It is difficult to describe Aruba to someone who has never been. For a lot of people, this island is simply the first word in the classic Beach Boys hit, “Kokomo.” But for many others it’s a charming Caribbean gem that makes for the ideal annual getaway. After all, the resorts are affordable, the beaches are beautiful and rain is rarer than an empty cocktail glass. Families, couples, party animals who want to dance the night away—Aruba is a destination for everyone, because when they say, “One Happy Island,” they really mean it.
And so, if I’m trying to describe Aruba to a curious first-timer, that’s the word: happy. There’s an infectious positive vibe that hits you the moment you arrive at the airport, and what makes the people of Aruba so great is how they won’t let that vibe escape you, not for a single moment of your trip.
That was definitely the case when I recently stayed at Barceló Aruba, which served as my home base for a four-day getaway focused on the island’s adventurous side. The last time I was in Aruba, my trip was a lesson in the island’s history and culture, so this time I wanted to focus on the island itself. Specifically, I wanted to see the places that define the island.
That’s a tall order for a short trip, but that’s probably the thing I love most about Aruba—there’s always a reason to return. It also helps when the resort experience is flawless.
All-inclusive and Then Some
The best all-inclusive resorts can be a little problematic, in that they make it difficult to actually leave the property. Located on Palm Beach, Barceló Aruba is a shining example of this wonderful dilemma, as it offers six restaurants that cater to every appetite, from Tex-Mex at México Lindo to a la carte Italian at L’Olio. (The Japanese cuisine at Kyoto deserves to be singled out, because rarely would I be willing to trade margaritas for sake, but this was a delightful curveball.) Even the buffet shatter stereotypes, as the options are vast and second plates come with zero regrets. (Can’t say the same for the third plate, though I never apologize for enjoying a hearty breakfast.)
But food is only one aspect of the all-inclusive experience at Barceló Aruba. Make it outside and you’re faced with the challenge of not spending the day poolside, enjoying delicious cocktails at the swim-up bar. Escape the pool and you might fall asleep beneath the palm trees and thatch-roof umbrellas on the beach. And even if you’re intent on spending the day in the water, Barceló Aruba will keep you on the property with a variety of activities and water sports. All the while, the poolside party will keep luring guests back, like a siren who is quick to refill your piña colada.
For this stay, I was also curious to see what makes Barceló Aruba’s “Royal Level” so special. When something is billed as an “exceptional luxury service,” expectations will be high. Royal Level Barceló Aruba definitely lives up to the hype—and my personal standards for royalty—beginning with the extra attention to detail in the boutique stylings of the Royal Level, which is located within the three upper floors of the resort’s north tower.
This isn’t just about a fancier décor or a room with a bed so comfortable that it made me ask three employees where I could buy the mattress pad. Think of this as a VIP service or a first-class section for a hotel. A personalized check-in process and concierge keeps you out of the long lobby line, and guests also enjoy priority reservations at the aforementioned six restaurants, which, if you’re familiar with all-inclusive dining, is a godsend. I cannot overstate how great it is to walk into a packed restaurant and be seated promptly. It’s up there with the Starbucks mobile app and ordering Publix deli meats online.
Or, if you prefer to mingle with fellow royalty, the Royal Level Lounge boasts its own private gourmet restaurant, which includes premium drinks. Again, good luck escaping.
Aruba’s Adventures Await
Once you escape the property, there are two types of adventures you should consider. First, and perhaps the quintessential Aruba experience, is Arikok National Park, which takes up nearly one-fifth of the entire island and is home to the legendary natural pool. We departed Barceló Aruba in a massive Jeep-like vehicle provided by De Palm Tours for the Natural Pool Off-Road Safari, and this vehicle made the bumpy ride a heck of a lot more fun (but some people’s bumps are other people’s bruises, so please book your own trip accordingly).
Unfortunately, the sea was angry that day, my friends, and so the Natural Pool was off-limits. Still, the hike to the bottom and simply overlooking this popular tourist spot make for a great experience, as well as conveying the connection Arubans have with their landmarks.
No spot reflects that idea more than our next stop, the Aruba Natural Bridge. Loving island history as much as I do, I was bummed to hear the story of the collapse of “Mama Bridge,” which played such a huge role in local tourism until the morning of September 2, 2005, when, as it was explained to me, the operator of the Natural Bridge Shop arrived at work and saw the remains of this once great coral limestone formation.
As news spread, hundreds of people gathered to see for themselves. Still, the locals persisted and made the best of a bad situation, mostly by naming the area’s smaller natural structure, “Baby Bridge.” It might not seem like much of a story or even a landmark, but, again, it’s about the people and their infectious happiness. (It also helps to hear the story while sipping on a Green Iguana cocktail from the shop.)
From there, we drove past the Bushiribana Ruins, which I probably could have explored for hours just out of historical fascination, on our way to the Alto Vista Chapel, which sits on a site where a Spanish missionary built the island’s first Catholic church in 1750. Many visitors also take the opportunity to walk the Peace Labyrinth and meditate or pray, but I was busy enjoying a fresh fruit drink from a local vendor while I listened to my tour guides tell us about this inspirational spot, before we returned to the resort.
The second adventure is the SS Antilla, one of the Caribbean’s largest wrecks. I boarded a boat owned by Pelican Adventures, which is located a hop, skip and a jump from Barceló Aruba’s beach. (It’s also important to note that the bar at Pelican Pier serves one of the best strawberry margaritas on the island.) We visited Catalina Bay as well, but the history buff in me was thrilled to hear the local’s story about the SS Antilla’s sinking before flopping into the water to see for myself. All the while, the boat’s crew kept pumping out very basic yet delicious margaritas and a strange blue juice that kept the two dozen or so guests lively and, obviously, happy.
Of course, as I lamented the end of each adventure, I couldn’t hide my own happiness to return to Barceló Aruba and simply relax before the next great meal or heading down to the seemingly neverending pool party. Just thinking about it all over again makes me wonder when I’ll hop into Kyoto again for another bottle of sake.