Some of the most majestic islands in the Caribbean were summarily dismissed by European colonizers. Consider the Dutch trio of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. The 16th-century Spanish conquistadors dubbed them Islas Inútiles, or “Useless Islands,” because they lacked gold or silver. But these days, Aruba happens to be an affordable gem for travelers.
A mere 15 miles off the coast of tropical Venezuela, Aruba isn’t your typical Caribbean island. It’s outside the hurricane belt, which means there’s a lower risk of storms. (Some hotels even offer “hurricane guarantees,” providing no-penalty rebooking or credit for future stays in the event of Category 1 storms or higher.) And while this arid island may not have lush vegetation, it makes up for that with soft sand beaches, cheap flights and all-inclusive discount deals.
The best beaches lie on the south and west coasts, where the water is great for swimming and snorkeling. Instead of touristy Palm Beach, head for tranquil, low-key Arashi Beach (to the north) or Eagle Beach (to the south). The water off the south end of the island at Baby Beach is shallow enough for wade-right-in snorkeling. And locals dig Rodger’s Beach in nearby San Nicolas—its reef-protected waters are relatively unknown to tourists. On the east coast is Dos Playas, where experienced surfers go to find the island’s “juiciest” waves. (In late afternoon, the winds are calmer and the swells rise four feet high.) For a taste of Aruba’s famous shipwreck diving, take a five-hour trip aboard the 80-foot wooden sailboat Mi Dushi. You’ll cruise the coastline and stop to snorkel over shallow reefs and through the wreck of the MS Antilla, a German ship that sank off Arashi Reef during World War II.
GET OUT THERE
Aruba’s capital, Oranjestad, is a busy cruise port with glitzy casinos, colossal hotels and upscale malls. (The island is excellent for shoppers: Price tags can run 30% lower than in the United States and the sales tax is a mere 1.5% .) But you don’t want to be stuck indoors the whole time, buying slightly more affordable Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The island’s petite size—just 20 miles long and 6 miles wide—makes it perfect for day trips. Pay a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary Aruba, 5 miles east of Oranjestad, to feed and play with rescued donkeys; not native to Aruba, donkeys were originally brought here as part of the island’s 500-year-old transportation system. Or stop by the Aloe Museum and Factory for some after-burn care and education. If you drive up north, you’ll see rugged rock formations and graceful, windswept divi-divi trees. And in the center of the island, you can climb 541-foot Mt. Hooiberg and see Venezuela on a clear day. Aruba even holds an international film festival every June, with events scheduled all around the island.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
For an authentic taste of the island, leave the resort area and head south to San Nicolas and Charlie’s Bar, one of Aruba’s oldest institutions. The walls are hung with random posters, license plates and fishing gear; the signature drink is the Aruba Ariba cocktail, a delicious mix of vodka, rum, Grand Marnier, crème de banana and coecoei (a local agave liqueur), plus pineapple, cranberry and orange juice. If you’re staying for dinner, order mahi mahi, shrimp scampi or steak. Or head to nearby Savaneta, where you can sit with your feet in the sand at Old Man and the Sea. There’s more beachfront dining at Flying Fishbone. Feast on skewered shrimp or grilled Caribbean lobster tail while you watch the sun set over the water.
Mi Dushi: midushi.com
Donkey Sanctuary Aruba: arubandonkey.org
Aloe Museum and Factory: Pitastraat 115, Hato; arubaaloe.com
Information on screenings and after-parties: arubafilmfest.com
San Nicolas and Charlie’s Bar: 56 Zeppenfeldstraat; 297.584.5086
Old Man and the Sea: 356-A Savaneta; 297.584.3434
Flying Fishbone: 344 Savaneta; 297.584.2506
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.