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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Get Off The Plane: Other Ways To Explore America

America is a huge country – Texas alone is the size of most of Europe – and there is too much to see in a single trip. Unfortunately, most people restrict their exploration of this vast country because, although traveling by plane covers a lot of distance, it can get expensive flying from one state to another. Fortunately, there are ways to travel that are easier on your budget, and let you see more of the country. Get off the planes and try these different methods of travel.

By Train

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Few people know that you can travel around the whole country by rail with a train pass from Amtrak.com. Amtrak offers USA Rail Passes for 15-day, 30-day or 45-day trips. If you’re savvy about using public transport in each stop on your tour, they’re an affordable way to see the country. The most scenic route is the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, which is one of world’s greatest train journeys. In around 48 hours you will cross the farmlands of Nebraska, scale the Rockies beyond Denver while you eat egg & bacon for breakfast in the diner, snake through rocky river valleys in Colorado and pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area.

By Boat

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You might not believe it, but there are some fantastic things to see along the coastline of the country. You can plan your perfect trip around the coast by buying a boat with help from boatfinancing.co, or you could get some friends together and split the cost of hiring a chartered boat for the duration of your travels. If you’re charting the course, you have full control over where you go, and how long you stay there. Alternatively, there are some amazing cruises that let you see more of the country; cruises to Alaska, Hawaii, or the Caribbean are popular, but you can also dock in New York or New Orleans. Not to mention the cruise itself has a lot on entertainment and activities on board, so you never feel bored while you’re traveling.

By Road

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The American road trip has been a popular genre in literature, and it features many coming of age stories, Unfortunately, some of the best routes have been forgotten in favor of the interstate or flying. It’s time to bring back this mode of travel and explore parts of the country you might never have seen before. When you’re planning your road trip, you can schedule as many pit stops as you want, change your route whenever you’re bored, and stay in a single place for as long as you like. The beauty of a road trip is that you can dance to the beat of your own drum. Just make sure you stay safe on the road.

If you don’t feel like driving, you can also take the bus. Book the Great American Crossing tour, and you’ll experience New York, Detroit, Mount Rushmore, and many more cities over the course of 21 days.

Old World Charm: Dubrovnik and Split

Croatia is fast becoming one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations. The mix of history, architecture, shops and cuisine will impress even the most hardened sightseers. If you’re on a cruise to the Adriatic, or even if you’re not, excursions to Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia’s two largest cities, should definitely form part of your bucket list.

Dubrovnik

As your liner sails towards the 12th century walled city of Dubrovnik you’ll discover one of the gems of the Adriatic on your cruise. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and those with a keen eye will spot reminders of Roman, Venetian and Byzantine rule at every turn.

Architectural highlights include Onofrio’s Fountain (part of the city’s medieval aqueduct system) as well as the world’s oldest pharmacy, established by Franciscan monks in the 14th century. You can also visit the city’s Franciscan Monastery, home to a statue of the Piéta carved in 1498, said to be one of the great examples of its kind.

Once you’ve seen the sights, it’s good to meander through Dubrovnik’s winding side streets as they’re full of shops, independent galleries and pretty restaurants. In the evening why not treat yourself to dinner at one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants — though it’s likely you’ll have to book ahead.

Split

There are so many reasons to your leave your cruise and go exploring in Croatia’s second largest city, another UNESCO heritage site. The 4th century Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian is a must see — it’s thought to be the best-preserved example of a period imperial palace in the world.

For natural beauty, visitors can take a trip to Krka (pronounced ‘kur-ka’) one of the country’s seven national parks just outside the city. Woodland, lakes and waterfalls abound in this 100km wide area of unspoilt beauty.

For bargain hunters you’ll find lots of small shops in Split’s old town selling curiosities as well as more mainstream fare. Lacework, oil paintings and ceramics are good buys. But be sure to carry cash with you as there may be shops that don’t accept credit cards.

Thought Venice was nice? Your Adriatic cruise will be twice as satisfying with a visit to Dubrovnik or Split – or both! These cities offer a privileged glimpse into the past with all the modern comforts you’d expect from a fine cruise holiday.

Hello Helsinki

HELSINKI, FINLAND: Helsinki is a vibrant and diverse city, where you can taste traditional eastern exotic with contemporary Scandinavian style. It’s the capital of Finland and the second-most northern capital city in the world. This youthful and relaxed city gave us a cosmopolitan experience which exists in perfect harmony with nature.  With more than 300 islands and 100 km of coastline you can’t go wrong when spending time outside the city also.

From our cabin balcony, by Helsinki coast
From our cabin balcony, by Helsinki coast
  

The city was founded in 1550 by a Swedish king. Later, Helsinki was under Russian tsars for many years, therefore, you will see lots of influences of Russia here from architecture, to food, and souvenirs.

We toured the city with Hop On Hop Off (not the red one, green buses) open top tour bus service of Helsinki. We found their representatives right after we got off our ship. It was raining badly, I mean…seriously, it wasn’t a fun rain. We quickly decided to get on their bus to escape from the rain and it was the best way to explore Helsinki in that weather. They charged us 25 Euros per adult and free for kids below 16 years which includes audio guide and is valid for 24 hours. Also, you get to be picked up from your cruise terminal, if you arrive to the city via sea.

TIME of TRAVEL: We stopped in Helsinki, Finland when we took Baltic cruise with Carnival Legend in August of 2013. It was a 12-day cruise that started from Dover, England. After visiting Warnemunde, Germany our next destination was Helsinki and then to St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Helsinki, we were surprised with lots and lots of heavy rain. We almost got soaked at one point. But overall, it was ok, eventually the rain stopped in the later part of the day…but it was almost time for us to leave then L

EATING and SHOPPING: Helsinki’s cozy outdoor cafes and terraces offer a pleasant way to rest your feet and refresh yourself. For gastronomical explorer Helsinki has plenty to discover. We saw plenty of nice restaurants in the main center, near Senate Square. But, we grabbed some Subway sandwiches from a shopping mall and went on with our journey as soon as possible.

For souvenirs, Market Square was our best option. They were very reasonably priced and had tons of options to buy something local. We bought a pair of coasters made from juniper trees, it was 10 euros each. The wood has a distinct smell and the man told us if you put hot dish on the coaster, you can really get the smell of juniper.

Coasters and boxes made from Juniper trees - some typical Finnish souvenirs in Helsinki
Coasters and boxes made from Juniper trees – some typical Finnish souvenirs in Helsinki
    

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: There are plenty museums here if they interest you…but with our short time off of the ship, that’s all we could do and visit here. Also, the rain didn’t help at all. We opt out on Olympic Stadium that is a well-known tourist spot where Olympic Games were held in 1952. We managed to visit the following in about few hours. Most of the sights and attractions are within walking distance in the city center, and getting around town is very easy. But Hop On Hop Off was a life saver for us that day.

Lovelocks on Bridge of Love while walking towards Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
Lovelocks on Bridge of Love while walking towards Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
    

1) SENATE SQUARE and HELSINKI CATEHDRAL: This is the main central square in Helsinki and a reminder for Finnish people when they became independent in 1917, immediately after the Russian Revolution. This neo-classical historical center is where we were dropped off at first from the port. In the center of Senate Square stands a statue of Tsar Alexander II from 1894. This Russian tsar was very popular here and his bold statue in the square represents Law, Peace, Light and Labor. Many merchant houses from the 18th century are lined on the south side of the square. Senate Square also houses few museums, university library, main university building, and official residence of the Mayor of Helsinki. It was raining cats and dogs; we had to change our bus here and get on another Hop-On Hop-Off to start the tour.

The beautiful and historically significant Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelic Lutheran church. This striking white cathedral with green dome is the unofficial symbol of Helsinki and has been dominating Senate Square since 1850. Russian Tsar, Nicholas I, contributed to the exterior appearance of this cathedral by commissioning the zinc statues of 12 apostles on the roof looking down at the world. Helsinki Cathedral hosts major state and university events. Inside is very simple but elegant. The altar is non-decorative too, but the choir is grand and beautiful. Exhibitions and concerts are held in the vaulted crypt. Be ready to climb 50+ steps to get there. Entry is free to the cathedral.

Helsinki Cathedral with statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square of Helsinki
Helsinki Cathedral with statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square of Helsinki
        

2) TEMPPELIADIO CHURCH or ROCK CHURCH: This Lutheran church was literally dug out of solid rock and is the most visited site in Helsinki. It was quarried out of the natural bedrock where the interior walls are created naturally by the rock. The roof is made of 22 km of copper strips. Completed only in 1969, inside the church is very contemporary with simple altar and nave. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts. There is no fee to enter the church.

Rock Church, the most visited site in Helsinki
Rock Church, the most visited site in Helsinki
    

3) SIBELIUS MONUMENT: Dedicated to the world-famous composer Jean Sibelius, this monument is one of the “musts” when visiting Helsinki. Located in Sibelius Park, this unique sculpture resembles organ pipes, made with welded steel with the bust of the composer on one side. It has over 600 pipes and weighs 24 tons. This is a very nice park with touch of lovely greens in the city. There is no charge to enter the park or to see the monument.

Sibelius Monument in Helsinki
Sibelius Monument in Helsinki

4) NATIONAL MUSEUM, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, and HELSINKI MUSIC CENTER: Although we didn’t go inside because of short time, National Museum of Finland is a place full of treasures. It illustrates Finnish history from prehistoric times to the present and the building is very bold too.

Only a few steps from the museum is Finland’s impressive parliament building. The façade is made of red granite with 14 Corinthian columns. Opposite of the parliament if the Helsinki Music Center.

5) MARKET SQUARE: This was my favorite place in this city…I do get excited when choosing or buying souvenirs. Market Square is located in front of the city hall and by waterfront, only couple minutes of walk from Senate Square and Uspenski Cathedral. It was a great place to do some souvenir hunting. You can find some unique Finnish items here like juniper wood coasters and boxes, minks, fox furs, sweaters, and winter accessories and best part is that they are all made in Finland.

Market Square of Helsinki, Finland
Market Square of Helsinki, Finland
           

6) USPENSKI CATHEDRAL: Completed in 1868, the Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. With its golden copulas and red-brick façade, the church is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history. This is one of the two official national churches in Finland. The ornate vaults are supported by four giant granite columns. And the fabulous painting behind the altar was done by a Russian artist. Interior is kind of small but more gorgeous and decorative than Helsinki Cathedral. We had to climb a small hill with few stairs. It’s free to go inside. With classic onion-domed Russian church is prominently located near Market Square and only 5 minutes of walk from Senate Square.

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
 

8 reasons why I got addicted to cruises

I have mentioned in few of my last posts that we took Baltic Sea cruise last month in August of 2013. It was one of the most unique travel experiences my family and I had this summer. The fun was unlimited for all of us and so was the excitement. Carnival Legend made sure all of its passengers had time of their lives. There were always something exciting going on at every hour for everyone.

The atrium of Carnival Legend

The atrium of Carnival Legend

There is one confession I need to make though, I am not a big water person. In fact, I am very scared of water…that can be going to beaches or swimming pools or simply standing under shower for too long with eyes closed. I don’t know how to swim, therefore, I do panic everytime I am on a boat or taking any other water rides…to the point where I almost forget to enjoy the surroundings.  First night of cruising, I kept waking up every hour just to check that our vessel wasn’t sinking or stuck or that there wasn’t any emergency sirens. I kept thinking about the movie Titanic (I know it sounds corny) and some recent cruise incidents (like the one in Italy where 40 people died). I was going through some checklist in my mind on what to do in those situations with my kids…although I know I can’t swim and therefore I can’t really do much. After the first night, I thought I would be ok…it was just getting used to sleeping in moving cabin. But no, that fear and insomnia stayed with me for the whole 12 days on the sea. It’s not that I didn’t sleep at all throughout this journey, but towards the end I used to wake up once or twice in the middle of the night.

Moonrise on Baltic

Moonrise on Baltic

Apart from that, the good news was that none of us got sea sick or anything.  Thanks to my husband who did his homework before buying the tickets and booking our cabin. Double thanks to him for booking a cabin with an extended balcony. Yep, we were on 8th deck with a nice little private balcony with 2 chairs. I managed to wake up very early in the morning few times and enjoy the sunrise right from there in my PJs. TIPS: try to get room in the mid-ship where you can feel motion the least. Front or back of any ship moves a lot and can really give you wobbly feelings if you are not used to it.

Water slide inside Carnival Legend

Water slide inside Carnival Legend

Above and all, those 12 days gave us some unforgettable memories. We were already talking about our next cruising destinations. So here are top 8 reasons why I want to go cruising again and again and again:

8) Towel folding animals: Our stewards used to visit our room twice a day. Once in the morning for regular servicing and once at night to get ready for bedtime. Every time we were back from our dinner we saw few chocolates, schedule for next day, and a cuddly towel folding animal on our bed. It made the kids giggly and we used to guess each evening what animal he would make for us that night.

 

Towel folding Monkey in our cabin

Towel folding Monkey in our cabin

7) Free concerts and musical performances everyday: There were more than just 1 or 2 of these concerts going on everyday. We attended Motown Concert on or 2nd day on the sea. Also managed to see piano performance, duet vocal singing, and DJ party by the pool. There were also, few dance classes in each afternoon that covered salsa, tango, Bollywood, disco, and many more.

Motown Concert on board in Carnival Legend

Motown Concert on board in Carnival Legend

6) Creative activities: Kids loved some close-up magic times as well as dancing by the pool. “Hairy Chest Competition” was really funny where 4 men competed and entertained a big group. Another really cool one I loved was the ice sculpture curving right in front of our eyes.

5) Friendly staffs: Our ship, Carnival Legend, had some wonderful…let me repeat, wonderful staffs and workers to serve us. From our room stewards, to all the attendants, cooks, servers, cleaners, receptionists, waiters/waitresses, officials, securities…all had smiley faces and friendly attitude. I can’t imagine to be in a place where I hated the staff. This experience alone added an extra star to our experiences.

4) Shore Excursions: Taking a cruise like this one gives you an easy chance of landing on new places. Particularly with Baltic Cruise, the major highlight was St. Petersburg for almost everyone. Other than that we had the opportunity to see Warnemunde and Rostock in Germany, Helsinki in Finland, and Tallinn in Estonia. These were some wonderful places where we’ve been longing to go for a while.

3) Unlimited food: Hehehe…yeh, unlimited food and desserts are in my top list for going back to any cruise. Starting from breakfast to dinner we were stuffed with all sorts of delicious dishes and yummy treats. Other than the 4 or 5 different sections for breakfast, in Carnival Legend, we used to have different theme for lunch in buffet service, like American, Mediterranean, Chinese, Italian, Caribbean, and some more. We didn’t go to any “Elegant Night” dinners in formal dining area, but other nights we had dinner in Truffles – a semi-formal sophisticatedly decorated sit down restaurant with lots of menu options. Other than these, there were 24-room service and pizza and ice cream bars where we could just go and munch.

Scrumptious dessert

Scrumptious dessert

2) Stunning beauty: May be it’s not so stunning when we were just sailing in the middle of blue ocean where we couldn’t see any lands nearby…it may get a bit dull after looking at the sea hours after hours. But my favorite part was during docking in a city and sailing off to a new destination. Amsterdam was probably the best because our ship had to get inside their small canals to anchor. And when we were leaving the city, it took couple hours of scenic canal ride before we were back on the ocean again…which was fantastic. But with most of the cities, as soon as the ship used to come closer to the city and later to the port…I loved to stand on our balcony to see look at other cruise liners, port life, and the whole city from a distance.

Amsterdam Port, as our ship was leaving the city

Amsterdam Port, as our ship was leaving the city

1) Sunrises and sunsets: This used to excite me the most before boarding the ship. I even bought a lens to capture the sunrises and sunsets on the horizon from our ship. I managed to wake up few times before sunrise and run to the upper deck to enjoy and capture some shots. Same with sunsets, some of them I just enjoyed it from our balcony, some from our restaurants during dinner, while for some sunsets I had time to go to sundeck to get a panoramic view. Capturing or looking at sunrises and sunsets still thrills me when I think about our future cruises. The way water glimmers as the sun rises or sets is a unique experience which I wish could see every day.

The most beautiful sunrise I saw, near Helsinki, Finland

The most beautiful sunrise I saw, near Helsinki, Finland

Overall, it was an unforgettable journey for us and we did maximize our fun on the ship and on the shore by engaging ourselves in different things. Everybody’s festive and holiday mood cheered us too. We met an elderly family there who said this was their 15th cruise…wow. I know they are addicted to cruise. I didn’t forget to ask them what their favorite one was; the answer was Alaskan cruise…hmmmmm. That must be an adventurous one, going thru snow-capped mountains and glaciers and solid rock icebergs on the water. Wherever we take our one should be fun…can’t wait til the next cruise.

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