Aruba: Exploring Beyond The Hotels - My Family Travels

Aruba is a friendly, top-value Caribbean isle with many resorts and fun things to do, especially in an electric car.

Without a doubt, Aruba is an “in” Caribbean destination, particularly for sun-starved families from the Northeast. Located just off the coast of Venezuela, this arid island has near-perfect, 90°F weather year-round and is located outside the hurricane zone (a critical selling point).

Unlike many other Caribbean islands, Aruba is also easy. By easy, I mean the stores take US dollars, everyone speaks English, the water is drinkable, and there are no “bad” neighborhoods to worry about. This makes it an ideal vacation spot for families looking for fun and sun without lots of potential headaches. There are even Dunkin’ Donuts scattered around the island for those in need of an iced coffee fix.

I would have preferred to vacation without Dunkin’ Donuts, however, as I see enough of the pink and orange palaces at home in suburban Boston. So when I saw that the view from my suite at the family-friendly, all-inclusive La Cabana All Suite Beach Resort & Casino was a Dunkin’ Donuts palapa, I knew immediately that it was time to break free from the hotel, a self-contained mini village that many guests never leave.

Breaking Out: Aruba by Electric Car

A good way to start your Aruba adventure is to learn more about the formerly Dutch-ruled island’s history and culture, even before you arrive. Kids will appreciate the many online resources that recount the island's ties to the Netherlands. Then after a day or two of vegging out on the beach, it's time to explore the island. There are many ways to see Aruba: by jeep, scooter, ATV, or electric car.

We chose an electric car, which looks like a glorified golf cart with a domed hood. Although you can drive these tiny cars on the narrow main highway, it’s best to stay on the side roads since you can only go up to 30 miles per hour (our car, however, topped out at 25 mph).

First stop: The picturesque California Lighthouse. Set high on a hill on the northern tip of the island, the lighthouse overlooks miles of coastline in every direction. Flanked by arid terrain and cacti, the lighthouse is named for the ship California which wrecked off the nearby shores almost 100 years ago. In its buoyant days, the California was known for receiving but not responding to S.O.S signals from the infamous Titanic.

On this tranquil morning, we noticed a rustling in the cacti. Walking a bit closer while squinting in the sun, we saw a dozen wild goats emerge from the brush. Plentiful in the Aruba desert, wild goats commonly snack on cacti and other native flora. We watched the goats munch on their breakfast as we quietly tiptoed back to the car and drove off.

Window Shopping & Beyond in Orangestad

Our next destination was the capital city of Orangestad, where friendly shopkeepers bid guests “bon bini” or welcome in Aruba’s native Papiamento, a blend of English, Dutch, Spanish, Indian, Portuguese and a sprinkling of African. We drove into downtown, parked our electric car halfway on a curb, and meandered in and out of the air-conditioned stores – carbon copies of what you’d find in an American upscale shopping mall. Since I wasn’t in the market for pricey gemstones at Cartier or designer clothes from Benetton or Tommy Hilfiger, we continued walking. Before we knew it, we were gazing up at a giant fort– Fort Zoutman and the Willem II Tower to be exact.

Fort Zoutman, which houses the Aruba Historical Museum (297/582-6099), is the island’s oldest historical building. A distinctive landmark, the fort was built in 1796 when the English declared war against the Franco-Dutch alliance. Constructed from pebbles, quarry stones and lime mortar, Fort Zoutman was designed to protect Arubans from battle attacks and pirates.

Aruba's Beautiful Butterflies

Last stop: the Aruba Butterfly Farm (297/586-3656), a serene oasis showcasing butterflies from around the world. The farm’s wide variety of butterflies include Emerald Swallowtails from Thailand, Leopard Lace Wings from Malaysia, Spotted Jays from India, and even orange and black Monarchs found in New England.

Butterfly guide Cindy Gould pointed out that Monarchs are perhaps the most interesting, albeit common, butterflies in the world. “The Monarch is migratory and only lives for seven months. During that brief lifespan, the butterfly will migrate 2,000 miles from Canada to Mexico,” she said. No one knows why Monarch butterflies always travel to the same area in Mexico every year, said Gould. That was something the family could ponder while sipping fruit smoothies from our poolside lounge chairs back at the resort.

The Arikok National Park project is in full swing with the reforestation of this natural habitat.  The project includes the planting the native fruit trees that will attract birds in order to repopulate the natural flora and fauna of Aruba. 

Splendor under the Aruba Sea

When a representative from De Palm Tours (800/609-7374), Aruba’s largest tour operator, boasted about the company’s private island, I was hesitant to listen. Although De Palm Island, a five-minute ferry ride from Aruba, is surrounded by coral reefs and marine life, it sounded way too commercial. Yet, when the De Palm representative assured me that we didn’t have to scuba dive to experience spectacular marine life, I decided to give the island a shot.

Yes, the tiny De Palm Island is a bit commercial, complete with a gift shop, bar, spa, and restaurant. It even offers a Sea Trek underwater park, where people wear astronaut-like helmets and walk 25 feet underwater along a roped-off path. Air is supplied through the helmet, so you can breathe normally while gazing at tropical fish. De Palm also offers SNUBA, a combination of snorkeling and scuba, for those not ready to try real scuba diving. A tethered line and sealed face mask allow you to breath under water as you experience a private guided tour of Aruba’s 397-foot long Antilla, the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean.

If Sea Trek and SNUBA don’t sound appealing, you can always try snorkeling – right up my alley. After putting on our snorkel attire, we jumped in the water and swam out about ten feet. We were instantly surrounded by giant blue parrot fish, queen angelfish, harlequin bass, yellowtail damsel fish, and more. I followed a giant school of black durgon and watched an eel bury itself in the sand.

I admit it: I was mesmerized by the array of sea life thriving around these coral reefs. I guess some touristy sites are worth a visit.

De Palm Island also offers Blue Parrotfish Water Park.  While definitely a commercial attraction, the water park recently underwent some technical updates that opitimize the condition of the water.  Along with the technical renovations, the park has also re-decorated its design panels for a fresh new look.

Aruba Trip Planning Details

Where to stay: Several major US chains, including Marriott and Hyatt, have hotels in Aruba. The island also boasts plenty of all-inclusive resorts like Divi Aruba All-Inclusive Resort. The resort recently renovated the pool deck featuring both sun and shade for all types of lounging and fun. The website features great family packages for an even better value vacation.

For air and land package deals, take a look at US Airways Vacations which offers a wide array of hotel/air packages for all budgets.  Flying to Aruba has just gotten easier because several airlines have increased their service.  AirTran Airways, Delta and JetBlue Airways have all increased their flights to Aruba.  TNT Vacations is also offering charters from Boston Logan to Aruba.  For that essential pre-trip information gathering session with the kids, visit the Aruba Tourism website or call 800-TO-ARUBA.

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