Every time I visit Divi and Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives I learn something new about the entire island. I don’t mean like a historical footnote or cultural fun fact that a tour guide might tell me while driving through Arikok National Park, but instead a nugget of insider info about colorful characters, creative developments, and usually the wonderful things to come. More often than not, it involves food because there’s really nothing I love more than trying new dishes on my favorite islands.
Two years ago, I heard all about a new scene that was being cultivated in Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad. Locals eagerly told me about cool restaurants serving fun twists on authentic cuisine and bars that would pour some of the most creative craft cocktails anywhere in the Caribbean. It’s a vibe that I’ve already seen—and thoroughly enjoyed—on some other islands, but the way people were talking about it here was downright exciting.
On my most recent visit, however, thrills were coming from another part of the island. My favorite annual culinary event, hosted by Divi & Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives, was taking place in San Nicolas, away from everything I’ve come to know like the back of my hand about One Happy Island. This time, the culinary star was Chef Michel Lambermon, master of the Big Green Egg, but the rest of the event put a massive spotlight on the island’s spectacular arts and fashion scenes.
The Lay of the Land
Most Aruban vacations are typically confined to the northwestern part of the island, where the most popular resorts are located. Only when you book an excursion through De Palm Tours or Aruba Fantasy Tours will you journey to the eastern side of the island to explore Arikok National Park, the Natural Bridge, and Fontein Cave, among other landmarks. But the southern drive on Rte 1? I’ve never done it, not even after people told me that Flying Fishbone is one of the best restaurants on the island or that Baby Beach is a special spot for sunbathing and snorkeling away from the crowds.
I was thrilled to learn that on my seventh trip, I’d finally get to witness firsthand Aruba’s creative growth taking place in San Nicolas, the island’s second largest city. From newer restaurants—like the super cool Neighba—to the phenomenal murals giving some old buildings a beautiful second wind, this was a side of the island I had never seen before, and this event was the perfect rebuke to people who believe the destination is just beaches and bars.
Let’s Tear the Roof Off
By name alone, the Aruba Art Festival was somewhat misleading. This wasn’t just a showcase of paintings, sculptures, or even those massive murals. The emphasis was on festival, as it featured art, music, fashion, and food—all of which showcased the ingenuity of an island that many tourists only visit for its electric party atmosphere.
As I approached the open-air venue on the first night, one artist was still painting a wall of a large building. She was perched atop an aerial work platform, putting the finishing touches on her masterpiece, and it was an excellent appetizer for the showcase to come. I didn’t even understand the scope of participation and effort until I took my seat at our dinner table on the main street and watch streams of people flow into their bleacher seats for a fashion show that felt as big as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The Fusion Pop-up Restaurant was set in a roofless shell of a building, adorned with its own stylish, sophisticated decorations to set the mood and expectations. But even as Divi & Tamarijn Aruba’s Chef Paul and team worked their magic—the resorts’ chef is the mastermind behind some of the best all-inclusive dining options in the Caribbean—all eyes were on the stage and street for a show unlike any other.
The Power of Creativity
When I visited St. Maarten in late 2021, I had the pleasure of meeting the incomparable Ruby Bute, who is “the first dame of St. Martin’s cultural arts” but was also born in Aruba. We chatted at length about how the Dutch Caribbean islands love to showcase their talents, as St. Maarten has been encouraging young artists to paint specific areas around their half of the island, and Curacao’s street murals and sculptures are downright legendary.
I told her I hadn’t experienced much of Aruba’s art scene, but she assured me it was as alive here as anywhere else in the region. Thus, the Aruba Art Fair was my chance to finally see it all up close and personal, from the sprawling murals on the walls of local businesses to the various mediums on display in several galleries along the main street.
One of my favorite moments of the entire event occurred early in the first evening, when we were seated for dinner and guests continued trickling in, slowly moving from gallery to another. It was a little windier than usual that day—it is Aruba, so there’s always a breeze—enough to knock the island’s power out at the worst possible time. The entire venue went dark and there was an audible collective gasp as everyone wondered aloud what that would mean for the festivities.
Just as we celebrated creative artwork and cuisine, we soon celebrated creative craftsmanship. The event staff rushed to get a generator running and then weaved extension cords seamlessly from building to building, until we all watched in awe and suspense as one man climbed a light tower to illuminate the venue once more. It took a little pulling—possibly for show—but he was able to make the connection, and the string lights lining both sides of the street came to life to an appreciative, roaring crowd.
On the Catwalk
A style and clothing authority I am not, but even the simplest minds can tell when an incredible amount of work has been put into something. The themes for the fashion aspect of this event ranged from party and beach vibes—Aruba in a nutshell—to remarkably sustainable and eco-friendly, so much so that the showcase concluded with a fascinating performance art sequence in which the participants showed guests the audacity of people throwing trash on the ground and disrespecting a paradise that is also home to so many people.
(It’s a hell of a statement from the perspective of someone who works in travel and constantly watches other tourists behave terribly.)
The greatest takeaway, though, was seeing the island’s camaraderie live and in person. Hearing the familiar shouts of each model’s name, witnessing the blushes of designers as their friends and family called from the bleachers, and clapping along as the audience turned each presentation into party, it was all a spectacular blur of elation and triumph.
Undoubtedly, the least surprising thing to come from this event was watching how excitedly the guests purchased some of the outfits the models showcased mere hours before.
Hatching a Master Plan
On any other trio of nights, the Fusion Pop-up Restaurant, presented by Divi & Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives, would have been the star. A Big Green Egg, world-famous chef, and the exceptional culinary crew from the resorts? It’s a winning combination. And I usually start any of my tales with the food, but days and weeks later, I could still only thing about the electricity of the Aruba Art Fair and the pride exhibited by the participants.
But the food, my goodness. The menu was like a dream pulled from the depths of my brain, but there was equal joy in trying the various dishes as there was watching Chef Lambermon, the Executive Chef of Big Green Egg Europe, and his team make them all. It was a carnivore’s delight, for sure, but no one would have been disappointed with the alternatives.
On any given day, this could have been an event unto itself, although I would have never discovered just how well food pairs with fashion and art. And yet I have no doubt that neither the Aruba Art Fair nor the Fusion Pop-up Restaurant have reached its full potential. Watching them both evolve is going to be fulfilling on multiple levels.