Warm sunshine and beautiful beaches are Aruba's major attractions. The seemingly endless strips of white, sugary sand along the southwestern coast rank among the Caribbean's widest and most beautiful, and the shallow aqua surf is ideal for swimming. Toys such as jet skis, WaveRunners, parasails, and banana boats are plentiful. Near the island's western tip, steady winds draw windsurfers, while the shallow waters and abundant marine life attract snorkelers. Shipwrecks, sunken planes, and coral reefs dot the entire leeward coast, keeping scuba divers happy, and along the south-central coast, mangrove forests, barrier islands, and calm seas combine for favorable kayaking conditions. For those who prefer to see the wonders of the sea without getting wet, submarines and glass-bottom boats make daily excursions. Anglers can struggle with barracuda, wahoo, marlin, and tuna in the deep waters not far from the coast.
Although dramatically beautiful, the northern coast of the island is pounded with waves. The stunning vistas and craggy limestone bluffs are great for hikes and picnics, but playing in the current is treacherous and strongly discouraged.
Land-based activities include bicycling, golf, hiking, horseback riding, birding, ATVing, and tennis.
Aruba is small—maybe too small for cyclists who think nothing of biking 97km (60 miles) a day. The exotic terrain is flat for the most part, but heading into the wind is a challenge, and the sun is intense at midday. You know to bring plenty of water, a hat, and sunscreen. The most scenic roads trace the northern coast. They're not paved, so think mountain bike. Bring a bandanna, too, to cover your mouth against the dust. To rent a bike, go to the website of Bike Rental Aruba (www.bikerentalaruba.com). It delivers bikes to homestays and hotels around the island, including e-bikes and scooters, starting at just $21/day (that's for a mountain bike). Helmets, child seats and insurance are extra.
Although no organized tours are offered, ardent birders have the opportunity to spy 170 different species in Aruba. In early winter, migratory birds swell the number to about 300. In the High-Rise area, the Bubali Bird Sanctuary's ponds and wetlands attract more than 80 species, including brown pelicans, black olivaceous cormorants, herons, and egrets. Arikok National Park, which makes up much of the island's north-central region, is home to hummingbirds (common emerald and ruby-topaz), rufous-collared sparrows, ospreys, yellow orioles, American kestrels, black-faced grassquits, yellow warblers, Caribbean parakeets, long-tongued bats, common ground doves, troupials, crested caracaras, and Aruban burrowing owls.
In the High-Rise area, the Bubali Bird Sanctuary attracts more than 80 ornithological species to its nutrient-rich ponds and wetlands. How many brown pelicans, black olivaceous cormorants, herons, and egrets can you spot? Farther afield, Arikok National Park (tel. 297/585-1234) features several diverse ecosystems in a compact area. Birds here include hummingbirds (common emerald and ruby-topaz), rufous-collared sparrows, tropical mockingbirds, ospreys, yellow orioles, American kestrels, black-faced grassquit, yellow warblers, Caribbean parakeets, long-tongued bats, common ground doves, troupials, crested caracaras, and Aruban burrowing owls. The Wyndham, Radisson, Hyatt, and Renaissance offer close encounters with a variety of showy tropical species such as toucans, cockatoos, and macaws.
Local fishermen use simple hand lines (fishing line, hooks, and lead weights) to bring up red snapper and dolphin fish. Most activity takes place along the southwest coast, although some anglers occasionally venture to the north coast, where the rough seas trap fish in small pools carved out of the limestone bluffs. To try your hand at deep-sea fishing, charter one of the many skippered boats. Typical catches include barracuda, amberjack, sailfish, wahoo, blue and white marlin, kingfish, bonito, and black- and yellowfin tuna. A few restaurants will even cook and serve up your day's catch.
On the island's northern tip, Tierra del Sol (www.tierradelsol.com) is one of the Caribbean's best golf courses. The championship 18-hole, par-71 course was designed by Robert Trent Jones II and features stupendous views of the ocean and the California Lighthouse. Bunkers, cacti, and coral rock come into play throughout the course, while water hazards are confined to holes 13, 14, and 15. Gusting to speeds of 64kmph (40 mph), the wind is the real challenge, though. The only competition is from the Links at Divi Aruba (www.divigolf.com), near Druif Beach, a picturesque 9-hole course surrounded by landscaped water traps, lakes, and lagoons, and boasting a camera that captures your final shot so you can review the tape over drinks in the clubhouse that overlooks the greens.
The sun is hot, and shade is scarce, but if you bring water and a wide-brimmed hat, traipsing around Aruba's hills and coastline is full of rewards: otherworldly rock formations, bizarre cactus groves, fluorescent parakeets, and dewlapped lizards. Hiking boots are nice, but sneakers are fine. Arikok National Park (tel. 297/585-1234) has many clearly marked trails. Scale the island's highest hills, explore abandoned gold mines, tiptoe around plantation ruins, trek through caves, and comb sea bluffs for coral and bones. Aruba Nature Sensitive Hiking and Jeep Tours (tel. 297/594-5017; www.naturesensitivetours.com) give ecofriendly tours led by former rangers. Tours cost $79, and include easy or challenging hikes to various caves, gold mines, or sand dunes.
Time to get back in the saddle, or just saddling up for the first time? Several ranches offer morning and midday excursions, and, if you're hopelessly romantic, rides off into the sunset. The horses are good-natured and calm (although the ranch hands have been known to get a bit frisky). Long sleeves, long pants, closed shoes, sunglasses, and sunblock are strongly recommended. Tip: Since helmets are required, despite being a bit musty, don a baseball cap before strapping on one of these well-worn numbers for a better (and no doubt cleaner) fit. The protruding bill will also afford you an extra inch or two of shade.
Aruba's coastline and outback are just as dramatic when viewed from the saddle. Several ranches offer early-morning and midday excursions, or you can ride off into the sunset. As you wend your way through cacti and random boulders in the outback, watch for iguanas and skittish cottontails. Stop at Alto Vista Chapel and California Lighthouse, and then ride along the shore. Or start at the crashing waves and sand dunes of the northern coast before heading for the Natural Pool. Keep your eyes open for bickering parakeets and hovering hummingbirds. That ominous bird circling over your head? Not to worry: It only looks like a vulture.
Based at a 17th-century coconut plantation on the northern coast, Rancho Daimari, Palm Beach 33-B, Noord (tel. 297/586-6285; www.actiontoursaruba.com), offers 2-hour trips through Arikok National Park and to the Natural Pool, where snorkeling and swimming in the restorative waters are encouraged. The price is $105.
Rancho Notorious, Boroncana 8E, Noord (tel. 297/586-0508; www.ranchonotorious.com), offers several options. The 1-hour tour passes through the countryside for $65. The 2-hour tour covers more countryside, Tierra del Sol, the California Lighthouse, and Malmok Beach for $100.
The Gold Mine Ranch (tel. 297/594-1317; www.thegoldmineranch.com) offers 2-hour tours starting at $75 and offers free transportation. This longtime, family-run operation has a nice amount of variety on its tours, usually hitting some nine different destinations, from old mining trails and sights to beaches.
Harleys of the sea -- just as fast, just as noisy. Put on your black leather swimming trunks and head for Palm Beach, where several vendors have one and two seaters.
The leeward (south) coast's calm waters are ideal for kayaking. Starting near the old fishing village of Savaneta, guided tours hug the coastal mangrove forests before crossing a lagoon to a small island, where you can have a bite to eat and snorkel. You'll find kayak rentals and tours from the same outfits that do windsurfing (click here).
This relatively new activity, which was developed in Australia, harnesses wind power to propel a lightweight go-kart frame across the flat dunes. Bonaire already has a large track built for this easy-to-learn and completely safe sport. Aruba still uses open dunes, which are sometimes too muddy after it rains. With luck, a track will be created to ensure good sailing conditions year-round. Aruba Active Vacations (www.arubaactivevacations.com) is the island's main purveryor for this type of tour, which starts at $60/person.
All-terrain vehicles that look like a cross between a dune buggy and a tractor mower let you play road warrior, and can be rented by the hour or the day. For those who want the thrill of the ride without the fear of getting lost, guided tours embark from several tour agencies.
For those who want a rough-and-ready (if noisy and treacherous) island adventure, several places rent all-terrain vehicles. Georges, L.G. Smith Blvd. 124 (www.georgescyles.com), next to the Harley-Davidson store in Oranjestad, rents ATVs for $120 per day and scooters for $55 per day. For an organized tour, check in with De Palm Tours, L.G. Smith Blvd. 142 (tel. 297/582-4400; www.depalm.com); its rates start at $99. Action Tours (www.actiontoursaruba.com) is another solid operator, though its tours are pricier, starting at $120. Tip: As with horseback riding, safety helmets are a must and work well over your own baseball cap, providing a more comfortable fit and feel. Select a helmet with the word "Bell" on the back -- these are actual safety helmets. It's best to avoid the ones with a message inside that reads, WARNING, THIS IS A NOVELTY ITEM AND NOT INTENDED TO BE USED AS A SAFETY DEVICE.
If a Jeep tour is too slow and an ATV is too fast, then a TomCar is juuuust right. These dune buggies drive like a car, have four-point seat belts, and are so stable, you can't flip them if you try (yes, we tried). Feel free to play Mad Max as your convoy snakes along gravel slopes, dirt roads, and sand dunes on one of two routes. Green Zebra Adventures (tel. 297/585-0027) is based at the Aruba Ostrich Farm and offers two daily tours. The morning drive costs $109 and takes you to Seroe Colorado, Baby Beach, and Quadirikiri caves and includes a tasty lunch at Boca Prins. The afternoon expedition is $149 and winds its way through Ayo Rock Formation, Bushiribana Gold Mine, Baby Natural Bridge, Alto Vista Chapel, California Lighthouse, and Boca Catalina Beach.
Aruba looks even better from 180m (591 ft.) in the air. Flight time is only 10 minutes, but secure in your boat-towed parachute, you're on top of the world. Several watersports centers along Palm Beach will be happy to put wind in your sails. Take a waterproof camera along to show your friends back home that you've been there, done that.
Sailing adventures are available day and night. Some include watersports, while others feature drinks, snacks, or a full gourmet dinner. For night owls, dance-and-booze cruises include a midnight dip in the sea. If you have something special to celebrate, charter a private yacht. Catamarans, trimarans, and ketches are available. The calm waters along the southern coast are also ideal for extra-buoyant individual sailboats such as Sunfish. At De Palm Island, the trimaran Windriders come complete with a captain to navigate the waters or give you a crash course in sailing. For complete info on sailing options, click here.
Aruba offers enough coral reefs, marine life, and wreck diving to keep most wet suit-wearing folks happy. The water temperature averages 80°F (27°C), but during winter it can dip into the mid-70s. Due to currents and plankton, visibility varies, but at the leeward dive sites it usually ranges from 18 to 36m (59-118 ft.). The bountiful plankton nourishes a dense coral population, especially brain, sheet, finger, and mountainous star coral. Freshwater runoff is minimal. Sunken airplane fuselages and shipwrecks (including the largest in the Caribbean) are among the most popular destinations. In addition to snappers, grunts, angelfish, damselfish, and parrotfish, divers regularly spot less-common species such as frogfish, sea horses, nudibranchs, black crinoids, basket stars, scorpionfish, and eels. Barracuda, tarpons, and jacks also call Aruba's waters home. Click here for detailed info on operators and costs.
Good visibility, several shallow reefs, and a couple of wrecks give snorkelers an array of options. All sites are on the southern, or leeward, coast. Slightly north of Palm Beach, Catalina Bay and Arashi Reef feature brain and star coral, sea fans, parrotfish, angelfish, and an occasional octopus; the 122m (400-ft.) Antilla shipwreck is impossible to miss. De Palm Slope, off De Palm Island, features some impressive coral as well. Click here for detailed info on operators and costs.
SNUBA -- Though not affording you the freedom and excitement of scuba, this technology allows you to breathe while descending up to 6m (20 ft.) by way of a regulator tethered to a floating tank of compressed air. No experience is necessary; most of the catamaran tours allow passengers the option either before or during the trip to sign up and give it a whirl. On De Palm Island, you can also try Sea Trek, where you don a diving helmet and weighted boots and explore the seafloor; though you won't see much coral, you will see a lot of fish swimming around a submerged bus and two planes, and can sit for a photo op at a submerged cafe table.
Most of the island's beachside hotels have tennis courts, many of them lit for night play. Some also boast pros on hand to give clinics or individual instruction. Nonguests can make arrangements to play at hotel courts, but guests have priority. The island's best facilities are at the Aruba Racket Club, Rooi Santo 21, Palm Beach (tel. 297/586-0215; www.arc.aw), which features eight lighted courts, a swimming pool, a fitness center, and a bar and restaurant. The club is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 11pm, Saturday 9am to 7pm, and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. Contact the club about the availability of day passes (which change with the seasons).
Another way to experience life at the bottom of the sea is aboard a submarine, where you can descend 45m (148 ft.) to observe coral, shipwrecks, and some very curious fish. If you'd rather not have your vessel submerge completely, hop on a glass-bottom boat. The viewing deck is only 1.5m (5 ft.) below the surface, but a scuttled German freighter, encrusted with coral and teeming with other marine life, is just feet away. The sub leaves from a pier in front of the Crystal Casino in Oranjestad; the glass-bottom boat departs from Pelican Pier on Palm Beach. For more details, click here.
Windsurfing & Kiteboarding -- Aruba's high-wind season is the longest in the Caribbean. Wind speeds are best in May, June, and July, when they average 20 to 25 knots. From December through April, they slow to 15 to 20 knots, and from September through November they range from 10 to 20 knots. Most launches are on the leeward side of the island, near the hotels and major beaches. The most popular site is off the northwest tip of the island on Malmok Beach, an area known as Fishermen's Huts. Near San Nicolas, both Rodgers Beach and Boca Grandi are alternatives to the hotel area. To avoid collisions, kiteboarders and windsurfers take turns throughout the day.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.