Aruba – One Happy and Windy Island

ARUBA, DUTCH CARIBBEAN: Located in the Southern Caribbean and just off of the coast of South America, Aruba, also known as “One Happy Island”, is one of the Dutch West Indies territories under kingdom of The Netherlands. The island is only 19 miles long and 6 miles across. This is one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean (either by plane or by cruise) for its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea, warm water, natural landmarks, tropical climate, and lots of water/land activities for all ages. 

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Aruba’s stunning Baby Beach

Aruba is very dry and desert-like in some regions, therefore, you will see lots of cacti and rugged landscape. And the reason for it is that the island gets only about 18 inches of rain every year. Although it lies outside of the hurricane belt, this is a VERY windy island…just hold on to your hats, sunglasses, documents, plastic bottles or even your kids.

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And the breathtaking sunset in from Palm Beach, Aruba

 

Aruba is also one of the safest places to visit in the Caribbean. Use common sense and general cautions that you’d use when you go to a new place. Arubans can speak at least 3 or 4 languages, like Dutch, Spanish, English, and their local tongue, called Papiamento (which is spoken only in Dutch Antilles). 

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Picturesque downtown of Aruba

Here are some useful things to remember before you travel to Aruba. If you are a US citizen, you don’t need a visa for a short visit there. You can use your phone/laptop charger from USA/Canada without a converter in any hotel outlets here. Tap water here is perfectly drinkable. There are no currency exchange offices in the airport, but then again, this time I didn’t bother to exchange my USD to Florin at all. Because you can use USD everywhere, including restaurants, shops, taxis, public transportation, and etc. Major credit cards are also accepted in most places. Use sunscreens and hats when you are out in the sun. It gets very hot and humid from noon to late afternoon. Have plenty of water or juice in hands, especially for the kids. 

To get around, renting a car isn’t a bad idea…most of the tourist spots have good parking places, just have to learn the road signs. I have used both private taxis (make sure they have TX in their license plates and fix the price before you start the ride) and public minivans (minivans use same bus-stands as the big public buses, “Arubus” and costs $2 from Palm Beach to Oranjestad). Both are pretty safe and efficient. Just keep in mind, if you are going to take a bus from the downtown bus terminal, there are 2 sections. The big parking lot is for the big public buses. Since I took the public minivans, I came to the smaller parking lot. The minivans doesn’t say it’s anything outside…just ask the driver and hop in. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I was in Aruba during the long weekend of 4th of July. The island usually have tropical climate all year long. From a little before noon to late afternoon, the sun gets really strong…I had to come back to my hotel for a couple hours on the 3rd day after walking around downtown area for a few hours. It’s pleasant when you are at the beach because the gentle breeze makes it nice.

EATING and SHOPPING: Before I start this part, let me just say, Aruba is an expensive island to visit. I have visited Dominica Republic last year, but Aruba’s food and gifts are way more expensive than some of the other Caribbean islands. 

There are a lot of big American restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Pizza Hut, Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, and etc. There are also all sorts of other international restaurants near the big hotels and resorts. I had a hard time finding a local Aruban restaurant in Palm Beach…my hotel concierge said there were none within walking distance from my hotel. I was told that I would have to take a taxi to go to those restaurants. So, I mostly enjoyed other international dishes. 

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Top: 3 different types of ceviche at Sweet Pepper and Bottom: my one and only breakfast in Aruba

I didn’t have all-inclusive intentionally, because from my previous experience I can’t really try local food that way. But food in Aruba is not cheap. For the only breakfast I had near my hotel, at Joe & Guisseppe, I paid about $12 for scrambled eggs with toast and potatoes and I paid more than $5 for my cup of morning coffee. That was insane paying $5 for a basic cup of black coffee. My first snack was at Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach where I sat down by the water to have some pina colada and hot wings. Palm Beach Promenade or Plaza mostly has international restaurants from Mexican, to Italian, to American, South American, and etc. There are tons of other restaurants and souvenir shops near Hard Rock Cafe.

Palm Beach Promenade is a great place to go for a meal or do some shopping. You will find small ice-cream places to big restaurants like Lazy Turtle and from local small vendors carts to big brand names for shopping here. It is a trendy place for all ages to shop and eat. My dinner on the second day was at Lazy Turtle, where they have ceviche, soups, salads, burgers, pasta, seafood, and all sorts of local and variety of international dishes. I had ceviche/tuna duo, plantain and coconut soup (an African recipe), and for the main course…blackened grouper fillets…WHAT? I was hungry and I paid $40 to satisfy my tummy. All of those were recommendations from the waitress and each was better than the others. I got to sit outside, devour my delicious food, and do some people watching while enjoying the island breeze at night. On my third day, I picked up some passion fruit gelato from Gelatissimo. And after walking around a little bit more, stopped at Sweet Pepper for an early dinner. Sweet Pepper is right above my previous night’s place, Lazy Turtle. It’s upstairs…may climb the stairs or take the elevator. Since I LOVE ceviche, I got a variety of ceviche platter for $19 along with some bread and butter and tapenade that came before the main course. And of course, my favorite pina colada on the side to rescue me from all the strolling in the heat. When I took the cave/beach excursion, we were taken to a local restaurant, called La Granja, for our lunch. Although the place had a lot to offer in their menu, we were served a plate with rice, rotisserie chicken, pork ribs, fries, and salad. Downtown Aruba, Oranjestad is also a fantastic place for any meal. My last lunch was at Lucy’s by the downtown marina where I had “Whoaa” fish. After lunch and walking around in the heat, I was tired and ready for another drink.  So, stopped at Iguana Joe’s Caribbean Bar and Grill for a mango and strawberry drink to cool off.

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My dinner at Lazy Turtles in Palm Beach, Aruba (Top: ceviche, Middle: coconut and plaintin soup, Bottom: grouper fillets)

The Old Main Street on the trolley ride route is a place for locals to shop in brand name stores. If you want to shop in downtown, the Renaissance Mall has mostly major western designer shops. Renaissance Marketplace was very empty when I was there on a Saturday afternoon. The Royal Plaza is also another hub for big European brand name stores. But for generic souvenir hunting…small vendors opposite of the Royal Plaza are great and reasonably priced. If you want to buy cigars, Captain Jack on the Palm Beach Promenade is a good place. Palm Beach Promenade also is a fun place to shop, especially at night when the place is flooded with all the tourists and all the stores are open. 

A very popular souvenir or gift item is to get anything with the phrase “Biba Dushi” which means “Sweet Life”. You can find t-shirts, mugs, hats, and etc with that phrase. Wood curved items, Dutch ceramics, are also very common and they are everywhere. Some mini-markets and airport stores sell Dutch/Gouda cheese wheels if you want to risk bringing those back home. Another popular item is anything that displays the Aruba’s famous divi tree…magnets, paintings, arts, and decors. I bought a small 4×6 oil canvas of the famous divi tree from a lady for $20, a bracelet, some Aruban aloe products, Caribbean coffee, Biba Dushi t-shirt, sweatshirt, stuffed flamingo…all from Palm Beach. 

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“Biba Dushi”, meaning “Sweet Life”, souvenirs in Aruba

MY HOTEL: I stayed in Brickell Bay Beach Club in Palm Beach, Aruba. While their location is great and the rooms are perfect, customer service is very slow and was OK. Every time I had to ask something or needed help, I had to wait for at least 10 minutes in the line for the front desk guy. They do want a $200 deposit when you check in which they give you back after checking out. Also, this is an adult only hotel…so, anyone below 18 years of age aren’t allowed to stay here. But there are lots of parking space if anyone plans to rent a private car. 

Other than that, the hotel is located 20 minutes drive from the airport and only 2/3 minutes walk from the Palm Beach. Palm Beach Promenade is also about 5 minutes walk from the hotel, which was great, because the promenade is an absolutely fun place to hang out for shopping or meals or just to feel the vibe.

PLACES I’VE VISITED: With its laid-back and islandic vibe, Aruba is an appealing place for relaxing or taking part in any activities. I was in Aruba for 2 1/2 days. I know it wasn’t enough to really enjoy all the beauty that the island has to offer, but I loved whatever I could see and do in that short time there. 

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Colorful retail buses in Aruba where they sell variety of items

There are tons of pristine beaches here that tourists can explore and they are all beautiful…some more than the others. Some of the places that I didn’t get a chance to visit but would recommend are, Flamingo Island and De Palm Island as day-trip. For swimming, paddle boating, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, or water activities, beaches like Divi, Druif, Arashi, Surfside, Mamlok, and Natural Pool are supposed to be the top ones. There are some walking tours in downtown but I did it all by myself and it’s pretty easy. Wilhelmina Park is well known among the locals and tourists too. A statue of Anne Frank is located in this park. There is an old Dutch Windmill in Palm Beach that I could see from my hotel room, but didn’t get time to visit it. And if you are bringing your kids to Aruba, I’m sure they will enjoy the Butterfly Farm, Donkey Sanctuary, or Bubali Bird Sanctuary. And if you like hiking, Hooiberg or the Haystack would be a great place to climb couple hundred steps. Finally, if you are into museums and history, the Aruba Aloe Factory, Historical Museum and Archaeological Museum are probably worth visiting. There are couple submarine tours that you can book from downtown which only runs at 11 AM and 12 PM every day. For activities, jeep safari, submarine tour, ATV tours/4-wheeling tours, sailing, snorkeling, and scuba are pretty common. 

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Thousand years old tribal art in Ayo Rock Park in Aruba

Just to give you some ideas on distance from Palm Beach to other areas of the island (by the way, the airport is located closer to downtown/Oranjestad):

To the airport – about 25 minutes

To Oranjestad – 25 minutes

To Eagle Beach – 10 minutes

To Divi or Druif Beach – 10 minutes

To Surfside Beach – about 25 minutes (closer to Oranjestad)

While I couldn’t see many of the places or do a lot of the things that people recommend to do in Aruba, below are some of the places I did visit here:

  1. PALM BEACH: Palm Beach area is popular for its high-rise resorts and hotels. It is home of variety of water activity operators, piers, restaurants, beach bars, and of course, lots of palm trees.  If you want to enjoy white sand, calm water, and a spectacular sunset, this is the place. There are 3 piers on this beach and Piet’s Pier is the smallest one from where some of the sunset catamarans and few other boat tours leave. The water is quite calm here…makes it perfect for swimming, sailing, or floating. There are lots of water activities that you can do in Palm Beach. If you are a photographer, sunset on this beach is pretty amazing which I got to enjoy on my second day on this island. 
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Palm Beach, Aruba

This was only 2 minutes walk from my hotel. I checked in at around 3pm and this beach was my first place to explore. There is a bus stop right around the corner of the beach, if you are planning to use public transportation. 

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Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, Aruba during susnet

2. SUNSET CATAMARAN CRUISE: I booked this mini cruise online with Viator 3 days before I left for Aruba. It was $60 and supposed to be for 2 hours where only drinks were included and was supposed to start at 5:30pm. A company called Red Sail operated this and when I went to our meeting point at Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, I was told the time changed to 6:30pm and it’s for 3 hours. I went back, walked around near Hard Rock cafe a bit and came back to the pier around 6pm to board. The lady at the dock looked at her customer list, said my name was not there, and started helping others to board. When I said I already paid, have a reference number and that I wanted to speak to her supervisor…she called her boss while I had to wait for about half an hour for them to figure things out. I don’t know if it was Viator or Red Sail who messed up my booking, but was slightly frustrating. But eventually, I got on board and we sailed off.

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Our DJ in the sunset catamaran cruise in Aruba

The whole purpose of getting on a catamaran sunset cruise was to actually enjoy the sunset and to cruise around. First of all, the boat was small and cramped with too many passengers. And after about half an hour of sailing, when we came near California Lighthouse, we just sat there for the whole sunset which followed by a 4th of July celebration dinner. Yes, that was the only best part of this cruise, that we got a surprise dinner with our price, which they usually don’t include. The price only includes bottomless drink and a live DJ.

I have been to these sunset cruises or catamarans in Mexico and in Dominican Republic, but those are more fun where people aren’t inside your personal bubble and have more space to breath. And you would actually be cruising the whole time. The music added some fun to this ride…some passengers were even dancing. And the food was ok. Another nice part that after dinner, our captain took us near the Renaissance hotel for the 4th of July fireworks, which we got to watch from our boat. 

3. PALM BEACH PROMENADE/PLAZA: It was only 9:30pm when we got off the catamaran. I was tired from my previous red-eye flight. But fun things are only starting in Aruba at that time. From the Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, it took me about 5 minutes to walk to the promenade. This is the heart and soul of the Palm Beach. Tons of restaurants, bars, brand name shops, local boutiques, vendor kiosks, and souvenir places are here. The street is lined with big chain hotels and resorts. I was there every night during my stay. It’s an exciting place to hang out after dark…although may seem very dead during the day time with no one there and when all the stores and eateries are closed. 

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Paseo Herencia alley in Palm Beach Promenade in Aruba

The plaza has striking 3-level outdoor mall which is the largest of its kind with lots of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Paseo Herencia has a gorgeous fountain surrounded by international and local retailers and restaurants that features nighttime water and musical show at every hour starting from 7:30pm to 9:30pm.

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Light and musical show at night in Palm Beach Plaza

Go inside Texas de Brazil pathway/alley to enter the outdoor shopping plaza. It is a cozy place to walk around, do window shopping, or sit down and enjoy any drinks or meals. 

4. BEACH and CAVE EXCURSION: This day-trip was also booked with Viator few days before my flight to Aruba. It was $74 per person for 6 1/2 hours of guided tour (by a company called Pelican Aruba) in an open-air bus. The tour starts at 9:30am and lunch was included along with hotel pick-up/drop-off. Our guide and driver, James, was an extremely funny and knowledgeable man. We were supplied with cold water, punch, soft and hard drinks whenever we wanted. 

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Baby Beach in Aruba

This was definitely an excellent trip and a nice way of exploring the island’s landscape. The bus passes thru lots of neighborhoods and small villages. It is a scenic ride over all…you may even spot a donkey or two on the road. It was a relaxed way to see the island in a short time, except that they advertises we would go to Arashi Beach, but we weren’t taken there. The trip ended with Baby Beach and I was dropped of at my hotel by 4:30pm. 

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Driving by these cacti during our excursion in Aruba

Below are the places where we were taken to in this tour. Before stopping anywhere, we drove by Mamlok Beach which is famous for the ruins of an old shipwreck from Aruba’s last major hurricane. 

a. CALIFORNIA LIGHTHOUSE: This was our first stop of this trip. The lighthouse, built in 1914, is located on the northernmost tip of the island. Surrounded by blue water, this is a quiet and calm place to visit anytime of the day. We spent only 10 minutes here. There isn’t much to do, unless you climb up the stairs with a fee. There were some small carts and a bright colored bus selling fresh coconut water, other drinks and snacks.

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California Lighthouse in Aruba

b. ALTO VISTA CHAPEL: After a scenic ride from the lighthouse, we arrived at Alto Vista Chapel in a pretty isolated area. This is a small but historic chapel on the northern side of the island surrounded by lots of tall cacti. The altar is pretty simple and modest. And the surroundings were very peaceful. Again, not much to do here…we had 10 minutes to spend and that was a good amount of time to look around the chapel. 

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Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba

c. NATURAL BRIDGE: Third stop was the Natural Bridge where we spent about 15 minutes. The original and bigger natural bridge collapsed in 2005 but a smaller one is there beside the one that collapsed. The newer bridge is there for visitors to enjoy and to walk on the bridge. Do use caution to avoid any accidents.

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Natural Bridge in Aruba

Water color is darker in this part of the island because the ocean is very deep here. There are also sharks in this water. There is a natural crack beside the new bridge where visitors aren’t allowed to go to…follow any danger signs and listen to your guide while visiting this area. 

Ruins of which once was called Bushiribana Gold Mine is a few minutes of drive from the Natural Bridge. We didn’t stop there. But saw people climbing and exploring the surrounding area.  

d. AYO ROCK FORMATION: Our fourth stop was Ayo Rock Formation site where we spent about 15-20 minutes. This is like a very small version of the Jumbo rock in Joshua Tree NP in California. The park houses lots of large boulders, tall cacti, and few walking trails. You can explore these rocks (or even climb them) to get a better view of the area. The guide showed us a protective cave-like small place where you can see thousand years old tribal arts under a rock. Those arts and symbols are still a mystery to the locals since no one could decipher them yet. 

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Ayo Rock Formation in Aruba

e. ARIKOK NATIONAL PARK: After our lunch at La Granja, we arrived at Arikok National Park which takes up about one-third of the whole island. This is a place to explore Aruba’s natural treasures. You can see ancient lava and limestone formation in this park. There are few hiking trails if you want to experience Aruba’s flora, fauna, unique geological formations, and historical sites. The entrance fee to the park was included in our ticket. We spent about a little less than half an hour in and around the cave. 

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After entering Arikok National Park in Aruba

The only place we got to see in Arikok NP was Guadiriki Cave. This was a highlight of this tour where we could go inside the cave. After climbing a few stairs we went inside the not-so-claustrophobic and dark cave. But it was thrilling to scout around different sections of Guadiriki Cave, even the parts where small bats live. 

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Guadiriki Cave in Arikok National Park, Aruba

The cave is famous for the natural light that pours in through openings in the cave roof. There is another cave in Arikok NP, like Fontein Cave, which we didn’t get a chance to see. 

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Guadiriki Cave in Arikok National Park, Aruba

f. BABY BEACH: Our last stop of the tour was Baby Beach, which is a man-made lagoon on the southern end of the island. It is called Baby Beach because of its shallow depth of only 5 feet of water at any point and for remarkably calm beach without any current. Therefore, Baby Beach makes a prime destination for families with small children. You can walk out for a long distance and still touch the sea bottom here. This is also a great location for snorkeling. Certain spots of this beach has the dangerous rip current (those spots are specifically marked and tourists aren’t supposed to go there). 

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Baby Beach…a man-made lagoon in Aruba

On clear days you can see Venezuelan mountains…Venezuela is only 19 miles across the ocean from Aruba. 

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Baby Beach in Aruba

5. EAGLE BEACH: This is supposed to be one of the top 10 beaches in the world and was voted as #1 Caribbean beach by a USA Today survey. With its calm crystal-clear blue water, light waves, and soft white sand, this is a perfect place for relaxation. Additionally, taking leisure walks is an ideal activity here because of its long stretched sandy beach. To me, the highlight of this beach and the ONLY reason I went there was to photograph the famous divi-divi tree of Aruba. 

Under a Divi tree Eagle Beach in Aruba

Under a Divi tree Eagle Beach in Aruba

This pair of divi-divi in Eagle Beach is quite famous where people only come here to take pictures with these. The constant trade wind from the north-east shapes Aruba’s national tree divi-divi to always point to the south-west direction. It has become an iconic sign of Aruba and its image are on lot of the souvenir items as well. 

The famous Divi tree pair in Eagle Beach in Aruba

The famous Divi tree pair in Eagle Beach in Aruba

I took a taxi from Palm Beach to Eagle Beach couple hours before sunset, which costs about $9 for one way. Just keep in mind, on your way back you may have to walk to a hotel or call for a taxi, since there are no taxi stand near the beach. My agenda was to stay here until the sunset and take some shots of the divi-divi tree. But after waiting under the sun for more than half an hour, I couldn’t take the heat anymore and had to head back to my hotel. 

6. ORANJESTAD: My 3rd and last day in Aruba was set aside to roam around its downtown. Oranjestad is the main hub for many resorts, hotels, casinos, expensive brand name shops, and finally the cruise port. This is Aruba’s original shopping mecca for its tourists with vast selections of shopping venues. LG Smith Boulevard is the main street in downtown and everything is on or around this street, including Renaissance Mall & Marketplace, The Parliament, the marina, and The Royal Plaza. If you plan to go to Surfside Beach, going from the downtown is easier, since it’s closer from here (only 2 km). Also, look for the blue Paardenbaai Horse sculptures when you are walking around Oranjestad…there are multiple of them scattered throughout the downtown area. 

These blue horses are everywhere in Oranjestad, Aruba

These blue horses are everywhere in Oranjestad, Aruba

I left at 10:30 in the morning and was back In the hotel by 4 PM. I didn’t go to the park in downtown where Anna Franks statue is located. To go to downtown, I took the public minivan for $2 one way from the Palm Beach bus stop and I was in downtown in less than half an hour. Bus stop in Oranjestad is centrally located and very short distance from most of the major spots. 

Some souvenirs shop opposite of Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

Some souvenirs shop opposite of Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

a. TROLLEY RIDE: From the bus terminal, it was only 2-3 minutes walk to the cruise terminal where I got on to this trolley. This is a free double-decker hop-on/hop-off bus ride around the downtown area. These are battery operated trams that run very slowly that passes thru some main tourist spots and some not so popular among tourists spots. The street bus passes thru the Archeological Museum, the old Main Street with shops, some small plazas, hotels, and smaller alleys.

Downtown trolley ride in Oranjestad, Aruba

Downtown trolley ride in Oranjestad, Aruba

It’s a short, 45 minutes ride maybe and has a 20 minutes break at a small square. I got off at Plaza Daniel Leo on our way back to the terminal. 

b. PLAZA DANIEL LEO: There isn’t much to do in this plaza but I had to stop here to admire the Dutch/Flemish looking architecture in this square. Most of those are shops. You can find a blue horse sculpture here by the water fountain. Opposite of the plaza is where the famous European store Zara located. There is also a tourist info booth in this plaza, where I got my free Aruba street map from and asked a few questions about surroundings. 

Plaza Daniel Leo in Oranjestad, Aruba

Plaza Daniel Leo in Oranjestad, Aruba

c. RENAISSANCE MALL: If you cross the street from Plaza Daniel Leo, you are at the Renaissance Mall, an elite and trendy shopping mall beside Renaissance Resort & Casino. There are few restaurants and a casino in the mall. 

d. “I LOVE ARUBA” SIGN: If you just walk straight to the mall and keep walking straight you’ll come out of the mall and to the main street. A left turn from would take you to this I Love Aruba sign. This is located right next to Renaissance Mall, in front of the Parliament of Aruba, and across from the marina. 

I Love Aruba in Oranjestad, Aruba

I Love Aruba in Oranjestad, Aruba

e. PARLIAMENT of ARUBA: As I walked by the I Love Aruba sign, I came in front of the Parliament of Aruba. I am not sure if publics are allowed inside the building. It’s a simple building with a statue outside. Not much to do here, I kept walking towards the opposite of the Renaissance Marketplace to see what’s on the other side…didn’t go too far and saw the Historical Museum of Aruba. From there, just turned around, crossed the street to go to the marketplace. 

f. RENAISSANCE MARKETPLACE: It was really empty when I was there with most of the stores being closed…maybe because it’s like the Palm Beach Promenade…dead during day but crowded with tourists at night. It has one side surrounded by the marina. One of many other places in downtown for shopping, dining, and entertainment. The architecture itself of this mall is modern and glassy.

Renaissance Marketplace in Oranjestad, Aruba

Renaissance Marketplace in Oranjestad, Aruba

g. RENAISSANCE MARINA: This is the official name, I think, but most people probably know it by just the downtown marina. Taking an easy stroll by the water is what I did here. There are few spots I found by the marina to be very photogenic. 

Walking by Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad, Aruba

Walking by Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad, Aruba

h. ROYAL PLAZA: After my lunch at Lucy’s by the marina (which is across the street from Renaissance Mall, I walked a couple blocks to reach a line of souvenirs stores. They were right opposite of the Royal Plaza…another trendy shopping plaza and a paradise for exquisite shoppers. The Royal Plaza consists of 3 distinct pink and white Dutch-Caribbean style victorian building with multi-level experience of shopping and dining. Go inside the plaza, which is basically an outdoor mall and walk around to do some window shopping…heck, if you have money to spare, this would be the place for those bills. 

Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

This was a great way to end the downtown tour, since the bus terminal is right there. I was back in the hotel by 5 and off to Palm Beach Promenade for a lazy walk and dinner. 

IF I VISIT ARUBA AGAIN: If I visit Aruba for the second time, I would definitely stay in Palm Beach again. While public buses are very good, next time I would definitely rent a car since parking in all the touristic places are pretty good. And since Aruba is a small island with tons of beaches, having a car is much easier to hop beaches and not worry about bus or getting a taxi. Next time, I definitely want to try some Aruban food, which I couldn’t this time. Again, having a rental car would make it a breeze. 

 

 

 

 

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Exploring the Caribbean – Punta Cana in Dominican Republic

PUNTA CANA, DR: It was time for our 2nd girls trip and this time it was going to be somewhere in the Caribbean. It was the fearless five of us out to explore a new place while having some girl time. Initially, we were going to go to Montego Bay. But sorry Jamaica, Dominican Republic had better deals on flights and logistics.

Punta Cana in Dominican Republic - one of the top destinations in the Caribbean

Punta Cana in Dominican Republic – one of the top destinations in the Caribbean

 

Punta Cana, it is the home of white sandy beaches, great food, fantastic warm weather, and genuinely friendly people…and all these make this place one of the top Caribbean destinations. For tourists, like me, who can’t speak much Spanish, not to worry…most of the people we dealt with, like in restaurants, cab drivers, and etc spoke at least some English.

Beautiful beaches of Punta Cana, DR

Beautiful beaches of Punta Cana, DR

Punta Cana International Airport is about 40-45 minutes drive from all the resorts and hotels area. About currency, I only exchanged $100 to Dominican Peso from the airport and I didn’t even have to do that (but it’s always good to have some local currencies in the pocket in my opinion). We could and did use USD almost anywhere and everywhere.

TIME of TRAVEL: We visited Punta Cana at the very end of November last year. It was probably the best time to go there. No spring-break or winter holiday tourists, weather was around 80s…no scorching heat or humidity to deal with. We did get tropical rain couple nights, usually around 9/10pm.

OUR HOTEL: Sunscape Dominican Beach Punta Cana is where we stayed during this trip. We had the deluxe tropical view, basically just looking over the other buildings and the grassy areas of the resort.

Overall, the resort itself was good. They had good service, big and clean rooms with balcony, friendly services, and all that. I wasn’t a big fan of their food, except for the breakfast where they had fresh papaya, watermelon, passion fruit juice. But other Japanese, Mediterranea, French places were very disappointing. Another thing we should have complained to the hotel concierge, is that Punta Cana gets tropical rain here and there, and when it rains, all the paths inside the resort get really slippery. My friend fell on that (and later we found out few others too) and hurt her ankle really bad. There has to be something the hotel management can do to provide more safety in weather like that.

EATING and SHOPPING: This was a lesson learned for me that not all-inclusive places serve good food. Most of the meals that we had in our resort, if not all, were below average. I mean, even their pizza and hotdog tasted like chewed up beach slippers. I was, at one point, craving to taste some local food at some local restaurants. We did get delicious Dominican BBQ chicken and fish in our trip to Saona Island. But after few meals at the resort, I couldn’t take it anymore. So finally, the last day, we decided to go out and have dinner at a place, called La Delicasa, recommended by our hotel. It was more like a semi-fast food place, serving authentic Dominican food. Loved it, period.

Our lunch in Saona Island in Dominican Republic - BBQ chicken

Our lunch in Saona Island in Dominican Republic – BBQ chicken

For souvenirs, Taino Art works (like paintings, wall decor, masks, statues) are very ethnic and traditional gifts to bring back from DR. They are usually locally handcrafted containing tribal signs and symbols that supposed to bring good luck. Other wooden arts are also very popular here. I, myself, bought tapestry, Taino art paintings, Dominican coffee, chocolate, and coconut shell candle holders. Jewelries made with beautiful blue larimar stones are also something popular here which is only found in DR. Unlike many other places I’ve visited, going for souvenir hunting is a bit challenge in Punta Cana. We came across some people who were selling jewelries and small trinkets in Saona Island for really cheap prices. Whatever you buy here you can always bargain, unless they are fixed priced. I also found couple souvenir shops near our resort on the Bavaro Beach selling all sorts of stuff from paintings to jewelries to cigars and generic stuff. But I saw something in Punta Cana for our souvenir hunting that I’ve never seen in any other places before, maybe a Caribbean thing. We wanted to go to a place where we could find local trinkets. And when I asked the hotel concierge, they said they can contact the nearby souvenir “villages” and they will take us there free of charge, we walk around and look around and not obligated to buy anything. And in 2 hours, they will drop us back to the resort. Yes, it does sounds like a trap, but it was the only option we had and in a way, it was a fun experience. A minivan took us and 3 other families to their souvenir complex. There are few different “huts”, each had its own products. One for only cigars and you get to see how the cigars are made and try them, one for larimar jewelries, one for tequila and other drinks, one for only chocolates and coffee beans…where you can try and taste everything before you buy, and finally another one was with just other types of handicrafts, like paintings, t-shirts, generic trinkets, and other gift items.

Dominican souvenirs

Dominican souvenirs

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We stayed in Punta Cana for total 4 nights. This trip was all about just relaxing, spending time at the resort and its beach, and taking it slow. We went there without much strict itinerary, except for the Saona Island trip which just took one of our four days. Other days, we basically enjoyed the pool, the resort parties, going to a nearby souvenir shop, eating out for one dinner, and last day we just decided to check out the Macao Beach. I did regret not booking a trip to Santo Domingo from Punta Cana for one day. It’s the capital of Dominican Republic and has tons of historic landmarks and cultural sites to visit and in about couple hours of drive each way, you are there. Santo Domingo will be my top priority if I come back to DR in the future again.

Below are few places we visited during our stay in Punta Cana:

  1. ALTOS de CHAVON and SAONA ISLAND DAY-TRIP: We booked this trip before arriving Punta Cana. For $84 per person, we got a 10-hour day excursion with lunch. We got to visit their history, local lives, and some of the most beautiful Caribbean coastlines. We were picked up from our hotel around 7am in a small minivan and were brought to a gas station to be shifted to a bigger bus with other tourists. One thing I want to mention here, we had a professional photographer with us all time during this trip, taking our photos everywhere, taking candid and posed shots. Some loved it and some not so much. But give this guy a chance, at the end he’ll show you all the photos which you can buy if you want to for about $5 per image. Our main tour guide was a funny, very enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and accommodating man…who could dance very well too.
A local wearing traditional Dominican dress in Punta Cana

A local wearing traditional Dominican dress in Punta Cana

                      a. ALTOS de CHAVON: Our first stop of that morning was Altos de Chavon, an artist’s village on top of a spectacular hill which was perched above the winding Chavon River. This place replicates the 16th-century Mediterranean town and is an architectural wonder. It did feel like a mini European village, with churches, cobbled stoned alleys, and small squares. Musician Carlos Santana had one of his concerts in the amphitheater in Altos de Chavon. The amphitheater was built around 1976-1982 and can hold around 5000 people. This town was also used in few Hollywood movies, such as Anaconda. The area of the main church and its square is probably one of the best places to take some shots of the surroundings. We couldn’t go inside the church. But from outside this stone-made church looked grand and very photogenic.

View of Chavon River from the hilltop town Altos de Chavon in Dominican Republi

View of Chavon River from the hilltop town Altos de Chavon in Dominican Republi

There are few small boutique shops, souvenir stores, art galleries,  cafes and snack places here. But the highlight is the view from this hilltop town.  Looking at the river down below with small hills surrounding the place is stunning, especially when we arrived in the morning, it was quiet and peaceful. Also, enjoy the garden with exotic flowers and fruits, like banana, mango, lemon. Explore the enchanting old buildings and enjoy the locals, especially women walking around in their colorful traditional dresses.  

Architectural beauty of Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

Architectural beauty of Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

We didn’t stop at the Casa de Campo once we reached the complex of Altos de Chavon, but we were told this is where rich Hollywood stars, like Vin Diesel, have their vacations homes.

The old church Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

The old church Altos de Chavon in Punta Cana, DR

Altos de Chavon is one of the most popular sites in Punta Cana and you can either combine it with your Saona Island trip or just take half a day trip from your hotel to come here. We spent about an hour in Altos de Chavon before getting on the bus again for our next spot.

             b. La PLAYA PALMIA: It was about 30 minutes bus ride to reach a small fishing village, called Bayahibe, by the Caribbean Sea. From here, we got onto a speed boat and cruised over the Caribbean Sea for about 15-20 minutes to come to a natural swimming pool, called La Playa Palmia or The Natural Beach. FYI, Hollywood film, Blue Lagoon-2 was shot here.

Going to La PLAYA PALMIA

Going to La PLAYA PALMIA

The water is shallow in La Playa Palmia and you’ll see many other excursion boats bring their tourists here to take a quick swim in this serene blue water lined with gentle palm trees. It was beautiful. I, personally, didn’t go to the water…simply because I am afraid of water and I didn’t bring any extra pair of clothes. But my two other friends, who got themselves wet and were served with both soft and hard drinks, while some of us enjoyed being on the boat and appreciating the surreal beauty of that beach. The 30-40 minutes we spent there, it was a total bliss.

               c. SAONA ISLAND: Another half an hour ride on that speed boat, we came to one of the most beautiful islands I’ve seen in my life…Isla Saona or Saona Island. This is beyond just a picturesque island bordered with thousands of palm trees. This was a true Caribbean paradise. The endless shallow turquoise waters of this natural reserve in Eastern National Park can’t be and shouldn’t be missed when you are in Punta Cana.

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Right after we got off the boat, which by the way anchors a bit far from the beach…so you are bound to get wet, we walked over to our “picnic shelter” for lunch. This was our first out of the resort meal and it was mind-blowing. If I only knew that actual Dominican cuisine is that good, I’d have avoided going for all-inclusive. We had the option of rice, grilled fish, BBQ chicken, and salad.

There aren’t many things to do on this island, but that was the whole purpose actually…not to do much. We just enjoyed the powdery white sandy beach, warm weather with gentle breeze, palm trees, locals, bought some jewelries from the shops, and relaxed by the beach.

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

Saona Island in Dominican Republic

We stayed about 2 ½ hours here. In the meantime, try fresh coconut water, fresh pineapple juice in the pineapple shell, a massage by the beach and under the sun. I walked around the lesser crowded side of the island with my camera for a while to get some shots and glad I did that.

A local making fresh pineapple juice for us in Saona Island, DR

A local making fresh pineapple juice for us in Saona Island, DR

Another fun highlight of this whole trip is cruising on the catamaran/party boat. Towards the end of the day, we got on the speedboat again from Saona Island and were shifted to this Catamaran. This is an open boat with sails and no chairs to sit, but they have metal benches all around the boat. We were all tired and some were sitting, some were dancing with the dancers and with Caribbean party music, and others were enjoying the vast sea. I enjoyed the sun, the breeze, and the music in the background while laying down on the boat making my backpack my pillow. This was one heavenly feelings and my every penny was worth of it.

Our trip ended by getting into that big bus after the catamaran docked near the fishing village and in about hour and half or so, we were back to our resort.

  1.  MACAO BEACH: We visited Macao Beach on the very last day of our stay in Punta Cana and thank goodness that we did. We arranged a taxi for couple hours from our resort to go to this beach (please visit his info in my recommended tour guide…knowledgeable, gentle, and very friendly). This Guatemalan taxi driver living in Punta Cana currently, told us that Macao Beach is his favorite spot to watch sunset over the Caribbean Sea.
Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

          It was truly a remarkable sunset that we watched that evening. This part of the sea was a bit rough, good place for the surfers. Buggy riders also come here to ride along the white sandy beach.

          It is a public beach, so no entrance fee to pay. There were some locals with us too. It was stunning when the sky was sprayed with all shades of orange and yellow colors and reflected that on the turquoise water of the sea.

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Macao Beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

         Absolutely fell in love with the Caribbean after this trip, have to plan to come back and explore other islands here.

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