the amount.
- 15% tip is automatically added to any bill for food service and although an additional tip is appreciated, it is not expected.
- Overall, the island is inexpensive. The tourist area and tourist activities are where we found the highest prices, but outside of that we were shocked at how little everything cost.
- Wear sunscreen and bring it everywhere you go.
- We brought bug spray with us, but didn’t really use it. We did not encounter many mosquitoes or bugs; I think this is due to the wind.
- Goats and donkeys roam freely on the north side of the island and are seen in many places. They are used to humans and friendly, the donkeys in particular. If you are an animal lover like me, I suggest bringing carrots and apples with you when exploring that side of the island. There is also an abundance of various species of lizards and birds.
- There are many stray dogs on the island, but we still did not see as many as we expected and they are mostly in the local neighborhoods. All of the ones we encountered were either friendly or scared of us and were never a problem.
- Although Aruba is filled with beaches, it is not a tropical island, which is a common misconception. So, there is not much greenery, but it is beautiful in so many other ways.
- Five days, four nights should be sufficient time to explore the island. I would have liked to stay for ten days to fit in a few more activities though.
- The island is a destination ideal for couples or small families and romantic getaways.
- It is a popular honeymoon location.
What to Bring
- A hat that will protect you from the sun, but also fits tightly or has a strap.
- Specific brand/product items
- Ex: I require a specific brand of sunscreen because almost all sunscreens cause a reaction and I was unable to find it on the island.
- There are not really any convenience stores and the ones that they do have are not easy to find.
- Reusable water bottle
- Drink plenty of water and bring water with you everywhere! The sun is intense.
- Sunglasses – I suggest two pairs, one that you don’t mind breaking or losing and then a pair of nicer ones.
- A bandana if you plan to do a UTV, ATV, or Jeep tour.
- Clothes that are wind-friendly; shorter dresses and skirts are not ideal.
- One pair of pants and a light jacket for the evenings or early morning.
- Overall, the island is casual dress.
What I would do next time
Our trip unfolded perfectly and we did all of the activities on my hypothetical “must do” list. If (when) I go back to Aruba, I would:
- go to the Butterfly Farm
- go to Bubali Bird Sanctuary
- visit more museums
- do water acitivites
- visit more beaches – there are over 20 beaches and each one is unique
- go to Frenchman’s Pass
- go to the Ostrich Farm
- go to the Bon Bini Festival and/or Carrubian Festival, both held weekly
- take an island tour and horseback riding tour
- climb to the top of Hooiberg mountain (there are steps)
- spend more time exploring each city, especially Noord
- go to Eduardo’s Beach Shack, Craft, and Huchada, all restaurants, and eat more local food
I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotion when it was time to leave. It was more than just the fact that vacation was ending; Aruba has a certain feel about it that just makes you want to stay in that environment forever. There is a quote that popped into my head a few days after being in Aruba that says something like: you can’t escape from your problems just by moving somewhere else, I was thinking, that is not true about here. Aruba made me feel like no matter what my difficulties are, I would be able to handle them with more grace just by being there. It was effortless to identify with joy and live in the moment, and that is what I long for. One Happy Island is the most accurate name and I highly recommend visiting! I’m sad that it had to end, but so grateful for the memories. Part of my heart will always remain in Aruba.