The fresh stamp in my passport says: One Happy Island.
Little did I know when I landed on the balmy island of Aruba that I would soon be reading this slogan everywhere—above hotel entrances, in cafes, and even on cocktail menus.
It’s become something of a motto among locals in this laid-back Caribbean country, where twisted mangrove trees line the shores and crystal-clear bays flank colorful towns.
North of Venezuela and just below the Dominican Republic, while Aruba shares the same sea and lush landscapes as its neighboring countries, it certainly has its own unique identity.
The island is a mix of culture, where worn buildings painted with brightly colored street art meet isolated beach bars where steel drum players sway to their own soft tunes.
A few kilometers inland is the capital Oranjestad, where you can stroll among Dutch colonial buildings that contrast perfectly with the white sandy beaches and coconut palms.
Every shop and café in the capital is painted in pastel shades of pink, green or blue and edged with a white lace border. In the light of the beating sun, it looks almost like a fairy tale. And in a way, the country is a kind of never-land, made for travelers in search of total escape.
Until recently, the only way to reach this “One Happy Island” from the UK was to fly via Amsterdam.
But in March this year, British Airways launched flights from Gatwick, opening up this destination to British travelers looking for new, sun-kissed beaches to explore.
Due to the country’s proximity to the United States, it attracts many Americans looking to enjoy year-round sun and all-inclusive resorts.
But there are also plenty of adventures to be discovered away from the overcrowded hotels.
Arikok National Park makes up a whopping 20 percent of Aruba and is home to 75 kilometers of desert-like hiking trails. Worlds away from Aruba’s tourist attractions, the pristine landscape here is home to hidden caves, secret coves, and a conservation center that works hard to protect precious wildlife.
In the depths of the park, hidden behind weathered cacti, I discovered Aruba’s best-kept secret: Barca Di Tortuga, which translates to “Bay of the Turtles.”
According to our guide Raoul, this small, scenic beach is so remote that even the locals don’t know about it.
I would never have believed such a cliché if our completely barren surroundings hadn’t suddenly come to a standstill.
But as we followed Raoul closer to the cliff’s edge, clambering over fossilized coral, the horizon began to give way to crashing waves and a small patch of pristine sand protected by high sandy cliffs.
Raoul and his friends claim to have discovered this beach as children and gave it their name.
This ‘turtle bay’ is a truly special place with eroded rock pinnacles and bright blue water that wildlife photographers would rave about, although unfortunately no turtles were nesting there when we visited.
If you want to see the sea creatures, then head to the popular Eagle Beach on the opposite side of Aruba. When we were there in mid-April, the 1.2-mile stretch of sand contained several nests of leatherbacks, all protected by a barrier. Eagle Beach is also the best spot for swimming thanks to the calm, shallow waters — and it’s stunningly beautiful, too.
I wasn’t surprised when TripAdvisor voted it the best beach in the Caribbean and the second best beach in the world this year. It was delightfully empty, too — perhaps because all the tourists seemed to have flocked to the beach at Flamingo Island, which got its name because it was covered in pink birds imported from Venezuela. It’s owned by the Renaissance Hotel, but non-guests can buy day passes to visit.
Scorpions and Tequila
If you’re planning on going to Flamingo Island, be sure to grab a bite to eat at Lucy’s at the Renaissance Marina hotel.
Try the tequila shots if you dare – they sure pack a punch, served with a scorpion at the bottom of the glass.
For a little less bite, book breakfast or lunch at Picnic Aruba (picnicaruba.com), a luxury pop-up picnic business that hosts massive feasts on the sand.
They sort everything – blankets and cushions to sit on, mini picnic tables, cutlery, fairy lights, hot tea, coffee and even bubbles, as well as a selection of local Dutch foods such as cheese, charcuterie and sweets. Or if you like the sound of beachside dining but fancy a more formal setting, the beachfront restaurant at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, where we stayed, serves a small but excellent seafood menu.
Dishes include buttery local lobster served with potato fudge and grouper in a macadamia nut crust.
The resort also has its own casino and live music bar for after-dinner fun. During the day, there are countless places to sunbathe or kick back and relax with an Aruba Ariba (a local fruity cocktail made with rum and vodka). .
If you are a fan of water sports, you can book paddleboarding, wakeboarding and even paddleboard yoga through the hotel. However, water lovers are better off booking a boat tour when they can sail around the island’s periphery and check out the best of Aruba’s snorkeling spots.
We spotted colorful fish galore and even a few turtles bobbing up and down just below the surface.
I don’t know if it’s the award-winning beaches or the many Aruba Aribas, but it seems everyone here agrees: Aruba is a happy island.
ARRIVAL / OVERNIGHT STAY: Seven nights at the 4.5H Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is from £1,698 per person, including flights from Gatwick in September 2023.
TRAVELING: Private boat tours with Tranquilo Aruba start from £160 for up to six guests, including cocktails, food and snorkel gear. See quietoaruba.com.