By Paul Mermelstein
Aruba is one of my favorite Caribbean destinations, and on a recent trip there, I was truly struck by its wonderful sense of hospitality and service. All the Caribbean islands are relaxing, and Aruba is no exception. All of the people I encountered really made every attempt to make me feel welcome.
One of the best parts about this island is the wide variety of interesting things to see and do. One of the island's most popular areas is known as "The Strip" - think Las Vegas Strip - an endlessly entertaining spot for those who love to people watch, shop and explore fabulous beaches. The Strip is over two miles of huge hotels lined up one after the other, all of which are steps away from the water. The Westin, RIO, Hyatt, Marriott, Occidental, The Radisson - the list goes on. The beaches along this area are crowded during the winter season, and once you've visited, it's easy to see why. Imagine dipping your toes into fine, white sand and swimming in calm waters, clear waters. A day spent at the beach here is truly relaxing, as anything you ask for will be quickly attended to by efficient servers. During the evening think casinos. Aruba has some of the most active and well ran casinos in all of the Caribbean. If you don't mind crowds too much and you'd like to stay close to the action, the fine hotels in this area are easy to recommend.
If, however, you'd rather be in the water rather than just looking at it, you're in luck. Aruba has plenty of great water sports outfitters. One to try is called Red Sail Water Sports - they're one of the best professional dive outfits in the Caribbean with dive/water sports/tour shops throughout Aruba as well as Grand Cayman and St. Kitts. Not only do they have state-of-the-art dive equipment and water toys but they offer excellent luxurious catamaran snorkel and sunset dinner tours as well. They're also a great choice for snorkelers who want to get out and enjoy Aruba's crystal-clear waters and abundant sea life. Want to get further underwater? Atlantis Submarine Tours will take you down for an up-close view of some fascinating shipwrecks as well as the brightly colored coral reefs. If you're interested in sailing around Aruba's tranquil waters for a half a day or more, I'd also recommend Pelican Adventure Aruba.
Adventure seekers who want to get out and explore what Aruba has to offer beyond its amazing beaches might enjoy one of the island's many tours. One great option is to rent a 4X4 and tour the island yourself - but if you'd rather have a guide, check out a company called ABC Jeep Tours. Guests are driven through caves, the national park, enjoy a stop at the lighthouse and get to see much of the island's natural flora and fauna. The tour also includes a visit to the Natural Pool, a "must do" in the eyes of many travelers. It's a swimmable pool tucked between huge rocks on Aruba's northeast coast.
Landlubbers might be happy to discover that Aruba has a fantastic shopping scene, and its international shops have something for buyers of every taste. Cruise-goers can't help but avoid the shops, as they are able to literally hop off the ship and stroll into the middle of a shopper's paradise. There are many great shops to choose from - and most of it is duty free! Most of the shops are located in Seaport Village in Oranjestad. Check out Little Switzerland for wonderful luxury items like jewelry, fragrances and china, and don't miss Pearl Gems, another great local jewelry store. Boolchand's has a wonderful selection of watches and cameras. For clothing, trendy Ecco carries fashionable men's and women's designer clothing as well as a large selection of classy souvenir gifts. Royal Plaza is the other main mall in Oranjestad, and it's worth a visit as well, if for nothing else than to admire its intricate architecture and pink and turquoise coloring - it's been described as a "confection."
After a long day out in the sun and in the shops, there's nothing like sitting down to an excellent meal, and Aruba does not disappoint here, either. Aruba's restaurants and eateries are among the Caribbean's finest, and exploring them is great fun. For a truly memorable steak or seafood dinner, I'd recommend Chalet Suisse. With it's gorgeous woodwork decor, an amazing staff and a menu full of delectable offerings, Chalet Suisse exudes a friendly elegance which will beckon you back for a second visit. Steak lovers should also make their way over to Ruth's Chris, which recently opened in the Marriot. This is the third Caribbean Ruth's Chris to open, as it joins its sister restaurants in San Juan and Cancun. The steaks here are very large and tender, and they're served sizzling in butter. Feeling lucky? Stroll over the casino, which is only steps away. For a more casual night out, you might head over to El Gaucho, which is where I went on my very first night in Aruba. One reviewer has said "the steak is to die for," but my experience was that this place is much more about the atmosphere, music and drinks. Go here for the fun! If you love seafood, The Driftwood comes highly recommended by travelers and guidebooks alike. If you're looking for a place that is repeatedly going to be recommended to you by locals, head to Madame Janette. It's been voted as the island's best restaurant numerous times, so it's surely worth a visit.
When dining in Aruba, don't forget about the island's Dutch heritage! If you're in the mood for a genuine Dutch meal, definitely visit The Dutch Pancake House (Pannekoekhuis) at Seaport Market and Mall across from the casino. The Dutch pancakes are like crepes, and they're grilled to absolute perfection. An assortment of delicious toppings adds a wonderful flavor.
Aruba is truly a gem of an island - I hope that you have the chance to experience its wonders soon!