When docking in Aruba, it’s clear why “One Happy Island” graces the official license plate. The 19-mile-long country is close to the equator, so the days are filled with warm rays of sunshine and the perfect island breeze. Plus, locals are arguably the friendliest in the Caribbean; and it doesn’t hurt that most speak four languages, including English. The port is in capital city Oranjestad, making for an easy walk to dozens of shops and restaurants.
Aruba is a great island for first-time cruisers: U.S. dollars are widely accepted; getting around is a cinch; and most ships stay in port longer, allowing more time to explore.
Here are 12 top Aruban experiences to take in while you’re there.
Been there, done that with snorkeling but not yet scuba certified? Try Snuba, a cross between the two. You’ll descend 20 feet below sea level using a sturdy air tube for cool close-ups of coral, vibrant fish and more. De Palm Tours offers an experience easily booked at the excursion desk on your ship.
The beaches are beautiful, but 15 minutes past the glitzy Palm Beach hotels is another world — Arikok National Park. The park covers 18 percent of the island’s northeast coast. Options to explore the landscape range from an exhilarating Jeep safari to hiking and horseback riding. Caves, sand dunes and even remnants of a natural bridge are a few sights to see.
Private De Palm Island is an all-inclusive experience where visitors of all ages can play all day. There’s unlimited food and drink, snorkeling, zipping around on a banana boat or enjoying a rousing game of beach volleyball. This full-scale water park is a popular shore excursion and easy to book.
Two-mile-long Palm Beach has always been home to big-name high-rise hotels. That hasn’t changed, but now it’s the go-to spot on the island dozens of new restaurants, clubs and shopping centers have popped up in the last few years.
If you're seeking a serene day in the sun may prefer the gleaming white sands of Eagle Beach, a 15-minute taxi ride from the cruise terminal. Home to most of the island’s low-rise hotels, it’s popular with locals and Europeans (topless sunbathing isn’t uncommon, though it’s technically illegal). The chill vibe appeals to those who enjoy a slower, but by no means dull, pace.
For the most tranquil time ever, the shallow waters of Baby Beach in Seroe Colorado's southeastern end is a great place for, you guessed it, the below-the-knee set.
Hadicurari Beach, just south of the California Lighthouse, is the windsurfing and kite boarding Mecca of the island. Newbies can take quick and easy lessons.
Rodgers Beach, on the island's eastern tip, has a slightly rougher surf that's perfect for body surfing, while Malmok Beach on the west coast is where you'll find a sunken fishing boat just five feet below the waters. After sunning, don snorkel gear to peep starfish, puffer fish, and crabs with ease.
Sure, you’re already sailing, but how about a pirate-style adventure? If your ship doesn’t offer the option, book a Jolly Pirates adventure online. They’ll pick you up from port and deliver you to a cordial crew to cruise Aruba’s coastline via a 70-ton schooner. Aruba’s top snorkeling sites, including the WWII Antilla shipwreck, are on the itinerary, and when the rope swing is unraveled, the fun ramps up. Add an open bar and barbecue lunch for a first-mate experience.
Aruba’s trade winds are well-known. Not only do they cool the sun’s heat, they provide prime opportunities for windsurfing, giving Aruba the title of windsurfing capital of the Caribbean. Head to Hadicurari Beach (aka Fisherman’s Huts), past Palm Beach’s Marriott hotel, just 25 minutes by taxi. There, watch amateurs and pros slice through the water at awesome speeds. Wanna give it a shot? Sign up for lessons with Aruba Active Vacations.
Twelve miles south of the Oranjestad port is San Nicolas, Aruba’s second-largest city after Oranjestad. The island’s money-making oil refineries of yesteryear once made the area a party-hearty red-light district. Today there’s still fun to be had in the cleaned-up streets, including a weekly Carnival-style street party, small art galleries and the historical 1940s Charlie’s Bar. This is where you’ll feel the true aura of Aruba’s local life.
Near Arashi Beach on the northwest tip of the island stands the California Lighthouse, named after a ship of the same name that sank two years before the lighthouse's construction. The lighthouse is photogenic enough but come for the picture-perfect views of the island's western coastline. The nearby California White Sand Dunes are a popular sand-surfing spot for local kids. And you.
Aruba’s climate is hot and dry with low humidity and an average temperature of 81. It’s literally the perfect weather for lounging beach or poolside. But keep in mind that it’s close to the equator, meaning the sun is much stronger in Aruba than it is in Miami or San Juan. If you find yourself in need of a little aloe you’ll appreciate a trip to the Aruba Aloe Museum, Factory and Store, a 20-minute taxi ride from the cruise terminal. Learn how the island-grown plant soothes burns and relieves rashes during the free 15-minute tour. And the gift shop is full of head-to-toe natural remedies.
No, really. In the center of Aruba stands the Hooiberg, or Haystack Mountain. On a clear day, climb the 561 steps to the 541-foot summit and you'll be able to see nearby Venezuela to the south. The views across the ocean are also worth every step, making the hike up Haystack Mountain one of the best excursions in Aruba.
Yes, most cruise ships have casinos on board (with the exception of Disney) but bingo is a huge draw for Aruba residents — especially since most establishments serve a snack and beverages free of charge. With more than a dozen casinos from Oranjestad to Palm Beach, you’ll definitely find a lively bingo game to join. Or choose to play a hand in the game that originated in Aruba, Caribbean Stud Poke. It’s like five-stud poker but it’s played against the house rather than against other players. At any rate the casino is always a good option for rainy days in port.
Have snorkel, will travel. The crystal waters of Aruba beg for exploration. Many organized snorkeling excursions on your cruise to Aruba will take you to two spots: Boca Catalina near the northwest tip of the island over by Arashi Beach and to the wreck of the Antilla, a sunken World War II German cargo ship, offshore from nearby Malmok Beach. Both sites are about 15 minutes from Oranjestad. The Antilla is lost to shallow, clear tides — Google Map it and you can see the outline of the vessel in the water — making it perfect for snorkeling. The waters of stunning Boca Catalina delight with tropical fish.
What's your favorite thing to do in Aruba? Share with us in the comments below.