Aruba: Big Vacation, Tiny Island

Aruba Island Vacation

What is Aruba?

Aruba is a small island. Its 75 square miles would fit almost perfectly into the state of Rhode Island—16 times. You could drive the entire length of the island’s 21-mile western coastline in the time it would normally take you to go to the grocery store and back. Hard to believe, but true, that so much is available in such a limited space. Vacations to Aruba can be packed with activity, or packed with lounging beach time, the choice is yours.

The most popular destinations and activities in Aruba

Most of the popular destinations and activities for which Aruba is known are located on its western shores, much of it in and around the capital city of Oranjestad, which spent about 25 years of its life without a name. The town was built around Fort Zoutman, a fortification built by the Dutch in 1796 to defend against pirates, who had an annoying habit of pulling into the harbor and taking whatever they could find; particularly horses, which they’d then export to Curacao. The developing community was known until around 1820 as “the town on the Bay of Horses.” In those 1820s, interest in Aruba spiked suddenly after the discovery of gold on Aruba and the town was then named after the first heir to the Dutch House of Orange – King Willem van Oranje-Nassau. Translated from the Dutch, the name in English is Orangetown, though in the local language (Spanish-based Papiamento), it’s often called simply “Playa,” which means ‘beach’ in Spanish.

La Cabana in ArubaThere’s a lot to do in Playa, and its southern neighbors, like Sabaneta, San Nicolas (Aruba’s second largest township), and Ceru Colorado, a village on the southern tip of Aruba. You could, of course, do very little during your vacation and just soak up the sun and fun of Eagle Beach (one of the longest on Aruba), just outside the doors and across the street from La Cabana Beach Resort & Casino. You’re within minutes of opportunities to sail, jet ski, snorkel and scuba dive, kite and wind surf. You can also arrange to take in the sights on horseback.

And that’s just at the resort. Red Sail Sports maintains office hours (8:30 a.m-2:30 p.m.) at the resort’s activities desk and in addition to lining you up for water sports, they can arrange a bus or jeep tour that’ll take you to the California Lighthouse, Alta Vista Chapel, and the Natural Pool, a hidden pool of ocean water, protected by rugged rocks on the windward side of Aruba.

Aruba CaveYou can stay close to home and play tennis, basketball, racquetball, basketball, beach or volley ball, and squash at the resort. You can apply a degree of due diligence to a fitness regimen at the state-of-the-art fitness center. If you’ve brought children on your vacation, there are activities seven days a week to keep them occupied.

Enjoy Aruba Outside La Cabana Beach Resort & Casino

If, on the other hand, you’d like to delve below the surface of Aruba’s numerous charms, you might consider renting a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and heading out on your own. It’s been emphasized by a wide body of travelers in a variety of published reports that you should resist a rental agency’s inclination to rent you a basic sedan for any serious Aruba trip of your own. Among the places you’ll want to go is north, and once the resort and Oranjestad have disappeared completely from your rearview mirror, many of the roads you’ll encounter are going to be unpaved, unmarked and dusty. They will, however, lead you to some of Aruba’s more exotic locations and spectacular scenery.

The sparsely populated northern and eastern coasts of Aruba face the open Caribbean Sea, where ocean currents and storms batter the coastline. Even under fair skies, dramatic plumes of water crash against giant boulders. It’s rugged country up there, and among its more lush, tropical neighbors, Aruba has always had a reputation as a unique desert island, complete with vast expanses of sand, cactus, tumbleweeds, aloe trees and the more than occasional wild goat and iguana.

A Little on the History of Aruba

Aruba Wind SurfingThis somewhat inhospitable side of Aruba’s reputation is one of the reasons that the Dutch now own the place. Aruba, one of three countries, along with the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles, that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, was originally settled by the Spanish, but when they discovered you couldn’t grow any cash crops in its dry, arid climate, they just let the Dutch have it. Because there were no fields to work, Aruba’s natives, who originally migrated from Venezuela, about 20 miles away, were also spared (for the most part) the scourge of slavery.

In a sense, what turned the Spanish settlers away from Aruba is what has made it such an attractive and popular place to visit. Visitors and those on vacation from all over the world today are free to enjoy the temperatures that rarely dip below 70 degrees, along with the absence of humidity. Aruba is also outside of what’s known as the Hurricane Belt, so it avoids coming into contact with most of that belt’s serious tropical storms.

“The Champagne of the Caribbean”

It doesn’t rain much, either; about 18 inches a year, most of that between October and January, which is good for travel plans, but not so good for water collection, vital to the survival of any island. Thanks, however, to the Aruba Pressed Plate Falling Film (PPFF) desalination plant, commissioned in February, 2000, 11.2 million gallons of the stuff, pure and distilled, is produced from salt water every day. Often referred to as the ‘champagne of the Caribbean,” that water is what comes out of the tap in your resort, and is even bottled and shipped to nearby Curacao. It’s the second largest plant of its type in the world (the first is in the United Arab Emirates). If you’re technically minded, or just curious, check with the tourist bureau or concierge during your next vacation and ask about reservations for a plant tour, which, though popular, is offered only once a week.

Hiking in Aruba

Desert in ArubaIf hiking is on your list of favorite pastimes, you should consider a trip to Arikok National Park, which takes up roughly 18 percent of Aruba. Located south and east of Oranjestad, stretching to the eastern shoreline, the park offers visitors a wealth of guided or self-directed hiking paths. You can climb the 541-ft. Hooiberg Mountain for a view that stretches, on clear days, all the way to Venezuela.

Viewing the History of Aruba

If viewing remnants of Aruba’s history is on your list of things to do during your next vacation, you might want to visit the ruins of the Bushiribana gold-stamping plant, used to process gold, though only for about 10 years in the early part of the 19th century (Aruba reportedly gets its name from the Spanish phrase ‘ora huba,’ meaning ‘there was gold.’) Search for that gold came to an abrupt halt when miners struck water. Believing that they’d poked a hole in Aruba, they abandoned the mine. It’s an uninterpreted (no guides, brochures or gift shops) site that is faintly reminiscent of a fallen medieval castle. You can climb inside these ruins and gaze out through window openings that frame the sea. A trip to the top, with your back to the sea, will reveal deserted outbuildings and a countryside landscape full of wild goats and dogs.

Any trip to view elements of Aruba’s history should begin with the Historical Museum of Aruba, in Oranjestad, which will offer up its own sites, as well as information about the varied sites to which you might then travel, either on your own, or under the guidance of an official tour during your vacation.

Aruba Scuba DivingThe island of Aruba is reminiscent of a popular fast food chain, which promotes itself by noting that when you’re there, “you can have it your way.” So, too, with this tiny Caribbean island, which offers a dizzying array of experiences. Stay in the luxurious La Cabana Beach Resort & Casino, dive into water sports, dine at delectable restaurants and or try your luck in casinos. If you prefer strolling along the beach, you can do that too. You can even drive or ride a horse through stunning, virtually untouched landscape for up-close encounters with history.