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Aruba Essentials

fishing boat aruba caribbean sea"One Happy Island." This, the official motto of Aruba, is plastered on each taxi's license plate. Surely Arubans are happy to see visitors: Aruba's economy is fueled by tourists' dollars, and much of the island is heavily developed for them, perhaps even more so than neighboring islands Bonaire and Curacao (the three together make up what's known as the ABC chain of islands in this deepest part of the Southern Caribbean). Most Arubans speak English and accept U.S. currency.

Arubans also speak Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento -- a language native to the ABC islands. If someone says, "Bon Bini," they are welcoming you to Aruba.

The island has a rich, layered heritage. The first people to inhabit Aruba were a nation of Arawak Indians, but in 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. Nearly 200 years later, control of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire passed into the hands of the Dutch, whose heritage can be seen in Aruba's pastel Old World architecture.

But let's face it -- we don't come here for the history. We come here for the diversions, and Aruba is the Caribbean's theme park. There are casinos, duty-free shops, over two dozen dive sites and noteworthy shipwrecks, and a championship golf course lined with cacti and populated by friendly iguanas. Aruba's trademark divi divi trees always point in a southwesterly direction (due to trade winds that blow from the northeast), but we like to think they're leading the way to the sandy beaches that ring the island in the shape of a cheery smile.

Best of all, there really is no bad time to visit Aruba. Located only 20 miles north of Venezuela, temperatures are consistently pleasant (lows in the 70's, highs in the 80's), there's no "rainy" season and its location is far below the Atlantic hurricane belt.

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What to See
Palm Beach offers water sports facilities such as scuba and parasailing. Other activities include beach volleyball and banana boat rides. Many of the large resorts are located right on Palm Beach, so gamers can duck into one of the hotel casinos for an added diversion.

A fun diversion for both children and adults is the Butterfly Farm, a huge, enclosed tropical garden that's home to hundreds of beautiful butterflies. Tip: The best time to visit is in the morning when you can see the new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises.

It may not be Las Vegas, but Aruba is certainly up and coming on the gambling scene with 10 casinos island-wide (in fact, the World Poker Tour has made multiple stops here). Many of the hotel casinos are quieter during the day (slots open, for example, but tables closed until early evening), but Crystal Casino, located close to the cruise port, is one of a few 24-hour joints -- and it's always hopping with slots and table games.

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California Lighthouse, on the northwest tip of the island, was named after a ship called the California, which sank off the coast of Aruba in rough seas. The wreck is popular among divers. (Note: Despite local lore, this ship should not be confused with the Californian, which is famous for failing to act on distress signals from the Titanic; that ship sank off the coast of Greece.) Kids with energy to expend can try "dune surfing" on the California White Sand Dunes surrounding the lighthouse, which involves sliding down the steep dunes (sturdy jeans or pants required!).

alto vista chapel aruba You can go horseback riding either to the California Lighthouse, along the Malmok Beach stretch or to the Alto Vista Chapel, via Rancho Notorious. Rancho Daimari offers clopping along the coast in Arikok National Park.

Baby Beach is a good stop for small children or inexperienced swimmers. The water, in a shallow pool created by man-made rock breakwaters, is no more than five feet deep. One drawback: There are only a handful of food stands.

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Travelers looking for a secluded stretch of sand should head for Rodger's Beach, on the eastern tip of the island. It's a picturesque spot (if you can ignore the view of the refinery) known for its lovely shade palms and crystal-clear, reef-protected waters. Facilities include showers, beach huts, bars and snack stands. Arashi Beach, on the northern tip of the island, is another quiet option.

Rum may immediately come to mind when you think of Caribbean spirits, but Aruba is home to another award-winning brew. Daily tours are offered at the Balashi Brewery (or Brouwerij Nacional Balashi). Guests are walked through the pilsner's production from fermentation and filtration to bottling and distribution. Next to the brewery is Balashi Gardens, an open-air bar and restaurant overlooking the Aruban countryside.

Go snorkeling at Malmok Beach, which has small coral bays filled with plenty of colorful fish just 10 feet offshore; the wreck of Antilla, a WWII German freighter, can be seen peeking out of the water here (note that no facilities are available). Are you an experienced snorkeler? Bachelor's Beach is a little rough for leisure swimming, but offers adventurous snorkeling aficionados all kinds of underwater sights on its coral-covered bottom.

Golfers should check out Tierra del Sol, a Robert Trent Jones-designed, 18-hole (par 71) course. Reserve tee times in advance.

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Eagle Beach, a hangout for tourists and locals alike, is one of the longest stretches of white sand on the island. All of the amenities are here, including lovely shaded picnic areas.


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