Aruba: What to Know Before you go

Writer Bucky McMahon describes Aruba as "ripely developed," and says it's a blend of Caribbean and European influences. Although the island is quite commercial and touristed, locals are proud to be Aruban, and that keeps it genuine, he says. "It's the ultimate party place; I highly recommend it to single people. You can hike or go to the beach during the day, then party and gamble at night." A Florida native, McMahon was previously a field editor for Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine; he writes about water sports and adventure travel for Outside and for Esquire, where he is a contributing editor.

Photographer Art Streiber says that visitors return to Aruba because it's accessible, comfortable, and contained: "They speak English and accept dollars, plus you can cover the whole island in a day." He was amazed at its diverse nightlife, which includes everything from nightclubs, booze cruises, party buses, and casinos to Vegas-style revues and international restaurants. Streiber, a California native, has been a photographer for 17 years and has served as Milan bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily and W magazine. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Premiere, InStyle, Town & Country, and Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. This was his first assignment for ISLANDS.

THE WILD SIDE Start the partying in the late afternoon with a cocktail cruise on a vessel that's more than just a boat: The Mi Dushi is a 78-foot wooden sailboat with a rope swing for the reckless, while the Tattoo has a tandem rope swing and a three-level water slide. In the evening, join the bar-hopping crowd aboard the Kukoo Kunuku party bus. There are nightclubs to suit any taste, including Mambo Jambo for merengue, Cuba's Cookin' for salsa, Carlos 'n' Charlie's for classic rock, and The Paddock for European techno. Of the island's 11 casinos, Streiber says that the Hyatt Regency's Copacabana is the most elegant; the Royal Cabana is the largest in the Caribbean.

DIVE IN The 400-foot German wreck Antilla is one of the biggest in the Caribbean; it's also the island's most popular dive destination. To book a trip, try Red Sail Sports (tel. 877-733-7245). Popular pseudo-dive activities include Sea Trekking on De Palm Island, or Snuba, which allows you to go 20 feet deep without certification. (McMahon says the blue parrotfish were some of the biggest he's ever seen.) For snorkeling, try the shallow reefs of De Palm Island or Baby Beach, or sign up for a boat trip. If you don't want to get wet, hop aboard the Atlantis submarine.

BEACH TIME Aruba is windy year-round; the rocky northeast side of the island has the strongest winds and the roughest water, while the leeward, west, side is calmer, with palm trees and most of the hotels. Hit Palm Beach for people-watching and water sports. You'll find privacy at Dos Playa and Boca Prins, a pair of tiny secluded beaches set between gaps in the rocks on the east side. Advanced windsurfers head out to Hadikurari or Boca Grandi.

DON'T MISS The California Lighthouse on the northwestern tip of the island is a great spot to look for the green flash at sunset. The area is also the place with trails for horseback riding and dirt biking.

WHAT'S TO EAT Charlie's Bar and Restaurant in Sint Nicolaas is a legendary watering hole with junk-shop decor and a reputation for excellent shrimp and steak. For crioyo cooking (local fare), McMahon recommends Gasparito, a restaurant and art gallery just north of Oranjestad, where you can sample goat stew while surrounded by local artists' paintings. Streiber recommends The Flying Fishbone in Savaneta, where you can enjoy shark or wahoo at tables set on the sand by the water's edge. Just north of Savaneta, try the prime sunsetviewing deck over the water at Marina Pirata, or go to Brisas del Mar, an open-air restaurant with views of the ocean.

ROOM KEY McMahon liked the location of the Wyndham Aruba Beach Resort & Casino; it's right on Palm Beach, within walking distance of restaurants, nightclubs, and casinos, and it has an enormous breakfast buffet ($205 to $850 per night; tel. 800-996-3426 or 011-297-864-466, Web site www.arubawyndham.com). The Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort and Casino, also on Palm Beach, has beautiful gardens and suites and a first-rate business center from which you can E-mail your jealous friends ($240 to $2,610 per night; tel. 800-233-1234 or 011-297-861-234, Web site www.hyatt.com). Another good choice is the low-rise Costa Linda Beach Resort on Eagle Beach ($315 to $1,130 per night; tel. 800-992-2015 or 011-297-838-000, Web site www.costalinda.com).

ON THE ROAD In Oranjestad and Palm Beach, everything is within walking distance, and buses and (expensive) taxis will take you on out-of-town excursions. Streiber suggests renting a car (about $40 per day) to reach remote beaches and the restaurants in Savaneta. Cruising around Aruba on a Harley-Davidson costs $150 per day.

READ IT AND LEAP

  • Frommer's Portable Aruba, by Kenneth Lindley
  • Fodor's Pocket Aruba, by Karen W. Bressler and Elise Rosen
  • The Dive Sites of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, by Jack Jackson
  • Casinos of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Maarten & Suriname, by Ralph Pollack

WEB HEADINGS Aruba On-Line is a thorough source at www.arubatourism.com. The Aruba Gastronomic Association's site, www.arubadining.com, has information on their 25 member restaurants, plus Dine-Around Plans and a reservation service. For information on the Kukoo Kunuku bus or the party boats, go to www.arubaadventures.com.

CASH FLOW ATMs are easy to find and dollars are accepted everywhere, but you'll get a better exchange rate at banks.