arriba, aruba

Aruba is a desert island – but certainly not deserted. Off the coast of Venezuela – yet far from off the beaten path – Aruba has a dry, rumpled landscape so overflowing with candelabra cactus that homeowners cut them down and build fences out of their spiny trunks.

When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they promptly turned around and left, proclaiming it useless, an “isla inutil”.  The British later did the same, leaving the Dutch as the only takers.  And they pretty much turned it over to us NYers, who have taken to Aruba in droves, making it one of the top destinations for tri-state sun seekers.

Aruba sits outside the hurricane belt and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. It sports a pair of wide white-sand beaches on the southern coast, lined with up-market hotels; a reasonably safe and, in places, charming capital city that reflects a little of the island’s Dutch heritage; a wild and wooly northern coast for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers; and an efficient modern airport that can land the jets needed for easy, direct flights.  Life is good here and Natalee Holloway notwithstanding, visitors can enjoy it without the twinge of guilt that often accompanies a vacation in a developing country.

To be warmly and genuinely welcomed by the people of Aruba is instantly relaxing.  This is not your typical salt-rimmed Caribbean island. And that goes a long way towards explaining why Aruba is so popular (an unheard of 40% rate of return visits) and why everyone is smiling as though they’re letting you in on their secret.

Oh, and did I mention the beach?

This is your guide to the best of our other “outer” borough.  And just in time for the snow, too.

BEST BEACH – PUBLIC

Most of the high-rise hotel resorts are situated along Palm Beach, a seven-mile stretch of powdery white sand and ultra-lazy lounge chairs.  However, Eagle Beach is just a short walk down the coast and a lot less crowded with sun worshipers and water sports enthusiasts.  The water is cooler and at certain times of the year huge turtles come ashore to nest.  Eagle Beach is a great walk in the morning or evening and an even better place for curling up with a significant other.

BEST BEACH – PRIVATE

One of the best features about staying at the sleek Renaissance Resort & Casino is access to the 40-acre private Renaissance Island – by way of a boat launch that motors into the hotel lobby, no less! Split into halves, the adults-only beach has a stand of friendly pink flamingo (just don’t get too close), while the family beach boasts iguanas and tropical birds.  Either way, the water is crystal clear and the crowds are left behind on the mainland.

BEST HOTEL – SINGLES & COUPLES

The boutique Renaissance Marina sits smack in the middle of the capital’s harborfront, close to all the action Aruba has to offer.  Plus the stunning pool, spa, 24 hour casino and lounge areas are strictly adults-only.  By day the Crystal Theater features the “Experience Aruba Panorama,” a quick tour of the islands history, people and culture on five jumbo screens.  By night it’s home to an action-packed-and-not-nearly-as-twee-as-it-sounds Let’s Go Latin show, the most extravagant collection of singing, dancing and acrobatic theatrics on the island.  The casual Aquarius Restaurant gives new life to the buffet concept with fresh mounds of all-you-can-eat lobsters, shrimp, scallops and steaks. For a little more romance and a lot less bustle, try staying across the road at the Ocean Suites, where you’ll have nothing between you and the sea.

BEST HOTEL – FAMILIES

The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is at the end of the famous Palm Beach.  Boasting the largest rooms on the island it makes for the best spot to vacation with your family – not on top of them.  Together you can enjoy one of the many activities on offer, like the Banana Boat or the Bon Bini Kids Club will keep the little ones supervised and entertained all day (or night) while you take to the sun (or the casino).

MUST EAT

One of Aruba’s newest and chicest restaurants, Pinchos Grill and Bar has a unique outdoor setting suspended on a pier, out and over the Caribbean Sea.  Comfortable rattan furniture and huge overstuffed pillows add to the laid-back al fresco ambiance. The menu consists almost entirely of pinchos or kabobs, but the secret is in the dipping sauces that come on the side.  Pinchos is also of one of the most beautiful and romantic spots to watch sunsets in Aruba.

MUST DO – ADVENTURE ON LAND

There is no better way to explore the island than on one of De Palm Tours off-road safari adventures.  A full day’s tour in one of their customized Land Rovers brings you along the wild, barren north coast, where you’ll see an Aruba few people know:  the fascinating Gold Mill ruins, impressive volcanic rock formations, the elegant Alto Vista Chapel, and the Fontein and Guadirkiri caves.  Your tour ends at De Palm Island, a private water park off the coast.  Leave the kids to play in the water slides while you wade into one of best snorkeling experiences in the Caribbean.  Surrounded by a soft coral reef, the water is teeming with tropical fish, including schools of majestic blue parrotfish.

MUST DO – ADVENTURE UNDER THE SEA

Hands down the coolest ride in Aruba is the 90-minute guided tour aboard one of Atlantis Submarines’ giant passenger subs.  Dive down over 100 feet to the Barcadera Reefs and see the remains of two spectacular shipwrecks. Along the way you get up close to some amazing sea life:  colorful schools of tropical fish, huge sponge gardens and the fascinating beauty of the coral fields.  Position yourself near the captain for the panoramic view and you’ll understand why Jacques Cousteau had one of the coolest gigs imaginable.

BEST BIRD WATCHING

The Aruba Ostrich Farm provides a personal encounter with these giant flightless birds.  Try feeding one of these prehistoric creatures, or better yet, get on top and attempt a ride.  A working breeding farm, there’s also an incubator for the giant eggs and makeshift hospital where you can see the adorable babies fresh out of the shell.

BEST DRINK

Forgo all those candy colored rum drinks with the paper umbrellas and plastic swords loaded with fruit. Locals reach for Balashi, a crisp cool beer the island began brewing when the cost of imported suds got too high. Nothing goes down better on a dry hot day.  And hops-heads can even take a free tour to see how it’s made. (Reservations required: [email protected])

BEST SUNSET 1

If you happen to still be out exploring the desert or the north coast of the island when the sun starts to sink, there is no more beautiful place to enjoy the view than at the quirky Alto Vista Chapel.  Amid rock formations and cacti, the small chapel built by missionaries in the mid-1700’s is reached by a long winding road that goes high above the sea.

BEST SUNSET 2

When the massive cruise ships come to town they are a sight to behold.  Docking right in town, these floating cities are a beautiful backdrop to the setting sun.  Blue Bar at the Renaissance not only serves a mean variety of cocktail treats, it also overlooks the pool and the harbor, making it an ideal spot to cuddle up on their cushy sofas and watch the sun sink behind the boats.

BEST BAR

Hosting two gigantic palapas on the white sand beach, overlooking the Caribbean sea, Moomba Beach Bar is a hidden gem offering a little a bit of everything:  the largest cocktail menu on Aruba, a wide variety of cold beers and a great casual menu with salads, sandwiches, burgers and snacks. Once you learn that Moomba is an Aboriginal word meaning “let’s get together and have fun,” you’ll realize that this is perhaps the most appropriately named spot in all of Aruba.  Grab a beach chair, get your feet in the sand and enjoy the live music.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Like the more famous parties in New Orleans and Rio, the month before Lent is Carnival time. The entire island participates in street parades with colorful costumes and floats, music, dancing, and the election of the Carnival Queen.  The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is an all-day celebration that takes over the streets of the capital, Oranjestad. 

BEST BONUS

Aruba is one of only three islands that provide pre-clearance for US citizens, allowing flights from Aruba to enter the US as domestic flights.  After check-in, head through passport control and security.  When you arrive home, the only wait you’ll have is at the luggage carousel. For more information:  CLICK HERE.

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from the archives: five will get you tan

Today’s blustery winter storm – and the promise that it will rage for days – has got me dreaming of a secluded beach, a fresh papaya or two, and the warm rays of the sun.  And now that I’ve succeeded in torturing myself, I thought I’d share a little story I did for the NY Daily News from this time last year:  5 Will Get You Tan.  The prices might no longer be current – though it would be interesting to see the difference a year has made – yet the fact remains that there are still recession-era bargains to be had across the still-smarting Caribbean and Mexico.  A long warm weather weekend – for under a $1,000 – is still very much a reality.  And that’s why I think I’ll spend my afternoon figuring out how to make my own quick escape!

The Caribbean is a lot closer, and cheaper, than you think. As one of the areas hardest hit by the economic meltdown, the Caribbean is having a serious sale. Even some of the region’s most notoriously exclusive resorts are putting up vacancy signs and making no bones about the deals and discounts being offered to lure timid travelers to the sun — everything from free airfare and free hotel nights to free meals and free spa treatments.

Which means if you’ve been dreaming of a weekend escape, you can make it a reality — and for less than a grand.

Here’s our guide to five quick and easy getaways that will have you on the beach before lunch and being treated like a princess or a prince without making you a pauper.

Sophisticated St. Martin

The Radisson St. Martin Resort, Marina & Spa is nestled on Anse Marcel, one of French St. Martin’s best-preserved and most secluded coves. It’s only four hours nonstop from New York City to an oceanfront resort that’s a quintessential island hideaway of brightly colored plantation-style buildings, lush gardens and lazy afternoons under the swaying palms.

Take advantage of the resort’s comprehensive enrichment program, highlighted by cooking classes with executive chef Bruno Brazier, French lessons and evening tastings of local rums and spirits. Or, head into the nearby village of nearby Grand Case, considered by many to be one of the culinary capitals of the Caribbean. Or both.

As part of the inaugural 2009 season, you’ll save up to 36% with a Winter WarmUp Sale. Rates from about $321 per night include daily breakfast at Le Marché. .

Bask in the Bahamas

Music lovers will get together and feel all right at the Marley Resort & Spa, the former family vacation home of Bob, Rita and the whole Marley clan.

Undeniably cool, the resort is an elegant microcosm of African and Caribbean style, located on a private stretch of famed Cable Beach in Nassau, Bahamas.

Generations of Marley music infuse the entire resort, and each of the 16 themed suites centers around Bob Marley’s song titles, including Kinky Reggae, Nice Time and Kaya, among others. With sculptured hand-carved doors, mosaic tiles and intricate stonework, the accommodations and amenities are as beautiful and unusual as the setting.

Tropical rain showers and sumptuous whirlpool tubs come standard, as does unparalleled service that begins the moment you’re greeted at the airport. Take advantage of a 50% savings with the Royal Welcome package — starting at $250 per night in a Deluxe Room — and get treated to an Akwaaba Welcome Touch Foot Ceremony for two. The foot massage with rose petals and Royal Rita bath brew will get every visitor jammin’ to the right vibe.

Awesome Aruba

The Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino contains Aruba’s only private beaches on its exclusive Renaissance Island — a 10-minute boat ride via private launch from inside the hotel’s lobby. Flocked with curious pink flamingos on one side and giant iguanas on the other, the island also has a man-grove-hidden Spa Cove that’s just right for side-by-side massages at sunset.

The Sexy & Sultry Package at Renaissance’s adults-exclusive Marina Hotel, offers a 40% savings — and every third night is free. Also included: a $50 credit at the in-house casino and $50 in cocktail credit, which might come in handy while you watch the sun set at the out-door pool overlooking the harbor.

After dark, the Miami-inspired martini bar lights up to complement the house specialty: blue martinis. Should you accidentally overindulge, a onetime hangover breakfast for two is also part of the package. Rates start at $424 per night.

Seductive St. Lucia

It might be cold outside, but there is one “freeze” you’ll cheer about: the price freeze and rate rollback to be had at the luxury, eco-friendly Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort in luscious St. Lucia. Couple that with “Sun Dollars,” a daily resort credit in effect on all new bookings and the savings climb to 50%.

Spread across 60 acres on an island known for its rainforest preserves and soaring volcanic peaks, Windjammer is celebrated for dramatic sunsets over a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach. Yet it’s also an ideal spot for families, featuring two children’s pools, specially designed menus for smaller guests, and a teen program where teenagers and adults can engage in recreational activities together.

Sun Dollars can be used for food and beverage, spa treatments at Serenity Spa, a sunset sail or zip-lining through the rainforest. Lily Suites, with four-poster beds and private terrace or sun deck, are $260 per night (previously $350) with $130 in resort credit.

Mayan Hideaway

Cocooned on a private beach and entwined in a tropical rainforest, the Tides Riviera Maya inhabits a pocket along the Yucatán Peninsula coast that’s as lush as its name: Playa Xcalacoco, which in the lyrical Mayan tongue means “twin coconut palms.”

With a select number of private villas, hypnotic spa and cuisine, and one of the best stretches of beach in Mexico, this secluded outpost is full of surprises like personal plunge pools, open-air showers, handmade hammocks and lush jungle flora blooming outside your terrace.

As if that’s not enough to seduce you, a Fly Free package will really get you in the mood. Book a minimum four-night visit and get a significant reimbursement on your airfare: up to $500 per person (that’s almost enough for business class!).  Simply present your airline ticket at check-in and the credit will be deducted from your bill at checkout. Limit two people per room. Lagoon suites from $570 per night.

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