by Jeff Sobel

With the sea to my left and cornfield-like cacti climbing up to the sky on my right, it’s clear from the moment the plane touches down how unique Aruba is compared to the rest of the Caribbean.

While this ‘one happy island’ rests only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, it might as well be across the ocean as the connection is practically nonexistent.  Aruba is its own entity: proud, diverse, and beautiful.  And with about 80% of Aruba’s tourism arriving purely from the States, this Dutch Caribbean Island is geared towards American hospitality – maybe that’s why they have more return guests than any other Caribbean destination.  The Aruba Effect, as it’s known around here, is that feeling of happiness that stays with us even after leaving. 

Everywhere on this little island is a short drive, and along the way I spot an old-fashioned red windmill and plenty of shops before arriving at the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino – the largest on the island.  As soon as I enter the underwater-like hallway to the lobby I immediately feel the Aruba Effect washing over me.  After checking out my fully renovated room overlooking the sands of Palm Beach and out to the sea, I return to the lobby bar and restaurant for a signature cocktail tasting.

I meet with the gracious management team and with the help of our friendly bartender I try the local favorite Celebrity Aruba Ariba with rum, Grey Goose, fruit punch, and more, along with a hibiscus margarita with Patron and topped with a delicious candied edible hibiscus flower.  Last but not least is an old-fashioned that’s smoked right at the table in a smoke decanter, or what some might call a magician’s plexiglass box.  Impossible to choose favorites as each possesses its own distinct qualities and flavors, and I’m happy to try them all.  After the tasting a barrage of  tasty Asian tapas appear, from tuna tartare to sushi rolls and even flatbreads, along with an additional cocktail, but with a twist.  I glance at the martini glass to see my own face drawn in pink!  The bartender explains it’s edible ink, a fun new trend that allows Marriott’s mixologists to essentially draw any design right in your cocktail.  Too much fun!

After all the delicious rounds of sushi, pork bao buns, wings, and pizza, I retire to my room and listen to the waves beyond the pink and purple-lit tropical pools matching the sky above.  In the morning I take a quick trip into town to dine at Linda’s Dutch Pancakes, a local favorite for over 20 years.  The Dutch pressed coffee feels extra strong, and since I’m unable to choose between sweet and savory, I try the brie, walnuts, and honey Dutch pancake, along with the banana, whipped cream, and of course banana liqueur option.  Each is as large as a pizza, but as thin as a crepe, both making for the perfect island breakfast to start the day. 

Next is the world’s oldest aloe factory, a beautiful facility situation beside picturesque aloe plant fields.  I follow a guided tour inside the factory where visitors can watch below as the aloe leaves are harvested, peeled apart, and utilized in a number of different beauty and health products that ship around the world.  After the factory tour I get to participate in a hands-on sugar scrub workshop outside, overlooking the rolling aloe field.  With a lot of help from my tour guide, I manage to dissect an aloe leaf and squeeze the goodness out.  Next, I get my hands dirty with the science project-like setup, mixing coconut flakes, lotion, sugar – all natural ingredients for my very own sugar scrub.

After a hard day’s work, I return to the resort, walk right past the top-of-the-line two story heavily air-conditioned gym, and order a fresh lobster roll with Cajun fries to my cabana at the adults only pool, along with a local Balashi ‘Chill’ beer.  While the jacuzzi, waterfalls, and swim-up bar surround the resort’s other pool, I’m feeling too lazy to explore beyond my cabana, and instead succumb to my lunch siesta.  It’s important to note that while the adult’s only pool is open to guests, also incorporated into the space is Marriott’s Tradewinds Club that allows for private premium access to even more amenities.

That evening I meet with De Palm Tours who picks me up directly from the resort for a sunset cruise.  There’s nothing better than being out on the open sea, especially with sunsets like Aruba’s, lighting up the pink sorbet sky all around us.  With light bites and an open bar, the festivities aboard the catamaran rival those on the nearby shore.  The captain and his cohorts show everyone a fun time on this floating club, and we all dance until the sun swims away to the horizon.

Dinner at Lima Bistro along the boardwalk offers views of docking cruise ships as quiet waves dance in the darkness.  The fine dining establishment mixes Peruvian cuisine with local ingredients, in addition to being family run as I get to meet the chef and his son who is also one of our servers.  While I’ve had a few local Aruban beers on the boat, I can’t pass up the opportunity to taste an authentic pisco sour that lives up to the restaurant’s stellar reputation. 

The ceviche appetizer is complete with calamari and Peruvian toasted corn just as I had hoped.  I didn’t think I’d have any more room for the duck breast with cashew purée main course, yet it somehow all disappears.  After a Paloma nightcap, I head back to the resort and let the muscle memory of the rolling waves lull me right to sleep.

It’s an early morning today so I take my breakfast downstairs at La Vista, a top-of-the-line buffet offering oceanfront views and gargantuan iguana sightings.  The chef cooks a perfectly melted omelet for me, and I try a local Pastechi that is essentially a fried cheese empanada of goodness, along with some fruit to stay fresh (maybe with a little Nutella).  After my hearty meal I meet again with De Palm for a UTV tour across the desert part of the island.  I had never ridden one before and it might look intimidating, but after a few moments I realize it’s essentially an off-roading golf cart that offers adventurers uninhibited access to every part of this scenic island, including the national park.  While ATVs and other wild cars zoom around the black and red sands of the once volcanic beach, I’m reassured with the UTV choice as both a safe and fun mode of transport. 

I cruise up dirt hills, down beaches, past forests of cacti, a historic seaside church, and of course a few beach bars.  The excursion is as thrilling as it is scenic, and while the arid island rarely sees rain or storms, allowing for nearly year-round perfect weather, today we have overcast skies, allowing for a truly tranquil nature experience.  Watching the waves crash against this rocky side of the island, shooting geysers up like waterspouts, the views almost remind me of the coast off Ireland or Scotland – untouched splendor in sharp contrast to the soft sand beaches at the resort.  At only 19 miles long, this magical little island is both easily navigable and its own little microcosm of ecosystems.

Our last stop is the California Lighthouse that provides for the perfect vantage of what seems like the entire island.  With the sea breeze blowing as I zoom across the sand flats, I feel utterly free and so thankful for the opportunity of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If my time here must come to an end, there’s no better farewell than at Atardi, the resort’s pop-up beach restaurant located directly on the sand.  No shoes?  No problem.  If you have shoes there are designated cubbies to hold them, giving your toes free rein in the white sand.  I sip on a lime green Dushi martini while watching the show unfold before me: a front row seat to the sun setting in the calm sea.  Dushi, I’m informed, comes from the Spanish dulce meaning sweet, or tasty.  The local Papiamento language personifies the ABC islands perfectly: a beautiful mix of many different cultures.

Tiki torches dot the edge of the beach while windsurfers and sailboats dot the edge of the sea.  The chef comes all the way out to the sand to say hello, yet another example of the above-and-beyond hospitality that can be found at the Aruba Marriott.  A tasting of exquisite appetizers follows, including seared scallops with corn purée, slow-cooked and smoked a la plancha octopus, red beet blanketed burrata, and an ‘Island Iced Tea’ mixing bourbon and peach purée to wash it down.

The macadamia-crusted grouper with Bok choy and red curry sauce nudges me over the edge to nirvana.  The candles, the twinkling lights in the palm trees, the waves lapping against the edge of this ‘restaurant’ – it is truly a magical evening to cap off a peaceful and adventurous trip to this one happy island.  The Aruba Effect is fully instilled in me now, but I will have to return to always keep it reignited.

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