“DO YOU know why we call Aruba ‘one happy island?” This is the question I was asked while sitting in a traditional aruban restaurant in the middle of a vibrant neighbourhood of the capital Oranjestad.
While I racked my brains trying to find a mildly impressive answer, my host for the evening said: “It is because we have 96 nationalities, various cultures and we all get along. There’s no racism in Aruba.”
Quite a bold statement to imply any country is absolved of the global epidemic that is racism, but I did understand his point of view.
Aruba is quite literally a cultural melting pot, with blend of influences including Dutch, Spanish and most recently, American. Americans frequently come over to the island, setting up properties to stay in on holiday in the summer and then rent out when they head home.
The island gets two million tourists a year – with 40 percent of those being American, showing their importance to the Aruban economy, which is reflected on the island.
While in Aruba, you may occasionally drive past a Wendy’s or a Hard Rock Cafe – but if you look close enough, you’ll find the traditional local spots for food, entertainment and everything in between.
I guess a part of being “one happy island” is appealing to everyone. And the diversity you find in Aruba can largely be attributed to its history.
The natives speak a minimum of four languages – Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish and English.
The island was initially inhabited by Arawak Caquetío Amer- indians, before being invaded by Spain in 1499 and later the Netherlands, who seized Aruba from Spain in 1636.
This colonial past means that Aruba is made up of various influences which impact their food, tourism, education and much more, making it an intriguing island to visit.
Food in Aruba is reflected by the island life. You can get a mixture of cuisines, varying from Cuban, Italian, Aruban and Dutch – and seafood, lots and lots of seafood. During my trip, we made a pit stop at Local Store, a sports bar in Noord.
The bar attracts locals and tourists alike as they intermingle while sipping the signature Aruba Balashi beer and munching on everything from popcorn shrimp and buffalo wings to funchi – an Antillean staple which is to die for.
Other great local spots include Shoco Shake, where you can get your selection of fresh juices from papaya to mango, to Huchada which has a wide selection of empanadas and other fried breakfast options.
The majority of my time in Aruba was spent consuming lots of seafood, much to my pleasure. Red snapper, plantain and shrimp at Zeerovers made for the perfect meal as we sat along the dock and drank more balashi beer than my body would like to admit.
At Papiamento, my seafood dreams were equally fulfilled as I ate delicious Caribbean shrimp and rock lobster stewed in an Aruban style chowder with coconut milk, whilst sitting in a cosy local garden set-up around the pool.
For the meat eaters looking for a more traditional experience, The Old Cunucu House restaurant is a go-to spot.
The restaurant, based in Noord, is an original Aruban house known for its native hospitality. I dined on the popular goat stew with white rice, veg and plantain, which instantly reminded me of the dishes I’m familiar with back home.
For a more luxe meat-eating experience, Papillon provides the perfect atmosphere. The French restaurant with a Caribbean twist is beautifully lit and perfect for lovers or friends.
I ordered the filet mignon medium-well, which was perfectly succulent and indulged in crème brûlée for dessert. Superb. If you have limited time in Aruba and want to get a gist of what the island has to offer, I’d highly recommend their food tour.
The Fusion of the World Food Tour takes you on a culinary journey through the island’s most popular cuisines, stopping off at The Old Fisherman for traditional Aruban starters, The West Deck for Jamaican appetisers, The Dutch Pancakehouse for some Dutch treats, Cuba’s Cookin’ for their mojitos and Italy In The World for a little desert washed down with prosecco.
The two-and-a-half-hour walking food tour is definitely worth the price at $79pp (£61).
Things to do
Unlike much of the Caribbean, Aruba has a dry climate and a desert-like landscape, filled with cactus, lizards, iguanas and the occasional Colombian boa con- strictor (which I unfortunately didn’t see).
To get an idea of Aruba’s landscape, a visit to Arikok National Park will certainly do the trick. The natural area is located in the north-eastern part of Aruba and still makes up 18 percent of the total land area.
Walking around the national park in 32-degree heat is no easy feat, but it makes for a beautiful and intriguing experience as you explore the flora, fauna, geology and historical remains of the island.
If you’re less interested in hiking and more inclined to chill along the beachfront, then Eagle Beach is definitely the place to go.
Located opposite the Amsterdam Manor Hotel, sugary white sand and crystal clear waters is a sight to behold as you get great value and tranquillity all in one. Equally, a relaxing yacht ride on the Monforte III will allow you to explore the island by sea, while enjoying a free lunch and an open bar.
For a little art and culture, head on down to San Nicolas and get a glimpse of their stunning street art.
I did a mural tour courtesy of ArtisA art gallery – the home of all things creative in Aruba’s art district.
During my visit, a guide took me through the vibrant street art plastered across shops, homes and public spaces, that left me never wanting to put my camera down.
For fellow creatives, a visit to San Nicolas is a must, as the passion for art and how it benefits their community is clearly displayed at every turn.
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, then Aruba definitely provides the perfect opportunity to relax by the beach, take in the art and culture, hike your way through nature and indulge in some nighttime activities.
Looking for flights and a place to stay in Aruba? Visit klm.com/ home/nl/en for their affordable Amsterdam-Aruba flights and book accommodation at the colonial style 4* Amsterdam Manor hotel – amsterdammanor.com/