From the white-sand beaches and the turquoise waves that lap its shores, to the rugged, arid terrain around Arikok National Park, Aruba, much like its people, is a mashup of culture and landscapes.
Ninety-six nationalities call “One Happy Island” home, and by the age of 12, many of them can speak four languages – Dutch, Spanish, English and the native language of Papiamento.
The island itself is just as diverse. It’s a land where both cactus and palm trees thrive. This kaleidoscope of people and biodiversity means there’s no shortage of things to do on the 75-mile-long island.
The mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and American influences can lead to some wild infusions of dishes. For something uniquely Aruban, there's Zeerovers. The restaurant is literally over the water with several small boats attached to the dock. The menu is good, if without much fanfare. Fresh fish from the dock, hearty shrimp (head and all), plantains and french fries. It’s a cool drink, eat-with-your-hands kind of place.
White fabric draped off tables and chairs set the scene for an elegant experience at Papiamento Restaurant. The 100-year old cunucu (farm) house is surrounded by tall trees, lush greenery and, at the center, a tiled pool whose waters sparkle at night. Word is patrons are welcomed to take a dip, though it might be best to ask first. The menu is expansive, with everything from stone grilled lamb chops to a champagne seafood casserole. Yeshi Yena, a cheese-heavy traditional Aruban casserole, is a definite crowd-pleaser.
The Local Store is a place where two worlds collide. The menu filled with burgers, wings and fries will feel very American, but the large selection of local craft beers add a nice dash of Aruba.
For adventure seekers
Nothing like going airborne in the back of a beat up Subaru as your driver twists and turns (intentionally) into sand mounds along Aruba's northern coast. Adrenaline junkies of all levels can opt to hire a driver or grab the wheel of an ATV to rip-and-ride around the island visiting some of the most iconic locations.
Aruba is a predominantly flat island, but for those exploring on foot and looking for a little vertical excitement, there’s Hooiberg (haystack) Mountain. The volcanic formation is 541 feet above sea level and features 587 steps to bring visitors to the top. There’s a small gazebo placed at the halfway point. Best to go in the morning when its cooler and bring lots of water.
Forget stuffy museums, the streets of San Nicolas, the “Sunrise City”, are the art gallery. The entrances of libraries, the sides of business buildings, even park benches are covered in colorful murals or art installations like a massive metal iguana made of an assortment of metal junk by the artist Bordalo II.
If you’re looking to get your hands dirty, The Cosecha Creative Center offers art classes for visitors at its San Nicolas location. You can check the schedule for slated workshops or set up a private class taught by a local artist. There's also a shop to purchase art, jewelry or clothing crafted by local artisans.
For those looking to relax
Sometimes doing nothing at all is the only thing in the planner. There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches in Aruba, but for the classic postcard view, Eagle Beach is the spot. The sand is white, the waters crystal clear and the surf nice and calm.
To break away from the crowd, head over to Arashi Beach – great for snorkeling – on the northwest coast. For a unique beach trip, try Black Stone Beach in Arikok National Park. The rough waters are not suitable for swimming but put down a blanket and enjoy the day.
For a relaxing day out on the Caribbean Sea, book a boat tour with any of the operators docked at Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad. Typical packages include food, drinks and snorkeling.
For water lovers
When a leisurely backstroke just won’t do, Aruba offers a mix of fun water activities. Only in Aruba can visitors explore the sunken remains of a 400-foot long 1939 German freighter. Resting just 60-feet below the surface and 500 yards offshore, the Antilla Wreck, the largest shipwreck dive in the Caribbean, is a popular destination for divers and snorkelers.
Other popular wreck-diving spots include the Jane C cargo ship and the side-by-side airplanes found not too far from Renaissance Island. Aruba’s protected barrier reef provides divers a chance to get up close to the underwater wildlife. Popular spots include Mangel Halto, Seagrass Fields and Punta Basora.
The strong winds of Aruba come in handy for those with an interest (and good balance) in kite and windsurfing. Fisherman Huts at Hadicurari Beach is where novices typically go for windsurfing lessons, though there also options near any beachside hotel. After a day of “learning” check out Boca Grandi, located on the eastern side of the southern tip, to see more experienced wind riders.
There’s really only one way to take a dip into the warm waters at the Natural Pool at Boca – jump off the ledge. OK, you can calmly and slowly work your way into the water, but where’s the fun in that?
A possible stop on an ATV or jeep tour, the Natural Pool at Boca was a local secret for years. It will take a wooden ladder, a few slippery sharp rocks and little courage to reach the pool. Not ideal for very large groups and certainly should not be attempted without a guide. The Conchi (Natural Pool) located in the Arikok National Park is the country’s most popular site.
For history buffs
So much of Aruba's history can be discovered through its natural landscapes. The Ayo rock formation rests right at the meeting of two major roads in Aruba, but to the island's original inhabitants, it was a sacred space. The area was so revered that when the Spanish invaded the island looking to enslave the people, many fled to Ayo rock formation in hopes of avoiding capture.
The Bushiribana gold mine ruins tell the tale of Aruba's gold rush in the 19th century. What was once a thriving operation is now just crumbling stones and howling winds. The views are picturesque and show a different side to the Caribbean island.
Directly across from the ruin is a beach filled with stacked rocks. Originally, local fishermen used the rocks to pinpoint good fishing spots, but over the years, the practice has become a trend and now anyone can stack seven rocks for good luck.
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Alicia Johnson traveled to Aruba with support from the Aruba Tourism Board. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.