Play: Unexpected Aruba

This island is full of surprises.

By Jessen O’Brien | Photographs and video by Matt Dutile

Most travelers to Aruba dash to the popular beaches on the island’s northwestern curve upon landing and stay there for the rest of their vacation.

Who can blame them? Here, the water invites debates over whether it’s more blue or green, and it’s as easy as silk to slip into. Never mind the crowds—they’ll slide from your thoughts if you set your gaze on the horizon or the bright boats that bob along the shore.

But as beautiful as these beaches are, they’re also the most interchangeable part of Aruba’s appeal; if anything ties the Caribbean together other than proximity, it’s the sheer number of white-sand stretches that stack up like pearls, each seemingly as lovely as the one that came before it. Tear yourself away and you’ll soon realize that the Beach Boys got it wrong: This island is one of a kind.

Lay of the Island

A mere 19 miles long and six miles wide at its most generous, Aruba is one of a trio known as the ABC Islands partly because of their names—Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao—and partly because all are members of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Aruba’s closest neighbor isn’t either island, however, but Venezuela, 15 miles south. And although Aruba has a strong Dutch influence, it’s more accurate to say that it’s a multicultural mishmash: There are about 100 nationalities on this island of some 100,000. Residents typically speak En­glish, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiamento, a native creole language. Arubans will tell you it’s their ability to all get along—and not the year-round sunshine—that has earned it the tagline “one happy island.”

The best way to get your bearings is to get off the island and onto a boat. Delphi Watersports (011-297-733-5688; cruises, from $40* a person) charters two kinds of catamaran cruises: snorkeling and sunset. Ships set sail from Palm Beach—one of Aruba’s most developed waterfronts, along with Eagle Beach and Divi Beach; all three sit along the island’s northwestern coast. Maybe it’s the free drinks or maybe it’s the good mood that comes from being on a tropical island, but you just may catch yourself singing along to “Sweet Caroline.”

Inland Eats

There’s great food—and shorter lines—to be had away from the beach. Get to know Aruba better with a taste of the island’s Dutch heritage. Owner Stefan Oosterwaal carries on his mother’s legacy at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes (6-D Palm Beach, Noord; 011-297-586-3378; breakfast for two, $25), where the namesake dish comes with toppings both traditional and tropical.

“This restaurant is a piece of the real Aruba,” says local Arturo Oduber of The Old Cunucu House (150 Palm Beach, Noord; 011-297-586-1666; dinner for two, $50), gesturing toward the chains that have sprung up just out of sight. Between the guitar player and the restaurant’s Aruban specialties—the goat stew starts simmering at 8 a.m.—it’s hard to remember they even exist. Even better, meals at this 150-year-old farmhouse (cunucu in Papiamento) have a delightful way of turning into a history lesson if you ask a few questions.

For a treat, try Madame Janette (37 Cunucu Abou, Noord; 011-297-587-0184; dinner for two, $110), a garden restaurant whose most loyal patrons are like clockwork—some have standing reservations that go back nearly a decade. Steaks are cut thick and best paired by the beer sommelier, choosing from a list of more than 100 craft brews.

Made in Aruba

Desert islands don’t grow much, but aloe plants thrive in Aruba’s arid climate. See for yourself at the Aruba Aloe Factory and Museum (115 Pitastraat, Hato; 011-297-588-3222; 10-minute tours, free), on the edge of the company’s aloe fields. The rows are studded with divi-divi trees—a native species that looks like it’s mid–hair flip because of the extreme angle of its branches. You can pick up a bottle of sunscreen or (if it’s too late) after-sun repair while you’re there.

At Cosecha (20 Bernard Van de Veen Zeppenfeldstraat, San Nicolas; 011-297-587-8708), travelers can find a more permanent piece of the island to bring home. The boutique and creative center is named for a Papiamento word meaning “harvest.” “That’s what we’re doing: We’re harvesting all the talents we have on the island,” says director Joanne Dirksz. “The locals here have a lot to offer—they make beautiful pieces—but not everyone knows how to promote themselves, so we help.”

Cosecha has three locations: a store and kiosk in Aruba’s capital, Oranje­stad, and a larger shop in San Nicolas, a town 12 miles south. Together, they carry work by some 65 local artists, each piece bearing an official made-in-Aruba seal. To create your own souvenir, you can sign up for the new bag-making workshop at Cosecha’s San Nicolas center.

Local Color

Cosecha isn’t the only reason to spend a day in San Nicolas. There’s also the bold street art, which gets refreshed during the Aruba Art Fair each fall, and two museums housed in butter-colored buildings: the San Nicolas Community Museum (Caya Dick Cooper; 011-297-280-0018; admission, $2) and the Museum of Industry (164 Bernhardstraat; 011-297-584-7090; admission, $5). The former takes a tender look at the town’s history through a collection of everyday items while the latter provides context for the island as a whole.

It would be a shame not to stop by Charlie’s Bar (56 Bernard Van de Veen Zeppenfeldstraat; 011-297-584-5086; drinks for two, $10) while you’re in town. Owned by three generations of Charlies, the bar is simply covered in stuff—every inch is crammed with objects both mundane and extraordinary, from old driver’s licenses to a piece of the Berlin Wall. Ask the bartender to point out a few favorites and you’ll be sure to leave with a story.

Adventure Time

Aruba’s most gorgeous scenery isn’t really a secret—Arikok National Park takes up nearly a fifth of the island—but it can feel like one, since many travelers never venture into the island’s wild and rocky heart. To explore it, consider booking a jeep tour with ABC Tours Aruba (61 Schotlandstraat, Oranjestad; 305-432-3007; half-day jeep tours, from $92 a person). You’ll want a pro at the wheel as you bounce over scrubland that wouldn’t be out of place in Arizona. Depending on the outing and the day, highlights may include peering at ancient drawings at Fontein Cave or letting the waves crash into you at Moro Beach.

Water, Water, Everywhere

Now that you’ve seen Aruba’s other charms, return to the popular beaches of its northwestern coast. Island Yoga (19A Noord, Noord; 011-297-280-0025; stand-up paddleboard classes, from $50 a person), the Caribbean’s largest yoga studio, offers stand-up paddleboard classes off of Palm Beach. Fears of falling in disappear as soon as you stumble off the board—who wouldn’t want to spend more time in this water? Afterward you can visit Island Yoga’s headquarters for a healthy bite at its vegan café and a possible glimpse of its founder, influencer Rachel Brathen, a.k.a. Yoga Girl.

Before it’s time to leave the island, head to Zeerovers (270 Savaneta, Savaneta; 011-297-584-8401; dinner for two, $30, cash only), a waterfront seafood shack that keeps things fresh and simple. Order more shrimp than you think you need and, for dessert, coconut ice cream served in a half shell. If you time it right, you can end your meal just as the sun glides under the waves. Goodbyes don’t get better than this.

RCI® affiliated resorts on Aruba include:
Barceló Aruba 5764

Throw in an extra swimsuit for the pool, swim-up bar, and spa tubs. 83 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Oranjestad
Member Review: “Spent a great week at Barceló celebrating our anniversary!”

Divi Village Villas DG27

From rock climbing to golf, adventure awaits. 93 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Orangestad
Member Review: “The staff were all friendly and helpful!”

RCI® Tip

You may not see Aruba availability right away, so plan early.** We can help find your dream vacation with Ongoing Search.1 Choose your preferences, and we’ll look 24/7 then email you when there’s a match!

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Las Vegas include:
Wonders Boutique Hotel

Each room is stocked with locally made products from Aruba Aloe. 63 Emmastraat, Oranjestad; 011-297-582-0066;; doubles from $119 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **These vacations are limited and subject to availability.
  • 1The current RCI Exchange Fee is required to set up an Ongoing Search. The Exchange Fee may be refundable if no match is found, provided the member is otherwise in full compliance with all applicable exchange program requirements.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2019