A Happy Discovery
Posted on November 26, 2019
As a native San Diegan, A tropical vacation has always meant Hawaii to me. Having visited the 50th state more than 25 times, I know its islands like the back of my hand. It might seem like a stretch to call it a downside, but the only issue with my love (and the convenience) of Hawaii is that it’s left little room to explore other tropical destinations. That all changed when I visited Aruba — my very first taste of the Caribbean. The tiny island, situated just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is full of surprises.
The desert island is exceedingly flat, including anything green that grows on it. In many areas, the columnar cacti that pervade its landscape are taller than anything else. Even Aruba’s famous Divi Divi trees appear to be pushed downward by some kind of unseen force. An obvious exception is the Hooiberg, really nothing more than a hill, that juts up 541 feet above sea level from nearly the dead center of the island. Easily hike-able even for kids, it offers 360-degree views of the island, the surrounding Caribbean, and, I’m told, even mainland South America on clear days.
Though not the lush, verdant oasis one might envision to be synonymous with the words “tropical island,” Aruba’s unique terrain still begs to be explored, and the opposite sides of the island are distinctly different. The resorts clustered on the white western shores enjoy beautiful, calm Caribbean waters ideal for snorkeling and paddle-boarding. Cross the island, however, and you’ll find rocky beaches and rough, churning waves that warn you to admire from the safety of the beach or far up on the cliffs.
Because of its diminutive size, traversing the island is a light journey, and the way you travel can prove as exciting as the views presented at the end of the road. De Palm Tours Aruba offers UTV tours to destinations on the east side of the island including the Natural Bridge, Andicuri Beach, and Blackstone Beach, garnering a breathtaking yet stark contrast to the tourist-friendly leeward side. Noisy, muddy, bumpy, and pure unbridled fun, the ride on the UTV is worth taking for adventure-seekers and their less adventurous counterparts — a truly immersive experience.
And when it’s time to immerse yourself in the actual water, there are few better places in the world to explore than Aruba. Shipwrecks and natural reefs line the western and southern coastlines, providing countless opportunities to jump in and see what lies beneath. Even for the most reluctant snorkelers, of which I am one, the lure of that magically blue, crystal clear water is too much to deny, and the payoff of curious fish of all shapes and sizes scattering everywhere quickly erases any reservations (the locals’ winking promise that all the sharks live on the “other side” of the island didn’t hurt). We cruised the beautiful Monforte III, docked just a short walk from our hotel, for a half day on the water so incredibly picturesque it felt truly surreal, anchoring to snorkel awhile and then climb back aboard, only to take turns swinging from a rope and leaping into the water below again. When people use the phrase “these are the things of which dreams are made,” I’m pretty sure this is what they’re talking about.
It’s known as “One Happy Island,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find a spot that doesn’t radiate the genuine warmth Aruba and its inhabitants are known for worldwide. The atmosphere at the Ritz-Carlton Aruba is certainly no exception. Planted at the northernmost point of a chain of resorts along Palm Beach, it provides a distinctly Aruban brand of luxury. Spacious guestrooms are quintessentially Caribbean, with bright tropical colors, and all have views of the azure waters beyond the property’s gorgeous pools and pristine beach. An on-property 24-hour casino is a fun diversion when it’s time to take a break from the sun, or not yet time to turn in for the night. Dining is delicious if a bit surprising. Its Casa Nonna Italian restaurant exudes authenticity, admittedly a little unexpected at least, though dinner here was ultimately one of my favorite meals on the entire island.
Still, there are delicious options off-property to sample Aruban cuisine, which is influenced not only by its geography but also its Spanish and Dutch heritage.
Papiamento is a charming restaurant in an “antique” home with indoor seating as well as outdoor tables surrounding a pool beneath a canopy of trees just about five minutes from the Ritz-Carlton. Closer to the sand, Elements elevates beachside dining with international cuisine and killer sunset views. Its “Aruban Dinner” menu features local staples including the “pan bati,” a pancake that’s ubiquitous here. Casual spots abound that take full advantage of the ocean’s bounty, but any conversation about the native epicurean offerings of Aruba would be incomplete without mention of two things: Chill lager and Hot Delight papaya hot sauce. While neither is probably the foundation of a Michelin-starred menu, both somehow capture the spirit of Aruba on the tongue, and likewise, both seem to complement nearly anything on any menu. I guarantee there’s been many a bottle of Hot Delight stashed in suitcases headed back to the U.S., though I wouldn’t recommend trying the same with the Chill.