Aruba: A Family Friendly Island Paradise
By Karen Rubin
Floating on water that felt like a cushion of aquamarine velvet, I readily understood why my folks would return year after year to Aruba. This was the only place with waters calm enough for my mom to venture out into the ocean, and where the dependability of warm sunshine and cooling trade winds makes weather forecasts unnecessary.
Walking along the miles of beaches passed the hotels-the development of which has been carefully controlled-seeing contented faces of parents and children, I could also see why Aruba calls itself the "Happy Island." Expectations met. Pure and simple.
Families feel extremely welcome and completely comfortable in Aruba.
Aruba is a tourist paradise-located outside of the hurricane belt but fanned by northeasterly trade winds which keep the temperature around 80-degrees year-round. Aruba, just 20 miles long and six miles wide is actually a desert island dotted by cactus (they are even used for fences around the homes, much more dependable and effective than stone), flat for the most part, with one small mountain 500 feet high.
Located just 19 miles off of Venezuela, the Caribbean island, which may have once been part of the continent, was settled nearly 5,000 years ago by Aruaca (Arawak) Indians. Five hundred years ago, in 1499, Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda arrived on the island, but thought it was worthless. The Spanish returned in 1515 and abducted the entire Indian population to work on cattle and horse farms on Hispaniola; some were allowed to return to Aruba after 1527 when Spain began actively colonizing Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire. They brought plants and animals from the Old World-grapes and wheat, pigs, chickens, goats, horses and cattle along with New World staples like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco and chocolate. Aloe grew wild. In 1644, Aruba became Dutch after the Eight Year War between Holland and Spain and Holland took possession of the Dutch Antilles.
Since 1985, when the oil refinery shut down (it has since been reopened), Aruba focused on tourism. There was a flurry of hotel building, due largely to tax incentives, but a moratorium, in 1990, has prevented the overbuilding that has ruined the ambiance on other Caribbean islands.
The former Dutch colony became an independent nation in 1986, but (like Bermuda is to Great Britain), remains part of the Dutch Commonwealth-The Queen of the Netherlands appoints Aruba's Governor to represent her for six years; the head of government is the Prime Minister elected every four years, along with a 21-member Parliament. Holland has jurisdiction over the courts, and judges of the Common Court are appointed by the Queen; appeals may be made to the Supreme Court in the Netherlands. Holland also is responsible for Aruba's defense and external political and diplomatic relations.
Aruba makes it especially easy for American visitors. Though there is an Aruban currency (florins and guilders), U.S. dollars are readily accepted island wide (if you pay in U.S. dollars, you receive U.S. change back). English is one of four languages which Arubans (who some believe have "sprachgefuhl"-a natural aptitude) speak fluently: Papiamento is the native language (not a dialect)-bon bini means "welcome;" poco poco means "slowly;" masha danki is "thank you very much;" te aworo means "see you later." Dutch is an official language (used in schools); in addition, everyone speaks English and Spanish. One fellow at the Marriott speaks 11 languages.
Still you are very aware of being in another country. Aruba, with a population of 92,000, wears its Dutch and Spanish heritage like a camisole, and very well.
Though you will find it hard to extract yourself from the beach and the resort facilities, you should take time to explore Aruba. Some popular stops include the California Lighthouse, on the northern tip, from which you can glimpse the Antilla, a German freighter that was scuttled during World War II now popular for diving, and the new Tierra del Sol championship golf course. From there, the Chapel of Alto Vista, built by a Spaniard in 1750. The ruins of a gold mine which sparked a gold rush (almost 500,000 pounds of gold was extracted and there are the ruins of a gold smelter built in 1842) can be seen enroute to the Natural Bridge, Aruba's most popular landmark, a 100-foot long by 23-foot high bridge of coral rock carved by the rough surf. At Casibari, you can climb up boulders and see Indian rock drawings, and walk in a botanical garden; another collection of interesting rock formations is the Ayo Rock Garden. The Arikok National Park is a vast reserve where you can stroll about and climb the highest mountain, Haystack. Save time for shopping and dining in Oranjestad, Aruba's capital.
Off-shore, Aruba offers amazing opportunities for scuba diving and snorkeling. The warm water and incredibly sparkling clear water make for exceptional viewing. Even beginners can dive to the German wreck, Antilla, in 400 ft. depth, sliding inside through open portholes; advanced divers can visit the California reef and wreck. Pelican Sports, which has a base at La Cabana, offers a two-tank dive for $45 (a night dive for $32), and various multi-day dive packages; a 2 ½ hour snorkeling cruise visiting the Pedernalis World War II wreck and the Arashi reef is $25 pp.
'One Cool Family Vacation' Summer Program
Aruba is a very family-friendly destination. An island-wide summer program "One Cool Family Program", coordinated by the Aruba Tourism Authority, provides discounts and value-added bonuses at participating resorts and businesses from June through September for kids 11 and under. For example, participating resorts offer kids eat free (maximum of two), when accompanied by one paying adult; kids stay free; and kids play free in on-property children's programs and supervised activities. Other value-added discounts and activities might include free sailing trip (one free child per paying adult), a free horseback ride, discounts on diving lessons (for teens), car rentals and shopping. There is even a local pen-pal program for visiting children.
For example, the all-inclusive Divi Aruba Beach Resort allows children 18 and under to stay and eat free when sharing parents' room (maximum two children per room, 800-554-2008). The Divi also offers a supervised activities program for children, along with its sister property, the Tamarijn Aruba Beach Resort all-inclusive (800-554-2000).
Other supervised children's programs include: Kids Klub, offered by Wyndham Aruba Beach Resort & Casino (free of charge, available daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,) In addition, a paid program, "Yuana" Club, for children 5-13 has scheduled activities and direct supervision; children receive meals, club t-shirt, fun pack including arcade tokens and more (half day, 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. is $20; full day, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. is $35; evening session, 6-10 p.m. is $20), 800-WYNDHAM.
The Holiday Inn Aruba Beach Resort & Casino offers Little Rascals Club, free to guests, featuring activities such as three-legged races and beach Olympics, swimming races in the pool, kids aerobics, movies and musical chairs. The program is offered daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (800-HOLIDAY).
The Aruba Sonesta Resort At Seaport Village offers "Just Us Kids" for children 5-12, featuring field trips to Baby Beach, island caves, Casibari Rock Formations and Natural Bridge, horseback riding, pool games, visit to local museum and beach olympics ($6 fee for transportation); evening program, 6-10 p.m. features mini-golf, movies, games, and dinner $15). 800-SONESTA.
The Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino has a new kids' facility, Camp Watapana, designed to keep children challenged and entertained while teaching them about Aruba. Activities include lessons in Papiamento, sand-castle building and nature walks (9 a.m.- 3 p.m., and 6-10 p.m., $46 and $34, respectively, meals included), 800-233-1234.
La Cabana All-Suite Beach Resort & Casino offers the Club Cabana Nana, for children 5-12. Children receive a t-shirt and lunch and participate in activities including scavenger hunts, lessons in Papiamento, botanical tours around the property, mini-golf, pool and beach games, sand-castle building, tennis lessons, talent show, kids aerobics. The program is offered daily except Wednesday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; on Wednesdays, the program is offered 5-8:30 p.m. ($80/week). In addition, teens 13-17 can join "Teen Cabana Culture Club" with activities including windsurfing, snorkeling, billiards, mini-golf, disco parties. (800-835-7193)
The interesting heritage, the political stability, and gracious, efficient, friendly people are other reasons why tourists are drawn back year after year.
For further information, contact the Aruba Tourism Authority at 800-TO-ARUBA or click on www.aruba.com.
La Cabana: A Perfect Base
Aruba proves an idyllic getaway place for families and La Cabana All Suite Beach Resort & Casino, on Aruba's Eagle Beach, proved to be a perfect base for this island paradise.
On my first morning, an iguana sat poolside as I swam laps. Iguana are an endangered species on Aruba (as well as a traditional delicacy), but La Cabana provides a protected haven with loads of bougainvillea for these gentle vegetarians. This one ambled up the rocks that form a waterfall into the pool, without a care in the world-much like the guests who lounged nearby.
The largest resort on Aruba with 803 all-suite accommodations in five low-rise buildings, La Cabana is cleverly designed so you never feel there are a lot of people about. Indeed, there is so much to do-a magnificent beachfront, three separate pools (one with a wonderful waterslide, another with a waterfall, the third free form pool with slide, where there is also a small playground with basketball hoop), a major tennis center, spectacular two-story indoor fitness center plus racquetball courts, game room. There is even a lounge with computer terminals available for guests. In a separate building, La Cabana also has the largest casino on the island, plus the Tropicana Showroom dinner theater with a Las Vegas-style revue. There is a lovely wedding chapel (but Aruba's three-week residency requirement makes this less suited to destination weddings than to renewing wedding vows).
La Cabana does a superb job of catering to its guests-everything from a Club Cabana "Nana" supervised activity program for children 5-12 and a Teen Cabana Culture Club for 13-17 year olds, to barbecue pits scattered around the property (they will even light the fire and clean the coals afterward), easy eateries like a Dunkin Donuts, a well-supplied on-site grocery, ice cream shop, and organized activities the whole family can enjoy. There is even a Pelican Tours and Watersports station where you can arrange everything from a learn-to-scuba certification course to an expert dive amid shipwrecks and coral reefs, or snorkeling cruise, to a sunset cruise with romantic music for dancing.
There is also horseback riding on the beach, windsurfing (the dependability of trade winds and calm waters makes Aruba the windsurfing mecca), jet skis, and jeep tours, and golf at a new 18-hole course set just below the California Lighthouse.
The 803 spacious suites-441 at La Cabana and 362 in the Grand Suites section-are all set in pastel-hued, low rise buildings. The layout creates the feeling of privacy.
The units can be combined to accommodate multi-generational families or groups traveling together. Studios have a queen-size, pull down Murphy bed, queen-size pull-out sofa bed and space saving breakfast bar; one-bedroom units feature a king-size bed in the bedroom, queen-size sofa bed in the living room, separate dining table and two televisions and telephones; two and three-bedroom units are configured from the studio and one-bedroom units. There is tremendous value: in summer (when the weather is as balmy as it is in winter), you can get a studio (about the same size as a standard hotel room) for $120 a night, which can accommodate two adults and two children under 12. The La Cabana units have wonderful balconies and overlook the pools and ocean, or the garden.
My two-bedroom Grand Suite in the Villas (originally built as wholly owned condominiums) was larger than an apartment, with huge full kitchen, dining area, living room, dressing area, massive closets, a safe, three televisions with remote controls. Every bathroom at La Cabana has a whirlpool bath, and those little things that make the stay all the more pleasant: a laundry line, hair dryer.
The Grand Suites complex (originally built to be sold as apartments for retirees), surround a landscaped courtyard and two freshwater pools-one with a 150-ft. waterslide, swim up bar and recreational area with hot tub and children's pool; the second pool with free-flow waterfall and hot tub. The Grand Suites section all features two and three-bedroom Royal Suites and Royal Penthouse suites which can comfortably accommodate up to 10 people.
All 803 suites have fully equipped kitchenette with microwave, refrigerator, coffee maker, blender, and all the pots, pans, utensils necessary; remote control color television, central air conditioning, ceiling fan; clock/radio; direct dial telephone, and private balcony or patio. Washer-dryers are available. There are even suggestion boxes handy. Each and every year each and every room is completely dismantled and refurbished.
The sports facilities are exceptional. The two-story health and fitness center has tournament-size squash and racquetball courts, an aerobics floor, wide selection of free weights and weight-training equipment, life-cycles, and saunas. There are five tennis courts-all lit for night play (one with stadium-style seating for tournaments), plus tennis clinics. Golf is available on the nearby 18-hole Tierra Del Sol championship course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.
The resort offers "Camp Cabana"-a healthy hearts program geared to adult guests, with activities including walking and jogging, aerobics, pool and beach activities, watersports, tennis, racquetball, squash, dining on spa cuisine, golf and more. Guests can win prizes depending on the number of "hearts" they collect.
Children have their own club: Club Cabana Nana, a supervised activities program for kids 5-12 years old. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., kids get to do activities like face painting, bowling, mini-golf (there are bowling lanes and a miniature golf course just across the road, scavenger hunt and pool games, plus lunch; Wednesdays is pizza and movie night, from 5-8:30 p.m. (The fee is $80 a week; in addition, babysitting is available for any age child at any time at $8/hour.)
Programs for teens include windsurfing, billiards, snorkeling, mini-golf, shopping downtown, water polo, movie downtown, and a jeep tour around the island ($28.50).
There is plenty for families to enjoy together, as well: tennis, shuffleboard, volleyball, basketball, swimming, plus excursions and sightseeing.
The resort offers an excellent selection of dining alternatives. The Captain's Table offers excellent cuisine, magnificently presented, with good selection. The Pool Grill is more casual. There is also an Outback Steakhouse restaurant on the property, and an elegant restaurant in the Casino.
There are three festive theme nights each week: a barbecue, dance and fire limbo show is presented on Mondays; a Caribbean Dance & Food Festival poolside on Wednesdays, and a Carnival Caribbean Royale on Fridays in the Grand Suites courtyard.
Various meal plans are available to accommodate guests. For example, "Members Choice" provides four full American breakfast buffets or lunches; two dinners; one dine-around at a popular local restaurant; six drinks; one large pizza; one lobby cafe breakfast pack ($175 pp, kids $85).
La Cabana has also made its programs guest-friendly by offering meal plan options, even a Dine Around which features 10 of Aruba's top restaurants.
For 1999, the resort has introduced an all-inclusive package featuring Grand Suite accommodations, three meals daily (including one off-property dinner per stay), unlimited drinks during bar hours; watersports (snorkeling gear, float mats, windsurfing clinic, pool scuba demo); daytime tennis; two-hour snorkeling cruise with open bar & snacks; car rental for one day; Las Vegas Style Revue in the Tropicana Showroom; use of health and fitness center with racquetball, squash and aerobics: through April 4, the rate for five nights is $1155 pp/dbl, which drops to $970 from April 5-Dec. 17. A honeymoon plan adds a bottle of champagne upon arrival, a honeymooners get together and t-shirts at ($2,266/couple through April 4, $1,862 for five nights/couple April 5-Dec. 17.
Other packages include "La Cabana Romantica," geared for honeymooners ($1,904/seven nights through April 4; $1,245/couple April 4-Dec.17; a golf package at the Tierra Del Sol championship course ($889-$1,504 pp/seven nights or $464-$773 for nongolfer) and a dive package at $789-1,098 pp/dbl for seven-night stay, including six days unlimited diving (two tank dives, reef dives, wreck dives and night dives).
The programs and facilities at La Cabana account for the resort's success in appealing to couples, honeymooners, families, singles, sports enthusiasts, mature travelers and even gamblers.
Allocate time to explore Aruba-it is not hard to get around (apparently, the roads do not post direction since locals can easily tell where they are going by which way the wind is blowing-northeast). You can hop a public bus for 90 cents which leaves right beside the hotel (or do what I did, walk a couple of miles along the beach) into Oranjestad to enjoy the designer-name shops, boutiques, and eateries (not to mention just about every popular take-out franchise there is); or take a cab ($7) for the 10-minute ride. Rental cars are plentiful--there are about 4,500 on the island, compared to 7,000 hotel rooms.
Aruba is 4 ½ hours flying time from New York, with excellent air service on both scheduled and charter services. La Cabana is also featured in various tour operators' programs, including GWV, Liberty/Gogo, Travel Impressions, American Express, Friendly Holidays, Globetrotters, Apple Vacations, Travel Charters, and North American Leisure/Sunquest.
For further information, contact La Cabana All Suite Beach Resort & Casino, 800-835-7193 or visit www.lacabana.com/resort/