Of the hundreds of Caribbean islands - all boasting tropical appeal and brilliant turquoise waters - why does Aruba get the most repeat visitors? Three major reasons top the list: There's no rainy season; constant trade winds keep climates bearable (even in summer); and many direct flights make getting there a cinch. Not enough to get you packing? Picture this: You, lounging on the sugary sand; snorkeling among old shipwrecks and reefs; off-roading in an ATV in desert-like landscapes unique to this island; or pulling the handle at the slots at one of the many island casinos. Indeed, if your idea of the perfect vacation is a marriage of leisure, entertainment, and activities, you'll surely find Aruba is right for you.
One of three islands to compose the Dutch-owned ABC islands (the B and C are Bonaire and Curaçao), Aruba's location, just 20 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela, has produced a noticeably Latin vibe – to wit, though Dutch is the official language, you're far more likely to hear Spanish and Papiamento (a local dialect) spoken here. This isn't the island's only surprise, either: Though it has all the quintessential trappings of a picture-perfect Caribbean beach retreat – miles of white sand bordered by the aquamarine sea – the topography of the northern coast, especially around Arikok National Park, with its desert-like terrain dotted with cacti and peculiar rock formations, is remarkably unique in the Caribbean.
At just 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, Aruba is also the smallest of the ABCs, a size that makes it easy to explore on even a short trip. If you have three days, you'll have enough time to relax on the beach, plus snorkel, sail, and explore Oranjestad, Aruba's capital. With five days, you can make a pilgrimage to Aruba's wild north coast, where you'll find the old California Lighthouse and the Ayo Rock Formations. A week allows for plenty of island activities, from horse-back riding to golfing and hikes through Arikok National Park and along the sand dunes of Boca Prins.
Most visitors make home base on the southwestern shore, on the hotel strips along Palm and Eagle beaches. The colorful capital of Oranjestad is a few miles east of these, and the Queen Beatrix airport about two miles further onward. The northwest tip of the island, marked by the California Lighthouse, is known for its dusty plains, wild waves, abandoned farmlands, and Aruban wildlife; the southeast, where industrial San Nicolas is found, is home to Aruba's oil factory. We've covered our favorite beaches and activities below; check the Aruba Tourism Board website (www.aruba.com) for additional events, maps, dining and nightlife listings, plus tours and excursions.
If you've come to Aruba for the beaches – as most visitors do – the island has some fifteen to choose from, most concentrated along the southwest coast and ranging from fine white sand to pebble-and-shell-strewn. You can choose to spend your time on just one, or hop from one to the other on the Beach Express Tour (De Palm Tours; 297/582-4400; 4.5hr, $44; www.depalm.com;) that visits a few off-the-path favorites, namely Baby Beach, Rodger's Beach, and Mangel Halto Beach, via open-air bus (visits last about a half hour on each sandy stretch). Beachfront aside, no one can deny that the brilliant blue water surrounding the island is Aruba's star attraction and a plethora of watersports can be booked through your hotel's activity desk or directly at the waterfront piers located on the Eagle and Palm Beaches; fishing and boating excursions can also be booked right at the dock in Oranjestad.
If you're here on a vacation package, your hotel is likely to be on either Palm or Eagle beach – the two most popular strips of sand. Palm Beach is a smooth spread with the island's finest, powdery-soft sand with plenty of seating under palm-thatched shade, two piers, and several watersport outfitters. To the east of Palm Beach is Eagle Beach, the island's second-most-bustling stretch, and where various low-rise resorts and timeshare properties are located. This portion of sugary beach is a bit quieter than neighboring Palm, although it does have its share of beach bars, palapas (thatched umbrellas), and picnic areas.
Continue east to Aruba's widest sweep of sand, the fairly deserted Manchebo Beach, a.k.a. Punta Brabo, where only a few small European-style resorts are found and topless sunbathing is permitted. The surf is a bit stronger here than elsewhere on island, and you won't find watersports on offer – instead, you'll find enjoy plenty of seclusion and refreshing waves.
Pebbly Fisherman's Huts Beach, also known as Hadikurari, is an ideal windsurfing spot and where most lessons take place. It sits just above and to the west of Palm Beach, and its waters are dotted with colorful sails speeding across the surf.
Mangel Halto, on the east side of the island, between Oranjestad and Savaneta in the village of Pos Chiquito, boasts shallow waters and fine white sand. It's also an excellent spot to have a picnic lunch. On the island's eastern tip, you'll find Rodger's Beach, a bowed cove with exceptionally calm swimming conditions and a pier that's always crowded with kids – it's a great platform for cannonballing into the crystalline water. The Coco Beach Bar here is great for snacks and cocktails.
As its name suggests, Baby Beach (just east of Rodgers) is popular with families for its shallow, protected coves and powdery, shell-free sand; thatched huts provide shade and a snack truck sells burgers, dogs, soft drinks, and beer. But if you long for your very own bit of beach, head immediately north, to Boca Grandi, the most remote beach on Aruba, a stunning stretch of solitary sand that's bordered by dunes and limestone cliffs, but has no facilities or shelter from the sun; the waters here are quite rough and are only recommended for advanced swimmers and windsurfers.
Arashi Beach, near the lighthouse at the island's northwest tip, boasts one of Aruba's best swimming and snorkeling sites, soft sand, and calm waters; while you'll have to bring your own gear (the beach has no facilities), on-site beach huts provide reprieve from the sun.
Pastel-colored Dutch colonial architecture along with dozens of restaurants, shops, and museums make up downtown Oranjestad, the island's easily walkable capital on Aruba's western side. The main thoroughfare, Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard, runs along the waterfront and is lined with malls, marinas, casinos, and bars. A good place to start exploring is the white tourist information booth next to Atlantic Pier.
Turn left down Oranjestraat to see one of Aruba's oldest buildings, the 18th-century Fort Zoutman (Zoutmanstraat 1; 297/582-6099), erected in 1796 to protect the island from pirate raids. The adjoining Willem III Tower, built in 1867, has since served as a jail, a courthouse, and even an aloe garden, but now houses the Aruba Historical Museum (Zoutmanstraat 1; Mon-Fri 9am-noon,1:30-4.40pm; $6) that traces the island's history from its pre-historic origins through the Dutch colonial period up to today. A different experience awaits one block over, where the Numismatic Museum of Aruba (Weststraat; Mon-Thurs 9am-4pm, Fridays 9am-1pm, Saturdays 9am-12pm; 297/582-8831; $5) exhibits a notable collection of historical coins from over 400 countries.
The Rest of Aruba
If you tire of the beach, it's easy to visit our recommended local attractions in an afternoon and Aruba's outback in a day. Getting around is pretty straightforward: you can either call a taxi from your hotel (Best Taxi; 297/582-1604) or take an island tour (ABC Aruba Tours; 297/582-5600; www.abc-aruba.com). Jeep tours are also ideal for exploring the rocky northwest coast; try De Palm Tours (297/582-4400; $69+; www.depalm.com) and AA Jeep Tours (297/568-8720; $55+; www.arubasafari.com) for off-road Aruba safaris, or cover the stark Aruban terrain on an ATV (De Palm Tours; 9am or 1:30pm; 297/582-4400; $75; www.depalm.com); the bumpy trek will take you to the Balashi Gold Mill Ruins and through the rugged trails of Arikok (see below for more information).
Starting from the Palm Beach area and heading up the coast, you'll first come upon the Butterfly Farm (J.E. Irausquin Blvd.; daily 9am-4.30pm; 297/586-3656; $12), home to forty species of brilliant butterflies from all over the world. Right round the corner looms the famous Old Dutch Windmill (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 330; 297/586-2060), shipped from the Netherlands to Aruba in 1960. Continuing north, you'll come to Santa Ana Church (Caya F. D. Figaroa; 297/586-1409), originally built in 1776 and famous for its neo-Gothic, hand-carved oak altar (Sunday Mass is held at 7.30am and 6pm in the local dialect of Papiamento); do poke around the adjacent cemetery full of colorful above-ground graves.
Further north still, on the island's northernmost hilltop, stands the California Lighthouse, built in 1916 and named in tribute to the California, a passenger ship that sank just offshore. Although it no longer functions, the beacon still rises above a stunning backdrop of rolling dunes, boulder-strewn shores, and crashing waves. The little, yellow Alto Vista Church, about 15 minutes further along the dirt road that lines the coast, was the first chapel in Aruba, and the striking contrast between the cheerful church and the turquoise ocean behind it makes for a great photo op. Further east along the coast, you'll come across reminders of Aruba's mid-19th-century gold rush; the Bushiribana Ruins, for one, are thought to have produced 3 million pounds of gold in its 90 years of operation.
Centuries of pounding surf and fierce winds have sculpted archways out of coral rock to create Aruba's natural bridges. Although the island's massive 25-ft-high, 100-ft-long Natural Bridge collapsed in 2005, a similar but smaller wonder, Baby Bridge, sits nearby and is still impressive. To the south of the bridge are the Ayo Rock Formations - stacks of rocks and boulders - once thought to have religious significance, but now thought to give good luck. The latest Aruba folklore says piling these stones on top of each other will assure a fruitful and fertile life; it has become customary for newlyweds and couples to stack their own and thousands line the shore.
If you're with the kids, you may want to stop a half-mile from the Ayo Rock Formations at the Donkey Sanctuary (297/584-1063; www.arubadonkey.org), where dozens of these stubborn but friendly animals are cared for. More animal fun is in store at the Ostrich Farm (daily 9am-4pm; 297/585-9630; www.arubaostrichfarm.com), further down the same no-name dirt road as the Natural Bridge and home to friendly resident ostriches that will eat seed from the palm of your hand. De Palm Island is another family-friendly attraction located off the coast of Pos Chiquito, and although it sits just off the southern coast, most tours and excursions off the northwestern shore end with a trip to here. The tiny island touts sandy shores, excellent snorkeling, and the new Blue Parrotfish Water Park (9am-6pm daily, ferries depart every half-hour; 297/854-799; www.depalm.com) with 70 wet attractions; a five-minute ferry ride connects De Palm with the mainland.
On the northeast side of the island and stretching deep into the interior, Arikok National Park surrounds the 577-foot Mount Arikok and is an unspoiled landscape bordered by a jagged shoreline and pounding surf. Well-marked hiking trails wind through the terrain if you want to explore on foot, but if you prefer to be behind the wheel, a bumpy dirt road fit for 4X4s leads into the park from Highway 7A and continues to the coast. The ecological preserve covers about 20 per cent of Aruba and is more reminiscent of the scenery in Arizona's national parks than of a Caribbean island; expect to see abandoned gold mines, sand dunes, limestone cliffs, and rock outcrops. Iguanas, snakes, owls, and various other animals – many indigenous to Aruba – live here; the morning is best for wildlife viewing. Along the coast, you'll pass rolling hillsides and limestone bluffs filled with cacti, divi-divi trees, and peculiar rock formations. Other attractions within the park include the Boca Prins, a sandy enclave below the bluffs that hosts hatching sea turtles come spring; Dos Playa, a two-cove beach that attracts bathers and picnickers to its wide sandy spread and unruly ocean sprays (though swimming is not advised here); the Natural Pool, a calm protected inlet; and Fontein Cave, one of the island's finest limestone caves, its walls and ceilings festooned with Amerindian drawings and European graffiti.
ISLAND WATER & LAND ACTIVITIES
Powerful winds, crystal-clear waters teeming with fish, and protected bays and coves make for fantastic nautical adventures on Aruba. Whether windsurfing, scuba diving, boating, or just splashing around in the luke-warm waves off Aruba's shores, seafaring enthusiasts can get their kicks in the water. Land lubbers will also rejoice at the dry activities on island: Hop in the saddle and see the island on horseback, tee off at one of Aruba's golf courses, or hit the dirt on an ATV 4-wheeler – you'll soon discover that Aruba has plenty on offer to occupy your time on land. We've highlighted the most popular water and land activities below.
With constant ocean winds hovering around 15 knots, windsurfing and kitesurfing are very popular on the island. Beginners should stick to the southwest shores where winds are gentler, but seasoned surfers can hit up the best locations along the northern and southeast shores, like Boca Grandi, one of the island's ultimate surf zones. If you're keen to try extreme surfing, visit in June when speed demons flock to the island for the Aruba Hi-Winds windsurfing contest (297/586-0440; www.aruba-hiwinds.org), a 10-day tournament that attracts hundreds of professional and amateur surfers.
We recommend two outfits to get you geared up teach you the sports: Dare2Fly (800/223-5443; $165+; www.dare2fly.com) offers a three-day beginner kitesurfing course ($375) with daily 2-hour lessons in calmer waters so fledglings can earn their wings. Aruba Active Vacations (297/586-0989; $50+; www.aruba-active-vacations.com) offers an instructional two-hour windsurfing program and a 5-hour beginner course; all are located on Fisherman's Hut Beach near the Marriott Ocean Club.
If you prefer your vessel to sport a larger sail (or a motor), check out Aruba's many boat tours. De Palm Tours (297/582-4400; $39+; www.depalm.com) offers a sailing and snorkeling combo on a 40-foot catamaran that stops at three different snorkeling areas, all offering fantastic underwater sights, including the Antilla, a famous World War II shipwreck. Pelican Adventures (Pelican Pier between Playa Linda and the Holiday Inn on Palm Beach; daily 9.30am; 297/586-1455; $69; www.pelican-aruba.com) offers an aqua safari on a luxe catamaran with beach and snorkeling stops, European breakfast, champagne lunch, and open bar. Take a peek at Aruba's aquatic life without getting wet on a glass-bottom boat (De Palm Tours; daily 11am; 297/582-4400; $32.50; www.depalm.com), where you can work on your tan on the upper deck and take in views of the reefs and the sunken Antilla on the lower. Or, sink 120 feet beneath the surface on a submarine with Atlantis Adventures (departing from the Renaissance Marina in downtown Oranjestad; 297/588-6881; $94; www.atlantisadventures.com) and explore brilliant coral reefs, sunken ships, and colorful marine life.
To get up-close-and-personal with the underwater world, Red Sail Sports (877/733-7245; $79+; www.redsailaruba.com) offers 5-star PADI-certified scuba programs and dive sites along the calm waters a short distance from the high-rise hotels on Palm Beach; beginners may want to take advantage of the one-day introductory class which includes instruction, pool session, a one-tank boat dive, and equipment. Or, if you're not quite ready to take the ultimate underwater plunge, try snuba diving with De Palm Tours ($112; www.depalm.com), and dive up to 20-feet deep without heavy scuba gear on your back.
If reeling in marlin, wahoo, shark, barracuda, blackfin, and yellowfin tuna is more your speed than swimming with them, a fishing excursion is your best bet. Excursions can be booked through your hotel or directly with the captain of your chosen vessel along the docks of Seaport Marina at Oranjestad Harbor. For some serious deep-sea fishing, we'd recommend chartering your own boat with Mahi Mahi Fishing Charters (297/587-0538; half-day trips for 4 people $325; www.aruba-mahimahi.com).
Aruba's high winds make for a challenging golf game so get ready to battle with the gusts at Aruba's 18-hole, championship Tierra del Sol Golf Course (Malmokweg; 297/586-0978; $145; www.tierradelsol.com), designed by Robert Trent Jones II. Located in the northwest region near the California Lighthouse, the course showcases desert terrain and ocean panoramas. The Links at Divi Aruba (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 93; $70+; www.divigolf.com), across from the Divi Aruba Resort, offers nine holes, a clubhouse, and Mulligans Bar & Restaurant (with open-air terrace).
Giddy-up cowboys and gals can tour Aruba's rocky coasts and national park on horseback. Rancho Daimari (Palm Beach 33-B; 297/586-6284; $60; www.visitaruba.com/ranchodaimari), located on a coconut plantation on the northern coast, offers tours on winding trails through the Arikok National Park and to the Natural Pool. The Gold Mine Ranch (Matividiri 60; 297/585-9870; $55; www.thegoldmineranch.com), just minutes from the mine ruins on the northwest coast is great for beginners and kids, plus offers both group and private tours. Rancho Notorious (Boroncana; 297/586-0508; $55+; www.ranchonotorious.com) covers trails along the north coast to the sand dunes and lighthouse, along the coastline, or through the countryside.
Speed along Aruba's dusty frontier via ATV in a state-of-the-art racer. Rancho Notorious (Boroncana; 297/586-0508; $65+; www.ranchonotorious.com) offers 3-hour private and group tours that take you on rides past the Alto Vista Chapel, along the coast to Bushiribana, the Ayo Rock Formations, and the natural pool; goggles and refreshments are included. Rancho Daimari (Palm Beach 33-B; 297/586-6284; $65+; www.visitaruba.com/ranchodaimari) offers similar excursions along the northern coast.
Aruba is no stranger to the high-rise all-inclusive resort craze and there are plenty to choose from, with a few brand-new options, spa resorts, and private villas thrown in. That said, some intimate, less-pretentious hotels can still be found on less-crowded beaches and in tucked-away coves. While most reputable properties are on the expensive side, especially in the winter months, the off-season (mid-April through mid-December) often finds hotel rates slashed by up to 50%. If you prefer to be in the thick of things, plan on staying at one of larger resorts found on Palm Beach, or at one of the few in Oranjestad.
One of our favorite luxury mainstays is the Bucuti Beach Resort (L.G. Smith Blvd. 55B; 297/583-1100; www.bucuti.com), a classy, eco-minded hotel on a quiet stretch of Eagle Beach with a mostly adult clientele. Elegant rooms are done up in creamy hues with cherry-wood furnishings – the best units have an oceanfront terrace or balcony – and its first-class spa and on-site Pirates' Nest Restaurant, are two of its other draws. For secluded opulence, reserve your own private villa at the 4-star Tierra del Sol Aruba Resort & Country Club (Malmokweg; 800/992-2015; www.tierradelsol.com), an exclusive community boasting a championship golf course, pools, restaurant, and a spa, set on 600 acres on the island's northern tip. The sophisticated villas have furnished patios or balconies, chic furnishings, kitchens with dishwashers, and washers/dryers. The latest all-inclusive luxury resort, the Occidental Grand Aruba (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 83; 800/858-2258; www.occidentalhotels.com), sits on Palm Beach and attracts a sophisticated crowd; the elegant rooms feature tile and marble floors, dark-wood armoires and headboards, and private terraces. The Marriott Aruba Ocean Club (L.G. Smith Blvd. 99; 297/586-9000; www.marriott.com) has the best spa in town – an Indonesian-style oasis with rejuvenating treatments highlighting the invigorating and exfoliating properties of Aruba's aloe and Bonaire's salt; the smart one- and two-bedroom suites come with full kitchens and oceanfront balconies.
For an appealing mid-priced option, The Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 252; 800/932-6509; www.amsterdammanor.com) is a boutique gem nestled on Eagle Beach with charming Dutch-colonial embellishments like gabled roofs and turrets. Rooms feature European cabinetry and furnishings, plus balconies or patios with courtyard or ocean views. Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 55; 800/223-1108; www.manchebo.com) is an excellent-value beach boutique set on a pristine stretch of sand with a first-rate spa and rooms with fine Indonesian-style furniture, private patios or balconies, and flat-screen TVs. The Westin Aruba (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 77; 877/822-2222; www.westin.com), with its Casablanca Casino, sits on a spectacular stretch of Palm Beach where all rooms overlook the ocean; its updated units boast new marble baths and flat-screen TVs.
For the best budget digs, La Cabana Villas (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 250; 800/835-7193;www.lacabanaaruba.com) offers studios and suites – great for groups and families – with lots of amenities; most units face the courtyard or pool area, and all come with dark-wood furniture, kitchens or kitchenettes, bamboo accents, and floral prints. The Talk of the Town Hotel Beach Club (L.G. Smith Blvd. 2; 297/582-3380; www.tottaruba.com), with its tropically adorned rooms complete with fridge, microwave, and coffeemake, is a long-standing island favorite among returning Europeans; its well-equipped beach club across the street features a strand of chairs, umbrellas, towels, and a snack bar for residents.
Though many struggle to find high-quality food in the Caribbean, dining out in Aruba is a delight; the only trouble is narrowing down your options. Since most ingredients are imported (beef is flown in from Argentina; vegetables from Venezuela and the US) tabs tend to run on the expensive side, but portions usually run large and meals are most always satisfying. Reservations are recommended at most restaurants, especially during the busy winter months. Most are located in Oranjestad and in or near the hotel zones along Palm and Eagle beaches, but a few off-the-path gems are scattered around the island.
On the high end, you can't beat Le Dôme (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 224; 297/587-1517; www.ledome-aruba.com) for Belgian/French cuisine; start off with some foie gras or scallops au gratin then indulge in rock lobster tails, beef tenderloin, or pan-fried ostrich fillets (the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix herself favors one of the restaurant's signature shrimp dishes, Scampi Le Dome – shrimp in a spicy cream sauce). Another French-fusion bistro tops our list: Chez Mathilde (Havenstraat 23; closed for lunch on Sundays; 297/583-4968; www.chezmatilde.com) offers topnotch cuisine in an elegant setting with a Belle Epoque glass ceiling; delicious menu choices include escargot, salmon terrine, oven-roasted grouper with avocado salsa, and prime rib-eye steak with garlic tomato chutney and roasted scallions. For some local flavor (literally) check out Papiamento (Washington 61; dinner only, closed Sunday; 297/586-4544), which serves up award-winning Caribbean cuisine (try the Keshi Yena, an Aruban chicken-and-beef baked specialty with Gouda, onions, raisins, and cashews) from a 200-year-old converted farmhouse; candle-lit tables surround the pool and romantic courtyard, while indoor tables are surrounded by antiques and family bric-a-brac.
Moderate prices and delightful fare are found at Driftwood (Klipstraat 12; Wed-Mon 5:30-11pm; 297/583-2515; www.driftwoodaruba.com), an authentic Aruba seafood joint in a cozy rustic setting; the menu changes nightly depending on what the owner catches that day, but the lobster crepe (if available) is one decadent delight not to miss. Hostaria da' Vittorio (L.G. Smith Blvd. 380; 297/586-3838) serves up tasty Italian treats like baked artichokes, pizza, osso bucco, and gnocchi with tomatoes and mozzarella. Amazônia (J.E. Irasquin Blvd. 374; dinner only; 297/586-4444) is the spot for carnivores; its prime selections of Argentine beef, chicken, and lamb are served in a handsome venue with a wraparound porch lit by two massive torches. Next door to the California Lighthouse, in what used to be the lighthouse-keeper's home, is a fine Italian restaurant, La Tratorria El Faro Blanco (297/586-0786; www.aruba-latrattoria.com), offering an enchanting setting for watching the sunset while enjoying carpaccio, calamari, and the like.
Cheap eats can be had at Cuba's Cookin' (Wilhelminastraat 27; 297/588-0627; closed Sun; www.cubascookin.com) where fun Latin beats, sweet mojitos, and traditional Cuban specialties like lightly grilled seafood combos and shredded beef sautéed in tomatoes give diners a taste of Cuba – lighting up a cigar after your meal is optional. For a genuine Aruba experience, head to Nos Cunucu (Tanki Leendert 145K; closed Sun; 297/582-7122), a homey joint located in a traditional farmstead complete with live chickens in the courtyard; the food is straight-up down-home cooking with items like cheese pastechis (deep-fried polenta), Aruban fish soup, grilled fish, and beef curry on the menu.
Aruba's casinos, dance clubs, shows, bars, and beachfront lounges are widely regarded as some of the Caribbean's best, and are just some of the options that keep night owls – from partying spring-breakers to letting-loose lawyers – going till dawn. L.G. Smith Boulevard, along the harbor in Oranjestad, is packed with bars, making for a convenient bar crawl. We've highlighted some of our favorite nightspots both in the capital and beyond to help you make the most of your evening hours here.
Hitting the slots or playing the tables are two of Aruba's most popular pastimes, and several of the flashy casinos here stage Las Vegas-style shows as well. Casablanca Casino is home to the Havana Tropical Show (Westin Aruba Resort, Spa & Casino; 877/822-2222), while The Casino (Radisson Aruba Resort & Casino; 297/586-6555) has live music Wednesday through Saturday. Crystal Casino (Renaissance Aruba Resort; 297/583-6000) is home to the well-received Let's Go Latin; serious gamers will like Stellaris Casino (Aruba Marriott Resort; 297/586-9000), a mega casino with a rowdy table crowd; and Royal Cabana Casino (La Cabana All-Suite Beach Resort; 297/587-9000) offers bingo and a theater that rotates various acts.
For sunset snacks and cocktails on the water, the setting at Pinchos Bar & Grill (L.G. Smith Blvd. 7; 297/583-2666) is unmatched – you may even recognize it from The Bachelor (2005), when Charlie wooed one of the final female contestants here. With its superb over-water alfresco setting complete with candlelit waterside tables and cushioned swings, lovebirds can canoodle over a bottle of wine and a tasty selection of skewer samplers (called pinchos). Blue (Renaissance Aruba Resort, L.G. Smith Blvd. 82; 297/583-6000) is a stylish and laid-back bar that makes a great start to a night out or end to a day out; people-watch and munch on tasty tapas while friendly mixologists shake up smooth cocktails. Kokoa Beach Bar (De Palm Pier; 297/586-2050) is the best spot for some après-sun socializing with a thatched-roof palapa-style bar and a bikini-clad clientele throwing back frosty cocktails at happy hour (3pm-5pm). Scandals (L.G. Smith Blvd. 9; 297/583-4488) is a casual restaurant that doubles as a trendy bar at night, with an eclectic mix of music, tropical cocktails, and menu with everything from escargot-pesto salad to traditional burgers. For a night out on the water, Tattoo Party Cruises (De Palm Pier between the Aruba Grand and the Radisson; 8pm; $39; www.arubatattoo.com;) offers 4-hour dinner cruises on a bona fide floating nightclub with a buffet dinner and drinks that start at $1.
Nightcrawlers can't miss Carlos'n Charlie's (Westraat 3-A; 297/582-0355), a hopping sombrero-studded bar that attracts a younger crew who dig the massive mixed drinks and great frozen margaritas (in glasses that double as souvenirs); the speakers blast retro tunes from the '60s to the '80s and patrons can even try out svelte Latin moves with free merengue lessons offered on select nights. Moomba Beach (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 230; 297/586-5365; www.moombabeach.com) touts a cool beachfront location and a young crowd that make this hot party place happening day and night. No shirts or shoes are necessary and bartenders pour fruity coconut-and-banana-infused libations until dawn. Havana Beach Club (LG Smith Blvd. 1; 297/582-0153) offers a sports bar vibe with big-screen TVs, pool tables, and dart tables; two large decks overlook a sandy volleyball court and, on Monday nights, you can catch a movie right on the beach – just pay $3 for your own beach chair.Don't miss the monthly Full Moon Party here for some additional mayhem.
For music, try Sopranos Piano Bar (L. G. Smith Blvd. 477; 297/586-8622), named after the hit HBO series, and order a dirty martini while joining a Tony Bennett sing-a-long by the Baby Grand.
Most of Aruba's shopping is found in Oranjestad,where boutiques sell the usual array of imported fashions, perfume, liquor, crystal, and china. Duty-free stores abound, and deals can be had on jewelry, watches, local handicrafts, and embroidered clothing; head to Caya G.F. Betico Croes for the greatest concentration of shops. Outside the capital, majorshopping centers also do brisk business; we particularly recommend Renaissance Marketplace (www.shoparubarenaissance.com), home to big-names like Lacoste, Polo Ralph Lauren, Furla, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton.
For fine accessories, visit two boutiques in Oranjestad: Tous Jewelry (Havenstraat 4; 297/588-7258; www.tous.es) offers an impressive collection of Spanish-designed jewelry, from chunky and trendy bracelets to elegant and sophisticated necklaces. If you're in the market for a Rolex, Gandelman Jewelers (LG Smith Blvd. 82; 297/529-9900) is the best place to go, with an array of luxury timepieces and jewelry.
Aruba is also a good spot to find European fashions that are hard to come by back home. Mango (Caya G. F. Betico Croes 9; 297/582-9700; www.mango.com), the Spanish clothing chain, maintains a store here that offers hip, high-end duds and some small collections by guest designers. Another good bet is Gimmick NV (Seaport Village Mall; 297/583-9244), which keeps European lines in stock.
Still, the best souvenirs are local: Aruba's own aloe vera products and Dutch treats like chocolate, cheese, and delftware (Dutch ceramics). Aloe, once Aruba's main export, is found at various shops and cosmetic stores around the island, though we especially recommend visiting the Aruba Aloe Museum (Pitastraat 115; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 9am-2pm; 297/588-3222; www.aruba.aloe.com) where you can take an educational tour before choosing from dozens of aloe creams, gels, shampoos, and other products at the museum's well-stocked gift shop. For most other local products, head to either Vibes (Royal Plaza Mall; 297/583-7949) for local art, Cuban cigars, handcrafted jewelry, Dutch Delft ceramics, and hand-carved trinkets, or to Oranjestad's Weitnauer (Caya G.F. Betico Croes 29; 297/582-2790) for Dutch goodies like cheese and chocolate, and choice brands of scotch and vodka.
Aruba's sister islands, Bonaire and Curaçao, may match Aruba when it comes to flawless weather but provide two very different Caribbean experiences all the same. Bonaire is a diver's haven – consistently ranked as the Caribbean's top dive spot – while Curaçao appeals to history and culture buffs with its capital, Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to 55 different cultures and high-caliber international cuisine of the sort you'd expect in cities like New York and San Francisco. Both are worth the visit. Despite their close proximity, there are no ferries from Aruba; instead, you'll have to book a quick flight on American Airlines (www.aa.com), BonairExpress (599/717-0808; www.bonairexpress.com), or The Dutch Antilles Express (599/717-0808; www.flydae.com). Most flights cost around $50-$80 each way and last 30 minutes.
When To Go
Since near-perfect weather is a sure thing in Aruba all year round (it and its sister islands are located on the fringe of the hurricane belt so there's no rainy season and only a 2% chance of encountering a serious tropical storm), there's really no bad time to visit. January through March are the most popular months and Aruba's high season, but prices drop significantly from mid-April through August ( the low season), so we'd recommend the off-season months for a better value. Even in the summer, temperatures are bearable, thanks to the constant breezes and a dry climate that rules out oppressive humidity. Just before Lent, Aruba has its Carnival celebration and the island is abuzz with parades and parties. In October, the Aruba Music Festival attracts headliners such as Lionel Richie, Styx, Pat Benatar, and John Mayer. September is the only month when those darling trade winds are known to die down a bit and you can actually feel the heat. To get the best bang for your buck, booking a package for travel spring through fall is probably your best bets.
Best bang for your buck:
One of the top selling points of vacationing in Aruba is easy flying time, especially from the East Coast. Nonstop flights to Aruba Queen Beatrix International Airport (AUA) depart from Miami, New York (JFK), Philadelphia, Charlotte, Houston, and Chicago (seasonal service). American Airlines (www.aa.com) has daily nonstop flights from Miami, New York, and San Juan; weekly service from Boston. Continental (www.continental.com) flies nonstop from Houston and Newark, while Delta (www.delta.com) flies from Atlanta daily and weekly from New York. JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) has daily nonstop flights from New York, while US Airways (www.usairways.com) offers daily nonstop service from Philadelphia and Charlotte.
Note: A great perk about flying home from Aruba is that since U.S. Customs and Immigration agents are stationed at Aruba's airport, formalities for re-entering the country are over and done with by the time you board your plane, making for an easy-breezy return to your home city. With this in mind, be sure to give yourself a good 3 hours to check in and go through customs.
There are plenty of deals on air-and-hotel packages to Aruba floating around the web. Most airlines and discount travel sites, like Expedia (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), and Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), usually have a smattering of offers posted at all times. You can also check out Caribbean specialists like CheapCaribbean.com (www.cheapcaribbean.com), Vacations For Less (www.vacations4less.com), Discount Vacations (www.discountvacations.com), and Vacation Outlet (www.vacationoutlet.com). For tailor-made luxury getaways, try Classic Vacations(www.classicvacations.com) or Lux Getaways (www.luxgetaways.com).
Getting around Aruba
It's not necessary to rent a car unless you're planning to explore on your own for at least a few full days. Otherwise, there are plenty of sightseeing tours (listed in Attractions section) that will get you to all the desired sights. For nights out on the town, taxis and buses provide a reliable and affordable means of transportation.
For car rentals, try Budget (Kolibristraat 1; 800/472-3325; www.budgetrentacar.com); Avis (Kolibristraat 14; 800/331-1212; www.avis.com); Thrifty Car Rental (at the airport; 800/847-4389); or Hertz (Sabano Blanco 35; 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com) Local agencies may provide better rates and are worth checking out: Explore Car Rental (Schotlandstraat 85; 877/803-9313; www.explorecarrental.com), and Economy Car (Bushiri 27; 297/583-0200; www.economyaruba.com). Buses are reliable in Aruba, running regularly from 6am to 6pm every half-hour and from 6pm to midnight once every hour. Round-trip fare between the beach hotels and Oranjestad costs $2, while a one-way ride is $1.10. The Arubus office (297/582-7089) will have up-to-date schedules as will your hotel's front desk. Taxis have fixed rates, no meters, so discuss the price before you get in to avoid surprising high tariffs. You can easily grab a taxi right from your hotel; hailing them in the street is a lot more difficult. Have the number for a taxi service on hand so you can call for a ride once you're out and about. The dispatch office can arrange taxis (297/582-2116) or try Best Taxi Services Aruba (297/588-3232) or Taxi Address Service (297/587-5900).