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Adventure Island

by Steve Yu | Jezebel magazine | February 9, 2011

As far as Caribbean travel is concerned, I’m the first to admit that I pretty much stick to what I know works for me. Breezy vibe, beautiful shores, breathtaking sunsets that look like a bowl of sherbet–you’ve seen one tropical island, you’ve seen them all, right? I was victim to this way of thinking until I landed in Aruba, an outpost with everything you might expect from Caribbean travel–aforementioned attributes included–and a little extra (or a lot depending on how adventurous you are).
Me? I am not overly zealous when it to comes to high-octane touring. My Caribbean trip itineraries veer to the relaxing beachside variety–a cocktail in hand, my wife by my side, and sun rising upon the horizon, with waves rolling into the sand. And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that–it works for me. Satisfyingly enough, my initial plan for Aruba was no different. After all, I know the Caribbean like the back of my well-tanned hands (or so I thought). Turns out my “typical” island getaway transformed into a bona fide adventure.

Getting There
Depending on how crafty and flexible you are, you will be able to find a direct flight on Delta that will take off from Hartsfield-Jackson International and land at Queen Beatrix International Airport in less than four hours. Since prices tend to fluctuate, expect to be dinged by those pesky little extras. But when you finally do land in Aruba, rest assured, all cares will be whisked away.
Aruba occupies the southernmost part of the Caribbean–it is located just 15 miles north of Venezuela and is more desert paradise then “tropical.” White sand beaches in stark contrast with rocky, arid terrain complete with cacti and sand dunes make for an unexpected juxtaposition of elements that lends the oasis personality. And while I too love a shimmering blue sea as much as the next guy, I also like a surprise, which Aruba provides in spades. Aruba is a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Indian cultures with a strong Dutch influence, so whatever you are in the mood for, the island delivers.
I, for one, was more in the mood for some rest and relaxation than I was an adventure. My plans changed when I quickly discovered a uniquely diverse coral reef in my midst. To my surprise not only does Aruba have a laid-back side (the beach), it also has an unexpected side (rugged landscape) and a wild side (hello nightlife!). Sunup to sundown, Aruba is alive at all times.

Day One
First stop on the island was the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino, where my wife and I learned that Aruba is unkind to sleepers. It is never easy to leave a warm bed in the morning, no matter how stunning those rays of sunshine (and it was bright, I assure you), but the hotel’s picture-perfect view of swaying palms set against a crystal clear sky, with cool tufts of ocean breezes dancing in the air were enough to wake even the most stalwart to leave the sanctity of their quarters, no matter how posh.
Although it is totally understandable why you would never want to leave the Hyatt–notably three levels of luxe, an 8,000-square-foot pool complex complete with a two-story waterslide, whirlpools, a tropical garden, and six restaurants–you would miss out on all that Aruba offers (emphasis on all that). However, when you do decide to leave the grandeur of the Hyatt, it is easy to do so. The resort offers car rentals and a helpful concierge to assist you with any of your destinations while on the island.
Our first introduction to this new, adventuresome form of Caribbean travel came courtesy of Aruba Boardsailing Productions, a top-notch excursion that gives eager windsurfers a land lesson before plunging them in the water. It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, there is an elemental physicality to windsurfing that is kind of magical–literally–at times. Forgiving weather conditions make windsurfing one of the more popular activities in Aruba, and it also happens to work up quite an appetite. I was famished after wrestling with my sail, so I invited my more coordinated sweetie back to the Hyatt for a bite.
Ruinas del Mar translates into English as “ruins of the sea” and boasts an outdoor patio surrounded by a relaxing lagoon with black swans and Koi fish. The restaurant’s romantic yet casual setting is idyllic for dinners at sunset, and is an equally great spot to kick-start the day.
Later that night, we checked out Papiamento Restaurant, set in an Aruban farmhouse and best known for its fresh fish, an impressive wine selection and delectably cooked hot stone dishes. I enjoyed the Keshi Yenu, a traditional Dutch-Caribbean dish that combines various meats, nuts, and raisins with a topping of aged Gouda, as well as the Pan Bollo, Aruba’s take on bread pudding topped with ice cream and rum sauce. Afterwards, we stopped into the Hyatt Casino for a few hands of blackjack, followed by a moonlit walk along the beach to cap off our first night in Aruba.

Day Two
My second day in Aruba began with a debate: whether or not to take a tour of Cura di Tortuga, the “Natural Pool” on the windward coast of the island. Rumor has it that the journey scares the bejeezus out of those who dare take it, while others say it is the highlight of their trip. While I never thought “terrifying” might be a word I would ever use to describe a Caribbean vacation, I decided to go for it. My wife felt the same way, so we set off to have what turned out to be an experience for which the word “unique” seems a gravely insufficient descriptive. If you are one of those people who like to search for a place on your own, with only your inner GPS to guide you, forsake this option. The terrain is extremely rough–leave the navigation to the experts who know it best. We relied on De Palm Tours to guide us safely, which they did via a caravan of Land Rovers that taxied us to the famous (or notorious, depending on who you talk to) Natural Pool.
The journey is not for the faint of heart (if you are prone to car sickness, take precautions), but it yielded a fast-paced look at the less-refined, less-traveled parts of this island. And if you’re one of the brave few who volunteer to be a driver for this excursion, be prepared to keep pace with the lead car, usually steered by someone who could moonlight for NASCAR. At times the terrain is so uneven you might, as I did, question whether or not your vehicle would remain on all four wheels. On several occasions I’m pretty sure we were on three, not unlike the General Lee of Hazzard County fame. When the terrain turned so steep that our Land Rovers could rove no more, we hoofed the last leg of the trip. Note: Leave your flip-flops at the hotel for this one.
After risking life and limb, we finally reach the Natural Pool. Honestly, my first thought was, “That’s it?” Anticlimactic I suppose, but given that the geographic wonder amounted to a small pool surrounded by some jagged rock formations, and considering what we had gone through to see it, it is also, I hope, understandable. Although not as inviting as the idea of a “natural pool” suggests, it was a day I will never forget. So, as the saying goes, it’s not always about the destination, it’s the journey–and this one was well worth it!
After lunching at La Trattoria el Faro Blanco, an Italian bistro which sits perfectly atop Hudishibana Hill, we ventured into downtown Oranjestad, the capitol of Aruba, to shop and also to steady our nerves, which, for me at least, were still shaky. The district’s several-story malls aren’t exactly Phipps Plaza, but you’ll find plenty of name-brand clothing and jewelry shops. Best of all, Aruba allows U.S. residents up to $600 duty-free shopping per person.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at our next destination on the docket: the Radisson Aruba Resort. The beachside resort is expansive and has a fringe of lush tropical gardens. Its also boasts a Plaza Club Level, which indulged us with an ocean-view room–one of few in the hotel’s limited supply. The Plaza Club enhanced our stay considerably. We particularly appreciated dropping in for cocktail hour at sunset and having access to complimentary snacks and beverages nearly the entire day. Private concierge service sweetened our stay all the more. The perks of staying at the Radisson continued to pour in, as the resort offered in-room massages, complimentary beach towels and lounge chairs, and a five-star dive facility.
A leisurely afternoon of relaxing by the pool was capped with a delicious dinner at Sunset Grille, one of the resort’s four dining options. The cuisine, presentation, and service, all of which was impeccable, made this our favorite dining experience (high praise considering how much and often we ate). From Caesar salad served in a martini glass to fresh lobster to molten lava cake, no scrap was left unturned, an indulgence we granted ourselves knowing that we would soon be hiking.
Before taking the first of the 562 steps it takes to ascend up Mt. Hooiberg, (Aruba’s second highest point), I consulted the locals, most of who looked at me quizzically, as if I might be crazy. And at that point I may have been, but I also was undeterred. Although no one expressed interest in joining us on the climb, my wife and I trudged on uttering a verbal assault of numbers–one, two, 10. We lost count eventually but made it to the top in about 20 minutes. And while there wasn’t exactly a welcoming party to greet us, an amazing view of the entire island sure did. It was truly remarkable to be able to see Aruba from such a stunning vantage point. Triumphant, we made our way back down as the sun set, stopping at the Hooiberg store to enjoy a cold beer with the locals.
When it was time to make our way back to the Radisson, which is ideally situated near the beach, shops, and open-late eateries, it struck me how clean Aruba really is. Streets and sidewalks are free of litter and we saw not one panhandler the entire trip. In tourist-centric areas of the island, safety was never a concern.

Day Three
The third day began with early spa treatments at the Radisson’s award-winning Larimar Spa. Surrounded by the resort’s verdant landscape and just steps away from the ocean, this 13,000-square-foot salon and spa offers a complete menu of services, ranging from exotic skin and body treatments to cross-cultural massage therapy. Larimar’s signature Aloe Vera and Rum massage, which features a singular combination of massage techniques, stones and aromatic Aruban Aloe, is a fantastic way to unwind. After my treatment, all jelly and completely relaxed, I dipped into the spa’s icy-cold plunge pool, which is kept between 50 to 55 degrees to stimulate circulation.
Our final stopover in Aruba was at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. Top-levelers take advantage of the Marriott’s Tradewinds Club level for added luxury amenities and services. Club guests are granted access to a private lounge with refreshments and enjoy an exclusive beach area with private palapas. It is a nice option if you want an all-inclusive experience in a more exclusive setting. Of all the resorts we visited, third time was definitely the charm, as the Marriott was the most sophisticated of the trio. From the huge Stellaris Casino to the guest rooms to the amazing pool and well-kept beachfront, everything was first-rate. The Marriott offered an array of fine restaurants to suit any craving—from the Japanese Ketsu Sushi Bar to the Waves Beach Bar and Grill–this resort was the place to dine and explore.

Aruba offers that perfect combination of relaxation and adventure. Local hospitality is exceptional and the people are some of the Caribbean’s friendliest and most welcoming. This is something I may not have ever considered before planning a trip to Aruba, but it just may be the reason why I return.