Moments of true happiness have been challenging to find over the past two years, with our collective stress, fear, and grief often demanding priority. So when my fiancé Marco and I got engaged last month, we were desperately eager to do something to celebrate — and to also get the hell away from our apartment, where we had spent more time confined than any two people realistically should.
I’ve been to Aruba, the “One happy island,” a few times, and always come away with a new, happy memory: exploring Arikok National Park, taking a street art tour of San Nicolas, eating my weight in Keshi Yena, day drinking at MooMba Beach Bar, and having one of the most gorgeous dinners of my life on the beach at Flying Fishbone. It’s such a happy place for me, so it felt right, if not necessary, to introduce and share that joy with the person who I agreed to spend my life with.
A good vacation shouldn’t just be a temporary escape, but an opportunity to be changed. Now, several weeks after our return, we both remain on a bit of a high, the effects of having an incredible vacation in an incredible place continuing to breathe life and energy into our everyday. That’s why I still choose to travel to Aruba, given the option — it sticks with me long after I leave. Here’s what I’ve come to love after all my trips to the island.
On other islands, I’ve had my foot sliced open from the rough and dirty beaches, my face smacked by seaweed while trying to swim in the ocean, and my sleep chaotically disrupted by a hurricane flooding my hotel room at 4:00 a.m.
None of that has ever happened to me in Aruba, where the sand is like powder and I wake up daily to perfect 80-degree temps. The island is also outside of the hurricane belt, and it barely even rains at all. Hello, sunny, carefree days.
When I want to be part of the action, I head to Palm Beach, home to a majority of the island’s beachfront hotels and restaurants, water sports (the calm waters make it a great place for paddleboarding), and plenty of fun beach bars — MooMba Beach is my top spot to have a daytime drink or two. Cooling off with a Chill, the local beer of Aruba, is my go-to, but later in the day I’ll switch to ordering an Aruba Ariba, the island’s signature cocktail made of vodka, local rum, and fruit juices. It’s a gorgeous tropical drink that looks like a sunset — but fair warning, it sneaks up on you like a Long Island Iced Tea, especially after spending a full day in the sun.
A few minutes’ drive south is Eagle Beach, said by many to be Aruba’s most beautiful, largely because of the twisty Fofoti trees that grow from the sand. Laying out a blanket to watch the sunset bouncing off the ocean is an absolute must.
On the other side of the island is Arikok National Park, a rugged desert that encompasses 20 percent of the island. The epic, cacti-lined dirt terrain at Arikok is a really spectacular contrast to the standard white sand beaches only a few minutes away. But there are beaches here too, and they are some of my favorite spots to visit. I love walking along the coast at the quiet and secluded Boca Prins. It’s too rough to swim, but nearby is a natural pool, called Conchi, where tall volcanic rocks break the crashing waves and allow for a calm, swimmable (and even snorkel-able) oasis. Floating here, while listening to the roar of the wild ocean just beyond the rock wall’s edge, offers a similar thrill to ziplining — you know, realistically, that you’re safe, but you can’t help but feel like you’re living on the edge.
The Underwater Experience
Simply looking at or even wading into the ocean isn’t good enough for me. When I’m in a destination with waters as clear and perfectly blue as Aruba’s, I want to go all in. I’m an avid scuba diver, and Aruba is one of my favorite regions in the entire world to dive. There are a wide variety of reef and wreck dive sites for everyone to explore, whether you’re an old pro or you want to try scuba diving for the first time.
If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. I truly believe that scuba diving is the closest thing to going into outer space. Swimming underwater at neutral buoyancy (when you’re neither sinking nor rising to the surface but can float in place, perfectly still) feels like flying, and some of the creatures look like they’re from another universe. Which, in a sense, they are — an entire world exists below the surface, and diving gives you the chance to be part of it, if just for a moment.
After listening to me prattle on about my love of diving for the past two years, Marco agreed to give it a shot in Aruba on this trip. He wasn’t ready to commit to taking an open-water certification course without ever having tried it before, so we signed him up for an introductory “Discover Scuba Diving” class with Red Sail Sports Aruba with a friendly, multilingual instructor, Karl. We saw endless varieties of brightly colored fish, quirky characters like pufferfish and moray eels, and my arch-nemesis, the lionfish. Though awesome looking, lionfish are a nasty, invasive species that destroy local ecosystems. When underwater, hand signals are used to communicate; though the sign for lionfish is technically interlocking and wiggling your fingers, I taught Marco my version: giving the fish the bird.
A New Favorite Cuisine
While I get the appeal of staying in an all-inclusive resort, Aruba is a destination where you need to eat out. The food is that good. Seafood lovers have their pick of fantastic local restaurants; one of the most spectacular dinners I’ve ever had — not just in Aruba, but in general — was on the beach at Flying Fishbone in Savaneta. Wilhelmina also offers multiple pan-seared catches of the day, plus balchi di pisca, a local style fish cake, while Aqua Grill serves the most buttery red snapper, one of the island’s most popular catches. And the intimate, seven-course Caribbean-Peruvian tasting menu at The Kitchen Table is worth planning your entire day around.
Beyond the freshest seafood, the one dish you absolutely need to order in Aruba is Keshi Yena. This cheese and meat casserole is a Dutch Caribbean staple, and is considered the national dish of Aruba. The enthusiasm I have for the dish is second to none. A great place to try it is at Papiamento Restaurant, an upscale Aruban farmhouse filled to the brim with antiques, or get it to go from one of the island’s many Caribbean restaurants and eat it on the beach at sunset. Order it immediately and thank me later.
By now we’re all aware that most of the spectacular travel photos that influencers post are not usually reality (hello calculated angles, photo editing, and privileged access), but Aruba’s flamingos are every bit as exciting and beautiful as they appear on social media. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there is a private beach just off the coast where flamingos roam free and are more than happy to pose for photos with beachgoers… assuming you respect their boundaries.
Flamingo Beach is one of two beaches on Renaissance Island, accessible to guests of the island’s two Renaissance properties. Save for one hour in the morning, the beach is miraculously adults-only — with a beach bar that will deliver handcrafted cocktails to you on the sand.
Exploring the local arts scene is one of my favorite things to do when I travel, so I love popping my head into the different art galleries and admiring the ever-changing large-scale murals that adorn the walls of San Nicolas, the island’s art district and cultural capital. I took a walking tour of the city with the curator of the Aruba Art Fair, and as fun as exploring independently can be, hearing the context and stories behind the most popular murals brought them to life in a more meaningful way. San Nicolas also has a totally different vibe from the rest of Aruba. Visiting gave me the chance to immerse myself in the local culture, and see a side of the island I haven’t before.
It’s normal now for days to pass where I don’t leave my house (the curse of a home office), leaving me slumped over, fatigued to no end from an excess of screen time and virtual everything. Getting to travel internationally again — and to my very favorite island, no less — brought me back to a version of myself that I haven’t known since before the pandemic. My skin is a little bronzer and my smile a little brighter, the monkey on my back tossed overboard and left behind somewhere in the sea. Don’t let another day go by where the only rays you’re catching are the blue lights from your computer screen.
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