Bon bini to Aruba, where strong Dutch traditions combine with the essence of island charm. Only 20 miles from tip to tip, Aruba is a land of incredible contrasts. The windward coast is rugged and wild—a dry desert scattered with cacti and divi-divi trees permanently twisted at 45-degree angles by the constant trade winds. The leeward coast is a quintessential tropical paradise—a bustling port town surrounded by some of the world’s most alluring white-sand beaches framed by stunning aquamarine waters.
Aruba’s Dutch influences are visible from the harbor, with a waterfront backed by multicolored gingerbread houses with Dutch elements and tropical flair, making for a fantastic photo op from the cruise ship deck.
In the harbor, luxury yachts mix with fishing boats painted in splashy hues. Vendor stalls offer an exotic array of fruits, vegetables, and fresh fish. Aruba is a shopper’s nirvana, and this open-air marketplace whets the palates of retail-hungry visitors. Look for the best duty-free shops on L.G. Smith Boulevard, a block from the dock. Jewelry and watch boutiques are housed in restored Dutch-colonial structures with pastel facades and ornate tiled roofs. Just steps from the pier are Renaissance Mall and the unmistakable Royal Plaza Mall, a three-story, pink-and-white shopping arcade.
Take a short walk into downtown Oranjestad to visit the Historical Museum of Aruba in Fort Zoutman and the tricolor Willem III Tower—added in the late 1800s. The Aruba Archaeological Museum focuses on earlier Aruban history. For glamorous people watching, head north along the coast to Palm Beach, ranked among the world’s finest beaches with water-sports concessions, bars, restaurants, shops, and more to enjoy.
While the beaches are an obvious choice, there’s so much more to Aruba than just sun and sand. Begin exploration right at Palm Beach. Across from the Divi Aruba Phoenix Beach Resort, the Butterfly Farm’s tropical garden is aflutter with a multitude of the gracious species. Continue the nature tour at the Aruba Aloe Museum and Factory. The aloe vera plant was introduced to the island in 1840, and shortly thereafter, the leafy wonder covered nearly two-thirds of the island.
Arikok National Park, an ecological reserve to the north, makes up nearly 20 percent of Aruba. Nearly 21 miles of well-marked hiking trails wind past the most interesting sites in the park including bicoastal vantage points where the drastic differences between the northern and southern seaboards are visible.
The Caribbean Sea constantly ebbs and flows with fervor against the limestone cliffs on the park’s northeastern border. Over time, the pounding waves carved out a series of shallow caverns such as Fontein Cave, where ancient pictographs prove the Amerindians once took shelter there.
At the northwestern tip, the California Lighthouse stands guard over land and sea from its cliffside perch. The scenic landmark is named in honor of a ship that sank in 1916 in the rough waters a few miles offshore. The lighthouse offers rewarding 360-degree views of the rippling sand dunes and weather-beaten coastline to the east and of the marshmallow-white beaches backed by the opalescent blue sea to the west.
Experienced scuba divers can view the remnants of the California Lighthouse’s namesake wreck on the seafloor off the island’s northern coast. Novice divers need not fret; there are more than 20 dive sites—including eight wrecks—in the waters surrounding Aruba, where plentiful coral reefs are swarming with aquatic creatures of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Divers may encounter queen angelfish, damselfish, and many other intriguing species.
Off the northwestern coast of Malmok Beach, divers can descend to the wreck of the World War II German freighter, the Antilla. The 400-foot-long wreck—one of the largest in the Caribbean—is covered by tube sponges, orange anemones, and coral formations. The Pedernales, another popular wreck dive, is just south of the Antilla. This oil tanker was sunk by a German submarine during World War II. The US Navy salvaged parts of the ship, but the remaining wreckage is in remarkable shape, and even some of the furnishings are still recognizable. The dive site is only 25 feet deep, so it’s a great spot for novices to test their sea legs—or flippers, as the case may be.