Since the dawn of Pan-Am, Aruba has been a haven for American honeymooners and snow birds with its powdery white beaches and famous flamingos.
But with its untapped culture and individuality, it is fast becoming a go-to choice for a new generation of tourists seeking a more authentic travel experience.
Boutique hotels, cocktail contests between local bars, vegan meals in secret garden parties and local foragers who spit fire are among the many unexpected flares of uniqueness one can find on the tiny Caribbean enclave.
Sitting just to the north of northeast Venezuela, it is one of the few Caribbean islands that is safe from the hurricane season and enjoys a consistently balmy and dry climate.
The pristine beach at Manchebo Resort & Spa, arguably the trendiest boutique hotel on Aruba
US tourists don’t have to change currencies and English is one of four languages spoken across the entire island. The first is Papiamento – the local dialect of the island.
Originally used by slaved, it became the vehicle of negotiations between Aruba’s first ruling colonies: Portuguese Jews and the Dutch. The second favored language is Dutch and its prominence is controversial.
The island is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and it still takes its official cues from Europe despite its strong identity as its own place and people.
Next and of equal significance are English and Spanish to cater to both the tourists from America but the island’s proximity to northern Southern America.
This tidbit of island history was one of many offered at a dinner table set up in the charming garden of a local couple, Tina and Michael, during a recent balmy night in October. Journalists, tourism representatives, artists, designers and mixologists had gathered for a sophisticated, five-course vegan meal and wine pairing.
Far from the predictable surf and turf and pina colada one might expect and deservedly crave on such a trip, the dinner is one of the many refreshing and decidedly local experiences now on offer to tourists.
Dinner at Tina’s comes with riveting conversation. She is a former journalist from North Carolina who fell in love with the island and her drummer husband and decided to move in the 1990s. She’s also a children’s book author.
Forager Frank Kelly, who goes by Taki, preparing a meal al fresco with ingredients he hand-picked himself from the island
Bartenders at the fifth annual bartenders brawl in Oranjestad, Aruba, in October. The yearly event brings to life the island’s sophisticated cocktail culture
More traditional tourist experiences include an open-air Jeep tour through the Arikok Nature Park where the aesthetic can only be described as part Arizona, part Hawaii and part Australia with its roaming cacti, rugged cliffs, swirling turquoise waters and dank network of caves.
A bespoke, VIP breakfast in the Arikok National Park, put together by House of Mosaic and its fabulous director, Fernando. It is one of the many unique and local experiences now on offer to tourists
For a unique spin, tourists can now book a VIP breakfast experience set among the trees. Mimosas, local musicians and a tablescape to rival even the most eager of western weddings are included for $75 per person, which puts the tired scrambled eggs and cappuccinos you might find in New York or London restaurants in a stark shadow.
Working your way through the park will work up an appetite.
To satisfy it, head afterwards to Zeerovers, the undisputed champion of fast-food which has a killer homemade tartar sauce.
Other notable local eateries are Papiamento restaurant, a more formal option with its own blend of house cigars, and West Deck, a beachside lunch spot with a killer Keshi Yena – a local dish which translates to stuffed cheese.
However the most unique dining experience belongs to Taki aka Frank Kelly, a local forager who cooks outdoors, using only ingredients he has found on the island. The standout dish at one recent meal was a celery puree paired with mango ice cream.
The food on Aruba is rivaled only by its cocktails. Forget strawberry daiquiris and mojitos while, ubiquitous, are as worn out as your favorite swimsuit, and think more along the lines of jalapeno-infused gin and a Jamaican twist on the traditional Italian Aperol Spritz.
Zeerovers, the undisputed champion of fast, fresh, fried seafood where locals line up at lunchtime
Papiamento is one of the more upscale restaurants on the island. In addition to the sophisticated restaurant, it has a wine cellar and sells its own blend of cigars
The most sophisticated haunt is the newly opened Apotheek, a speakeasy run by mixologists Markson and Maki. They won the fifth annual bartenders’ brawl in October which showcased the island’s other bars and booze. Food trucks served up an array of local delicacies while a DJ delighted revelers with Reggaeton.
To sleep off a night of indulgence at Apotheek, you’d be hard pushed to find a trendier spot on the island than Manchebo Resort & Spa. The 72 rooms at the boutique property give it an intimate feel and the open-air lobby which has a follow-through view of the beach sets the tone for the wellness-oriented resort.
More Balinese in design than Caribbean, its tiki-hut spa and outdoor yoga pavilion are the stuff of social media influencers’ dreams, not to mention its health-focused smoothie menu and state-of-the-art gym.
To idle the time during the day, of course there are the famed beaches and waters which are primed for snorkeling.
A morning yoga class at Manchebo which is a wellness-oriented hotel. There are daily classes which are free to guests
The tranquil spa at Manchebo Resort & Spa where treatments are performed in beachfront huts
A mural tour through San Nicholas, one of the island’s more diverse, urban areas, is a great way to escape the tourists
But if wallowing in the sand and sea isn’t for you, a walking mural tour through the urban area of San Nicholas is an fascinating way to pass an hour.
One of the most enticing things about Aruba is the local sense of humor and thirst for a good time.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the tourism board’s latest creation – tailor made trips for fatigued US voters seeking to escape the nonstop stress and debate surrounding the 2020 Presidential Election.
Dubbed the ‘Election Disconnection’, the trip urges visitors to ‘swap politics for paradise’ by signing themselves up for a digital-detox retreat where wellness experts can diagnose their stress levels and send them back to America refreshed enough to vote with a clear head.
For more information about the Election Disconnection trip, or other facts about Aruba, click here.
The island’s tourism board recently launched a well-timed ‘Election Disconnection’ trip for US voters to get over their political fatigue