Aruba, Jamaica, oooo I wanna take you....you now have that stuck in your head, don't you?
Aruba is one of those places I'd been before, but never really considered returning. My first experience was on a cruise, and I remember very little of it. It was Day 9, I was exhausted, cranky, traveling with my mom, and ready to be home. I know we took a tour, and I know we saw the Alto Vista Chapel. That's about it.
When COVID-19 derailed my plans to go to Greece in May, I began looking for alternatives. Many of my travel agent friends had talked about Aruba's agent program, and how it was such a great way to experience the island. I figured I had nothing to lose; at the very least, I'd enjoy the beach time.
I fell in love the moment I stepped off the plane. After three days, it felt like home.
I spent a week in Aruba, and barely scratched the surface of all the incredible island has to offer. For such a small place (Aruba is only 21 miles long), there's a ton to do. A week wasn't long enough, by far.
Aruba is located in the Southern Caribbean, 17 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It's far enough south that it's outside the Hurricane Belt, making it a great choice for vacations during the late summer months along with Bonaire and Curacao (the ABC islands!) It's easy to get to, only a 3.5 hour flight from Atlanta, and has an average daily temperature of 82 degrees. Aruba is an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and English is widely spoken. There are only about 100,000 people living on Aruba, and you can drive the length of the island in under an hour (and yes, they drive on the right side of the road!)
Your First Trip to Aruba
I landed in Aruba with a list a mile long of places to go, things to see, and food to eat. I barely made a dent. If you take nothing from this post, make it this: don't try to see and do allthethings during your first trip. Take your time, and enjoy the slower pace of island life. Before long, you'll find yourself breathing more easily and smiling more quickly. Make time for these 8 highlights, and don't give in to FOMO. You'll be back - Aruba is just like that.
All of these can be done without a car, though driving in Aruba is easier than you think and a great way to immerse yourself in the destination. Read my post about how to get around in Aruba, and you'll be navigating the roundabouts like a pro. If renting a car just isn't your thing, you can hit all of these spots on a tour, or by taxi.
1. California Lighthouse
You're likely staying in Palm Beach or Eagle Beach (stay tuned for my next post on where to stay!), so you'll be a short drive away from the California Lighthouse. Situated at the northern tip of the island, the lighthouse was built between 1914-1916 and was named after a steamship that sank just off the coast. Once you drive up there, you'll probably get an understanding of why. It's more than 90 feet tall, and you can climb to the top for a $5 donation. It took me about 5 minutes, and coming down was far worse than going up.
From the top, expect a small platform, but stunning 360 degree views of the island. You can see along the north coast, down to Arikok National Park. You can see Hooiberg, the High Rise section, and the Arashi Beach area. It's a gorgeous view, and even if you don't climb to the top, still worth the visit.
2. The Donkey Sanctuary
The Spanish brought donkeys to Aruba 500 years ago. Until relatively recently, they played a huge part in Aruba's economy, transporting both people and goods. At the beginning of the 20th century, around 1400 donkeys existed on the island; as the car became popular, they were no longer needed and most were set free. Their population dwindled, likely due to disease, and in the 1970s only about 20 donkeys remained.
Over time, the donkey population slowly increased, but the effects of human progress made their existence somewhat turbulent. Many were injured or killed, whether by cars or meanspirited people.
Now, the donkeys have a safe haven at the Donkey Sanctuary, and visitors from all over the world can hear their story and pet their fuzzy muzzles. I spent over an hour here feeding, brushing, and just enjoying their donkey company. Admission is free, but donations are accepted (and encouraged). Take the time to talk to the volunteers to learn about the donkeys - they all have interesting and inspiring stories.
3. Snorkel the Antilla Shipwreck
Snorkeling anywhere in Aruba is kind of a must-do, but if you take a tour, make sure it includes the Antilla shipwreck (I recommend Red Sail). The Germans sank the ship in WWII rather than hand it over to the Dutch, and it's still there today, teeming with sea life.
It's in 60 feet of water, but you won't even know it. It'll feel like it's right beneath you, and the fish, coral, and sea turtles will make you feel like you're a character in a Disney film.
About a minute after I jumped into the water, I happened to catch a glimpse of a turtle swimming up out of the depths. I caught his/her ascent, then floated along behind while he hung out on the surface. There was no one else around, despite my frantic gesturing. Eventually, he wandered off, though he came back by later for others to glimpse. Without a doubt, the most memorable moment of my trip.
4. Stroll through San Nicholas
San Nicholas is the second largest city after Oranjestad, and a place after my own heart. It's had a bit of a renaissance in the last several years; previously a rather unsavory place (it had its own red light district), city organizers have worked hard to turn the area into a cultural center. Each year, they bring in international artists to create murals on the city walls as part of the Aruba Art Fair.
You can take a guided mural tour, or stop in the visitor's center for a map. Or, just wander like I did. Your Instagram feed will love you.
5. Explore the North Coast
Aruba's North Coast is spectacular, and such a vast departure from the calm clear beaches you'll see everywhere else. Here, the waves pound the coastline, the rocks jut up out of nowhere, and the wind blows fiercely. It's a bit like what I imagine being on the moon might be like - otherworldly.
Join a tour, or if you're adventurous, rent a Jeep from Top Drive and drive south from the Lighthouse to the Natural Bridge. I went the Jeep route, and loved being able to stop when I wanted, and not stop when I wanted. It was peaceful, but it was also 4 hours of bouncing along, so be prepared. There's nowhere to stop for drinks, snacks, or restrooms until you get down to the Bridge (where, they charge for restrooms, FYI). Pack a cooler and a blanket, and find a nice spot to spend a few hours. Just take note of the currents, as it's not safe to swim in most of the coves and beaches.
6. Head to Seroe Colorado
Seroe Colorado is the southern point of Aruba, and where you'll find gorgeous beaches, windsurfing, and the giant red anchor. It's named Seroe Colorado because of the limestone hill in the area. Far from the tourist beaches, the area is perfect for a laid-back afternoon. Grab a coconut at the vendor by the anchor, then make your way to either Baby or Rodgers Beach....or both.
No need for a chair here, as the sand is soft as can be, but you may want water shoes for the ocean. Baby Beach is great for snorkeling, something I (regrettably) didn't know until after I'd left.
7. Dinner on the Beach at Sunset
There's no shortage of incredible dining options in Aruba. Dining on the beach, toes in the sand, watching the sunset, is an absolute must during your trip. There are any number of restaurants to choose from, but I recommend Passions on the Beach.
Get the seafood platter and the Crème Brulee, and plan to arrive about half an hour before sunset for the best views. (Check sunset times here.) If you can, ask to sit in Eleanor's section - she's fabulous.
8. Enjoy the Beach
I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you to make sure you're spending at least one full day at the beach. Preferably with a drink in hand, a good book (like one of these), and nothing to do. Aruba's beaches are legendary for a reason, and you're missing out if you're not parking yourself down on them.
Palm and Eagle Beach are the most popular, but Baby, Rodgers, Druif, Manchebo, and Arashi are all worth a stop as well.
Wait, no Renaissance Island?
No. I'm probably the only person on the entire Internet who will tell you to skip this, but it is absolutely not worth some of your precious time in Aruba. For one thing, it requires either staying at Renaissance, booking a spa treatment, or paying $125 for a day pass. (And getting a day pass isn't as easy as just showing up - they have a very limited number each day.)
If you're determined to do it, you'll take a speedboat from the hotel to the island. It takes around 10 minutes. When you get to the island, it's small, crowded, and noisy - the airport is right behind it, so you'll hear (and smell) jet engines every so often. Yes, there are flamingos. They're beautiful, and the poor birds are bothered nonstop by people chasing them for that perfect Instagram photo. They're obviously used to it, but that whole peaceful serene atmosphere you see all over the place? Not the reality.
I mean, yes, I took a photo. And then promptly went back to my uncomfortable beach chair to try to focus on my book amidst the screeching and jet fuel.
So there you have it. 8 must-do experiences for your first trip to Aruba. Have you done any of these? What did I miss?