Thoughts from our trip to Aruba
It’s been a few weeks since we returned from our first trip to the island nation of Aruba. Now that we’ve had some time to reflect, we’d like to share a few things we learned from this family trip to the Southern Caribbean.
Traveling south in the winter has become somewhat of an annual tradition for us, for a few reasons. First, and most obvious, Vancouver winters are cold and rainy and we crave a little sunshine come February. Second, we like to celebrate our wedding anniversary in the same climate where we were married (we married in Mexico’s Riviera Maya in February 2008).
We decided to visit Aruba this year because we found a great deal on flights by redeeming our Aeroplan Miles. We shared how we found these flights in a previous blog post. We were able to get 4 round trip flights from Vancouver to Aruba for less than $700 (total).
We spent a total of 5 days in Aruba, because we island hopped to Curacao for a few days, so we didn’t have as much time to really explore the island. But it was enough to get a feel for this Dutch Caribbean island.
Today we’d like to share a our first impressions and observations from our trip to Aruba.
It’s always windy in Aruba
When we say windy, we mean REALLY windy. All the time.
Now, that’s not a bad thing. The breeze keeps things cool, especially mid-day when it gets really hot. But you need to make sure you’re prepared for strong gusts of wind. This can be challenging when sitting outside for lunch or dinner (items are easily knocked over or disappear in the wind).
Funny story – before our trip we discovered that our youngest boy, Connor, had developed a fear of wind. The minute he felt wind hit his face he would run back inside the house crying. It was quite comical.
Because it’s always windy in Aruba, the moment we stepped out of the airport, and he felt the strong wind hit his face, he immediately freaked out and tried running back inside the airport. The first few days in Aruba were rough for him (in the above photo, Connor is sitting in his stroller hidden behind that striped towel), but this trip helped him get over his fear. He is now no longer scared of the wind.
The beaches are fabulous!
The beaches on the west coast of Aruba are some of the nicest beaches we’ve ever seen. We would easily rank them in our top 5 for most beautiful beaches in the world. Bold statement, but true. Seriously, look at that photo above! That’s Eagle Beach.
The silky white sand is incredible. It’s so soft and it doesn’t get too hot on the toes, even during peak sun hours. The bright turquoise water is as beautiful as it looks in the photos.
The sunsets on Eagle Beach and Palm Beach are spectacular. Because the beaches are west facing, you’re treated to a soft pastel sunset every evening. Our boys loved running up and down the beach, dancing through the waves. Those sunset evenings on the pristine beaches are what we will remember most about our time in Aruba.
Read next – 22 Beaches to take your mind off winter
The weather is always nice
The average temperature in Aruba is 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), making it the perfect winter escape for us Northerners. What’s interesting is that this average temperature is consistent throughout the year. So there really isn’t a bad time to visit. The temperature range throughout the year is between 26 to 29 degrees Celsius. And even when it’s really hot, the constant wind keeps things cool and breezy.
It’s reported that Aruba receives an average of 40 cm (16 inches) of rainfall each year. Yes, that’s for the entire year! This ranks as the lowest amount of rainfall in the Caribbean. It’s said that Aruba has the most sunny days of any island in the Caribbean. We like those odds!
Now, I don’t want to jinx your trip, but those facts all but guarantee your going to experience great weather in Aruba. An added bonus is that Aruba is located outside the hurricane belt, so it’s very rare that a hurricane will hit the island.
The island is very diverse
A desert in the Caribbean? We were surprised to learn that Aruba is often called the desert island. We’ve also heard the island described as “Arizona with beaches”. Like the deserts of Arizona, Aruba is covered with giant cactus and dusty rocky landscapes. When we learned the island only receives 40 cm of rain each year it started to make sense.
When you get away from the white sand beaches you’ll find a very diverse landscape and ecosystem. In fact, almost 20% of Aruba’s land is covered by Arikok National Park, a protected park that boasts a variety of indigenous wildlife, cactus plants and rock formations.
The island is small, but not that small
We did not rent a car but it would have been a good idea. Although it’s a small island (32 kilometers from top to bottom), there’s actually quite a lot to see and do. And it’s not easy getting around without a vehicle.
The downtown area is small and walkable, but getting there and back can be challenging. While the west coast beaches are lined with hotels, they are quite far apart. So walking from one end of the beach to the other will take a lot longer than you think, especially with small children.
There is a public transit system that is cheap, but it’s not very convenient and the time schedules are unpredictable. Renting a car will save you time and money, especially if you plan to visit the many attractions on the island.
Of course, if your plan is to just sit on the beach all day, don’t bother getting a vehicle.
De Palm Island is a fun place to spend the day
De Palm Island is an all-inclusive island offering a wide range of food, drinks and activities that caters to both kids and adults. You can choose to sit on the beach and sip frozen cocktails or get active and snorkel from the island shore.
The island has a fun water park for the kids, zip-lining, Snuba, private beaches, snorkeling, multiple restaurants and, of course, endless adult beverages. It’s a fun place to turn off the brain and enjoy the Caribbean sun.
Aruba is part of the Kingdom of Netherlands
Aruba is part of the ABC islands (Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire), which are the western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. All three islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, although they remain outside the European Union.
It felt a little strange to be on a Caribbean island, just a few kilometers north of Venezuela in South America, that has Dutch flags everywhere.
We chatted up a taxi driver who gave us his thoughts on the relationship between Aruba and the Netherlands. He informed us that Aruba is autonomous and self-governing, but still relies heavily on the Netherlands for many things, like national defense and international interests.
We asked him if there were a lot of Dutch residents on the island and he said that the number was actually fairly low when compared to other nationalities. Aruba is said to be the most diverse nations in the world, with over 90 nationalities residing on the island. That’s an impressive number when you consider the island has a population of only 103,000.
Aruba is Expensive
Aruba is not cheap. It didn’t help that the Canadian dollar is weak right now and we visited during peak season (February). Of course, there are many ways to save money, like renting an apartment that’s located inland and shopping at a grocery store instead of eating at restaurants. But we didn’t travel all the way to Aruba to cook our meals and eat indoors.
We use the beer test to measure how expensive a destination is.
The average price for beer at a restaurant on Eagle Beach is $5 USD for a 25cl bottle. In Canada, a pint typically costs $7 CAD. You need approximately 2 x 25cl bottles to equal a pint (that’s a US pint, not a UK pint). So, that’s $10 USD for a pint. When you factor in the current exchange rate, that’s about $13.50 CAD for a pint of beer in Aruba. That’s double what we pay in Canada. Not cheap.
Many restaurants and bars automatically add a service charge to your bill. This is not considered gratuity. We challenged a bartender on this service charge and he said it is collected to share with the service staff, but gratuity of 15-20% is still expected (on top of the service charge!). So, you end up tipping 30%?!
We spoke to other tourists who frequent Aruba often and they told us NOT to tip on top of the service charge. They said it’s a misleading and unethical charge that most bars and restaurants get away with because first time visitors don’t know any better. Not cool!
Aruba is easy to navigate and it’s family friendly
Aruba is a safe and easy country to visit. We didn’t have any trouble getting around. The people are friendly and accommodating. Most restaurants have a kids menu and there’s a good mix of local restaurants and big North American chains. It’s built for tourism, so it’s easy to find tours and activities.
Choose your accommodations wisely
Building on the above point, accommodations in Aruba are not cheap. Especially during the peak season (January to March). There are all inclusive options but we found it hard to justify $500 per night for an all inclusive hotel.
After experiencing how expensive food and drinks are on the island, we probably would have gone for the all inclusive option. It would have ended up costing about the same, but the hotels would have been nicer.
We spent a few nights at the Tropicana Aruba Resort (Eagle Beach) and one night at the Mill Resort Hotel Aruba (Palm Beach). Both were 3 star hotels that were not located on the beach.
The above photo is from the Mill Resort Hotel. The big white building in the backdrop is the popular Riu Palace Aruba. That hotel sits directly on Palm Beach (see photo below), so you get an idea of where the Mill Resort Hotel is located in relation to the beach. We had to cross a busy road and the beach access was about 1 kilometer from the hotel. Not a big deal, but we have preferred to be on the beach.
We decided to stay at the Tropicana Aruba Resort because it offered a 1 bedroom option. In the past, we’ve opted for 1 bedroom suites because it’s ideal for baby travel. This trip to Aruba taught us that we don’t need a 1 bedroom suite anymore. Our boys are old enough now and we don’t need to contend with naps anymore (yeah!).
In our opinion, both the Tropicana Resort and Mill Resort Hotel are quite dated and overpriced. The pools and grounds are decent, but not great. Our stay was fine, we don’t have any major complaints, but we felt like if we paid a little more we would have had a much better experience.
Our boys love swimming in the pool, so we usually end up spending a lot of time at the hotel. Because of this, we’d recommend spending a little more to get a nice hotel that’s located directly on the beach.
Read next – 13 Tips for Successful Baby Travel
Over the past few years we’ve talked about how our travel style has changed since having kids. We now see the value in paying more for convenience and luxury. We prefer destinations that make it easy for family travel. We are so done with backpacks and hostels.
We enjoyed our time in Aruba because it was easy and relaxing. We didn’t want our schedules filled with activities and sightseeing. We wanted to slow down and enjoy the sunsets. We wanted to play in the pool with our boys and eat outdoors with our toes in the sand.
Aruba gave us exactly what we were looking for.
Read next – 16 Things Travel Taught us in 2016