"One Happy Island" is the motto here, on an island that is only 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, with a population of fewer than 90,000. Located right off the coast of Venezuela (17 miles north), Aruba is a Dutch island with beautiful beaches, overly friendly people, and incredible weather. Because it’s located out of the hurricane belt, Aruba receives the least amount of rain in all of the Caribbean, and it’s average year-round temperature is generally 85 degrees. It’s predominantly a desert-like kind of an island, where cactus grow out of rocks towering 20 feet or higher. Languages spoken here are Dutch, Papiamento, English, and Spanish. The dollar is accepted everywhere, but their local currency is the Aruban Florin (AFL). All the trees on the island (including the Divi Divi) lean northward due to the trade winds, which blow from the south. We were told by several locals to just follow the way the trees point if we were ever lost, and we would be lead back to the hotel strip. It worked like a charm every time. Those trade winds often get you in some serious trouble, since you don’t realize how hot it is out. We were red as tomatoes the entire trip because it was so comfortable, and it never occurred to us to get out of the sun.
Cabbies all charge the same flat rate, so no worries about being cheated by anyone. It cost us about $20 to get from the airport to the Marriott, which is ways past most of the other hotels. Most of the cab drivers here are fluent in at least four languages, which we thought was interesting. There are buses, bushalte, and they do run frequently, so that is always an option at $1.25. In the high-rise section, they run continuously every 20 minutes along the strip. Many natives honk their horns, and at first, we had no idea what was going on. Unlike most cities, here honking your horn is equivalent to saying hello without actually throwing your body out your window and screaming, I suppose. Everyone does it, so if you choose to rent a car, understand this before you let it get to you. Overall driving here does not seem difficult, everyone is very polite. The signs are very general, so that can pose a problem, but if you are willing to stop and ask people, it is fairly easy to get from A to B. I would say that renting a car is really not necessary, since cabs are affordable and the buses are great. If it is your wish to rent a car, however, that can be done through your concierge or through some of the major car rental companies like Dollar or Hertz, which are located on the island. When we were there, cars were about $60 a day.
Making a phone call with a calling card was almost impossible, as none of the phones in the Marriott would accept them (I bought the card in Aruba). We had to walk to the local phone company and use a pay phone there—that was an interesting experience, to say the least. The phone company's office was air-conditioned and very clean, and believe me when I tell you that we weren’t the only tourists there. I almost question if that is their way to make extra money—selling calling cards that you can only use there.
In Aruba, there are three main areas to stay in: Oranjestad, the low-rise hotel area, and the high-rise hotel area. Although there are areas like Tierra Del Sol, which is next to the island’s championship golf course, this area is more for people who own condos. Oranjestad is Aruba’s capital, with a population of 18,000, and is the area where cruise ships dock and where the majority of boutiques, restaurants, casinos, and pedestrian traffic are located. There are not as many souvenir shops here as you would find on most other Caribbean islands, but I wasn’t impressed with the shopping overall. There is a fairly big mall downtown (Royal Plaza Mall) that had all familiar stores, and the prices were in line with what we pay at home, if not a little higher. The best shops are on Havenstraat and Emmastraat. There’s lots of jewelry and porcelain (like Lladro) here, as well. The few finds I did come across were European makeup and lotions and, of course, liquor. There is no sales tax here, but there are other taxes that you should look at your hotel bill for: 6% government tax and an 11% hotel tax.
The low-rise hotel area is like a summer town and is filled with buildings that are four stories or smaller. This area covers beaches like Eagle, Manchebo, Bushiri, and Druif. In general, people refer to this entire area as Eagle Beach, since it is not clear to visitors where one beach ends and the other begins. The high-rise area, which is also called Palm Beach, begins about a quarter mile after Eagle Beach ends. This area is filled with top-of-the-line resorts with immaculate grounds, as well as some moderately priced finds. The Marriott is located at the very end of this beach. The beaches in general here are fantastic: pure white sand, kept extremely clean, with turquoise blue water everywhere you look. We did visit the Hyatt just to see what the hype was about, and it is a nice hotel. I actually know people who have stayed there and said the same. I do feel, however, that the Marriott is much better for a whole slew of reasons. Primarily, its location deters "outside tourists" (people who aren’t staying at the Marriott) from coming to use your beach and/or pool. Nothing irks me more then paying for a resort and sharing lounge chairs with people who don’t belong. Secondly, because of its location, the beach is the widest and most clean around (the wide factor is a fact, not my opinion). The Hyatt’s style and setup here is very similar to those located in other tropical locations, like Maui—with tropical birds, tropical plants, small ponds, and attempts at a jungle feel. It misses, by the way. The grounds are beautiful, though, and the hotel itself is nice. I just didn’t think it was worth double the hotel price to stay there.
Aruba has an unbelievably low crime rate, and unemployment almost does not exist. That said, we were never bothered by people begging for money or vendors trying to make the hard sell, and we were never afraid to be anywhere on the island by ourselves or at night. It’s no wonder that Aruba has the highest repeat-visitor rate in all of the Caribbean. I think the amount of timeshares also has something to do with it. That said, this is a great place to take a timeshare tour, since the gifts are generous and they have so many people interested, the meetings are short and to the point. There are many tour operators on the island, and many you will find lurking around the cruise ships to entice people getting off, but these were recommended to us by the Marriott Concierge: Aruba Adventures (www.arubaadventures.com), De Palm Tours (www.depalm.com), and WIX Tours (www.wixtours.com). All of these operators run tours throughout the day and are reasonable priced and in line with what everyone else charges.
If you have more than two days, I would spend a half-day on a tour. The island is small and easy to cover in half a day, and this way, you can leave knowing you saw all there was. Although we are not golfers or gamblers, both are in big supply on this island. I think Aruba is so popular because, unlike most of the Caribbean, it has a nightlife, and it has other things to do besides just water sports. The people are great, as is the food—every place was better than the last. Overall, it’s a great island for a few days or longer; just be mindful of the sun. Everything is closed on Sundays here (for the most part). Highly Recommended.