Adventures in Aruba


THE ISLAND OF ARUBA MANAGES TO BE EXACTLY WHAT YOU MIGHT EXPECT from a Caribbean island as well as nothing like you imagined. I arrived at Queen Beatrix International Airport filled with thoughts of white sandy beaches, coconut palms, succulent seafood and delightful drinks garnished with little umbrellas. I believed, incorrectly, that one of the main attractions of the island would be the famous Palm Beach at the Aruba Marriott Resort, and that I would be content to adventure no farther than the hotel bar or one of the several in-house restaurants.

To support that, my first evening in Aruba was spent admiring the beautiful resort and Marriott’s Atardi restaurant for a charmingly upscale, yet barefoot dinner on the beach. While wiggling our toes in the sand and guiltily gorging on delicious local dishes, we learned of the limitless amenities and services the hotel had to offer. The eight-story resort has more than 400 rooms and suites, a pool with cascading waterfalls, nine bars and eateries, the Mandara Spa and the Stellaris Casino, and it overlooks soft white sands, beautifully calm waters and the wistfully swaying palm trees dotting Palm Beach. This was the scene I expected from Aruba. What more can there be on such a small island, I wondered?

Pancakes to Paintings

My question was answered and my perspective began to shift over the next two days, beginning less than a mile from the resort at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes. A favorite breakfast spot for locals and tourists alike, Linda’s has earned a reputation for delightful, daunting and delicious pizza-sized Dutch pancakes. The walnut-stuffed, brie-topped pastry that filled my plate, and then my stomach, was the perfect way to start a day full of adventure with new friends.

After breakfast, our investigation began at Aruba Aloe Farm where we learned about the properties and production of aloe on the island. Aloe is one of the main exports of Aruba, as the desert plant thrives in the dry island environment. We watched workers transform the gel-filled centers into top-tier cosmetic products, tested the mouthwatering sugar cube scrubs and fudge-like soap bars (alongside clear “do not eat!” warnings) and left with our wallets significantly lighter.

As we left Oranjestad, the imported palms faded away and tall native cacti began to frame the highway, producing the sense of being transported to another world. It was with this odd feeling we arrived in San Nicolas, Aruba’s second largest city and host to incredibly stunning murals on every street.

A visit to The Museum of Industry provided an insightful look into Aruba’s economic past with its simplistic design, eye-catching displays and enthralling stories. The museum offers a unique experience in its circular second-floor room to sit, watch and listen to a group of locals share stories about Aruba’s golden years during the oil boom that took hold of the island for the majority of the 20th century. We learned that Aruba had several economic boons throughout its impressive history, ranging from gold that had once attracted the attention of the Dutch to aloe and then phosphorus. When each boon ended, natives exposed the next raw material to make the island financially stronger, and less dependent. Once the oil refineries closed in the 1980s and Aruba fell on hard times, the people decided to change the island’s image and become the “one happy island” we know today. They opened their doors and beautiful beaches to tourists from all over the world.

Once the museum tour ended, we took to San Nicolas’ streets, which reminded me of Miami’s famous Wynwood Arts District. I marveled at the murals painstakingly assembled, composed and painted by international and local artists. On one street, an iguana composed entirely of scavenged material stared across at a gorgeous mosaic of a winged dancer who smiled toward a painting of swallows caught in waves. Each piece was thought provoking and well worth the short walk. Cosecha Creative Center, nestled in the middle of such beautiful walls, works to encourage such ­creative displays from locals and tourists. Half art gallery, half workshop, Cosecha organizes shows for local artists and classes to allow groups to create their own.

We finished our tour with lunch at Charlie’s Bar and Restaurant. Since its opening in September 1941, this iconic haunt has been run by the same family and is currently managed by third generation Charlie Brouns III. The walls, tables and light fixtures are completely covered in memorabilia, paintings, photographs and more. Hidden amongst this cluttered assortment of goods is a playful staff and often Charlie himself, whose barbeque ribs could give any Memphis joint a run for its money.

Aruba-style Adventures

The next morning, my fellow adventurers and I piled into the bright yellow De Palm Tours truck that had come to pick us up at the resort. Promising gorgeous views, rustic scenery and a bumpy ride, our guide Sherman ensured we had fastened our seatbelts properly. The palms faded away again as we ventured to the northwestern tip of the island, this time replaced by bent and weathered divi divi trees. From the looming California lighthouse, we left the road and trekked to the Alto Vista Chapel, an old structure first built in 1750, forgotten, then rediscovered and rebuilt in 1952.

Surrounded by the tall cacti and looming rocky cliffs, it was as if I had been transported to America’s Old West. This feeling was reinforced by our next destination, the Bushiribana Gold Mine. Looking out the window of the ruins, I marveled at the incredible transformation from the resort side of Aruba to this forgotten desert side of the island. The sea that seemed so calm on the western coast crashed angrily against the jagged volcanic eastern coast, erupting like geysers out of the deep blue and summoning small rainbows with each violent crash.

After thoroughly exploring the ruins and admiring the view, Sherman whisked us away to Arikok National Park, which is known for its famous natural pool. After entering the park, our bumpy ride began in earnest. Clutching our seatbelts, railings and each other, we howled with fright and elation as we were bounced from one side to another. We exited the vehicle with obvious relief and hiked down the stairs to the natural pool. Sheltered from the fierce waves by slippery moss covered rocks, the pool has cool crystal clear water that is home to an astonishing assortment of fish. The pool was crowded with locals and tourists snorkeling, floating and jumping from the tall rocks into the pool.

We all enjoyed a well-deserved lunch at Zeerovers (Dutch for pirates) in Savaneta. This tiny restaurant’s menu consists of only five items, but each one is well executed. After grabbing a picnic table with the best view of the beautiful Caribbean waters, we feasted on delicious and inexpensive lightly fried seafood paired perfectly with Aruba’s own Balashi beer and coconut ice cream.

While the exhilaration of the morning left me fulfilled, I was desperately hungry for precious moments of relaxation. Mandara Spa provided the perfect opportunity. I enjoyed a relaxing hot stone massage finished with a much needed foot rub while the scent I had personally chosen permeated the room. I left refreshed and ready to take on the next challenge.

Having never surfed before, I was nervous and excited to give wind surfing a try. As we walked along Palm Beach from the resort to nearby Vela Aruba, I was relieved to see that the water was just as peaceful as my first day in Aruba. The continuous breeze, calm weather and shallow water make wind sports ideal for the east coast. With the help of careful instructors, I quickly went from tumbling off my board with every gust to zipping up and down the beach smiling confidently. It was the perfect conclusion to my three days in Aruba, the island that defied and exceeded my expectations in many ways.

For an island small enough to drive from one tip to the other in less time than it takes for my morning commute from Dunwoody to Woodstock, it held more surprises than I’d anticipated. Although I saw and experienced much during my short stay, I am already looking forward to my next adventure on this beautiful tropical desert island.