My mom and dad had been ranting and raving over Aruba for 5 years, and I never understood why they kept returning for vacation. When I asked people about their own trips to Aruba, I was met with immediate smiles and nothing but fond memories and eager suggestions for the island's best attractions. Literally no one had anything negative to say about the place. So I simply had to go and see what all the fuss was about.
I'm going to be saying we a lot in the next 20 minutes of reading this, so I guess I better explain who joined me in exploring Aruba. First and foremost, my mom, who planned the whole shebang. My sister, who was basically by my side (whether she wanted to be or not) through the entire adventure. My mom's friend and her granddaughter, and also my aunt and uncle, who put up all us ladies and our shenanigans.
Technically we went during Aruba's "off season." Though, it's hard to say the island really has an "off season" with essentially consistent year round temperatures and weather conditions.
My mom booked our rooms at La Cabana, through the BlueGreen Vacation Club, that my parents have been members of since I was a kid. We also booked a "Park, Sleep, & Fly" package so we had a hotel room the night before departure and the night of arrival near our home airport, as well as included airport parking for the entirety of our trip (which I actually won't do again, and I'll touch on this in more detail later on).
We flew on American Airlines with a super early flight out to our Miami layover. The Detroit airport (DTW) is my home airport and while I always love coming home to it, the place really needs to step up their game for our north terminal. Our Delta terminal is spot on, with hundreds of shopping and dining options, a tram, and like 6 Delta Clubs. But if you're flying anything other than Delta, you're stuck in North Terminal, and you get slow people movers, and essentially a mile walk between gates. There is currently one international club in North but its hours are all wonky.
Long story short, our early morning in Detroit wasn't exactly pleasant. But no worries, Miami made up for it.
The Miami airport (MIA) is home to a plethora of shopping, dining, and club facilities. Though, it too is a pretty long hike from one to another.
Always check if your terminal has some sort of gate-to-gate transportation, a tram, train, people mover, etc... You can usually look up a map of your destination airport within your airline's app. Though keep in mind it may be on another level, like how the SkyTrain is on the fifth level at MIA and I didn't see it, so I had everyone in our party walk to the other end of the terminal to the Centurion Club... Yeah. Don't do that.
Before the trip I added my mom as a cardholder onto my American Express Platinum account, while it did cost a chunk of change to add her, we are traveling in groups enough this year to make the guest passes and free airport accommodations worth it.
We got a group of six into the Centurion Club, for some mimosas, breakfast, comfortable chairs, and clean bathrooms. Now, none of this is necessary for a trip, but let me tell ya, it takes the stress level of traveling with a group of people, down like five notches.
From Miami it was smooth sailing to Aruba. We had a neat view flying in on the left side of the plane. You could see the entire island from above, and we landed swooping over a beach. Now when you de-board the plane, they hustle you directly to customs, no shopping no dining inside the terminal. But don't worry, entrance customs is super quick and automated, just scan your passport, smile at the camera, and be on your way.
The taxi situation in Aruba can be a very frustrating one, only if you have a party with more than five people. It is LAW now in Aruba that no taxi is allowed to carry more than five passengers. So with our group of seven, we had to split into two taxis to get to the resort. The airport taxis are a flat rate no matter where you're going (you do still need to tip on top of that), and at the time of our trip it was $28/Taxi. Though the rate seemed to have dropped to $25 for our return taxi fare (I honestly have no idea why).
As I said earlier, we stayed at the La Cabana Resort and Casino (La Cabana TripAdvisor Link). My sister and I shared a suite with a bedroom, kitchenette and living room area, though I think we only used the kitchen to make ice and fill water bottles.
The resort has a casino attached to the lobby, as well as a gift shop, aloe shop, jewelry store, and convenience store. Past the lobby were the guest towers with the activity center and another gift shop. Through the center was a large courtyard with a large pool, hot tubs, bar, a Sbarro pizza stand, and the two resort restaurants.
Keeping it easy for our travel day, we grabbed dinner at the on-site casual restaurant the Islander Grill (Islander Grill TripAdvisor Link). Turns out the grill was the best value for a meal in the Eagle Beach area. There wasn't anything stand out on the menu, but it was consistently good and much lower priced than the nearby options. We ended up eating here pretty often because of this.
Grocery shopping is something my family has often done on vacation to save on eating out every night. Usually this works out very well. But when you get to an island, where most everything has to be imported in, groceries are a hot commodity. The main grocery store was actually located right behind our resort, and while it was in walking distance, we had to cross a fairly busy major road with no crosswalk. I would not recommend making a trip on foot after dark.
Super Food was huge, and carried just about everything you would need. There was even a cafe inside for some quick bites. We only picked up some juice and soda for mixers while we were there, but even a small carton of fruit juice was $7 or $8.
Small side note, if you want to drink at any point without paying $8-$15 a drink at a bar or restaurant, buy your alcohol at the airport. It will be relatively the same price as it is in the States, but if you try and buy any outside of that little duty free shop, that price is going to double and blow your mind.
Let's talk busses! Public transportation is readily available and tourist friendly on the island. There are a few different systems in place though, so depending on your budget, how long you're willing to wait, and comfort levels, there may be one system that works best for your situation.
Arubus is the main entity for transportation outside of taxis in Aruba. They have both large busses and smaller bus vans. Both take USD and Aruban Florians, and the large busses will also take bus passes. The small vans will say “Bus” on the front rather than "Taxi," and while we never took them (because in all honesty they look like the vans your parents told you to stay away from) we saw tons of people, locals and tourists, use them and we were told that they only charge $2 per trip. The big busses charged $2.60 cash per trip or you could purchase a two trip pass for $5 or an unlimited day pass for $10. The smaller vans came by the bus stops way more frequently and the large busses seemed to run every 15-30 minutes. We were told that the busses run every hour on Sundays.
The bus routes will take you just about anywhere you may need to go including the high-rise area all the way up to Arashi Beach, and they can even take you down to Baby Beach after a transfer in Oranjestad and another in San Nicolas.
Our first excursion was the only one we actually booked in advance. Originally we were trying to book a smaller boat cruise that my mom and dad fell in love with, but unfortunately the schooner was out of the water for maintenance during our vacation. Instead we booked the brunch snorkel catamaran, which was a bit more crowded but a good alternative.
The Pelican Adventures Champagne Brunch and Aqua Safari (Link Here) was $79 per person and included quite a bit making it a really great value for a large group. (Champagne Brunch and Aqua Safari TripAdvisor Link) The boat was fully stocked with unlimited drinks including beer, liquor, champagne, and non-alcoholic sodas and juices, in addition to all the drinks a hearty brunch of paella, potato salad and rolls was served.
If you have anyone with food allergies, make sure to let them know when you make the reservation and confirm that they can accommodate the meals you need well in advance of getting on the boat. My aunt and I aren’t compatible with seafood so we made the request when making the reservation, but when we got on the boat there wasn’t an alternative meal available. I mean the potato salad was pretty good so I wasn’t too bummed, but unlimited drinks on an empty stomach could have gone very wrong, so make the request and triple check it before you arrive. (Pelican Adventures TripAdvisor Link)
We made three snorkel stops at Catalina Bay, the Antilla Shipwreck, & Malmok Reef.
Both Catalina Bay and Malmok Reef are easy-going low current snorkel areas that are great for beginners. But just remember to look up often and check your position and distance from the boat. All the neat stuff under the water can be quite distracting, and its easy to unknowingly swim pretty far from your group or boat.
In our limited opinion (of going on two separate cruises with two different companies) Pelican had the best anchor spot For snorkeling at the Antilla Shipwreck. You climb down the stairs and are directly on top of a portion of the ship with tons of clear and interesting details. Now this is generally everyone’s favorite stop so it’s going to be much more crowded than the other two locations. We had about 15 minutes to swim here and with the current, our crew recommended swimming out towards shore and letting the current help float you back towards the catamaran. I would recommend swimming out a bit, as most the group will stay right in front of the boat and it will get congested.
While snorkel equipment was provided on the boat, we brought our own full face snorkel masks. And yeah, they look pretty ridiculous, but then again so to regular snorkel sets. They gave us a much wider view of everything and a calmer breathing experience since you can breath regularly through both your mouth or nose. We bought the Snorkl brand full face masks a few years back on Amazon but the adult sizes aren't listed for sale anymore. Here is another similar brand that is available, that looks the most similar to the ones we have, if you want to check them out.
Also side note, but I learned on this cruise that I really enjoy jumping off of things, which I actually got quite a few chances to do around the island...
Everything in Aruba is on TripAdvisor. There is no Yelp for restaurants, so when you're looking for neat places to eat, either ask someone around you, or search some TripAdvisor posts. Most excursions and tour companies are also listed on TripAdvisor, so it really is the best online resource when planning your trip here.
Also, make sure to leave a review for any restaurant or excursion/tour on TripAdvisor. It can really help others figure out what types of activities are a good fit for them, and it can really help out your tour guides, or wait staff.
Once we disembarked from our snorkel tour, we decided to tour a bit of Palm Beach and the high-rise district. From Pelican Pier we moved north along the beach, passing many of the other resorts' pool and cabana areas. The beach was pretty busy with many families lounging and playing in the sand and water. Along the beach was mostly hotel restaurants and bars, and a few water sports huts, so we ventured inland to get a taste of the shopping and dining across the road from the hotels.
It was what one would expect from a tourist heavy area, with tons of souvenir shops, plenty of chain restaurants you would find back home, and many designer name boutiques. The only thing that really surprised me about the shopping, was that there were more jewelry stores than anything else. I would have to say that the most "locally unique" place through here would be the Aruba Aloe shop. Even though we found these shops just about everywhere we went (including our resort lobby), the items are sourced from the aloe farm and factory on the island.
One of my coworkers had suggested we go to a small restaurant, that they claimed was the best food and drinks they had on the island during their own vacation. So we tracked it down. The Lazy Turtle is a little unassuming restaurant in the middle of a shopping center which we normally would have just passed by. But with the insider tip, we stopped in and got drinks while we checked out the food menu for future dinner ideas.
Upon our return the La Cabana for the afternoon, we were met with live music and more happy hour deals, which in turn, inspired some dancing. I was an absolute ball seeing my mom lose all care in the world, and start getting ALL nearby patrons onto the "dance floor."
A rotation of varying artists filled the pool and bar area with music every night, serenading multiple happy hour crowds, and thus a specific group of tables became a meet up spot for our group each evening, where we would figure our dinner plans, or events for the next day.
My mom had remembered walking to a nearby restaurant, and enjoying every aspect of the experience, not just the food, but the service and ambiance as well. And with such a good fond memory of the place we set out to find it.
Now all we were going off of was that it was within walking distance to the south of our resort. So south we went until we happened upon a quaint little patio area that my mom immediately recognized. Tulip was the name of the restaurant at the MVC Eagle Beach Resort, and Kevin was the name of our charming waiter who ushered us into the dining area. It was calm here, with quiet music, and only a few other diners; a stark contrast to our resort grill. I ordered Keshi Yena (a chicken stew) and it was the first local dish I got to try. The stew was topped with dutch cheese and was so savory. I seriously need to find a place back home to get this, or a similar recipe, because this was such a great comfort food dish. (Tulip TripAdvisor Link)
After an excursion day, its nice to just hang out and soak in your surroundings. We tried to plan break days in between excursions and tours, though I tend to be a restless traveler, so we didn't end up spending too much time lounging around on the beach.
We had rows of cabanas available for resort guests to reserve, directly across the street from the pool and bar area. These were sturdy built in thatch roof cabanas with hooks around the base for bags and such. There are a few rules that came along with the cabanas as well. First and most importantly was the cabana reservations were "first come, first serve." My mom would get up early and reserve a front row cabana and we would maintain that cabana for the remainder of the day.
Here's how. To reserve a cabana you would simply find an empty cabana or be brought to one by one of the cabana personnel, and hang a bag, or towel on the post. Any cabana with something hanging from them, were reserved. Each resort may vary a bit, but you couldn't leave your cabana vacant for more than 45-ish minutes or the employees would collect your stuff and let someone else take the cabana.
There were plenty of cabana available throughout the day that getting up early really wasn't necessary unless you really wanted a front row spot. Otherwise, there was always a cabana with shade available for you to nestle into. At least on non-cruise days. We learned that recently cruise lines have been taking note of how busy Palm Beach has gotten over the years, and now will bus their guests to Eagle Beach. Ask your front desk when the ships will be in and avoid high tourist areas, and popular excursions on those days if you can.
That being said... if you are a cruise guest, please do not plop your chairs down right in front of an occupied front row cabana. Someone probably put a lot more effort into getting that spot, so if you absolutely must sit with an un-interrupted view of the ocean, walk down the beach a little bit or commit a slightly less intrusive act and sit offset between two cabanas rather than in front of one. (We totally aren't salty about cruisers doing this to us at all...
Aruba is windy, which isn't a bad thing by any means, but can cause some problems if you aren't careful. The wind makes higher temperatures feel cooler and less stagnant, which is actually one of the selling points of the island, but it also tends to cause one forget to reapply sunscreen. Secondly, the wind will literally blow your stuff away. This includes trash. Keep all your belongings tied down or weighted down because the wind is no joke here.
Since I have a hard time staying in one spot for very long, I created a little photoshoot scavenger hunt on our beach day. I'd been looking into Aruba since I learned we'd be joining my mom on the trip, and I had compiled a small list of photo spots I really wanted to try out. Quite a few of the spots ended up being right along Eagle Beach.
Photography is a fun hobby of mine, and I really enjoy learning new tricks, though I struggle the most with photographing people. But you'll never learn until you try, so I nabbed my sister, started snapping away, and eventually picked up a few neat tricks for some casual vacation photos.
I've had my iPhone 8+ for just about a year now, and I never knew what "portrait mode" was until this trip. If you don't have a camera with adjustable depth of field or you're worried about a beach's sand or water ruining such a device, then "portrait mode" on a smart phone is your new best friend. While this is auto-generated fake depth of field, and can miss areas around narrow details, overall this mode can make your photos look 10 times like a professional photoshoot with just a smart phone (see portrait mode photos just below).
The most important photo tip I've figured out though, has nothing to do with equipment at all. The best photos are actually captured when the subject is interacting with the setting. Sitting pretty can be a nice photo, but a great photo is when you let go of what you think someone is supposed to look like and how they are supposed to be posed. My favorite ones were captured during something unexpected, there's so much more emotion and memory value to them.
Here are some of the "instagramable" spots we found along Eagle Beach:
There were a few dinner options for our "fancy night out" but Papiamento won with pure ambiance and traditional charm. The restaurant is located on the grounds of a traditional dutch style home with an amazing outdoor dining setting. There was room for hundreds here and yet it still felt cozy and on the finer side of things. (Papiamento TripAdvisor Link)
We arrived around dusk as the sun was setting and the grounds were lit with a lovely glow as we made our orders. Papiamento came with an upscale menu with options for everyone. They had quite a few hot rock plates, which I was pretty interested in trying out. Though I have to warn, if you don't know how to cook something like fish or lobster ask a waiter to explain how long to leave it cooking on the rot rock, or order something fully cooked.
One of the really neat things about Papiamento was that they allowed you to tour the grounds, wine cellar, and fully dutch furnished indoor dining areas inside the house. It was a step back into the dutch influence on Aruba, and an absolutely lovely night.
Do keep in mind that you will need to take a taxi here, as it is inland a bit and would be a long walk from the nearest main bus route. Taxis come and go constantly to and from the restaurant so don't worry about catching one back to your resort.
After our day at Eagle Beach, we switched things up and spent the day at Palm Beach. And it was quite different than what we were expecting. Just as we had experienced in our brief walk through the beach on our second day, there were mostly families and groups crowding the length of the beach here, but there were many more water sports huts offering a greater variety of activities from parasailing, to paddle boarding.
We also found restaurants and beach bars everywhere you looked, tons of options, or so we thought. While scouting a spot to make our base on the beach, half our group parked up at a bustling beach bar in the shade. After about 45 minutes of not being approached by a waiter or bar tender, it became clear that the bar served hotel guests only. Though, no one felt it necessary to tell them as they waited the whole time. A bit flustered, we split up and they made their way back to the public Pelican Pier for some drinks.
Determined to swim and beach it, we grabbed some chairs from a stack (we looked for someone around to rent or reserve them from but no employees were around, and no one said a word when we helped ourselves) and set up shop. The beach was great for shell hunting, with something new washing up with every wave, but you had to watch out for your toes when walking in.
Palm Beach's saving grace for us was entirely wrapped up in one place. The beaches were so-so and the sit down restaurants were all pretty similar to one another. But there was one place my sister and I knew we had to check out.
Instagram and internet crazed photos don't always bring you the reality you were hoping for, but Eduardo's Beach Shack delivered exactly the fresh, fruity, flavorful amazing beach food everyone was craving. And guess what? The prices were just as refreshing. Smoothie bowls, tons of vegan dishes, poke burritos and bowls, around $10-$12 a person, and a whole bakery section to boot. These guys knew what they were doing and clearly were the winner of Palm Beach for us. (Eduardo's Beach Shack TripAdvisor Link)
Then as most of our days ended up, back at La Cabana for live music, our 2 for the price of 1 happy hour, and trying out a different dish at the grill.
One this particular happy hour, I found my new go-to happy hour flavor; Mango slush and rum... plenty of rum. I know we returned here often but everything was perfectly fine and comfortable here. The atmosphere was always lively and upbeat without being a party zone, and honestly, the prices could not be beat.
Day 5 was easily the most exciting and adventurous day on the island. We knew we wanted to do an off-roading tour through the Arikok National Park but we were expecting to book a Jeep tour. Mom made a decision that surprised us all, and we were bound for a ride of a lifetime.
After being picked up from the resort we were brought to a parking garage lined with ATVs and one Polaris outfitted for six riders. Action Tours Aruba - UTV Natural Pool Tour was $360 for a 6 seater UTV or $60 per person (Direct Link Here). We got to drive our own UTV and follow a pack of ATVs and a guide along the coast and into Arikok National Park (there was an additional $10 per person in cash for the park entrance fee).
I'm so glad we chose this option instead of a Jeep tour. This was way more my style of experience and WAY of the beaten path. You never knew what was around the corner, and our guide surprised us with a few extra stops along the way. (Action Tours Aruba TripAdvisor Link)
The stops we made were explorable, and climbable, and rough, and dirty, and if you can't already tell, I loved every second of it. Our first stop was to Baby Bridge, which is still standing, opposed to the Natural Bridge that collapsed years ago (and yet tours still bring people to it...)
Next up was a secluded cave pool, that some are calling the new natural pool. It was very tricky to access as we had to climb down a ladder and climb over very sharp rocks with no clear path to jump into the pool. Not for everyone with its difficult access, but completely worth it to have the hidden spot to ourselves.
The Bushiribana Gold Mines were not far from the cave pool and offered an expansive view of the desert terrain all around us. They had a bathroom and food stop at the Bushiribana Gold Mines, but be warned it will cost you to go to the bathroom, at least a dollar, so have cash on you incase you just gotta go. There was also a food vender here for refueling and taking a break before heading to Arikok.
The Natural Pool (Conchi) was our first stop after a long drive through steep and narrow trails through the national park. Along the way we came to an abrupt stop as my mom found cell phones on the side of the path. We reluctantly picked them up, hoping we wouldn't loose sight of our group, and made our way to the pool where the rest of our tour clan was waiting for us. We explained that we found a group of cell phones on the path and asked if anyone had lost theirs. An extremely lucky trio, checked their backpacks and realized only then that their zipper pocked came undone and all of their cell phones had fallen out. They definitely learned a lesson there. Secure all important items, even zippers.
Once we made the short hike down to the pool, we realized an unfavorable truth. The Natural Pool was way too crowded. There were at least five different tour groups already in the pool and wandering around it.
I saw people lined up to jump off a portion of the rock walls surrounding the pool, and forced my way through the crowds to get there. I wasn't about to give up on a jumping opportunity. What was an awesome surprise, that no one else seemed to care about, was a small "hot tub" pool just behind the cliff jumping spot. No one even bothered checking this secluded spot out, so we took it as our little sanctuary from the hoards.
Our guide, after some begging from my mom, also made a special stop at the Alto Vista chapel, took us for a swoop around the lighthouse (just a drive by), and seeing some adventurous spirit in our group, brought us to an unnamed secluded beach with a super fun rock jumping spot!
This was easily one of my favorite excursions, and days of the whole trip. It perfectly satisfied my adventurous side and unexpectedly brought back memories of childhood vacations, when our dad would drag us way outside of our comfort zone to truly experience a place.
Just a heads up, if you choose to do any off roading trip through Arikok, the sand and dust can stain things red and brown, and it will get EVERYWHERE. Dress accordingly.
This was my aunt and uncle's last day on the island with us, so after showering the desert off of us, we had a sunset lit dinner at the neighboring resort to switch things up a bit. Mangos Restaurant at the Amsterdam Manor had special menus for each night of the week and we happened upon them on the 3-course french dinner night. Just like Tulip, in the opposite direction, Mangos was a peaceful and relaxing dining experience, though had a warming view of the sunset and the beach before it (Mangos TripAdvisor Link).
We had to adapt a lot when plans didn't well... go to plan. Our original plans were to take the bus and explore Oranjestad then San Nicolas, then go back to the resort and grab all our snorkel gear and head back down to Baby Beach via a few Arubus transfers.
We (more me than anyone else) didn't want to haul snorkel gear around all the shopping centers and while walking around San Nicolas. What I didn't realize, was that it's around and hour to an hour and a half bus ride just to San Nicolas and it was already late afternoon by the time we were finishing up our wanderings in the southern city.
So we missed out on Baby Beach, which I wish I would have just sucked it up, and hauled all our stuff with us, and gone straight to the beach after San Nicolas. You live and learn I guess.
We still made it to two of our original stops of the day though, firstly, Oranjestad, the capital and cruise center of the island.
Shopping here mostly consisted of standard souvenir shops, but hidden among them are a few neat and unique shops with varying items, our favorite being painted mandala hand painted bowls and dish sets. Lunch ended up at Iguana Joes mostly for convenience, but they had a large menu and variety of options, as well as budget friendly prices. From here we really didn't wander too far, just the immediate shopping center and line of shops near the cruise ship docks. Later on we found there was another section of shops and dutch style architecture further inland with more authentic food options and shops.
If you happen to arrive on Aruba via a cruise ship, I HIGHLY recommend that you venture past Oranjestad, as it really has been cultivated for tourist's comforts, rather than the island's true nature and culture.
From the bus station in Oranjestad we hopped on a bus heading to San Nicolas. I had been reading about San Nicolas and its more authentic Aruban and emerging art culture, and was excited to see the city for myself. Though, many of the blogger's who had recommended San Nicolas had also taken an art tour and had a guide show them around. I figured we could navigate ourselves and simply followed the first sign stating shops and dining were to the right of the bus station.
In an interesting turn of events, I had directed our group right into the "red light district" as some would call it. Now, we were in no danger what so ever, but it was extremely uncomfortable to those in our party who had never experienced an area like this with run down and rougher buildings, and a few working gals hanging out. It was nothing different from what I'd seen through parts of Europe, but we needed to get our bearings straight since this was not the area I was expecting us to find.
By the time we backtracked to the bus station half our group was ready to take the bus back to the resort... my bad.
My sister and my mom continued on with me to the artsy center of San Nicolas (which was immediately to the left of the bus station by the way), and we finally got to see what everyone was talking about. These few blocks were absolutely bright and colorful and vibrant with murals, sculpture, and mosaics across every available surface.
There was a building covered in flamingos and I had to investigate what it could possibly be. Turns out, it was an art center that encouraged, and taught locals to create various mediums of art in an effort to provide for themselves within the tourism economics of Aruba. They provided modern work stations for artists, created an inspiring hangout location, and acted as a casual gallery where we could buy true local art.
I found a small crochet starfish that is going to make the perfect addition to my travel wall back home, and we all picked out hand blown bird necklaces. The prices weren’t too bad, and we all left with a good feeling, knowing that it rewarded someone's hard work and creativity. The staff was incredibly kind and explained how everything worked there, gave us each artist’s story, and even let us take photos and videos so we could show everyone what we found here. (Cosecha San Nicolas TripAdvisor)
Since we missed our chance to snorkel at Baby Beach we figured we could spend the rest of the afternoon snorkeling at Arashi Beach instead, but as another hiccup to the day, the busses only run every hour to Arashi, and by that time, there would not be a bus that would be running to return us to Eagle Beach
Trying to go with the flow of things, we bussed it back to the resort then up to Palm Beach to take a shot at a nice sunset dining experience in the high-rise district, where Mom demanded cliche sister photos be taken. And they turned out pretty okay, despite our cheesy-ness.
Unfortunately, the rough patches of our plans earlier were catching up to us, and no one could agree on a beachside restaurant. All restaurants on the beach side of the high-rise district are very pricey for dinner and mostly offer the same dishes across the board. Nothing stood out to us and hunger was making us pretty cranky.
Forfeiting our sunset dinner view, we moved inland and ended up back at the Lazy Turtle for dinner after passing up many monotonous restaurants. It turned out to be fabulous food, with pretty relaxed "island time" service. It gave us time to cool off and reflect on the day, and how it didn’t go wrong, just not how we expected it to happen. (The Lazy Turtle TripAdvisor Link)
We were finally heading to Arashi Beach the next morning, with plenty of time to explore and catch a bus back. When we arrived around 9:00-ish the beach was completely empty. The beach snack bar wasn’t open, and the chair rental guys hadn’t come out yet. No problem for us, we were planning on being in the water anyways. There are only a few cabanas at Arashi and we easily snagged one and loaded it up with all our snorkel gear and towels.
We we were told that the snorkeling was pretty good up this way, and with the heavier current, we all made a plan to stick together and wear flippers to ease the swimming. Swimming was the best way to enjoy the water in this spot at there was lots of dead coral hidden in the sand. Floating and swimming around kept feet and toes from hurting any coral or getting scratches and cuts themselves. The southern portion of the beach was rockier and seemed to be the direction to go if you were looking for something interesting under the water, but to the north there was a long shallow sandbar perfect for some leisurely swimming or playing in the water.
A group of 30 or more kids showed up for a swimming trip of sorts about 30 minutes after we arrive, and we moved south along the coast checking out all the various beaches.
There were a few private beaches directly south of Arashi so we took the sidewalk and the road south, spying public spots to check out. As we were passing Catalina Bay, visitors were telling us they had seen sea turtles and while the coral was still not the best to see, the sea life was very present.
My my mission became finding the secluded beach from our UTV tour as the area started looking more familiar. It was between Boca Catalina Beach and Malmok Beach. If you google “Tres Trapi Steps” you’ll find it. We didn’t realize it then, but this beach is directly in line with the Antilla Shipwreck.
This teeny tiny beach ended up being my favorite of all the ones we made it to. While the beach entrance and sandy shore itself was very very small, the water here was the clearest, most comfortable, and calm to swim in. My sister and I could have stayed there all day. AND of course it had its cliff jumping runway, for some great GoPro shots.
I have to note, that while the small beach is beautifully sandy, the rocky entrance to this area is full of holes and tripping hazards as well as some sharp and rough ground; I would definitely recommend wearing water shoes if possible.
When we arrived, still mid morning, the spot was empty except for three local teens, though private jeep tours began to bring visitors to the small beach and it became a bit crowded on shore. The visitors who came in after us didn't seem to know about the jumping spot just south of the beach entrance. Oh well, their loss.
After swimming, we returned to the high-rise district to get lunch. Another highly instagrammed and blogged about location was next on our list.
Diana's Pancake Place, one of the two main pancake restaurants on the island, located across from the Hyatt, was where we tried our first dutch pancakes. They had a homey diner feeling and being on the second level above the shops brought in a nice cooling breeze. Everything was superb, and they had a great variety of sweet and savory options, as well a fun drink menu with an amazing mimosa featuring fresh squeezed orange juice.
I ordered a cheese, mushroom, and and ham pancake, while my sister got a super fruity "Picasso," and my mom who clearly had a boozy meal in mind, got a plain pancake with Bailey's cream drizzle and whipped cream. (Diana's Pancake Place TripAdvisor Link)
With our bellies full, we returned to wait out our oncoming food comas at the resort.
La Cabana, as most resorts, had a concierge desk where you could book various excursions and tours. We had previously agreed that we wanted to go on a sunset horseback riding tour, and asked the attendant at the desk who she would recommend. She called around to a few different ranches to check availability and cost. There were a few options including going back to the natural pool, but sunset horseback riding on a beach is what sold it for us.
Our chosen tour was a sunset horseback riding tour through Arikok National Park and along Moro Beach through Rancho Loco. The Moro Beach Sunset Tour was $100 per person (Link Here) and included pick up and drop off from and back to your resort.
Now I've ridden horses before and done numerous horseback tours on vacations, but this one I was particularly nervous and on edge the whole time. We went through some really rocky trails through the national park which was a terrain I'd never been on a horse for.
We were told specifically to keep the horses in line so they wouldn't try to race each other and lose control, though the young boy behind all three of us kept trying to move up in the line, purposely lead his horse next to each of ours, and attempted to move around us, making it a bit tense to keep our own horses under control while he tried to pass (from the way he interacted with all the guides and everyone on the ranch, I assumed he was a local boy who tagged along for the ride).
Other than that the views were gorgeous, though, extremely hard to capture with a camera as I wasn't comfortable enough to let loose and take photos. My mom on the other hand barely even touched her reigns, with her horse simply hanging back and following the pack. She was out snapping photos left and right. I was pretty excided once we got to the coast, since riding a horse on the beach has been on my bucket list for quite some time. Its always satisfying to check something off every once in awhile.
The last full day in Aruba was a mix of re-doing some of our favorite things and trying something new. Obviously we spent a good chunk of time lounging out and soaking in our last rays of Aruban sunshine at the beach cabanas, swimming, and trying not to re-burn our skin.
We realized that over the whole trip we never tried out any of the activities offered at the many water sport huts. The beaches were lined with jet skis, and boats pulling wild rafts and tubes, and colorful sails floating through the air. On a whim my mom and I walked over to the closest hut and negotiated a price for a double parasailing trip. For a cash we negotiated them down to $100 and in a few minutes a boat was on the beach ready to pick us up.
We jetted out towards Palm Beach, strapped in, and next thing we knew, we were in the air, floating like feathers. My sister got to hang out on the boat (wasn't a fan of being in the air) and recorded our take off and landing, though, I think the boat ride was rougher than us sailing through the air.
Don't get me wrong, it was terrifying and nerve wracking at first, but as soon as you were in the air, everything was calm. I had a death grip on the straps, but my mom had no problem letting go and hanging back in the harness.
Back on dry land, we wanted to re-visit some of our favorite places, including Eduardos back up in the high-rise area. But Eduardos wasn't quite enough convince us to head back up there. My mom, sister, and I all agreed that also wanted to experience more snorkeling and that we all felt more comfortable snorkeling from the boat tours rather than out from the shores. It was simpler swimming out from the boats that were right on top of the coral, than swimming out from shore in search of something interesting beneath the waves.
Before we left for Palm Beach we booked another snorkel cruise at the concierge desk. Trying to book something only hours before its departure time, left us with only a few options, namely the Jolly Pirate Snorkel Cruise, which is known for being quite the party boat, and a catamaran cruise that made two stops. The pirate party just didn't seem like a good fit.
With our cruise reserved, we packed our gear and hopped on the bus to the high-rise area. We left with plenty of time to sneak in a meal. From the Hyatt bus stop it was a quick walk to Eduardos, for what we already knew would be a great pre-tour lunch. This time around I ordered the vegan pad thai with some spicy sauce, and now my pad thai joint back home is forever ruined.
The catamaran cruise was a similar length to the brunch cruise we took, and still included snacks, and unlimited drinks on-board. We loved our first cruise, and weren't bothered at all by the idea of going back to the same spots. Red Sails Antilla & Catalina Snorkel Sail was $65 per person (Link Here) and the main two differences from the Pelican brunch cruise were that a full meal wasn't served, and we only made stops at the Antilla and Catalina Bay. BUT we got way more time at each spot.
The extra snorkel time allowed for going a little farther away from the large groups of snorkelers who huddled around the boat, and also extra time to jump off or use the slide in the back. The "snacks" offered ended up being super satisfying warm beef empanadas, and "pigs in a blanket," of which I probably ate more than my fair share of, but they were so good after swimming for almost two hours. (Antilla & Catalina Snorkel Sail TripAdvisor Link)
While our anchor spot at the Antilla was a bit less interesting portion of the ship, and the view wasn't as good as the Pelican tour, the Catalina stop made the whole tour well worth it. We got to see a much more vibrant area of the bay, and actually swam with schools of fish. The 45 minutes here let us swim farther, and seek out the more active areas of the reef, with confidence that our boat wasn't going to leave any minute.
We were feeling pretty great after practically dancing off the boat, and found ourselves in our own little photoshoot session on the Hyatt grounds. Now to add to that "insta-worthy" photo locations list I mentioned earlier, literally anywhere in the Hyatt gardens makes for a gorgeous backdrop. It's so lush and full of color, and there are many winding paths that easily make for secluded areas to get the best shot. It was neat to play around with all the various settings they have all in one garden, from waterfalls and bridges, to curated hedge rows and colorful (and very empty) sitting areas.
I would even go as far as to suggest taking any family or group photos here. While some of the resorts were very "for hotel guests only," the Hyatt gardens were open and welcoming to everyone, and neither guests nor staff seemed to mind us exploring every inch of the place.
After a heavy dose of posing for endless photos we started asking around about a new restaurant tip passed to us by a random woman making reservations at the water sports hut from earlier that morning. Unfortunately her directions weren't exactly as clear as they could have been.
"It's a place called local food or something, and its under the Hooters in the high-rise area."
When I asked the guys at the taxi stand of the Hyatt if they'd heard of a new local restaurant under the Hooters, they both laughed and let me know that there is nothing under the Hooters as it was a single story restaurant in the strip mall down the road. Hmm... Not promising but at least we knew the general direction to start looking in. Even once we got to the Hooters, which in fact was incapable of having anything beneath it, we asked some locals heading to dinner themselves and asked if they knew of a new restaurant in the area. All three of them shook their heads and had no clue what we were talking about. We were kinda walking in circles around the strip mall when we saw an awning in the back near the rear parking lot, that said "LOCAL FISH" and there it was.
Local Fish was a simple restaurant located in the back of the shopping center, and almost appeared to be closed, but when we walked up to the host stand, we were warmly greeted by Juan, who turned out to be the sweetest and most genuine human we met on the island. The restaurant had just opened at the beginning of the month and they were in the process of building up their TripAdvisor presence (which like I said earlier, is the only way tourists could even find out about them).
My mom ordered the fish soup and ranted and raved about how good it was to everyone we came into contact with afterwards! She shared the grouper with my sister, and they both enjoyed its flavor and texture. The portion size was perfect for the two of them too. I had the chicken caesar salad with fried plantains and funchi. As great as the food was, Juan, was truly the glue to the whole experience. He had such a genuine enthusiasm that you couldn't help but smile around him. (Local Fish TripAdvisor Link)
It really was an all around great day in Aruba. We didn't feel like we needed to fit anything else into our experience here. It was relaxing, but adventurous, and it was one of the few times my mom, sister and I got to get away from the group and spent some quality family together.
We had plenty of time to calmly pack our things and clean up the rooms, for a simple check-out and departure the next afternoon.
It was now time to leave the island, with all our bags packed (and weighed), we didn't have much to do before our 3:30pm flight. We didn't necessarily want to go swimming and pack a wet suit, so we people watched at the pool.
A kinda funny task that we did have for departure day, was trying to find people to pass off our extra sunscreen bottles, pool noodles (that a previous family passed on to us on their own departure day), and extra liquor that our bag liquid and weight restrictions just wouldn't allow for. The noodles and the sun screen was an easy gift to a large family we spotted early on, but convincing another group to take our bottle of rum was a trickier situation. I'm not sure if I personally would have accepted alcohol from complete strangers, but we just didn't want it to go to waste and knew if someone were to buy it, it would be up to $50. Luckily a group of some mid 20 year olds gladly took it off our hands. I guess we didn't look unsavory enough for them to pass it up.
Not wanting to pay for another meal at the resort we left for the airport with enough time to get through the four security check points and still grab a bite from the VIP international lounge inside the terminal. With the two Priority Pass cards between my mom and I, we got all five of us inside the club with complimentary food and drinks, and it made a world of a difference waiting out our departure in the quiet club area than at the crowded gate.
Our layover in Miami was going to be a fairly long one, so we tested out one of the Priority Pass dining experiences at the Corona Beach House restaurant. I thought we only got a $30 food and beverage credit per cardholder, which would still be enough for some good snacking. Turns out we got $30 per person. Holy snozzberries. Obviously we didn't have enough time or stomach space to order $150 worth of food and drinks, so we just ordered a quesadilla and some drinks.
After that I had to insist we make our way to the Centurion Club, to prove that they really do have the best dinner buffets of all airport lounges. And it was. Now I don't know about you but I'm going to pick fried chicken, cheesy potatoes, arugula salad, lemon panna cotta, and wine over any airport restaurant, every time. But then again, I just need to tell myself that to keep convincing myself that my AMEX is really worth its annual fee.
Anywho, we ate and drank our way through the Miami airport, and landed back in Detroit around 1:00 am. Now I did say that I was going to explain our hotel and parking situation, so here it is. This whole package was supposed to cover two hotel nights, and all parking for the entirety of our trip. We were assured that even though we arrived past midnight on our last parking night, that it would only count as the previous full day, rather than charging us for a new day when the car has only been there for an hour of said new day. But that didn't happen and they still charged us a full days parking for those 60 minutes. No biggie it was only $9. Move onto the hotel to get some sleep and drive home in the morning, right? Nope. Credit card machine was down, and the hotel could only take cash...
By that time we just wanted to go home and not deal with this wonky package, and sleep in our own beds. So we did just that.
We were home.
So there's a bit of backstory to this trip that frames why we went and why this specific trip had a lot of importance to my family. Aruba became my parent's favorite place on earth after only their first time there about 5 years ago, then they fell even more in love with the island when they returned a second time. Their third trip was planned and booked last fall, and both were looking forward to an escape to paradise.
Then we lost my dad in December. I haven't posted anything about it on my public social media pages, because it was too heavy for me to talk about. As a last gift of sorts, my mom invited us girls to join her in Aruba for their third trip. Normally, I wouldn't have picked a tropical island for my next big destination, but I had to go, I had to know what made this place so special to them.
Out of all of this experiences we've had, all the comfort zones we swam out of, we did it because this was Dad's trip, this was his place. And that to me, was the best part of Aruba.
Love you always, you adventurous man.