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I was lucky enough to spend a week on the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, invited to encounter its beautiful beaches and renowned friendliness.
When I was 8, we had a task at school to draw our lifetime ambition. I drew a sandy beach, blue ocean and palm tree, since my ultimate dream was to visit the Caribbean. That wish remained unfulfilled... until this year, and you better believe I couldn't wait to see those beaches for myself! If I'm completely honest here, I kind of thought those idyllic turquoise waves you see in pictures of the Caribbean were a myth; a result of highly-stylised, post-processed PR images. As my plane flew in over Aruba's harbour to land, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The sea really is that colour!
This may have been an exciting experience, but nothing compares to that moment when I first stepped out of my hotel room at the Manchebo Resort and walked the 100 yards to the beach. It absolutely took my breath away. The sand is white and powdery under foot, palm trees and straw parasols rise out of the ground and, best of all, the ocean stretches endlessly ahead in graduating azure shades. Nothing I say could adequately express how stunning this beach is.
The beauty of the beach makes sense when you consider that the Manchebo Resort is right on Eagle Beach, repeatedly named one of the top 5 beaches in the world (it's currently number 4). However, being an island, Aruba is not short of a beach or two, and they all have their own fabulous qualities. Baby Beach is a sheltered half-moon bay with water that stretches on and on and on at knee-height, meaning it's perfect for bringing children, hence the name. The more tourist-centred Palm Beach is perfect for trying water sports, with paddle boarding, kayaking, and windsurfing on offer. One of my favourites was quiet Mangel Halto, where the water is accessed through twisted mangroves like some sort of Caribbean Narnia, and the sea is so clear that you can see fish darting around at your ankles.
Honestly, you could visit Aruba and just spend the whole time exploring the beaches. There'd be more than enough to keep you entertained, although you'd be missing out on a whole other world with the rest of the island.
Hands up: When someone mentions the Caribbean, who thinks of sand and palm trees? As I've just explained, that's what I thought of when I was 8, and nothing had really changed in my perception of these islands. Still, I was excited to explore more of Aruba's landscape, and I was not disappointed! Because Aruba has such a dry climate, the inland scenery is very different to the beaches. Dusty roads, rough terrain and cacti absolutely everywhere! It's incredibly dramatic and, for someone who loves a cactus, very exciting to walk amongst prickly plants that exceed 8 feet in height!
The beaches mentioned above- Eagle Beach, Palm Beach, Baby Beach and Mangel Halto- are all on the south side of the island, where they are sheltered from the harsher winds of Aruba. Of course, beaches surround the entire country, and those on the north side are much more atmospheric. With rough winds and powerful currents on this coast, you wouldn't want to swim off these beaches, but the rugged cliffs and forceful waves make for a thrilling view. They contrast so strongly with the beaches on the south coast that it's difficult to believe they're only 10km apart.
To really appreciate the striking inland landscape, the road up to the Alto Vista chapel has a panoramic view right across Aruba. It's a very quiet road so there are plenty of opportunities to pull over and admire the scenery (and don't forget the cacti!)
I've made a couple of mentions about the wind now, so it's time to reveal the one thing that surprised me the most about Aruba: It's really windy. Like, really really windy! And man, did I appreciate that! The strong breeze means that even on the hotter days, I was cool enough to walk around outside quite happily. It's like a natural thermostat- I was never too hot and neither was I ever chilly, just the perfect temperature for the whole week.
Because of Aruba's location, tucked neatly at the bottom of the Caribbean sea and nestled up to Venezuela, it enjoys weather that is ideal for visitors. It rarely rains, so this is the closest thing you'll have to guaranteed sunshine, and lies outside of Hurricane Alley so, although it's windy, there's no risk of the storms that threaten other Caribbean nations. Instead, you're left with beautiful sun, warm temperatures and a cool breeze for your whole trip. Perfect!
One of the biggest benefits of being invited on this trip to Aruba was being able to try a different restaurant every night, and experience the culinary delights of the island. The range and variety of incredible places to eat is huge, from the casual healthy dining of Garden Fresh Cafe (try the tuna wrap- it's delicious!), to the more luxurious courtyard dining at Wilhelmina. With the weather being so consistent, we were able to dine outside on five separate occasions- a lunchtime picnic at Mangel Halto beach, in the courtyard of Wilhelmina, alongside the swimming pool at White Modern Cuisine, on the patio of Elements and, for my favourite meal of the trip, right on the beach at Barefoot. It felt so serene sitting out in the cool evening air, watching the sun dip below the horizon, sharing dessert with new friends and enjoying a refreshing mocktail or two.
Because of Aruba's diverse cultural mix, the cuisine is equally varied. As you'd expect, there is a lot of seafood, but there are also plenty of meat options, as well as those suitable for vegetarians and other specific needs. In fact, I noticed Elements had an entire gluten free menu, so they were particularly accommodating. My recommendations: The Indonesian roasted pork at Wilhelmina was so tender that it practically melted in my mouth, the salmon from Ike's at Manchebo was full of flavour, and the garlic shrimp at Barefoot was incredible, with the perfect amount of garlic and shrimp fried to perfection.
Then there's the puddings. Oh man, the puddings! From Barefoot's Snickers cheesecake, to the Ferrero Rocher risotto at Elements, and the huge In Love with Chocolate sharing platter at White Modern Cuisine, Aruba is a chocoholic's heaven!
A word of warning: The portions are very generous! In most restaurants, it's worth sharing an appetiser with someone else so you have room for pudding afterwards (although you'll probably end up needing to share that too!) You certainly get a lot for your money, that's for sure!
Aruba's motto is One Happy Island, and this could not be more appropriate! Everybody on the island is so friendly and happy to help. Security guards smile at you and ask how your day has been, service staff go out of their way to assist you, and drivers on the road are considerate in a way I've never seen before. For my whole trip, I felt so safe and able to ask for help where needed, because everybody is just so approachable.
Caribbean life is chilled out, so everyone is relaxed and I think this is what influences the friendly attitude. It's difficult to be stressed or irritated when all the people around you are taking life so easy! During the trip, I tried lots of things that were new to me, and had the potential to be a bit nerve-wracking: paddle board yoga, climbing over slippery rocks in my bikini to access a natural pool, getting full-on naked for a massage in a hut on the beach with windows wide open to the world. However, because everybody was so nice, I never once felt out of my depth or anxious. In fact, I found I was actively deciding to push myself further out of my comfort zone, because the whole ethos of this one happy island made me feel empowered. That's not something you find everywhere!
I don't think I can put it any better than sharing this anecdote. On my first morning, when I went to see the beach for the first time and was in awe of its beauty, I asked a sunbathing stranger if he wouldn't mind taking my photo. He cheerily agreed and took several photos (this seems somewhat of a theme in Aruba- when I asked the host of our snorkelling session to snap a picture of me in my flippers, he took SIXTY FIVE shots, including candids, from all angles and perspectives. Trust me, these are the people you want in your life!) Afterwards, as I thanked him, I admitted that I'd chosen him to ask because I'd overheard his conversation and he seemed like such a happy guy. He replied "We're all happy here. This is Aruba!" I couldn't put it better myself.