If you’re like me, you need a break. Between cold weather, early sunsets, and the joint excitement and exhaustion of the holiday season, it is beyond time to treat your mental health to some well-earned pampering. And while I love yoga and meditation and whatever cleanse-of-the-week is making its way across my Instagram, we all know the truth: sometimes you just got to get away.
2000 miles due south of Westport, just off the coast of South America, is the desert island paradise I needed to get my head on straight. I went expecting blue skies, immaculate beaches, and an excellent drink or three. I got all of that. What I didn’t expect was an island of beauty and adventure, full of passionate and friendly people who take pride in the travelers wise enough (or lucky enough) to visit their home.
Arubans call their home “the happy island”, and it’s easy to tell why. Located just outside the Hurricane belt, this gorgeous Caribbean paradise is sunny year-round. Even their “rainy season” in October and November threatens little more than light sun showers.
Aruba boasts a rich history and culture with a mixture of Dutch, Latin American, and indigenous Caquetio and Arawak influences. You’ll find this diversity reflected in the architecture, food, and even the language. Most Arubans speak at least four languages; English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento, a creole language that mixes Spanish, Portuguese, indigenous Arawak, and Dutch.
Nowhere was this blended culture and happy spirit more apparent than at the Marriott Resort & Stellaris casino at Palm Beach.
It lived in Danny, a veteran bartender and Aruba native who makes the best smoky Old Fashioned I've had on any island (including Manhattan).
It lived in their culinary staff, who taught me to make Aruba’s take on the empanada, the pastechi, with flair and dedication.
It even lived in Raoul, the Marriott's new general manager, who spoke with passion and excitement about the return of tourism to the world.
Their joy was obvious, and more than a little infectious. Within a day of stepping on the island I felt that familiar knot in my shoulders begin to loosen, and the chattering voice of stress in the back of my head begin to quiet. Of course, the luxuriousness of my surroundings probably helped.
The resort sports the luxury accommodations and well-appointed amenities one would expect of a four-star Marriott property. Every room features a sizable balcony to enjoy Aruba's perfect weather, the majority of which boast gorgeous ocean views. Outside, you’ll find a pristine pool and covered swim-up bar surrounded by clean landscaping and babbling water features. But the real prize is the beach itself: gleaming white sand cascading down to impossibly turquoise water that never dips below 80 degrees. In the evenings, the beach transforms into ocean-side seating for Atardi, the resorts impeccable seafood fine-dining option.
But Aruba is not an island to be enjoyed entirely from within the walls of a resort. To fully experience all it has to offer, you have to step out.
Aruba offers countless opportunities for adventure: parasailing, kite surfing, snorkel and SCUBA tours, to name a few. But I found my thrills on land, behind the wheel of a beefed-up UTV with De Palm Tours. Our guide took as much delight in pointing out historical landmarks and as he did in revving the engines and powering up hills. It was a perfect balance that made the tour feel equal parts NatGeo documentary and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Aruba’s elaborate past is fascinating, but the even cooler story is the inspiring tales unfolding in San Nicolas, the oft-overlooked but up-and-coming town on Aruba’s southern tip.
San Nicolas, once the center of Aruba’s now-defunct industrial economy, is reinventing itself as Aruba’s Art City. Standing at the center of that transformation is the San Nicolas Art Festival and its inspiring organizer, Tito Bolivar.
Bolivar imagined a fully-indie, self-taught enterprise; one that would be embraced by internationals and tourists alike.
“So many festivals, locals don’t like them. They create mess in their area, they leave behind trash. We decided to leave behind gifts. We left murals.”
Those first murals became the seed of Aruba’s Art Walls. Today, more than 50 murals paint the streets of San Nicolas, some stretching more than 30 feet into the air. Among masterpieces from local artists you’ll find murals from internationally known names like Insane51, Wild Drawing, artists whose commission prices typically rise into the high five-figures.
When I ask Tito how he can afford to bring artists of that caliber, he just smiles.
“For me, they paint for free.”
After an afternoon in San Nicolas, it’s easy to see why. What the Tito and the community are building is truly a work of creativity and love. It’s a story of revitalization, of a town long overlooked reclaiming its voice and fostering untapped talent within its people. It’s the ultimate expression of the passionate spirit of Aruba; one that inspires artists to fly in from around the world, just so they can be a part of it.
They call Aruba “one happy island,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s an island of beauty, of adventure, of history and inspiration and hidden depths yet to be revealed.
All I know is that the next time I feel that knot in my shoulders, or that stress behind my eyes, there’s only one place I want to go.
Bon bini Aruba!