Aruba is best known for its sugar-white sand beaches and that alone makes it a great destination for families. But on a recent trip, I discovered that there is so much more for kids to do than build sandcastles and splash in the ocean.
Whether swimming at Baby Beach, where the calm waters aren’t deeper than 1.5 metres, dancing to traditional music at the weekly carnival or playing on the life-sized chess board at the MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant, vacationing families are taking advantage of all this island has to offer.
At the shallow kids’ pool at the Hyatt Regency resort, Young Lee watches her two youngest daughters, Zoe and Samantha, splash in the water with a group of friends. The mother of three has been coming to Aruba for the past 19 years, and says that despite having tried destinations such as Mexico and the Bahamas, this Dutch colony keeps drawing her back.
“I find Aruba very appealing to kids,” she said. “The weather is pretty much guaranteed, there are tons of activities, and the people are extremely friendly.”
Lee is not alone in her loyalty. Sixty percent of visitors to Aruba return – the highest rate in the Caribbean. Situated just 29 kms north of the Venezuelan coast, Aruba has been geographically blessed. Just north of the equator and just south of the hurricane belt, there is no rainy season to speak of, and a temperature averaging 28 degrees Celsius year-round.
A compact 193 square kilometres, the geography is a study in contrasts: the silky-white sand beaches and turquoise water of the southern end giving way to a rugged, dry interior, where cacti grow in abundance and there is nary a palm tree in sight. The north side, with its craggy rocks and dramatic seascapes, provide the ideal setting for hikers and adventurers.
With strong winds, clear warm waters and gentle tides, the beaches are perfectly suited to water sports such as kite-surfing, windsurfing, snorkelling, fishing and scuba diving.
In the interior, Arikok National Park covers 20 per cent of the island’s land mass. A jeep or ATV tour takes visitors over the island’s dry interior to the rocky northern coast, where they can bathe in a natural ocean pool, explore caves with centuries-old Indian drawings (watch for bats!), or visit an abandoned gold mine.
The capital city of Oranjestad pays tribute to the Dutch motherland in more than just name. The streets are lined with pastel-coloured buildings of Dutch colonial architecture. The official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, a Creole blending several languages, although English and Spanish are both widely spoken.
On the other side of the island, the former oil refinery town of San Nicolas has transformed itself into a cultural hub by hosting the weekly “Carubbian” Festival. The main street is closed to traffic so locals and tourists can sample local street food, shop, and watch performances by local artists in colorful, sparkling costumes.
While Aruba’s economy was once fuelled by gold mining and then oil refining, it’s now fed by tourism.
“Aruba is very safe, the people are very friendly and we have always made sure that there are tons of activities for kids,” says Gloria Vega, Cruise & Niche Market Manager for the Aruba Tourism Authority. She says the government has recently upgraded some of its programs to make the destination even more attractive to families.
The ‘One Happy Family’ program introduced in 2013, for example, includes deals and discounts such as free accommodation and food for kids staying with their parents, a welcome gift, and discounts on various activities. Hotels provide tourists with this package. As a part of the program, the ‘Very Important Kid’ passport provides children with a puzzle-filled booklet, which, upon completion, makes the owner eligible to win a free stay.
All these activities and incentives add up to one thing, Vega says: travellers with kids are Bon Bini (“welcome”) in Aruba.
What to do:
Aruba has several world-famous beaches. Baby Beach, located at the southeastern end of Aruba, is on a quiet lagoon and has snorkelling opportunities and water that never gets past shoulder-deep, making it a popular destination for families with young children. Most of the beaches on the southeastern side are safe for swimming, and offer deck chairs, snack bars, and equipment rentals. Along the north side, where the water is rougher, picnicking and hiking are better options.
Aruba’s calm waters make it safe for water sports, including boating, swimming, scuba diving and fishing. Snorkelling expeditions offer a chance to view famous shipwrecks such as that of the World War II-era Antilla. Closer to shore, the reefs abound with colourful fish. Kite surfing is a popular sport, with beginner lessons available for children aged 8 and up, and beach tennis at MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant provides an outlet for energetic players of all ages.
Arikok National Park:
Tours of the park are available by jeep, all-terrain vehicle, horseback and hiking. Try to spot wild goats, donkeys, birds and snakes. You can swim at Conchi, Aruba's natural ocean pool or explore the caves.
Aruba is famous for its annual carnival, which is a two-month affair that kicks off in January and includes a kids’ parade, traditional music, costume shows and much more. It culminates with a massive parade on Sunday, March 2, 2014, which is the 60th anniversary.
Aruba also has several museums, including the Historical Museum and the Aruba Aloe Museum and Factory. For kids who want to see animals, there’s an ostrich farm, a butterfly farm, and a donkey sanctuary, where about 100 donkeys are cared for by volunteers.
De Palm Island, a five-minute ferry ride from the mainland, offers half-day packages for families that include access to a water park and activities such as snorkelling and boat rides.
Where to Stay:
Aruba boasts dozens of major hotels and resorts, as well as some smaller boutique operations. Although some are adult-only, most cater to families. Both all-inclusive resorts such as the Tamarinja Aruba (tamarijnaruba.com) and traditional resorts such as the Hyatt Regency (aruba.hyatt.com) offer “kids clubs”, which include crafts, language lessons in Papiamento, and supervised outdoor activities.
For travelling tips, booking information, and a list of activities, restaurants, and services, visit www.aruba.com.
How to get there:
Sunwing Airlines offers a direct weekly flight from Montreal to Aruba every Monday from December 16 to March 3. These flights include 20 kg free checked baggage, hot towel service, a hot meal, soft drinks, and complimentary in-flight entertainment. For more information, visit www.sunwing.ca or contact your local travel agent.