White sandy beaches and cobalt blue waters, tall coconut palms, constant 14-20 mph tradewinds, an average year-round high temperature in the mid-80s with lows in the 70s, and a location outside of the hurricane belt--all combine to make the southern Caribbean island of Aruba a favorite port of call.
An autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with its own democratic government, the island is nearly 20 miles long and almost 6 miles wide. The mountains of Venezuela, only 15 miles off the coast, can be seen on clear days.
Considered one of the most tourism-friendly islands in the Caribbean, Aruba has an English-speaking population, accepts the U.S. dollar, offers driving on the right side of the road, and serves up pure drinking water.
Cruise ships dock in Oranjestad, the capital. It is only a short walk to town, and a short taxi ride ($6) to one of the island's best beaches--Palm Beach. Car rentals average $35 a day. A jeep goes for $60-70 and rental bicycles for $10.
Take a short hike in Arikok National Park, strolling along neat trails around huge rocks. Goats run along narrow stone walls and bleat at tourists from overhead rocks. Beautiful blue lizards scamper all around. One section of the park, called Cunucu Arikok, has ancient Indian drawings under a rock ledge that thousands of bats call home. Still standing is one of the humble 19th-century adobe houses with fences made of live cactus, where people still lived just 50 years ago.
On the eastern coast, look for secluded sandy beaches created by narrow channels where the heavy-pounding surf has broken through the rock shelf. Then there is the hilly coast, which is desolate and difficult to walk along due to the rough black rock on the beach.
Most of Aruba's hotels are on the western coast, a level terrain on a seven-mile stretch of pure white sand beaches. The azure waters are calm and filled with water cyclists, snorkelers and scuba divers. Thanks to the steady trade winds, windsurfers and parasailers enjoy one of the world's best sites for these sports. While there are no nude beaches, topless bathing for women seems to be the accepted norm.
Gambling is not promoted heavily, but many of the better hotels have casinos. There are wonderful restaurants. Be sure to try the Iguana soup at Joey's, but, of course, familiar chains like Pizza Hut and Wendy's are the most popular with the locals.
The island also has a Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course. The price to play runs about $120, but there are discounts for packages, or for playing more than one round.
Another popular sightseeing attraction is the Atlantis Submarine ($68, with discounts for seniors and honeymooners) that goes to a depth of 140 feet to view the incredible beauty beneath the sea.
Nearly 500,000 cruise ship passengers are expected to visit Aruba this year, and the tourism bureau boasts that there are no dangerous parts of this island. Visitors can roam freely without fear. Moreover, you'll find none of the desperate poverty seen on other Caribbean islands, and the cleanliness only enhances the island's charm.
So if your cruise itinerary takes you to Aruba, be prepared to remember it as one of your favorite ports.