¡Arriba, Aruba!

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 63 of the September 2013 issue.
An aerial view of Aruba's busy Palm Beach. Photos by Randy Keck

(First of two parts)

In June 2013 my wife, Gail, and I spent a getaway week in Aruba investigating the off-season appeal of this popular Southern Caribbean island that lies fewer than 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela. We were reinitiating a tradition of visiting a new Caribbean destination each year. 

Formerly part of the now-dissolved Netherlands Antilles, Aruba today is one of four constituent countries that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It boasts the highest percentage of repeat visitors of any Caribbean destination. A prime goal of my visit was to discover the reasons why.

There are 11 white-sand beaches on Aruba, and they all are accessible to both visitors and locals. The island enjoys and, at times, endures, the strongest trade winds in the Caribbean, which average 22 miles per hour and can greatly assist in providing respite from the tropical temperatures. 

These reliably constant trade wind conditions are why the island is a windsurfing mecca and hosts many international championship events. 

Oranjestad’s glistening new tram takes visitors around in style.

While Aruba’s azure-blue seascape is world class, its mostly flat, cactus-laden desert landscape is not particularly inspiring in terms of natural appeal, although this seems to matter little to most visitors. 

Despite the constant breezes, Aruba is in the enviable position of being situated outside of the hurricane belt and thus is seldom bothered by the major weather events that can seasonally affect more northerly Caribbean destinations.

Oranjestad wanderings

With a nod to its proud Dutch heritage but keeping the demands of high-impact tourism in mind, the island’s capital, modern-day Oranjestad (pop. 30,000), is well into the process of reinventing itself. 

There is a copious number of high-end shopping areas, and ongoing construction of new pedestrian-friendly malls is adding to the mix. In concert with the snazzy, new, free public-tram system, these improvements are designed to handle increasing numbers of visitors, particularly during the peak winter cruise season. 

Exploring the city on foot, Gail and I inspected several historic buildings that are examples of well-preserved Dutch Colonial architecture. We also allowed time for a guided tour of the impressive National Archaeological Museum Aruba, which celebrates 5,000 years of Amerindian culture. 

For traditional island fare, a local we met strongly recommended we try a local favorite, the Old Fisherman Restaurant (main course, $15-$25). It’s located on Weststraat in the heart of the city. Based on our experience, it is a must for seafood aficionados.

The Palm Beach scene

Except for a couple of properties in Oranjestad, most of the island’s hotels and resorts lie within two beach areas classified as low-rise and high-rise.

The high-rise hotel and resort district is along Palm Beach and features a strip of properties representing many of the larger international chains plus a plethora of shopping and dining options. 

The inviting beachfront at the Divi Aruba Phoenix Beach Resort on Aruba.

While Palm Beach is too built up to be my ideal cup of tea, I appreciated the time we spent there at and around the more removed Divi Aruba Phoenix Beach Resort, situated at the south end of the long stretch of sand.

Fortunately, we were at the beach on a Sunday afternoon and thereby were surrounded by picnicking local families rather than just other visitors. It reminded me of good times long ago in Hawaii. 

We also twice ventured to the Phoenix for dinner at its two beach restaurants, Pure Beach Lounge Bar & Restaurant (main course, $12-$20) and Pure Ocean (main course, $17-$38). At the latter, our fine-dining experience was right on the sand. 

While exploring Palm Beach, we sampled the rustic, over-water, end-of-the-pier Pelican Nest Seafood & Grill Bar, partaking of the best ceviche ($7.95) we have encountered since our magical wanderings in Fiji decades ago. Our waiter, a Cuban transplant, explained that the Pelican Nest is famous in Aruba for its ceviche, attracting many locals as regulars, especially during the daily happy hour.


The California Lighthouse stands vigil on the northwest tip of Aruba.

In the much quieter low-rise resort area, our accommodation at the Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort, where we received an industry discount, turned out to be the perfect choice.

Our spacious, one-bedroom, two-bath villa was in a quiet location, with three balconies overlooking a little-used pool and the resort’s golf course. The villa also had a full kitchen plus a washer and dryer, both of which we utilized fully. In general, double-occupancy, room-only rates start from $145 in the low season and from $245, high season. It is always a good idea to check for Internet specials before booking. 

Along with Divi Dutch Village, Divi Tamarijn All Inclusive and Divi Aruba All Inclusive, Divi Village is part of a 4-hotel complex of Divi properties sharing the long strand of idyllic white sand known as Druif Beach. 

We took advantage of the Divi Village option of purchasing an additional all-inclusive package for $125 per person per day. This allowed us to dine at 10 restaurants and 11 bars at all four properties, with unlimited drinks, beach lounges, nonmotorized water sports and unlimited golf after 3 p.m. on the attractive 9-hole course. 

It cost an additional $35 per person for the option of including a 3-course fine-dining experience at the lavish Windows on Aruba Restaurant, which I heartily recommend, based on our very positive experience.  

Gail looked forward to our daily breakfasts on the open-air deck of Mulligan’s Bar & Restaurant, a short walk from our villa. The expansive view of the ninth-hole green and adjacent fairways added to our relishing fresh-squeezed juices and scrambled eggs infused with black truffle. 

On the subject of golf, I somehow rather deftly managed an afternoon round at the resort, including the unique challenges presented by 25-mile-per-hour trade winds. Amazing what can happen when the ego takes a holiday!

Alto Vista Chapel is a landmark on the rugged northeastern coast of the island.

My take on the “all-inclusive option” is that, compared with the combined costs of outside restaurant meals and beverages, it is an excellent value for many visitors and is a particularly good bonus for golfers. 

Multigenerational family groups can benefit greatly from the resort’s kids-stay-and-dine-free policy, which applies to two children ages 18 and under with two paying adults. This option can make sense especially for stays of a week or less when not renting a car and when toting teenage children or grandchildren with expansive appetites. 

On call at the complex is an excellent, no-cost golf cart shuttle system, and we used it constantly to quickly access the beach and other points on the 4-property complex. During our week, we never really felt we had enough of a need of a car to justify the expense of a rental.

For those who prefer to prepare their own meals and/or combine such with some dining out, there are two supermarkets nearby to supply all needs. In particular, Ling & Sons IGA Super Center is quite large and impressive, featuring a wide range of grocery and household products imported from the US and other countries. Were it near my home, it would likely be my market of choice. 

To plan a visit

For information concerning various accommodation options and special packages for Aruba, contact Divi Resorts (800/367-3484, email reserve@diviresorts.com).

For general travel information about Aruba, contact the Aruba Tourism Authority (800/862-7822).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

"Return again to this tiny island in the sun
Escape from the confines 
A place where joy is found in the moment,
a welcoming smile the natural state of being
the energizing breeze a constant companion
this dot of sand in the warm azure sea, my home away "
— Randy’s effort to capture the essence of a repeat visitor’s declaration about her annual solo return to Aruba