I shuffle into the elevator at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. It’s late afternoon after a long day at the beach with my wife and son, and I have that satisfying glaze of sunscreen, sweat, and salt covering me. A woman gets into the glass elevator, closes her eyes and exhales a deep, slow, soul-stirring sigh. “Is that the sigh of last day in paradise?” I ask. “No,” she murmurs. “Just total contentment.”
The elevator posits her on her floor and I continue my journey back to my room. The question atop my mind is: what could be the particular source of this deep, almost spiritual contentment?
In Aruba, possibly the most complete of all the Caribbean islands, the possibilities seemed endless: glorious beaches, upscale shopping, ecotourism, beach sports, family activities, and fine dining, all melded into a mesh of languages and cultures on an island just north of South America.
Located just 17 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba counts among its many blessings its location just outside of the hurricane belt, a distinction it shares with its fellow “ABC Island” partners — (Aruba being the “A,” Bonaire the “B” and Curacao the “C”). The hurricane-free weather, along with semiarid climate moderated by omnipresent trade winds from the Atlantic, makes for the high probability that your days at the beach will be warm and dry.
But again, there’s more to Aruba than just sun and surf. One of the most developed and prosperous of the Caribbean Islands, Aruba is a constituent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Its inhabitants typically speak as many as five languages — English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Papiamento (the local dialect). The roads are beautiful. Unemployment is low. The local people are as friendly and educated as they are diverse. Basically, if you desire more than just plopping down under a palm tree and reading your Kindle for a week, you have come to the right place.
The sweet lullaby of the Marriott with all of its amenities is difficult to leave, but my wife and son are explorers so off property we go! ABC Tours, the gold standard for tours on the island, whisks us away in a canopied, open-air Jeep. Leaving the resort we glide along well-paved roads with palms swaying in the breeze, cutting through middle-class neighborhoods heading north. A few minutes later, almost suddenly, we arrive upon a gravel road and as if there was a clearly defined line of demarcation, the terrain changes from semitropical to a full-on desert with sand, scrub, and cacti, sculpted by the northeast winds.
We continue to ascend gradually, and at the highest point of the island, we encounter the Alto Vista Chapel, first built in 1750 and overlooking the sea and the entire island. Next a descent toward the northern coast of the island, where we climb among the abandoned stones of the Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins, a former gold mill that was central to the 19th-century gold rush. Next, we arrive at Andicuri Bay on the North shore where we see Baby Bridge, a picturesque natural bridge made entirely of coral and limestone. Then turning inland we stop at the Donkey Sanctuary, a nonprofit refuge for the island's donkey population that had become obsolete as the island became more developed over the years. There you can feed and even ceremoniously adopt one of the 40 resident donkeys. Nearby, a working Ostrich Farm allows you to get up close and personal with fascinatingly uncharismatic ostrich and emu species. Finally, we arrive at Arikok National Park, a natural area that 18 percent of the island. Inside the park, we explore the stalactite- and stalagmite-filled Guadirikiri Cave, which features ancient cave drawings from the Arawak Indians.
And all this was just one day's activities!
Don’t forget the bustling capital of Oranjestad, a remarkably cosmopolitan city for the Caribbean, with haute couture and cuisine and the best Dutch-style pancakes this side of Amsterdam. Also, the nearby Butterfly Farm, a small zoo filled with floating, flying bursts of winged color and De Palm Island, a spit off the coast featuring a water park, snorkeling, and other kid-friendly diversions are worthy side trips.
But despite all of the off-campus choices, the lure of the resort, like a sweet siren song, always draws us back to the sun and sand paradise at the heart of the Aruban experience. On our last night, we book a meal at Simply Fish, Marriott’s signature restaurant on the beach. Toes in the sand, we settle in for fine white tablecloth beach dining and watch the sun drop slowly toward the horizon as butane lanterns flicker in the breeze. We dine on lobster salad and blackened Swai, a species of shark/catfish with sides of fried plantains and tostones. I slide down into my chair and stare at the clouds which, thanks to the sun ’s afterglow, now look like soft, fluffy pieces of pink cotton candy. The air is perfect, an identical temperature to the body. I sigh the sigh of “last day in paradise,” but it’s not a sigh of sadness. It’s a sigh like the woman I encountered in the elevator earlier in the trip. It was a sigh of complete Aruban contentment.