Aruba, part of the Lesser Antilles, is a tiny Dutch Caribbean island that rounds out the ABC islands with Bonaire and Curaçao. Sun seekers make a beeline to this popular island destination because of its pleasant demeanor and luxurious yet down-to-earth resorts and accommodations. Locals in Aruba take pride in their white-sand beaches (Eagle Beach being perhaps the most gay-friendly), cooling trade winds, and their slogan “One Happy Island.” What is it that makes this desert-meets-beach Caribbean island one of the most visited destinations in the area? The 82-degree beach weather and a unique terrain that seems to meld perfectly with the turquoise waters, combine to make for the ultimate vacation.
The first settlers, the Arawak Indians, arrived from Venezuela just before 1,000 CE and founded villages on the coast near present-day Malmok and Palm Beach. Explorer Alonso de Ojeda discovered and claimed Aruba for the Spanish throne in 1499 and later the Dutch occupied the island in 1636 to protect their salt supply. The island then became part of the Dutch West India Company (except for a brief occupancy by the British).
Today, the island remains a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The local community is fluent in Dutch, Papiamento (the Arubian language), and most speak English and Spanish. LGBT travelers are welcome at all hotels and resorts on the island, and I found no shortage of gay couples and families at every property I visited.
“As a gay man in Aruba, I feel very safe being open about my sexuality,” says Adrian Stewart, who works for The Mill Resort & Suites. “I feel like I am allowed to be myself and express myself in the way that I feel comfortable. I have no one judging or harassing me about who I am,” he adds. It’s truly a friendly island where the locals celebrate diversity and recognize how important it is for everyone to feel welcome.
When I arrived in Aruba recently, I checked into the 12-acre beachfront Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino (85 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Tel: 297-586-1234. www.aruba.regency.hyatt.com), an elegant Caribbean resort with traditional, Spanish-influenced architecture and an inviting open-air lobby. The property recently had a $20 million makeover on their 336 guest rooms, 24 suites, lobby, and restaurants. Outside an adorable iguana family and tons of tropical birds inhabit the three-level pool complex, connected by a system of cascading waterfalls. A walk through their tropical gardens reveals two additional whirlpools and a fresh-water lagoon stocked with tropical fish and a friendly pair of black swans. I noticed a few kids play- ing with the almost life-size chess pieces on my way to the pool, and soon discovered that this family-friendly resort offers basketball, tennis, and volleyball facilities, as well as a game room to keep the little ones occupied when they’re not frolicking in the ocean.
There’s no shortage of restaurants and dining options at the Hyatt Regency, which features the open-air (and hearty) Ruinas del Mar, the popular and lively Mexicado with a comprehensive tequila selection and authentic regional dishes, and the cozy Italian-bistro Cafe Piccolo, among others. I was most impressed, however, by their “Pampered in Paradise” dining experience. A private butler greeted some friends and I on the beach and escorted us to our own tiki torch-illuminated tent and laid out a sumptuous four-course sunset dinner with the sand and sea tickling our toes. I recommend the scallops à la plancha; followed by the classic duo, their take on surf and turf with grilled filet mignon, cabernet sauce with a fresh Caribbean lobster tail, and garlic broccoli.
This resort also offers the new ZoiA Spa, one of the most popular spas on the island. “ZoiA” is a Papiamento word for balance and poise. ZoiA draws on Aruba’s local red mud and seaweeds in order to detoxify and purify guests. Local aloe is the true star of the show and a core component to ZoiA’s wellness approach. The expansive treatment menus focus on local experiences and the use of high-quality ingredients and products, including Kerstin Florian International skin and body care, and the organic Naturopathica line that uses aloe and natural botanicals inspired by Aruba. Dina Veeris, a local herbalist, develops homegrown and hand-crafted indigenous treatments for ZoiA Spa, such as hand-pressed olive oil and aloe oil. These oils and herbs are a staple in all service offerings and experiences. The Aruban Sun Rescue is one of their signature treatments, drenching the body in ultra-healing, hydrating Aruban oil as a facial or body wrap (60 min/$130). There are a wide-range of ZoiA spa treatments and package deals to enjoy. These include a 30-minute ZoiA Exfoliation Treatment starting at $80, and the Serene Package that includes a five-hour spa day with an exfoliation, wrap, massage, facial, and mani/pedi for $575.
Nearby, the Aruba Marriott Resort (101 LG Smith Blvd., Tel: 297-586-900. www.marriott.com) is another great option on Palm Beach. The eight-story complex features 411 rooms, 23 suites, a luxurious pool, an adults-only H2Oasis pool, nine bars, and their Stellaris Casino. The Aruba Marriott Resort takes the island’s Aloe very seriously, using aloe in everything from face lotion and sunscreen to shampoos. The property is so aloe conscious, they even offer a sig- nature aloe cocktail at the Lobby Bar.
The Tradewinds Club, an exclusive boutique hotel within a hotel, which opened in 2008, is located on the top floor of the restaurant. In addition to the views, there are five daily complimentary food and beverage offerings, upscale amenities, and guests at the Tradewinds Club have access to a private beach, lounge seating, and a “pillow menu” in their room.
Farther down the shore, the low-rise Manchebo Beach Resort and Spa (55 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Tel: 297-582-3444. www.manchebo.com) offers a quieter experience with just 70 rooms and 40 beachside cabanas situated on Eagle Beach, Aruba’s widest stretch of beach. In addition to a more boutique approach, Manchebo boasts a focus on promoting a healthier lifestyle for their guests. Yoga and Pilates are a way of life at this eco-conscious resort; the Caribbean-Balinese-style Spa del Sol is one of the biggest draws. Spa del Sol’s teakwood, chanting birds, and soft music spilling from the outdoor massage cabanas offer a harmonious sense of balance and restoration. Guests can indulge in a formal four-night yoga package including morning and early evening classes at the beach pavilion and yoga deck for evening vinyasa under the stars.
Yoga teachers and studio owners from around the world are invited to customize their own yoga retreat at Manchebo. This not only brings a wide range of holistic and wellness lifestyle practitioners to the property, but also offers a broad and expansive group of options for regular guests and visitors to the resort.
For a couple’s getaway, The Mill Resort & Suites (330 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Tel: 800-992-2015. www.millsresort.net) offers a stellar “Romantic Getaway Package” at $870 for four nights in their recently renovated Deluxe Royal Room. The package includes a chilled bottle of Champagne upon arrival, daily buffet breakfast, a romantic poolside dinner for two, as well as a complimentary “One Free Night Certificate” to return again one year later. The property offers three saltwater swimming pools, tennis courts, and a more boutique setting on Palm Beach.
No matter which resort you choose, MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant (Berea di Piscado, Tel: 287-586-5365. www.moombabeach.com) is a great spot to catch some rays over lunch. Snacks are bountiful under their two huge palapas, but open-air seaside dining is the way to go. Take in some local flavors with great dishes like their Aruban fish chowder, Cajun tuna tataki, shrimp wrap, or their craveworthy grouper fillet. What’s the best thing to pair with anything at Moomba? An Aruba Ariba, of course!
I’m a novice snorkeler and read about some great wreck dives worth exploring off the coast of Aruba. I found Red Sail Sports (348-A J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Tel: 297-586-0006. www.redsailaurba.com) a PADI 5 Star Dive Resort, to be a friendly group on Pebble Beach and booked a spot on their popular “Dive & Sail” catamaran. The Jane Sea Wreck is the remains of a freighter that’s surrounded by corals and trop- ical fish. There are two airplane wrecks, a DC-3 and S-11, which were sunk in order to create artificial reefs in 1999 and 2004, respectively.