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Oranjestad, Aruba

About Aruba

Part of the ABC chain of islands (with Bonaire and Curaçao, it is part of a trio of Caribbean gems that share a Dutch heritage), Aruba has enjoyed a storied and relatively stable past. The Arawak Indians originally called it home until 1499, when Queen Isabella of Spain claimed it as her own. Two hundred years passed before the Dutch moved in. They’ve been there ever since, though the island’s divi-divi trees, broad-leaf aloe vera plants and cacti, products of the dry climate, seem anything but Dutch. Still, cheerful old-world architecture abides in Oranjestad, the island’s colorful capital of pastel hues and Caribbean cheer. Clay pots and other ancient remnants from the Arawak settlements can be seen in Oranjestad museums.

Once a horse-breeding island, today Aruba is best known for long stretches of white-sand beaches fringed with coral reefs beneath crystalline waters. It is the most southwestern island in the Caribbean archipelago, 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela, and became a separate self-governing part of the Netherlands in 1986. Tourism is its largest economy.

Aruba Lifestyle and Culture

A strong Arawak heritage is reflected throughout the island, particularly in Oranjestad’s museums, folklore presentations and art exhibits. The official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, the latter a Creole language with Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and West African roots. English is also widely spoken.

Following “island time,” where everything moves at a slower pace, Aruba is meant to be savored and enjoyed. With that, celebrations abound, with color, music and dance playing important roles. One of the largest is Carnival, a month-long festival complete with street parties (known as “jump-ups”), spectacular parades, calypso music, glittery feathered costumes and creative contests. A highlight is the Tivoli Lighting Parade where tiny, twinkling lights are sewn into the colorful costumes for a nighttime extravaganza.

As Aruba is part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, several important days on the Dutch calendar are also commemorated. Sinterklaas honors St. Nicholas every December 5th, and Koningsdag celebrates the king’s birthday.

Aruba Sights and Landmarks

To delve into the island’s past, start at the impressive Aruba Archaeological Museum in Oranjestad. Housed in a cluster of beautifully restored buildings of 19th- and 20th-century Dutch architecture, it features exhibits ranging from the Arawak days to colonial times. To continue the history lesson, head to the Aruba Historical Museum inside Fort Zoutman. This citadel was built in 1798 to defend Aruba from those wishing to pilfer recently discovered gold; the museum, housed in the tricolored Willem III Tower, contains historic documents and other relics. The Numismatic Museum holds a collection of more than 35,000 pieces, mostly coins and paper currency, from around the world. While the predominant religion here is Catholicism, a Jewish community sprung up in the 1920s; the Beth Israel Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship on the island, can be found in Oranjestad.

Wilhelmina Park is home to two statues that remind visitors they are in the Dutch Caribbean. One depicts Queen Wilhelmina, the monarch who reigned over The Netherlands for 58 years. The other is a likeness of Anne Frank, the young girl who famously hid in her Amsterdam attic from Nazis and wrote about it in her diary.

Owing to the island’s arid climate, aloe is a major export. Watch the process of extracting serum from the plant for use in beauty and health products at the Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory. A gift shop also sells many products on-site.

Aruba Entertainment and Activities

Just outside of Oranjestad is Eagle Beach, often heralded as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It is a stunning stretch of powdery white sand, shady trees and crystal-clear water. Rent a lounge chair and order a frosty cocktail for the ultimate Aruban afternoon. Other notables include Arashi Beach, one of the island’s best swimming areas (also great for snorkeling), and Hadicurari beach, site of world-class windsurfing.

A few miles north of Oranjestad in Palm Beach, surround yourself with fluttering creatures at the spectacular Butterfly Farm. Learn about their life cycle, then walk through the garden and entice its winged residents to land on you (wearing bright colors helps). For more from the animal kingdom, visit Philip’s Animal Garden, a rescue and rehabilitation center that provides up-close interaction with several species of exotic animals from around the world.

Arikok National Park encompasses almost 20% of the island and is home to one of Aruba’s most beloved natural treasures. Conchi, also known as the Natural Pool, is accessible only by foot, horseback or 4x4 vehicle. Stretching across deserted coastline, rocks form a circle, creating a large tidal pool. Take a dip in the calm, clear water surrounded by rugged landscape for a wholly different island experience.

Aruba Restaurants and Shopping

Heavily influenced by Spanish and Dutch cuisine, Aruban dishes traditionally contain goat meat, fish and corn. Today, however, beef, chicken and rice are increasingly common. Local favorites include pastechi, a beef- or cheese-filled pie; stoba, a stew made of goat or lamb; balchi di piscá, fish balls; and the popular cool island soup which contains pineapple, melon and papaya with apricot nectar and lime juice.

For dining in Oranjestad, watch the sun set over the ocean at Pinchos Bar & Grill. You can experience elegant outdoor dining on a dock over the water. To eat authentic Aruban food like a local, try the Old Fisherman for fresh seafood in a relaxed environment. In Eagle Beach, Screaming Eagle offers seasonal French fusion cuisine and an expansive wine list. Enjoy cool breezes outdoors or opt for its unique “dinner in bed” experience on comfortable lounge beds. Or try Elements, also in Eagle Beach, for sophisticated dining over the sand.

Take home some of the island’s best aloe products, found at Aruba Aloe locations throughout the island. In Oranjestad, you can pick up almost anything you need at Renaissance Mall and Renaissance Marketplace, with more than 130 stores. But the largest mall in the Southern Caribbean is Palm Beach Plaza in Palm Beach, Aruba.