This time last year the world was on lockdown. Life came to a halt, and the terms “quarantine” and “social distance” took on new meaning. One of the biggest disruptions was the squelching of our collective wanderlust and the ability to roam freely – no more hopping in a car, train or plane and just going.
Fast-forward 13 months to an uptick in vaccinations – for a vaccine that didn’t even exist a year ago; God bless! – and more people are feeling confident enough to safely travel, domestically and internationally.
Two years ago I visited Curaçao, an amazing trip that left me eager to experience the other islands of the Caribbean ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao).
Located off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba was a Dutch colony for more than 300 years before gaining independence in 1986. It has a population of nearly 107,000 people and is still considered a constituent country of the Netherlands. I jumped at the chance to visit “One Happy Island” – Aruba’s feel-good moniker – as it was a trip planned long before I’d ever heard of coronavirus.
Because of COVID-19, protocols must be met before entering Aruba, which requires an online Embarkation and Disembarkation (ED) program all travelers must adhere to for entry. You must provide basic traveler information and a personal health assessment; a certified negative COVID-19 test result conducted within three days of your flight (with negative results uploaded no later than 12 hours prior to departure); and purchase Aruba Visitors Insurance. The full list of requirements can be found at Aruba.com.
We took a direct JetBlue flight to Aruba’s capital, Oranjestad, and landed at the Queen Beatrix International Airport, the country’s only airport.
The drive from there to the Aruba Marriot Resort & Stellaris Casino took 20 minutes. Aruba doesn’t have Uber or Lyft, so we took a taxi ($31 USD; florin is the currency of Aruba but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted, so no need to exchange your money). Taxis in Aruba are government regulated and fares are based on destination, not distance, which prevents price-jacking. Mask wearing is required.
Keep your travel documents handy; we had to present our negative test results at check-in. I noticed bell staff spraying down luggage; I liked that extra precaution. Our ocean view room overlooked Palm Beach (yes, there is a Palm Beach in Aruba) and started at a nightly rate of $543. We settled in and then walked the property, where everyone – guests and staff – wore masks. A jaunt to the beach revealed beautiful views of the Caribbean Sea and visitors happy to be outside.
Our first night we stayed on property and dined at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, the first in the Dutch Caribbean. I had the signature chopped salad and barbecued shrimp entrée. The latter was sautéed in garlic butter and BBQ spices, served over roasted garlic mash and topped with grilled asparagus, which was nicely grilled, not overdone.
The next day began with breakfast al fresco – the better to take in the breathtaking views of the beach – at La Vista, located on property. We then took a taxi to downtown Oranjestad ($13 USD).
When visiting Aruba, a must is trying pastechi, a local treat similar to an empanada or Jamaican patty that reflects the diversity of the more than 90 nationalities that call the island home. Filled with a variety of ingredients such as chicken, beef, vegetables, tuna or cheese, pastechi is a traditional Aruban breakfast food but is eaten any time of day. We found ours at The Pastechi House, which is heavily frequented by locals, always a great recommendation!
The very personable Ernon Croes was working that day. We asked him how things have been on the island since the pandemic.
“We have to live with it, we have to accept it,” he said. “But now that we know more about coronavirus and Aruba has created One Happy Workation (a remote work campaign created to encourage tourism), that’s helped a lot.”
After our delicious lunch we walked around, took in the scenery, stopped in a few shops and saw the massive cruise ships that have been docked since the pandemic began. Beautiful sculptures of blue horses greeted us throughout the journey. I learned they’re a public art project entitled Paarden Baai (Horses Bay). International horse export started in Aruba in the 18th century and was an integral part of the island’s livelihood. The blue hue is meant to represent the Caribbean Sea and it does that very well.
Sunday morning began with breakfast at La Vista, where staff – many of them longtime Marriott employees – again warmly greeted all the guests and each other, including Pauline Joseph Clark. A native of Westmoreland, Jamaica, she’s lived in Aruba since around 1990. When I observed that Arubans seemed to wear their masks easily and frequently, she had a ready reply.
“People have a different viewpoint in Aruba,” she said. “[They] wear their masks to protect others.”
To see Aruba, you can purchase tours and activities or rent a car; we choose to drive. The island is just 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, so an early morning start allows you to visit many points of interest in a single day. Sunset Rental ($40 USD for a compact car), picked us up from the hotel and took us to our car. We downloaded the free offline mobile map Maps.me (no data plan needed) for turn-by-turn navigation.
First stop: the California Lighthouse, located on Aruba’s northwestern side in a town called Noord. Its named after the SS California, wrecked nearby in 1891. The surrounding area is at a high elevation, providing gorgeous views of the beaches and shorelines. Due to COVID-19 the lighthouse was closed, but it was still worth the trip to see such a historic landmark.
Next up was Alto Vista Chapel, also in Noord. It was built in 1952 on the site of the original, and Aruba’s first, Catholic church, erected in 1750 by Spanish missionary Domingo Antonio Silvester. It’s on a winding hill with 13 white crosses marking the stations of the cross. The 14th cross, at the east side of the chapel, displays the entombment of Jesus. Being there provided a sense of calm, and the Peace Labyrinth beside the church is a designated area for silence and reflection. The very small chapel is open to visitors and services are held weekly.
Hungry after exploring, we headed to San Nicholas, not only for lunch at O’Niel Caribbean Kitchen, another local recommendation, but also to take in the street art. San Nicolas is on Aruba’s southeastern side and is its second-largest city. After a satisfying lunch we took in the art, which includes many murals that pay homage to Aruban culture. They’re part of ArtisA (Art is Aruba), a group that organizes the Aruba Art Fair and brings the art scene to the island to help revitalize the area. The murals are vibrant and gorgeous and a must visit, in a town that’s considered a hidden gem.
Whenever I’m someplace new, I love asking locals for tips on where to go and what to do. One recommendation was Baby Beach – named for its super-calm, “baby-safe” waters – also in San Nicolas. The ocean was a clear, vibrant mix of turquoise and other dazzling blues, and the perfect spot to end our tour by car.
We had an afternoon departure flight on Monday. That left time to have breakfast, walk along the beach to collect seashells, chat with staff and take in the property one last time.
The CDC requires a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days before departure. Like many hotels and resorts, Aruba Marriot Resort & Stellaris Casino provides convenient on-site testing (Antigen test: $40 USD; PCR test: $100 USD). We took our test on Saturday (we went with Antigen, which provides an e-copy of results) and received our negative results the next day.
Sheena Robinson, front desk supervisor, helped us with testing. I asked her about the pandemic’s impact on the island.
“It was almost like a ghost town, no one was here. People have started to come back, and the hotel has started to really pick up [since] last month. We try to be very cautious; we have a lot of children, so we’re trying to protect them,” she said.
The hotel’s manager, Leslie Prea, sees the outlook for the remainder of the year as encouraging.
“We do know that travelers are eager to get back and we see an uptick in interest,” she said. “The property holds plenty of appeal for its amazing outdoors and isolated escapes, which allow guests to spread out and be physically distant from others at the resort while still enjoying time as a family.”
And then it was time to head to the airport. Be prepared to do a bit of walking between its various security checkpoints and give yourself plenty of time to make your flight. In reaching my gate, I discovered that bringing back seashells or anything from the beach is illegal. They will show up in the airport’s x-ray machine and you will be asked to remove them. But even though I had to leave that memento behind, I carried with me the joy I experienced in visiting one happy island – and nothing can take that away.