the wonderful world of veena.

16 September 2013

veena's guide to aruba.

My father and I recently got back from a weeklong trip to Aruba to get the brother settled in for school, and I thought I'd share some information in case anyone is planning a trip down there. This is my first attempt at a "travel guide", so bear with me while I work out the kinks.

So first off, where is Aruba?

Aruba is a small island off the northern coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea. It was a Dutch colony, so lots of the signs are in partial Dutch and partial Spanish, and there are a lot of young Dutch people working in many of the restaurants.

[image via]
Getting there:

The airport in Aruba [on Aruba? I always get confused when it comes to islands] is called the Reina Beatrix International Airport and is located along Aruba's western coast. We flew US Airways* out of Charlotte, and there are also daily flights from other cities such as New York, Newark, and Miami, as well as some European and South American countries.

*a note if you're flying US Airways: if you're taking the afternoon flight out [around 16.40], there's no fresh food service in economy, only a few snacks for sale leftover from the inbound flight. so eat before you go to the airport.

For when you return:

There are separate check in terminals for USA departures and non-USA departures. The Security Check is the same for all, and once you get to the main concourse, there are a few souvenir shops and duty free shops and eateries as well as the non-USA departure gates.

If you're traveling back to the US, you clear customs and immigration in Aruba itself, so once you leave that main concourse, you are technically back on US soil. You pick up your check-in luggage, go through passport control, and then "re-check" your bags for your flight to the States. The downside is that you cannot return to the other eateries and duty free shops, but there are a few smaller ones located near the USA departure gates. The MAJOR upside is that you don't have to go through all of that hassle once you land back in the States, which saves a lot of time in transit. In Aruba, all of that - from check-in through "customs" - took about 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual hour-and-a-half that it might take here in the States. AND. If you purchase anything in the Duty Free, you can put it into your check-in bags in Aruba itself and save yourself the hassle of having to carry it onto the plane. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.

Where to stay:

We spent the first 5 nights in an apartment at Punto di Oro, a complex that offers short- and long-term rentals. My brother is living there for the year in a one-bedroom suite apartment, and my father and I stayed in a 2-bedroom apartment for the beginning of our stay.
  • the pros:
    • we each had our own bedroom and bathroom, which was nice for the extended stay.
    • we had a full kitchen and refrigerator, so we could bring home leftovers.
    • we had a nice couch and chair and television that gets a number of American channels [as well as some dubbed in Spanish].
    • there's a pool, if you want to swim there.
    • there's also a nice place to sit outside in the evenings to read or have a few drinks and enjoy the breeze.
    • Prekash, the owner, also owns a car rental company, so you can rent a car directly from him for your stay.
    • the price. definitely cheaper than staying in one of the "high-rise hotels".
  • the cons:
    • location. it's close to school, which is why my brother is living there, but it's not close to the beaches or restaurants or attractions, which makes it not an ideal place if that's what you're interested in. you can, however, rent a car through Prekash and drive to those places.
    • there is free wi-fi, but it only really worked on my brother's computer. and it wouldn't keep you logged in, so you had to keep logging in. not the end of the world, but slightly inconvenient.
For the weekend, we treated ourselves and stayed at the Westin resort. We had decided to spend our last few days in a nice hotel, and because Prekash is friends with the manager there, we got our room at a significantly lower rate than what they normally charge.
  • the pros:
    • it's right on the beach. easy access for swimming or laying out or whatever you desire.
    • if you're heading to the beach, you can reserve palapas [chairs under a sort of tree with a table]. and the hotel gives you 2 free towels for beach use that you can trade out for fresh ones throughout the day.
    • all the amenities. restaurants and shops and a spa and a fitness center and even a casino [where I won approximately $30].
    • walking distance to outside shops and restaurants.
    • each room has a nice little balcony with 2 chairs and a small table. very nice for sitting out and enjoying the evening breeze.
    • offers running trails with views of the sea. I went for a run one morning and saw quite a few people - locals and tourists - out as well.
    • what appeared to be a nice swimming pool, if the beach isn't your thing.
    • a playground for kids.
    • very spacious rooms. we had a huge room with a giant king-size bed and a pull-out couch.
    • free wi-fi throughout the hotel.
  • the cons:
    • the cost. I know this is the case with most hotels of this nature, and I also know I am unnecessarily cheap when it comes to these things, but it's kind of ridiculous. we definitely would have stayed elsewhere if not for the discount we received.
    • the hotel's property doesn't include a long stretch of beach, so it gets crowded during the day unless you walk down a bit to the south [there's another resort to the north].
    • breakfast not included. you can order breakfast to your room or eat the breakfast buffet, but you have to pay for those. and the buffet $25 a person. again, I know I'm cheap, but that seems silly to me. give me a hotel with complimentary breakfast and fewer amenities any day of the week.
    • it was missing a few little touches that I guess I expect from a hotel of that quality and reputation.
      • there was space where a mini fridge would go, but there was no fridge.
      • no shower cap in the bathroom. there was shampoo and conditioner and soap and lotion, but no shower cap. I like shower caps.
      • there was no light in the little corner with all the coffee stuff, so it was quite dark.
      • there was no light on the balcony. my father and I were sitting out on Saturday evening, and the weather was beautiful, but I couldn't stay and read because it was getting dark and there was no light. like I said, little things.
There are a number of other "high-rise hotels" [Aruba's term, not mine] that you can also choose from:
These are just the ones I spotted during our outings, and this is definitely not a comprehensive list.

Getting around:

If you're staying in the high-rise hotels and want to do some exploring outside your resort, your options are to either hire a taxi for the day or rent a car. Depending on the length of your stay and how often you plan on doing something outside, you can decide which is the most appropriate for your stay. All of the hotels have car rental places in them [Hertz, Dollar, etc], and there are also some smaller, privately-run car rental places as well. As I mentioned earlier, Prekash, my brother's landlord, has a rental company called All Drive Car Rental, but he might be inconvenient depending on where you stay. I noticed a few other independent car rentals during our wanderings amongst shops as well.

Eating. my favourite:

While we didn't do most of the touristy things on offer whilst in Aruba, we did do some good eating. The following are some of the restaurants we tried. FYI, eating in Aruba is EXPENSIVE.

Salt + Pepper. a really good tapas bar located across from the high-rise hotels. the garlic shrimp tapas were especially tasty. and they have daily specials, of which my brother tried one [I can't remember which], and I tried the grouper, which was very good.

tandoor. one of the 2 [that we know of] Indian restaurants on the island, located across from the high-rise hotels. we went Monday night for dinner and again the following Saturday for the lunch buffet. all the food was really good, the sweet lassi was great, and the kulfi was some of the best I've had at a restaurant. the owner was super nice, as was all the staff, and we really enjoyed both our experiences there.

Taj Mahal. the other Indian restaurant, which is owned by the same guy. located in the downtown area behind one of the malls. we went for lunch, and since there is no buffet, we ordered off the menu. they offer lunch specials, and my father and brother both ordered the masala dosa, which was HUGE. and it came with 2 idlis. I had the pav bhajji, and it was really good. it's not something I often order outside of India - I'm picky - and I was rather impressed. and apparently they also will deliver the lunch specials to offices and colleges and the like.

fishes & more. an awesome seafood place across from the high-rise hotels. I had one of the shrimp main dishes [wish I could remember the name!] with some roasted vegetables, and it was great. super tasty and quite spicy, so of course I liked it. my brother had the spicy shrimp starter, which was similar and also really good, and my brother and father both enjoyed their crab cakes. my father did not like his Dutch pea soup, but my brother and I both knew he wouldn't, so I don't know that it's anything against the soup, or just my father's eating preferences. but seeing that he didn't like the soup, our very sweet waitress didn't charge us for it. so that was pretty nice.

Dutch Pancakehouse. talk about yum located in the little strip of shops and restaurants near the Renaissance hotel downtown, they specialize in poffertjes, which are Dutch mini-pancakes that you can order with a variety of toppings. at the suggestion of the waiter, I went with cinnamon, and it was delicious. in addition to the powdered cinnamon, they were covered in powdered sugar and powdered chocolate, and the combination was killer. I went with the "small" order, and it was the perfect amount for me. this and fishes & more would probably be my top 2 recommendations for eating.

Taco Bell / Dunkin' Donuts / Baskin Robbins. oh yeah, in addition to all the seafood places and Dutch places, you can also find all of the regular American fast-food staples. we got breakfast from DD a few times, ice cream from BR once, and I had lunch from T-Bell once. Taco Bell was actually the one place that was cheaper than in the US. go figure.

JH Yee's Asian Bistro. located across from the high-rise hotels in the same complex as tandoor. my father and brother went there for lunch one day and brought me their leftovers, and it was really good, especially the fried rice.

the Plaza Cafe. another one in the strip next to the Renaissance hotel downtown. I stopped in for breakfast one morning after a swim while the brother and father were still exercising. I had the "American style breakfast", and while I was disappointed that they couldn't do poached or boiled eggs, the fried egg was alright. the bacon was very good, though.

the Terrace. one of the restaurants at the Westin where we had lunch on Friday afternoon. the outdoor seating is really nice, although I imagine sitting in the sun could be brutal in the middle of the afternoon. nice selection of wraps and sandwiches, and the Caribbean Jerk Chicken in a spinach wrap was particularly good. oh, and so was the jalapeno cornbread that my brother ordered. my father had the seafood chowder, and it was great. and I am not generally known as a fan of chowder. so that was impressive.

Dushi Bagels and Burgers & Burgers. great, great place. located right in front of the Playa Linda resort. we stopped in for dinner one night, and we had a great time. our waitress was super nice, and the food was awesome. my brother had one of the signature burgers, and he nearly licked his plate clean. I had a shrimp caesar salad, and I finished every last bite.

there were two - Smokey Joe's and the Paddock - that I really wanted to try, but we ran out of time. and also the line at Smokey Joe's was down the street. but both looked really good. if anyone makes it to either, let me know how they are!

Things to do:

While we did not take part in all of the activities Aruba has to offer, we did learn about quite a number of them. If you try any of these, let me know how they are.

De Palm Tours. De Palm organizes a number of tours around the island for visitors and also has a private island just off the coast of the island that you can visit for the day to swim and relax on a private beach. from what I read, it's especially ideal for families with small children, as they have a nice playground for kids, but otherwise it's overpriced for those who are already staying at resorts on the beach.

Arikok National Park. one of the places I really wanted to visit but didn't get a chance to. I'm a sucker for parks and trails and places to wander, so it was kind of a bummer to miss out on this one, but I guess that just means I'll have to make another trip. open daily from 8am - 4pm. tickets are $10 per person, or you can get a yearly pass for $28. if you're going to be there for an extended period of time, it could be worth it to get a yearly pass and then make a number of visits to explore. and children 17 and below are free.

the beaches. there are a number of swimming and non-swimming beaches all around the island. I found the descriptions on the Frommer's website to be really helpful. all the beaches are technically public, but some of the resorts might charge you if you use their palapas or chairs.

the malls. we wandered through one mall in the downtown area and one mall at the end of the high-rise hotels, but we didn't do any real shopping in them. for one, they have a lot of high-end stores, and for another, we didn't really need anything. but my father can't resist a good mall. and if you need something to do on one of Aruba's rare rainy days, they'd be good places to hang out. oh, and the one downtown offers free wi-fi.

the casinos. all of the high-rise hotels have casinos on their properties, and most also include a sports book where you can wager on any number of sporting events from college football to horse racing and everything in between. in addition, we found one casino and sports book downtown near the Renaissance hotel that we popped into before heading to see a movie one night. we got there around 6.30pm, and the table games don't start until 7, so my dreams of winning big at blackjack were dashed. I did try out the slots, though, and won my first officially $4.80 since turning 21. it was pretty exciting.

movie theaters. we went to see Elysium in the theater downtown, and I also noticed one in the mall near the high-rise hotels. both were playing new releases, and at the one downtown, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, there is a deal where if you buy 2 tickets, you get a third one free. so for 3 of us to see the movie, it cost $14. I wish cinemas in the States would jump on that bandwagon. the theater itself was pretty small and could seat maybe 100 people, but it wasn't crowded at all, and it was pretty clean.

souvenir shopping. as with any self-respecting tourist destination, there is no end to the amount of souvenirs available for purchase. keychains, jewelry, mugs, t-shirts, bags, and knickknacks are all on display in small carts and in larger shops. the fun twist is that in addition to island fare, you can also find some of the cute ceramic windmills and Dutch houses that you get in Amsterdam or if you fly KLM. it was a neat little paradox.

Now, this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the places to eat or stay or things to do on the island. It's only my small snapshot. If it proves useful for even one person, I'd say that's pretty cool.

Enjoy your travels, wherever they may take you!
woo pig.

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