Get active on Aruba, the Caribbean ‘One happy island’ that is far more adventurous than its paradisical beaches and chilled-out vibe might make it seem. My active guide to Aruba includes the best places to stay, play and explore.
‘One happy island’ is more than just how the Aruban tourist board defines their welcoming little slice of the Caribbean – it’s also a way of life on this friendly, relaxed island off the coast of Venezuela. Small and easy to navigate, Aruba is an island of two halves – the left flank is mainly the pretty, pastel-hued town of Oranjestad and the bright art-clad streets of San Nicolas and the northern and western sides of the island are wild and uninhabited, home to Arikok National Park, where craggy rock formations, beautiful natural sea pools and cactus-strewn desert are a natural playground for mountain bikers, hikers and wild swimmers. And all around the island’s edges are the incredible beaches Aruba is so famous for – the sand really is as white and the ocean as clear as the postcards make them look.
The island’s history as one of the Antilles and its present as a multi-cultural hub (the well-travelled locals here speak Papiamento, English and Dutch) means there’s also incredible global food to sample, vibrant markets to wander in and the fascinating street art of the coastal town of San Nicolas to search for.
Aruba has a reputation as a sunny, beachy, the perfect place to do very little in paradise. But I’d argue that it’s actually a well-kept secret of a destination if, like me, you like active exploring – it may be compact, but on Aruba you’ll find world-class snorkelling, wreck diving, tough mountain biking routes, horse riding, jeep safaris, windsurfing, kiteboarding, swimming holes and even a pirate ship to sail on. And you can’t leave without having a swim with Aruba’s most famous residents – a flock of inquisitive bright pink flamingos who live on tropical Renaissance Island off the coast.
Culture, food, adventure, flamingos – one happy island sounds about right.
The active guide to Aruba
WHAT TO DO
DIVE OFF A PIRATE SHIP
The Jolly Pirate sets sail each morning and afternoon with a fresh crew of landlubbers about to experience life on the high seas. These beautiful wooden pirate boats are tremendous fun – they stop in the best snorkelling spots around the island, including a huge wreck and different coral reefs, so you can grab your snorkel and dive off the boat before clambering back on for a barbeque as the sun sets. The very best bit is the epic rope swing the crew set up off the boat, so you can practise leaping off and backflipping into the water (more fun than walking the plank).
MOUNTAIN BIKE IN THE DESERT
Aruba’s wild side is the desert landscape of Arikok national park, and its otherwordly landscape of tall cacti, desert, sand dunes and rocky coast is perfect for exploring by mountain bike. Go in the morning or evening, to avoid the harsh sun in the middle of the day. We loved the route from Alto Vista Chapel to California Lighthouse, exploring the cactus groves and then hugging the coast.
STREET ART TOUR OF SAN NICOLAS
Head south of Oranjestad and you’ll reach the pretty, sleepy town of San Nicolas, famous for its vibrant street art. The wonderful Leon Berenos organises tours of the artworks from San Nicolaas Stores (see below, in Where to eat) and around the colourful street murals, which change every few years, giving fascinating snippets of the town and island’s history as he goes.
SNORKEL OFF BABY BEACH
A favourite with locals, ‘Baby’ beach is so-named because the water is gentle and shallow and the beach is covered in fine white sand, perfect for little ones to play by. There are also pretty tropical trees along the shore, offering welcoming shade and the perfect place to chill out or copy the locals by having a go at painting a beach scenes, a good way to stay out of the midday sun. Venture into the deeper water and you’ll find the natural lagoon the perfect place to spot Aruba’s tropical fish, especially if you aren’t a strong swimmer.
HIKE UP HOOIBERG HILL
One of the only hills on the entire island, reaching the summit of cactus-strewn Hooiberg requires a sweaty climb up 600 steep steps but the panoramic view of the island from the top is totally worth it. Come early in the morning for a cool breeze and to people watch as Aruba’s fitness fans come out to walk or run up and down the stairs. Afterwards, head to the nearby Huchada bakery for a well-deserved treat.
KAYAK AT MANGEL HALTO
Fancy a paddle? Kayak along the coast to the mangrove-laced beaches of Mangel Halto, the perfect place to moor your vessel and go snorkelling. Kayaking along the coast is a great way to get a feel for the island’s coastline, and the water is so clear you can spot fish flitting around beneath your kayak. At Mangel Halto pop fins on and you can swim out to a small wreck shallow enough to explore with just a snorkel, spot a rainbow of tropical fish in the coral and finish up with a chilled-out picnic on the beach.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH FLAMINGOS
It’s possibly the most iconic, Instagram-worthy image you can get on Aruba – becoming besties with a salmon-pink flamingo. Aruba’s most popular locals actually live on another, smaller island, the tiny, jungle-like Renaissance, owned by the Renaissance hotel. The tiny island is only really open to hotel residents but it is possible to visit just for the day, and it’s worth splashing out on – it has two beaches, one home to slow-moving, sun-basking iguanas and the other home to a friendly flock of flamingos who stalk about in the shallows. Spend the day sipping cocktails, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkelling or feeding treats to the flamingos or lounging in the island’s many hammocks – perfect after a few days of hiking or biking in the desert.
WILD SWIM AT CONCHI POOL
You’ll need to take a jeep to reach this idyllic spot, but it’s worth it – the Natural Pool, locally known as Conchi Pool, is protected from the ocean by high rocks, making it a calm deep lagoon perfect for swimming and snorkelling, especially with kids. Taking a Carnvial jeep safari down the rocky road is a bit of an adrenaline rush, but the cooling pool is the perfect tonic. You can even jump or dive off the high rocks into its glassy green waters.
Where to eat
Coffee, craft beers and cocktails – sounds appealing, no? You couldn’t dream up a better Aruban breakfast than a huge acai bowl paired with the delicious coffee served up at chilled-out Craft – pop back after a busy day on the island and it’ll have transformed into a lively bar serving cocktails.
Do as the locals do and start the day with a proper Aruban-style breakfast at Lolita’s, a cute little shack in the heart of Oranjestad. We loved the traditional pastries and fresh fruit milkshakes.
‘Barefoot dining in flipflops’ is the motto at this charmingly relaxed restaurant, where you can sit right on the beach under strings of fairy lights with your toes in the sand whilst sampling world-class cooking. The menu is all fresh, simple and, when possible, locally sourced.
Known by locals as ‘the Dutch bakery’, this pretty blue and yellow bakers serves up all manner of delicious treats – it’s impossible to pop in without coming out loaded with goodies, including local savoury pastries, Dutch-style apple turnovers and doorstop-sized slices of cake.
MUNDI HEALTH CAFE AT NICOLAAS STORE
The pretty tile-floored cafe inside this lovely old store serves up healthy wraps stuffed with salad and fresh seafood, plus delicious coffee. The back room is a must see – a charming little museum dedicated to Aruba’s past.
Where to stay
GOLD COAST ARUBA
We stayed at Gold Coast Aruba, where long-term and holiday rentals make a great alternative to hotels. On site there’s a gorgeous pool, a fully equipped gym and the smart, minimalist white restaurant. Prices on request.