We’re still trying to figure out how Aruba, an island roughly the size of San Jose, California, can pack so much fun within its borders. It doesn’t matter if you’re in town for a romantic getaway, an adventure-filled jaunt or a quiet weekend with just yourself and a good podcast, the tiny country does it all in pretty big fashion.
During a recent trip, we tapped into many of these things — some uber-relaxing, others purposely bumpy — and, if you stay relatively close to the following itinerary, you too can experience some of the variety that makes Aruba astounding.
You don’t necessarily need a Cadushi Cocktail when you arrive at The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba but you will want one. A mix of rum, cactus, lime, triple sec, 7Up and syrup that even locals can’t resist, the cool concoction is a refreshing welcome to your time in the desert paradise. Walk your glass over to the terrace to catch your first (but certainly not your last) glimpse of the sea.
Capture a few shots of the scene with your phone before formally checking in to the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended resort. The bellhop will point out the small casino, a row of shops and a café with housemade gelato. Don’t worry — you’ll have time for all of it later.
For now, you’ll want to get your things to your room and freshen up. You’ll find a breezy feel to the space itself, with seafoam-green walls, floral bed sheets and a comfortable couch filling the room. Units have balconies looking on to the Caribbean Sea. Bathrooms are highlighted by a generous amount of marble and a glass-enclosed shower.
After familiarizing yourself with the amenities, you’ll be more than ready for lunch. Luckily, Red Fish, a no-frills seafood shack, sits just a few minutes from the hotel. This is the kind of place you’ll find wood paneling along the bar, soccer matches on the TV and natives with bewildered, how-did-that-tourist-find-out-about-this-place looks on their faces. The menu might try to sway you with tuna steaks and fried calamari, but we strongly suggest the paella, a flavor-packed mound of rice with hefty chunks of shrimp, clams and vegetables that’ll make you the envy of the table.
Your next stop, De Palm Tours, is only a short distance from where you left your fork. Since Aruba’s interior looks and feels more like a desert than the Caribbean, there are some remarkable opportunities to explore by utility task vehicle (UTV). De Palm leads morning and afternoon treks in four-wheelers that even novices can enjoy. The rides take you along dusty trails (yes, those goggles loaned to you will come in handy), around cacti, pass grazing goats and, ultimately, to gorgeous Black Stone Beach, the only place on the island where you’ll find the uniquely colored, eroded rocks.
Another spot on the rugged route is where the popular Aruba Natural Bridge once stood. Though the coral limestone structure collapsed in 2005, the site still sees its share of onlookers, many of which participate in a tradition of stacking little stones along the coast. No one knows how it all started. But while some say it’s a cute memorial, others call it a form of graffiti. All we know for certain is that hundreds of piles, some seven and eight rocks high, create quite the visual contrast to the crashing waves.
Once you finish admiring the rocks and maneuvering your UTV, head back to The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba. If you’re up for it, you could always do more exploring on a hotel-supplied paddleboard or kayak. But if you’ve exerted enough energy for the afternoon, find yourself a comfortable place on the white sand or in a pool cabana.
Before dinner, head to the 15,000-square-foot casino. (If you need more elbow room to hold your blackjack hands, neighbor Aruba Marriott Resort’s Stellaris Casino is even bigger.) But if camaraderie means more than your chip count, the Ritz’s gaming floor will be plenty sufficient. You’ll find 17 table games, 265 slot machines, free-flowing drinks and, if you time your visit just right, live entertainment near the entrance.
Celebrate your winnings (or pout about your bad luck) over dinner at Casa Nonna, the onsite Italian restaurant that prides itself on its usage of fresh ingredients and authentic recipes. The kitchen brings out everything from spaghetti pomodoro to branzino croccante and a knockout gnocchi — all done so well you’ll think a grandmother from Bologna is in the back. Because the dishes are flavored so well a life-sized pepper grinder the waiter jokingly passes around the table proves the night’s biggest bit of ironic humor.
Start the next morning with either a solid breakfast from room service or a quick bite from Ritual Coffee Culture. We’d probably suggest the latter since you’re going to be spending the next five hours on a boat.
Your lagoon odyssey with Montforte Luxury Cruises takes off from Pelican Pier, just a few minutes from your hotel room, which is great because the teak schooner leaves for Aruba’s southern coast promptly at 10 a.m. At 115 feet, the Montforte III has plenty of room for a bachelorette party or a couple looking for a private corner. Multi-tasking crewmembers make it their mission to keep you engaged with lunch and libations while, almost simultaneously, leading snorkeling tours and pointing out landmarks on the shore.
If you’re not tired of the sea once you dock — and really, how can you be, considering how pristine the cerulean waters are? — take a walk along the sands. If the travel gods are smiling down, you may luck up and have a dolphin or sea turtle sighting.
You should be pretty relaxed by now, but if you need a little more urging, head to the renowned Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Aruba for a late-afternoon treatment. At 15,000 square feet, the sanctuary is not only the island’s largest spa but, because its service menu is so vast, it’s hard to debate it being the best, too.
Try the Jetlag Massage if your internal clock needs to be tuned by firm hands and aromatic oils. Go for the Misterio Di Aloe (a full-body massage, foot reflexology and refreshing facial employing aloe vera, a product the island grows and is known for) to ease any aches still lingering from the UTV ride. Whichever you choose, though, make sure to end your session in the Jacuzzi.
Once you unwind a bit more in your room, you’ll have one last dinnertime decision to make: do you go with the sleek Kitchen Table by White or try the beachfront Elements at Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort? Both restaurants are relatively close to the hotel. Each delivers its own standout dining experience — The Kitchen Table through an immersive, multi-course Aruban-Caribbean affair and Elements with gorgeously presented global fare delivered to the sounds of the sea. Either way, your appetite will be sated and your heart filled with happiness.