Upon arrival in Aruba, the first thing you’re likely to hear is a warm “Bon Bini,” or “Welcome,” in the local language, Papiamento—an early indication that the destination that’s dubbed itself “One Happy Island” lives up to the slogan. Located roughly 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela in the Lesser Antilles, Aruba enjoys more sunny days than most of its neighbors and lies outside of the hurricane belt that occasionally pummels them. With cooling trade winds that keep the temps in the 80s year-round, it’s unsurprising that it’s become such a wildly popular vacation destination, with the highest return visitor rate in the Caribbean.
Aruba is officially a part of the Netherlands, and despite its distance from Boston, JetBlue operates two daily nonstop flights from Logan, making it easier and faster to get to than a lot of other Caribbean hotspots requiring connecting flights and/or ferry rides. Beyond convenience and reliable weather, though, Aruba is an island with something for everyone—from the burnt-out office drone longing for endless rum swizzles on the beach, to the adrenaline junkie who loves to jet-ski or roll the dice at a craps table, to the naturalist who wants nothing more than to commune with the island’s flora and fauna.
Most of the island’s resorts are clustered in the northwestern area known as Palm Beach. Thanks to extensive renovations, the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino is one of the most up-to-date and comfortable hotels along this densely developed stretch of picture-postcard Caribbean coastline. The food is superb—Ruinas del Mar is one of the top-rated restaurants on the island, and Mexicado serves enchiladas as good as anything you’ll find in Mexico—as is the service throughout, from the front desk to the palapas on the beach. It’s also ideal for families. Parents can park the kids at Camp Watapana for the day and bliss out on the beach or in the Zoia Spa—or sneak off to the Hyatt’s casino to tempt Lady Luck. Indeed, gambling lures many to the island, which is home to a dozen casinos. Unsurprisingly, another major draw is the warm turquoise water, and Red Sail Sports offers everything from scuba diving and snorkeling to kayaking, kite-surfing and deep-sea fishing right from the resort’s beach.
While it might be tempting to never leave the resort, there’s more to Aruba’s almost 70 square miles than gorgeous beaches and dazzling casinos. On its southeast side you’ll find Arikok National Park, a smorgasbord of natural wonders that composes nearly 20 percent of the island. Arid and punctuated everywhere by cacti, the park boasts cave systems with petroglyphs, lit by holes in the ceiling and populated by bats, as well as secluded beaches and a natural pool where visitors can swim. Guided and self-guided tours are available, and the best way to take it all in is either by horseback, ATV or four-wheel-drive.
Even outside the park, Aruba is home to natural and archaeological wonders. The Ayo Rock Formations, a breathtaking configuration of wind-carved boulders, also has ancient petroglyphs and, according to legend, is where the Arawak people used to seek shelter from the (infrequent) major storms. On the northeast coast, along the windward shore, you can see the island’s unofficial mascots, the fofoti trees, sculpted into graceful, southwesterly bending forms by the constant trade winds.
For anyone in search of more urbane entertainment, a trip to the capital city of Oranjestad is a must. Named for the Dutch King William I, the city of 35,000 has some of the prettiest Dutch Colonial architecture in the world, gaily painted in vivid hues. It’s also home to such points of interest as the National Archaeological Museum and Fort Zoutman—the oldest building in Oranjestad, built in 1798 to fend off pirates. On Tuesday evenings, the Bon Bini Festival fills the fort’s courtyard with folkloric music and dance. In the summer, meanwhile, the Love Festival takes over the city’s Eagle Beach with three stages where 50 international DJs play from noon into the wee hours. What’s not to love about a place with a three-day dance party dedicated to love?
So yeah, “One Happy Island” is apt. Any place where a blackjack-loving casino junky, a rum-guzzling beach bum and an intrepid naturalist can all find common ground might arguably be considered paradise.
– Whether you scuba dive or snorkel, one thing to check off your to-do list is the shipwreck Antilla, the second largest shipwreck dive in the Caribbean, located 500 yards offshore in shallow water.
– About 45 minutes from the high-rise hotel area is Baby Beach, a local favorite. Less crowded, with superb snorkeling, it’s a great place to escape the crowds.
Arikok National Park arubanationalpark.org
Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino aruba.regency.hyatt.com
National Archaeological Museum Aruba namaruba.org