Breezy Landcruiser rides over rocky dunes and arid hills probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind on a Caribbean holiday. But like so many facets of Aruba, this desert island paradise is full of surprises.
I was being driven through Aruba’s sprawling Arikok National Park, a cacti-dotted shrubland that makes up almost one-fifth of the island, with a landscape as bare as it is full of life. The burgeoning ecosystem, nurtured by the park’s conservation programme, harbours teal blue whip-tail lizards, saffron Venezuelan troupials, fossilised coral reefs that speak to the island’s 32m years and Caquetío cave paintings. You may also spot a rattlesnake or two. Though they primarily lurk deep in vegetation, a baby – unflinching and majestic – finds its way to a picnic area before carefully being returned to its home.
The 23-year-old park – which previously focused more on some of the more surface-level attractions like indigenous-inspired photo opportunities – now has a new goal: bringing the land back to full health.
We ducked through humid caves, bats flying past our heads in droves. We watched the park’s conservationists work to replenish the country’s endangered vegetation, nursing plush brazilwood trees and purple Myrmecophila humboldtii orchids from the verge of extinction with expert care, all while keeping nature’s pests (goats) at bay with recycled wooden pallets. It’s here that you’ll also find the island’s highest peak, the dinky, 617ft, Jamanota, which can be scaled via hiking trails.
This being the Caribbean, there are plenty of picture-perfect offerings for the more languid among us too. Aruba is a tourism-dependent country that has so far stayed largely off the radar among British visitors. Attracting just over 1m tourists a year, mostly from the US and followed by Canada and the Netherlands (it is a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands), it has recently welcomed its first direct British Airways flight, with twice weekly services via Antigua.
Many visitors head for the Renaissance Hotel’s private beach, Flamingo Island, which is popular for its golden sand, teal waters and the chance to mingle with its pink-feathered, eponymous inhabitants. The flamingos, of which there are only a handful, roam freely and attract quite the crowd, despite the $125 (£100) day pass to access the island.
Happily, all other beaches in Aruba are public, which means you’re free to explore locations such as Surfside Beach in the capital Oranjestad, where locals often come to picnic under gnarled mangrove trees.
Eagle Beach too, is worth a visit. A short 10-minute drive from Surfside, it is lined with forest-green sea grape trees and curious taped enclosures that protect turtle eggs, courtesy of the Turtugaruba Foundation. Word has it that if you stand on the white sand of Eagle Beach for long enough, you might be lucky enough to see them laid – or indeed hatch.
On the east coast, thrill-seekers surf aquamarine waves between rocky twin formations at Dos Playas and take advantage of the island’s blustery trade winds to kitesurf. Peak kitesurfing season runs from January to May, when multicoloured polyester kites dot the sky, especially during competitions at the end of the season.
At the Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad, I hopped aboard the crimson family-run boat, the Tranquilo, which has been in operation since 1977. We coursed waves into blue-green waters south of the island, enjoying a hearty lunch while being entertained by stories from Captain Anthony, who took over the business from his father, Mike. In the afternoon, there were opportunities to swim with turtles and sunbathe on the deck.
Aruba’s hundreds of restaurants serve cuisines from all around the world that reflect its impressive variety of cultures: South American, Dutch and Portuguese, as well as Trinidad, Jamaica and more. Despite being a compact 20 miles by six – just 22 miles north of Venezuela – the island claims more than 90 nationalities, from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to Colombia, Peru, the Netherlands, China, the Philippines and many African nations.
For French-Caribbean cuisine, look no further than Papillon near Palm Beach’s high-rise hotel district. Though it owes its name to French writer Henri Charrière’s book about his prison conviction – and eventual escape – in the 30s and 40s French Guiana, it is by no means oppressive. Taking cues from the 1973 Franklin J Schaffner historical prison drama about his life, it includes subtle nods to the legend largely through the menu, which includes beautifully seasoned sea bass, or boeuf bourguignon.
For more history-inspired dining, Papiamento, named after the island’s official, Creole language, is a sight in and of itself. A large, chalk-white converted colonial home in Noord, it towers before its pool-side dining area as a reminder of its construction in 1886. I was greeted by restaurant owner and chef, Edward Ellis, whose parents, Eduardo and Lenie Ellis, founded the restaurant in 1983. After a beef tenderloin, served hot and lightly seasoned on a sizzling slab before me, I enjoyed a tour of the old house, including a whip around its impressive wine cellar, smoke-filled cigar lounge and preserved interiors.
The island’s largely American clientele means there are plenty of all-inclusive resorts and casinos around its shores. The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is a towering, visually-impressive example in the heart of Palm Beach. The minute I arrive, it’s clear why it is such a popular destination wedding venue, with sublime sea views, palm trees, and crystal-clear pools all around.
Though its glitz is undeniable, Aruba’s culture was what I was most drawn to. San Nicolas, home to the island’s now defunct, but once-booming oil refinery, did not disappoint. Once forlorn, it is now almost completely enveloped by 54 vibrant murals as far as the eye can see.
The former red-light district’s renaissance is thanks to artist and curator Tito Bolivar, who was inspired to transform it with local and foreign art after first seeing street art, in particular a work titled “Arte por vida” (Art for Life), in the Colombian capital Bogota.
I felt as if I was on another Caribbean island. San Nicolas’s population is predominantly black, which Tito explained is because workers from nearby black Caribbean islands came to work for the refinery in its heyday. Everything from the afrobeat, pop and soca music, to the passing locals, who shouted words of affirmation to Tito, felt vigorous and vital.
Visitors who tour the district with Tito, who has also established an art fair through a collective of artists at the district’s ArtisA Center, will get a fascinating insight into the cultural underbelly of the less-talked-about side of Aruba, once considered a no-go area.
Oranjestad is similarly bristling with vibrancy, and it’s here that the Dutch influence is perhaps strongest, its name translating as “Orange City”, the colour of the Dutch royal family. But it’s far more colourful – blue horse sculptures by Aruban artist Osaira Muyale and pastel-coloured Dutch colonial buildings line the downtown streets, where you can shop in high and low-end stores or ride the shiny blue tram.
This is an island whose gems extend far beyond the typical images of the Caribbean that songs like the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” have long conjured. I was taken aback at nearly every turn I took.
British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino from £1,698pp, travelling in September 2023, with return flights from London Gatwick.
San Nicolas mural tours cost $15 (£12), arubamuraltours.com