The Aruba of today bears scant resemblance to the simple sun-and-sand destination that first lured travelers to the southern edge of the Caribbean back in the 1960s. Attractions now include an ever-growing list of grand hotels and casinos, fine boutiques and restaurants, choice spas and nonstop activities. This is where Aruba excels: It’s a full-service resort island that refuses to rest on its successes and continually expands its offerings.
Despite all the press over the tragic disappearance of an American teenager, tourist arrivals to Aruba increased last year, with both loyal repeats and new visitors enjoying fresh attractions on land and at sea.
The fleet of recreational boats grew, providing even more in the way of coastal tours, romantic dinner cruises and marlin hunts. And instruction and rental operations for windsurfing, kiteboarding and parasailing are now found around every palm frond.
The fun continues on land with world-class golf at Tierra Del Sol Resort & Country Club and spelunking at Guadirikiri Caves. When the sun goes down there are Vegas-style shows and hundreds of places to dine. The latest culinary shift is toward world cuisine -- Italian, Argentinean, French and Asian. Of course, for those who crave some good ol’ American eats, there are plenty of familiar chains on the bustling island.
Here's a look at what's new on the island:
Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino (800-223-6388) on Palm Beach went native during its renovation, adding local art in all 413 rooms and putting the indigenous aloe plant on its new logo and even mixing it into the resort’s signature welcome drink and chocolate bon bons. Don’t miss the monthly Aruban art exhibit in the lobby, featuring colorful originals like Stan Kuiperi’s cactus paintings.
The Renaissance Marina Hotel and Renaissance Ocean Suites (800-421-8188) have splashed new decor across their combined 558-plus rooms, with the downtown Marina going contemporary cool (check out Blue, the poolside martini bar) and the beachy Ocean Suites, designed for families.
Food and drink
Just opened in downtown Oranjestad is Rumba Bar & Grill (011-297-588-7900), where you can start off with a Brazilian Caipirinha -- made with the fiery cane liquor Cachaca, lime, sugar and ice -- before tucking into some tasty beef, chicken or fish hot off the grill.
The “new” Pinchos Grill & Bar (011-297-583-2666) grew out of the simple kabobs-and-cold-drinks joint that has long been a popular spot on the pier at Surfside Marina. Today, it serves full entrees, but one thing hasn’t changed: Pinchos is still the best place for a romantic sunset.
No trip to Aruba is complete without dinner at Madame Janette (011-297-587-0184), named after the local moniker for the spicy scotch bonnet pepper. The garden dining area remains center stage for crooners who entertain nightly.
Aruba’s eclectic art scene has a new hot spot, the Access Art Gallery (011-297-588-7837) in Oranjestad. With an expansive two-story showroom, the gallery displays modern works by painters, potters and glass blowers from Aruba, neighboring islands and South America. In town on Thursday night? Stop by for the weekly lecture or film. Access Art also features the Cafe Al Fresco, run by an Italian couple who serve up homemade pasta and nightly specials on the eatery’s long balcony. After a hearty meal, sip the best cappuccino in town while deciding which piece of artwork to take home.
It’s only nine holes and not PGA-rated, but The Links at Divi Aruba (011-297-581-GOLF) offers public access and is priced right ($75 for nine holes). If your game could use a lift, sign up at the onsite Johnson & Wales Golf Learning Center for lessons and video swing analysis.
As co-founder of Arikok National Park, Eddy Croes grew up wandering Aruba’s bush. Now, his dream of showing visitors the island’s unique topography has come true. Aruba Nature Sensitive Hikers (011-297-594-5017; sensitivehikers.com) offers tours to see the untouched side of Aruba. Learn a bit of local culture, history and gossip while exploring dry river banks, sand dunes and old gold mines. For a bird’s-eye view of Aruba, try the newly opened Aruba Heli-Tours (011-297-965-5906). Lift off from the Seaport in Oranjestad for an Island Tour; for a really memorable evening, end your tour by having the chopper drop you off for dinner at Ventanas del Mar at Tierra del Sol, the island’s premier golf-course community.