Aruba is among the livelier, more developed islands in the Caribbean. Aruba has low- and high-rise resorts, great restaurants, and glitzy casinos lining the white-sand beaches and the downtown boulevard. You'll also find plenty of things to do on Aruba: sunbathing, world-class windsurfing and waterskiing by day, and discos, cabarets, dinner shows and high-stakes gambling at night.
Except for the Arikok National Park Foundation, you won't see an abundance of natural attractions in Aruba. Nor is Aruba covered in lush foliage. It's about as close to a desert island as you'll find in the Caribbean, with stands of cacti and aloe vera dotting the dusty terrain. In fact, Aruba is so dry, goats eat the cacti in search of something resembling leaves. Still, Aruba has one of the world's most threatened tropical ecosystems—its mangrove forests.
Just 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is the farthest west of the Dutch Caribbean islands known as the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). It is 19 miles long and 6 mies wide, and the land is mostly flat and arid with scattered fields of cacti and aloe plants.
The islands off the Venezuelan coast and their Caiquetio inhabitants (part of a larger group of Caribbean people called Arawaks) were sighted by the Spanish in 1499, but the island was not developed because the newcomers found nothing useful there. (They were not aware of the gold.) However, Captain Henry Morgan and the infamous Edward Teach (Blackbeard) found use for the island's many hidden coves during their pirate days plying the waters.
Although the Dutch claimed Aruba in 1636, no European settlers arrived until the 1750s. The discovery of gold in 1824 brought some excitement and colonists to the island. The mining lasted 100 years and produced more than 3 million lb of the glittering mineral. For several years in the mid-1800s, Aruba was the world's largest exporter of aloe, and aloe products are still produced there on a small scale.
The arrival of the oil industry in the 1920s, after black gold was found in nearby Venezuela, had a big economic impact. Lago, which later became Exxon, was a crucial supplier of fuel to U.S. naval ships during World War II. At its height in 1965, the refinery in San Nicolas produced 550,000 barrels of oil a day.
When the market declined in the mid-1980s, Exxon closed the facility. Successive companies failed to maintain the operation, but the San Antonio (U.S.)-based Valero Energy Corporation gained control of the facility in 2004 and reportedly invested close to US$640 million in upgrades. However, San Nicolas's town economy took another blow in 2012 when the Valero Aruba Refinery closed.
Tourists began arriving in the 1960s, but development of large resort hotel-casinos really started in earnest in the 1980s, when declining oil revenues led the government to seek new ways to bolster the economy. The boom outdid itself in enthusiasm, and the government had to issue a five-year moratorium on hotel building in the 1990s to keep supply and demand at the proper ratio; still, many new resorts have risen along Aruba's windswept shores.
Today, tourism is the leading industry, and more than half a million people visit Aruba each year, making it one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean. As a result, the island is prosperous by Caribbean standards, and its citizens enjoy a high rate of literacy, good housing, education and health care.
The island has been influenced as much by Venezuela (only 15 miles away from Aruba) as by the Netherlands. Most Arubans speak English, Spanish and Dutch, as well as the native language, Papiamento (a mixture of African, Arawak, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Spanish idioms).
Formerly a part of the six-federation Netherlands Antilles, Aruba gained separate status on 1 January 1986. This means that Aruba has direct ties to Holland, but the island has its own constitution, based on Western democratic principles. This calls for a governor and an eight-member council of ministers vested with executive powers and headed by a prime minister. A 21-member parliament is responsible for legislative matters. Judicial powers lie with the common courts in Aruba, and ultimately with the High Court of Justice in Holland.
Aruba's port is at Oranjestad, the island's capital and main town, which is on the southern coast, 2.5 miles west of Queen Beatrix International Airport. The dock is toward the north end of the town center, within easy walking distance of the bus terminal, shops, restaurants, casinos and museums.
Cruise ships tie up at one of two modern, air-conditioned terminals. On-site services include a tourist information office, phones, Wi-Fi hot spots, tour desks, vendor stands, car rental operators and taxis. The terminals are operated by Aruba Ports Authority, Port Administration Building, L.G. Smith Blvd. 23, Oranjestad.
Passport/Visa Requirements: All U.S. citizens must have a passport when traveling by air. Passports are required for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda. Reconfirm travel-document requirements with your carrier prior to departure.
Languages: Dutch (official), English, Papiamento (official), Spanish.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant), Jewish.
Time Zone: 4 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-4 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 297, country code;
Aruba is consistently warm throughout the year, and the humidity is very low. The average day temperatures are in the 70s-80s F, with nights in the 60s-70s F. It's rainy November-February, but the rain seldom lasts longer than half an hour. Annual rainfall is less than 20 in.
The coolest months are January and February, and the hottest are August and September.
The island is outside the main hurricane belt, so it's one of the best islands to visit July-October, when the rest of the Caribbean is threatened. Even so, our favorite time to visit Aruba is January-June.
Trade winds blow steadily from the northeast year-round. The breezes can be refreshing, but you'll have to hang on to your hat at the beach.
What to Wear
Even though Aruba is an informal island, it's considered rude to wear swimsuits anywhere other than at the beach or pool. Do not sit in a taxi in a wet suit, or enter a business barefooted (or bare-chested).
Most casinos do not require men to wear jackets in the evening, but some upscale restaurants expect evening diners to dress smartly. Casual summer clothing is appropriate in most other circumstances, excluding conferences and business meetings.
Take a light sweater for cool evenings or air-conditioned restaurants or casinos.
Topless sunbathing is frowned upon at public beaches but is acceptable at some private resorts, such as Renaissance Island.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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