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"One Happy Island." This, the official motto of Aruba, is plastered on each taxi's license plate. Surely Arubans are happy to see cruisers: Aruba's economy is fueled by tourists' dollars, and much of the island is heavily developed for them -- perhaps even more so than neighboring islands Bonaire and Curacao. (Together, the three make up what's known as the ABC chain of islands in this deepest part of the Southern Caribbean.) Most Arubans speak English and accept U.S. currency, and shops located in and around the port area are American -- Tommy Hilfiger, Diamonds International and the like.
Beyond that, Aruba has a rich, layered heritage. The first people to inhabit the island were a nation of Arawak Indians. (The name Aruba seems to have derived from the Arawak Indian word oibubai, which means guide.) In 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. Nearly 200 years later, the Dutch captured the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire from the Spanish, and much of that heritage can be seen in its pastel Old World architecture.
But let's face it -- we don't come here for the history. We come here for the diversions, and Aruba is the Caribbean's theme park. There are casinos, duty-free shops, more than two dozen dive sites, noteworthy shipwrecks and a championship golf course, lined with cacti and populated by friendly iguanas. Aruba's trademark divi divi trees always point in a southwesterly direction (due to trade winds that blow from the northeast), but we like to think they're leading the way to the sandy beaches that ring the island in the shape of a cheery smile.
Best of all, there really is no bad time to visit Aruba. Located only 20 miles north of Venezuela, temperatures are consistently pleasant (lows in the 70's, highs in the 80's), there's no "rainy" season, and its location is far below the Atlantic hurricane belt, so it's less likely to be impacted by storms. Aruba's dry climate is home to large Mondis (forests of cacti), and you may feel like you are in Arizona, rather than the Caribbean!
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain, Trinidad • San Juan • St. Barth's • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Try the legendary Pink Iguana -- a concoction of frozen strawberries, pineapple, rum and coconut cream -- at Iguana Joe's Caribbean Bar & Grill (right next to the port, open from 11 a.m.). Or throw back a Balashi, the local brew.
The local grocery store is a must for bringing back edible mementos, such as British chocolates and Dutch coffees and cheeses. (Customs allows one pound of hard cheese back into the U.S.)
Most locals speak English, Spanish and Dutch, as well as Papiamento -- a language native to the ABC islands. If someone says, "Bon Bini," he or she is welcoming you to Aruba.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Aruban florin, approximately 1.79 to the U.S. dollar. However, U.S. currency is widely accepted, and some banks' ATM's will even dispense it, including the Caribbean Mercantile Bank in the cruise terminal next to the information center.
Where You're Docked
You'll be anchored in downtown Oranjestad, Aruba's capital city. The terminal features the Tourism, Culture and Heritage Information Center, phones, ATM's and small souvenir shops.
Great shopping, dining and bar-hopping are within walking distance of the dock. Several malls are located right across the street from the terminal, and a stroll along the waterfront is a great way to take in the Dutch colonial architecture and tropical pastels.
On Foot: It's an easy five-minute walk from your cruise ship to downtown shops and restaurants; a trip to any of Aruba's beaches requires a taxi or car ride.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available on the dock; they do not have meters, so be sure to settle your fare up front. Fares are listed on signs at the terminals. A ride from downtown to Palm Beach, 10 minutes from the terminal, costs about $14. If you want a two-hour island tour, plan to pay $35 per car per hour for four people in a car.
Renting a Car: There are several car rental companies in Aruba; Royal Car Rental (866-978-0965), Smart Rent a Car (866-581-0785) and Speed Car Rental (297-582-8045) have locations at the cruise terminal. The best way to self-explore the terrain is by Jeep; rates for a 4x4 start between $55 and $75 per day. Rates for a car start between $25 and $45 per day.
Editor's Note: You should have no problem renting a car without a reservation -- but the Jeeps do go first, so either debark the ship as early as you can, or book ahead of time.
By Bus: If you want to get out of town but don't feel like paying for a taxi or rental car, the hourly public buses that run from Oranjestad to Malmok or Arashi also make stops in front of all hotels along the beach strip (look for the L10 or L10A). The roundtrip fare is $2.30, and exact change is appreciated, though the driver will break U.S. and Aruban bills. The main bus terminal is right outside the cruise ship pier gate.
Watch Out For
If you are planning on driving, use caution on the roads, as some international signs may be unfamiliar. (Driving is on the right side of the road.) Also, exercise the same common sense and safety as you would in any foreign location, particularly if your ship stays in town late and you decide to walk into town at night.
Duty-free shopping: The main shopping drag in Oranjestad is Caya G. F. Betico Croes. Royal Plaza and Seaport Village Mall, across the street from the terminal, are hot stops for unique jewelry and famous designer clothing stores (from Tommy Hilfiger to Guess). In the heart of Oranjestad are Benetton, The Sting, Mango, Lucor Jewelers, Artistic Boutique and many others. Handicrafts at Vibes Aruba (Royal Plaza Mall) has a wide selection of locally made and uniquely Aruban collectors' gift items, such as handmade driftwood candles and paintings and artwork from local artists.
Snorkeling: Baby Beach is perfect for beginners, surrounded by baby-fine powdery white sand and shallow waters, protected by a man-made breakwater -- great for tiny tots. Another great beach for snorkeling is Malmok Beach, with small coral bays and plenty of colorful fish just 10 feet offshore; the wreck of Antilla, a WWII German freighter, can be seen peeking out of the water here (though it's too far to swim to -- book a catamaran tour if you'd like to snorkel the site). Because it's a beach largely frequented by locals, there are no facilities at Malmok. Those who like to snorkel independently can rent equipment from Red Sail Sports, near the cruise terminal, for $15 for the day.
Butterfly Farm: A fun diversion for both children and adults is the Butterfly Farm, located on Palm Beach. The Butterfly Farm is a huge, enclosed tropical garden, home to hundreds of beautiful butterflies. Tip: The best time to visit is in the morning when you can see the new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises. The farm is open daily from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
California Lighthouse: The lighthouse, on the northwest tip of the island, was named after a ship called the Californian, which is famous for having received distress signals from the Titanic (though legend has it they were ultimately ignored because the radio operator was asleep at the time). Perhaps this bad karma ultimately sealed the Californian's fate -- the ship sank off the coast of Aruba in rough seas a few years later, and the wreck is popular among divers. Kids with energy to expend can try "dune surfing" on the California White Sand Dunes surrounding the lighthouse. This involves sliding down the steep dunes, and sturdy jeans or pants are required.
Been There, Done That
Serious Snorkeling: Bachelor's Beach is a little rough for leisure swimming but offers experienced and adventurous snorkeling aficionados all kinds of underwater sights on its coral-covered bottom.
Casinos: It may not be Las Vegas, but Aruba is certainly up-and-coming on the gambling scene, with 11 casinos island-wide. (The World Poker Tour even stopped here.) Many of the hotel casinos are quieter during the day (slots are open, for example, but tables are closed until early evening). However, the downtown Renaissance hotel -- close to the cruise port -- operates one of the few 24-hour joints on the island: Crystal Casino, always hopping with slots and table games. The Seaport Casino, also a Renaissance-operated facility, is another minute or two down the road featuring plenty of one-armed bandits.
Balashi Brewery Tour: Rum may immediately come to mind when you think of Caribbean spirits, but Aruba is home to another award-winning brew. Daily tours are offered at the Balashi brewery (or Brouwerij Nacional Balashi). Guests are walked through the pilsner's production, from fermentation and filtration to bottling and distribution. Next to the brewery is Balashi Gardens, an open-air bar and restaurant, which overlooks the undisturbed Aruban countryside.
Horseback Riding: You can go horseback riding, either to the California Lighthouse -- along the Malmok Beach stretch -- or to the Alto Vista Chapel, via Rancho Notorious (011-297-860508). Rancho Daimari offers clopping along the coast in Arikok National Park (011-297-866284).
Golfing: Golfers should check out the Tierra del Sol, a Robert Trent Jones-designed, 18-hole (par 71) course. Reserve tee times in advance (011-297-860978).
Best Beach for an Active Day: Palm Beach, a 15-minute taxi or bus ride away from the terminal, offers water sports facilities such as scuba and parasailing. Other activities include beach volleyball and banana boat rides. Many of the large resorts are located right on Palm Beach, so gamers can duck into one of the hotel casinos for an added diversion.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Eagle Beach, a hangout for tourists and locals alike, is the longest stretch of white sand on the island. All of the amenities are here, including lovely, shaded picnic areas. It's approximately 10 minutes away from the cruise pier by taxi or bus.
Best Secluded Beach: Rodger's Beach, on the eastern tip of the island (a 40-minute taxi ride), is a picturesque spot (if you can ignore the view of the refinery), known for its lovely shade palms and crystal-clear, reef-protected waters. Facilities include showers, beach huts, bars and snack stands. Arashi Beach, on the northern tip of the island, is another quiet option.
Best Beach for Families: Baby Beach, 40 minutes away by taxi, is a good stop for small children or inexperienced swimmers. The water, in a shallow pool created by man-made rock breakwaters, is no more than 5 feet deep. One drawback: There are only a handful of food stands.
Casual, In-Town Joints: The Old Fisherman is a family owned restaurant behind Royal Plaza that serves fresh seafood and local dishes (from 8 a.m.)
Water View: The Seaport Marketplace has a variety of eateries from which to choose. CILO City Lounge serves breakfast, coffee, lunch and dinner with a marina view (7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily).
Gourmet Lunching: El Gaucho, Aruba's best Argentinean restaurant, is located in an atmospheric old-town house on the east end of Oranjestad (open daily for lunch and dinner from 11:30 a.m.).
For Late Diners: If you are in town for dinner (some ships disembark as late as 11 p.m.), consider skipping your onboard seating for a meal at Pinchos Grill & Bar (L.G. Smith Boulevard 7). The outdoor eatery is casual but chic; there's a funky bar, lit with Starbucks-esque lamps, and seating for diners is located along the perimeter with fabulous views of the water. The restaurant is actually located on a pier under-lit by twinkling, blue lights. Grilled meats round out the menu (5 p.m. until midnight or 1 a.m. daily, except Monday; sunset happy hours occur daily from 5:30 until 6:30 p.m.).
On the Beach: If you are spending the day on Palm Beach, stop for lunch at the Pelican Grill, set on a pier, over the water, behind the Pelican Tours outfit and near the Holiday Inn. It's not a fancy place by any means, but it's perfect for strolling in off the beach. The restaurant features a full bar (with a host of specialty drinks on the menu) and dishes from fresh fish sandwiches and burgers to a seafood platter costing more than $30. The ceviche appetizer is excellent. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Readers Recommend: Passions on the Beach at the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort (J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 252) is a great choice for a romantic meal al fresco. Member Arubalisa writes, "Everything from the food to the service -- it was nothing less than perfect and a wonderful evening. Our table was closest to the water with torches and a lantern on the table. I can imagine how nice it would be at sunset." Grilled meats and fish are main events, and the menu features a seafood sampler platter with Caribbean lobster tail, shrimp, grouper and mahi-mahi. You can make reservations online. Lunch is served from noon until 5 p.m., and you can get dinner from 6 p.m. until 10:30 p.m.; it's closed for dinner on Tuesdays.
Staying in Touch
There's a SETAR kiosk at the terminal, where you can purchase an access code for Wi-Fi. On the beach, several hotels -- like the Holiday Inn -- have Internet cafes in their lobbies.
Best for Party Animals: Hop aboard the Kukoo Kunuku party bus for dinner and bar-hopping. The open-air bus is loud -- literally and figuratively -- and is painted in bright, primary colors (think Partridge Family meets Bob Marley) and outfitted with maracas for everyone. The fiesta begins with a Champagne toast on the beach at sunset, followed by dinner under the stars ... and then the real fun begins. The bus makes stops at several watering holes, and the guides teach fun line dances to the rhythm of local tunes. The minimum age to participate is 18.
Best Overall Tour: The best island tour is in a 4x4; start at the California Lighthouse, and then head for the Alta Vista Chapel, Butterfly Farm, Natural Pool, abandoned gold mine and Arikok National Park. Ask for a map at the entrance to Arikok National Park so you can find the caves with Indian petroglyphs.
Best for Snorkeling: For experienced and non-experienced snorkelers -- and those who just want to get some sun -- try a catamaran snorkeling tour with either Pelican Adventures (011-297-872302) or Red Sail Sports (011-297-861603). Guides take you to four or five different wreck dives. Reservations are highly recommended.
For More Information
On the Web: www.aruba.com and www.visitaruba.com
For cruise information: www.aruba.com/cruise
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Aruba
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Cruise Critic contributor; Updated by Kathleen Tucker.