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Monday, May 23, 2016

Vacation 2016 : Aruba...for my brother's wedding!

The pictures in this post are a mix of cell phone pictures and Canon Mark II "nice" pictures. 

Earlier this month, I went to Aruba. By myself. Let me repeat that...BY MYSELF. Well, there were other people, but no toddlers, no husband....and it was kind of amazing. I kind of also really missed them a ton and the entire time was like, "Carys would LOVE this!" or "I wish I could see Emmeline's face as she did this!" or "Chris would love to eat there!" and probably annoyed the heck out of my travelling companions, but....such is mom life, right? 

We - "we" in this case being my mom, my two sisters, and I - went to Aruba for my brother's wedding. Originally the whole family was going to go, and we were going to get a local sitter during the (adults-only) wedding, but the costs started to add up, and my dad and sisters' significant others weren't able to go, so....it ended up being a girls-only trip. We were only able to go for four days, which is WAY too short...but hey. It was still four days in Aruba, right?? While it was my mom and sisters' first time, I've actually been twice before - although I can't link to it because I have no idea if/where I blogged about it. (WAIT! I found one! On my very old blog! The second trip I apparently didn't blog! Because I'm a terrible blogger! But you can see pics from the 2009 trip here and 2010 trip here.)  However, since most of our activities the previous two times focused on drinking and the beach, and I'm really old now, many of the things we did this time were brand-new to me. 

I'm going to try a slightly different format in writing about this trip, because...well. Let's be honest. I'm wordy af. So I'm going to summarize the trip with just one pic for each point, and then follow it up with a photo dump. 


Renaissance Aruba Resort:
The Renaissance is located away from the main hotel clusters, in downtown Oranjestad (the biggest city) - probably one of the least beachy tourist areas of the island. Most hotels are along Eagle Beach (the "Low-Rise Hotels") or Palm Beach (the "High-Rise Hotels") and are all grouped together; this is the sole big hotel I saw outside of those two parts of the island. 

The Renaissance is actually two separate properties: the Marina Tower and the Ocean Suites. We stayed in the Ocean Suites. The Marina Tower is more a "city" hotel, surrounded by a high-end mall, a loud bar, and no beach access. A very urban hotel - great for people looking for more of a party-like atmosphere. The Ocean Suites tower is across the street - on the water - and has a great pool area, with two pools, as a swim-up bar, and a small beach (man-made, but still, a beach!).  The rooms at the Ocean Suites are slightly larger, with a separate sitting area and sofa sleeper. While the Ocean Suites tower doesn't have as many amenities as the Marina Tower (i.e. the gym, business center, restaurant, etc. are at the Marina Tower), I definitely preferred the Ocean Suites over the Marina Tower, and would 100% choose it if I was traveling with kids. In fact, you'd HAVE to choose it, because the Marina Tower is adults-only. Even without kids, though, the Ocean Tower would be my preference. Larger rooms and immediate access to a better pool/beach area = win! (There is a shuttle that runs between the two towers if you're staying at the Marina and want to come over to the pool of the Ocean, or if you're at the Ocean and want to go to the business center, etc.). 

The best part of the entire hotel, though, is Renaissance Island - a private island, exclusive to resort guests, with two beautiful beaches (one is adults-only and has flamingos!). You can pick up a speedboat shuttle between the two hotels and the island regularly throughout the day, and since it's exclusive to Renaissance guests, it's usually not too busy. 

View from our room, looking towards the ocean (Ocean Suites)

View from our room, looking towards the pool (Ocean Suites)


Every single place we ate was delicious, because we did a lot of research before leaving so we wouldn't be stuck at an overpriced tourist trap - and I think we succeeded!

Cuba's Cookin'
Delicious, and within walking distance of the hotel (bonus!). Great Cuban food, great drinks, and not too expensive. Not cheap, but not super pricey, either. Live music and dancing, too! It wasn't on the water but it was in a good spot for people-watching.

At Cuba's Cookin'

Pastechi House: 
Tiny local snack shack - super cheap and REALLY good! Pastechi are kind of like empanada - maybe exactly like them? They also have options that look like mozzarella sticks called croquettes, and bitterballs, a fried ball - many flavors are available in each, like cod, lobster, beef, chicken, cheese, samosa, etc. The cod pastechi were the best, by far. Sooooo good. Even good heated up the next day in our hotel microwave (kept in the hotel mini fridge). The service is.....lacking. Ha! We had to check on our order several times and go back for missing items. But for the price and the yum, it was totally worth it.

Oh. my. GOD. In the BEST way. So good. Amazing views; right on the water. And CHEAP! Wayyyyyy off the beaten path and totally difficult to find (just keep asking locals) (because did I mention that Aruba has virtually NO street signs? It's true.). It's about 20 minutes away from downtown where we were staying and about 30 minutes away from the main hotel districts, in Savaneta. However, make the effort because this was the best meal of the entire trip. 
There are a few one-star reviews on TripAdvisor (like 5 out of 900) from people who said it was flavorless and I can only imagine that they were missing their entire tongue because, dude. This food was VERY heavily seasoned. In a good way. In the best way. You order by weight - if you say, "Shrimp for one!" they'll hold up a bag of uncooked, fresh shrimp and ask if that's what you want. We got the shrimp and the fish of the day (I think it was mahi-mahi) and dear lord. Seriously, my mouth is watering just remembering. 

Oh. And also? Make sure you have some ones. (US dollars are fine). It's cash only...which is fine...but they might take slight advantage of tourists. And honestly, I didn't even care, just be firmer than I was. Ha! It doesn't happen when you're ordering the main meal, but at the bar - my  mom went up and ordered three waters and had $6 out, and magically, the total was $6! Then we saw other people order water and it was a different price. When I went to order ice cream, I - being wary from the water experience - asked how much it was before getting any money out, and he replied "$3." So I give him a $5, and.....he waved me away, saying "It's okay, we're good." It sounds awful, but...it wasn't. I don't know, I guess I just consider it part of traveling to a different country? Like a tip for the bartender? We really weren't mad at all and laughed about it. But if you ever are lucky enough go, it's something to watch for. 

The shrimp and fried plantains at Zeerover's...oh...my....goooood.

The West Deck: 
Absolutely STUNNING views; the sunset was gorgeous. Also within easy walking distance of our hotel. Delicious food - the bread basket was particularly noteworthy, and the lobster roll I had was divine. Large portions, too! I'd recommend getting appetizers and then a side or two; it's way cheaper (and what they recommend on the menu, too). 

Sunset view from The West Deck

Iguana Cantina: 
I think I've eaten here more than any place else on Aruba. It was really close to the hotels I stayed at on my previous trips, and then we stopped here on the way back from our Pirate Ship cruise since it was in the same area. Definitely not within walking distance of the Renaissance Resort - it's in the high-rise hotel area. It offers good Mexican food that's decently priced. It's upstairs in a little outdoor mall area and you can get seats overlooking the plaza in the center and people watch. It's a great area to walk around before or after you eat, with lots of shops, little souvenir huts and ice cream places. (They have a sister restaurant called Smokey Joe's a couple blocks down with great BBQ if that's more your style - we didn't eat there this time but we did last time.) 

Dutch Pancake House: 
We went here for breakfast one morning and hoooollllyyyy lord was it good. So, so filling. You could get one pancake and split it between two people, easily. I got the Nuetella fruity one...my sisters got a savory one with nuts and cheese and honey...my mom got mini-pancakes dusted with powdered sugar. And we all loved it. This was also within walking distance to the hotel, and while not ON the water, it was close enough that you could see it. Very reasonably priced, too (and not just for breakfast!).

My nutella pancake from the Dutch Pancake House

There are a couple places that we didn't get to but that we enjoyed last time - Wacky Wahoo's (reservations DEFINITELY required - odd location in a strip mall but amazing seafood, consistently ranked one of the best restaurants on the island) and Barefoot (dining right on the sand...sometimes with the waves lapping at your feet....so delicious and so very expensive. HA!). There's one place that, had I been there with Chris, I would have sold my soul to check out - a chef's dining table available for just 15 people a night. And actually now that I Google it to find the name, I see there are two options for this - Carte Blanche and 2 Fools and a Bull. Very pricey, but I can only imagine how amazing it is. 


Jolly Pirate Cruise
We did the shorter, 3-hour, afternoon excursion - you hit two snorkeling sites and one site to rope swing. Free drinks and snorkeling gear are included in the price of the ticket, and it's just such a fun time - the guys working the boat are so cheesy and funny, you'll be laughing the entire time. The snorkeling sites get kind of crowded, which sucks (because there are often one or two other tour boats there at the same time) but we were still able to enjoy it with no problem, and the boat ride was one of the trip highlights. Note: these aren't the colorful reefs that you picture when you think tropical snorkeling, but there are plenty of fish and sea urchins to be seen.  

I'm on a boat!

Massages at Spa del Sol at Manchebo Beach Resort: 
Chris and I love getting massages, so we were thrilled to find this hidden gem of a spa during our first trip. We'd previously splurged to get massages on the Renaissance Private island - they have a little spa cabana at the tip of the beach with 180 degree ocean views, and it's amazing...but it's so expensive, even more than getting a massage in the regular spa at the Renaissance. Somehow, when we had extra time one day, we stumbled upon the website for Spa del Sol, and wow. It was SO amazing. It's completely reasonably priced, and each massage is in a private (or couple's) cabana, right on the beach, with the ocean outside the window. And the Manchebo Resort beach area is very private and quiet (especially compared to the Marriott Resort and the Marriott Vacation Club properties we'd stayed at), so it's incredibly relaxing and zen-like. 

Kimber and I outside our cabana.

Horseback riding with Rancho Notorious: 
This is the only place we tried horseback riding, so I can't compare it with others...but it was tons of fun and our guide, Max, was fun and cheeky. The ranch looked like something straight out of a movie set - cacti everywhere (even cacti fences!), dogs and cats running around, open-air wooden stalls. You book a specific tour, but when you arrive, it's pretty casual and you can dictate where you want to go - so if you want to see the sights listed in the tour description, be sure to let them know that. He asked if we wanted more beach or more desert, and we said beach - and it was absolutely perfect - but it meant that we missed a couple things that had been listed as part of the tour (totally our fault for not clarifying). And, of course, we saw some amazing beaches in exchange. Also note that the prices listed on the site are a little more than the first place we looked at (which was sold out) but when we actually booked a 20% off coupon was automatically applied, so it ended up being cheaper. Max even let us trot a bit and we were the only three on the ride, which was fantastic.

Arikok National Park: 
This place was probably the biggest disaster of our trip, ha! But I'd still highly recommend it. We set off thinking we knew how to get there....not taking into account the total and complete lack of street signs on the island (and our shitty map didn't help the situation at all). We decided to approach it from the southeast entrance, which may have been a mistake - the northwest entrance might have been easier to find. Let me also say: Aruba is only 19 miles long by 6 miles wide, but....holy crap, does it feel bigger when you're lost. 

Landscape in the park - when you're in the tourist areas it's easy to forget that Aruba is a desert island.

We managed to drive around lost for over an hour in the same section of the island, despite the fact that we stopped and asked for directions at least four times. We finally found the park after a guy at a gas station gave me very specific landmark-based directions with drawings. With that, we were FINALLY able to find the entrance to the park. The funniest/worst part was that we'd been on exactly the right track and probably three minutes away from the park entrance when we very first thought we were on the wrong road and turned around. Because we suck. Sigh. Anyway. And this isn't a place you can take a cab - you'd never get picked up, and you'd have no way of exploring the park (it's way too big to walk). You have to rent a car or do the park as part of a tour. 

The park is very bumpy and quite a bit of it is unpaved, so a 4x4 vehicle is recommended. But we didn't have one, so we just drove very slowly (our Hyundai Accent was fine). The map they give you at the park entrance (which has an $11 per person entry fee) is a better map than all of our other maps combined, so we were able to find the landmarks we were looking for within the park easily.
Unfortunately, my sister was getting carsick, and we were down over an hour of time that we'd planned for...so we only got to hit two of the landmarks, and we missed the visitor's center being open entirely. There were a lot of things we were looking forward to seeing - the natural pool, a ton of beaches and scenic areas, doing some geocaching, etc. - that we just didn't have time for. Whomp whomp. 

However, the two items that we DID manage to see were absolutely amazing and some of my best memories from the island. The first was Guadirikiri Cave, which was breathtaking. You walk through dark, small cave chambers and then suddenly in front of you is a bright, huge cavern, with all of the sunlight coming from a small hole in the ceiling. Then you go through more dark sections into a second light-filled chamber, equally beautiful. We weren't expecting this in the slightest and we all gasped. They tell you to speak in hushed voices because it's a conservation area for bats, but I think you just naturally speak quietly in total awe and reverence. 

Guadirikiri Cave

The second landmark we hit was another cave - Fontein Cave. While not as visually stunning as Guadirikiri Cave, it was even more fascinating. It had a rich history and contained pictographs left by Native Venezuelan Indians over 1,000 years ago (the dates are fairly certain, the "who" is less certain). They lit fires in the caves and left a thick coating of soot on the cave ceilings. Later, in the 1800s, others (Dutch) discovered the caves and carved their names into the soot, often destroying the pictographs. This practice continued up until the 1960s (I think he said) when they closed the caves to protect the history. (He also mentioned that he and many native Arubans grew up thinking that the caves were closed because they were dangerous and people were getting lost and dying - but they don't go back very far at all). In 2011 (?) they reopened the caves to the public, but now they have park rangers in the caves at all times watching the tourists. Our guide for the caves, Robert, was a total gem - full of knowledge and so excited to share it all with us. He then took us over to see the natural, freshwater spring near the cave, which is where the name of the cave came from ("fountain" cave) and talked to us for a while about the native flora and fauna of the island. Which, if you know my family, you know we found totally fascinating. 

Graffiti from 1830 in Fontein Cave

Donkey Sanctuary:
On the way home from the National Park, I forced my poor, carsick sister to be in the car even longer to stop by the donkey sanctuary. Aruba has wild donkeys (imported as transportation hundreds of years ago, but released into the wild and abandoned when cars became popular in the 60's). It's free with a recommended donation, and you get to walk around with and pet over 100 donkeys. They're adorable. A fun little stop! (Story! Robert from the National Park actually saw us leaving the park and stopped to say bye, asked us where we were going, then led us to the sanctuary! Such a great guy!)


Car Rental:
We used Sunset Car Rental, and aside from being a bit late to pick Kimberly up at the airport, they were great. Clean car, really good prices, and nice. If you're not planning on exploring the island, you don't need a car - but at $39 a day (after all of the taxes and fees), it was much cheaper for us to rent a car than it would have been to take a cab around everywhere. And driving in Aruba is pretty easy - they drive on the same side of the road and signs are in English. The hardest thing is the total lack of street signs, but luckily almost everything is off of one main road that runs along the southwest side of the island from tip to tip. Do check out a guide to the street signs before you go, just so you're familiar with what they mean (as they're different an in the US, obviously). 

  • Call your cell phone provider before you go to avoid huge roaming charges! 
  • It's not necessary to exchange money; everyone will accept US dollars (although you might get local currency in exchange) and most places take credit cards.
  • Don't forget sunscreen and reapply regularly! It's very sunny and the sun is very strong!
  • A good proportion of the population speaks English, but at least learn "hi" (bon dia) and "bye" (ayo) and "thank you" (danki, or masha danki for thank you very much) in the local language of Papiamento. The locals appreciate it. 

Ok, now for the PICTURES!!! These, again, are a mix of "nice" Canon Mark II pics and cell phone pics. 

I flew out with Jenna and we met my mom in Chicago and flew the rest of the way with her, then met Kimberly in Aruba.

Family reunited!

More pictures from our balcony at the Renaissance Aruba Resort (Ocean Suites).

A 360 degree pic of the view from our room.

My mom and I took a walk in the morning before my sisters woke up...

Aruba Whiptail (female)

We randomly saw the shuttle boat leaving for Renaissance Island and decided, on a whim, to hop on. I'm so glad we did, because we didn't really get another chance to go over there outside of the wedding.  

Iguana and bird tracks in the sand.

After we got back to the hotel, my mom and I picked up my sister and we went to the bird sanctuary and did so geocaching. 

360 view from the bird sanctuary tower

We then headed back to get ready for the wedding - no public wedding pics of the couple (they were GORGEOUS! but the bride is very private), but here are some non-wedding pics from Renaissance Island that night....

My mom, sisters, and I at the reception.

The next day, Kimberly and my mom and I went horseback riding while Jenna hung out at the pool.

360 degree view of the ranch

With our guide, Max (who told us he was a bit of a shithead when he was a kid so his mom shipped him off to boarding schools in Belgium and Argentina, ha!)

When we got back from horseback riding, we headed down to eat lunch at Zeerover's and to go to the National Park. 

More from when we were eating at Zeerover's:

The infamous $5 ice cream. Ha!

On the way to finding the National Park, we accidentally stumbled upon these grottos (I wouldn't go out of my way to see them again). 

The glorious Guadirikiri Cave...unassuming outside....

The second chamber...

Goats in the park! Not wild; they belong to someone who just lets them graze in the park.

The pictographs in Fontein Cave...


The natural spring outside Fontein Cave...

More of the park's landscape...

Visiting the donkeys! 

We ate at The West Deck that night - one more picture of the beautiful sunset - 

The next morning, we had our spa appointments at Spa del Sol at Manchebo Beach Resort...they were as wonderful as I was anticipating. So relaxing; I could have stayed for hours and hours.

After the spa, we grabbed lunch (I think we just ate leftovers, EXCITING!) and headed out to the Jolly Pirate cruise. We thought since we were booking it on a Sunday that it might be less crowded than it would have been on a different day, but....no. It was really busy and crowded (though that didn't affect our enjoyment at all). 

You take a little speedboat from the dock to the ship (since the water isn't deep enough to bring the ship to the dock) - it was PACKED. 

That night, we ate at Iguana Cantina and then went home early the next morning. The trip was entirely too short and we didn't get to fit in half of what we wanted to do - but it was still an amazing time and even better was the time spent with my mom and sisters (and, of course, the wedding!).