SUN, SAND AND SOLACE
Written by Bridget Williams
There are approximately 45,0000 tropical islands (12-acres or larger) in the world, but only one—Aruba—lays claim to being "One Happy Island." Goodness knows I was in dire need of a dose of happiness as I set off for this tropical paradise amid a pandemic. While some raised their eyebrows in response to learning of my travel plans, others expressed their desire for "the good old days" that involved unfettered travel. At the time of my trip at the end of July, only 28 countries in the world were welcoming visitors bearing a United States passport.
While I knew there were risks, I was confident in my ability to mitigate them, confidence further bolstered by Aruba's proactive efforts to keep COVID offshore. In the end, I decided that it was my responsibility as a journalist to experience international travel during a pandemic first-hand, as we all need to learn how to function as normally and as safely possible as we tiptoe around this invisible foe. Prior to arrival, we were required to complete an online Embarkation/Disembarkation Card that included, among other items, providing proof of a negative PCR COVID test taken within 72 hours of our arrival and purchase Aruba Visitors Insurance (for current regulations, visit aruba.com/us/ traveler-health-requirements).
Tourism as a major segment of Aruba's economy didn't take off until the 1950s when a large oil refinery that had been the island's main source of employment closed up shop. Aruba's first multi-story hotel, The Caribbean Hotel, opened with great fanfare in 1959. Designed by prolific architect Morris Lapidus, who defined the "Miami Modern" hotel era of the 1950s and 1960s and whose CV also includes the Fontainebleau, Americana, and Eden Roc hotels, the resort rises from what is arguably the choicest piece of beachfront real estate on the island—Palm Beach.
The 357-room resort began flying the Hilton flag in 2016 and immediately set about a year-long multi-million- dollar renovation. Today, the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino continues to be Aruba's hospitality standard-bearer, which adds additional peace-of-mind in the COVID era. At the time of our visit, the hotel was operating at twenty-percent capacity. Aruba, which typically hosts fifty-thousand tourists on any given day in July, only had seven-thousand. Clearly, social distancing was never a problem.
A sense of history at the Hilton Aruba pervades, from the vintage photographs scattered throughout to a surprisingly large number of employees who've worked at the resort for decades. For the scores of guests who've been coming year-after-year, this creates a feeling of familiarity that can turn a standard vacation into something more akin to a joyful family reunion.
The 15-acre property boasts lush gardens that separate the hotel from the beach. A walking path winds down from the open- air lobby, past the Mira Solo lobby bar, and the bird garden (don't be surprised if a member of the flock squawks out “hello'” as you pass), and around a pair of large zero-entry pools, before joining a public walking path that extends 2.5-miles along the beach. We set up camp at the ocean's edge, allowing the gentle rustling of the palm leaves that formed the roof of our 'palapa' to lull us into a state of relaxation.
There are six onsite dining options, and at each, like the rest of the resort, there are protocols in place to protect guests and staff. Sunset Grille, a modern steakhouse under the operation of affable Executive Chef Matt Boland, sits at the dining options' pinnacle. Originally from New York, Boland has lived on Aruba for three decades and is an outstanding advocate for his craft and the island. If you ask nicely, he may share his favorite site for swimming with green turtles. Just as entertaining at Chef Boland was our server Juan who possesses one of the most infectious laughs I've heard in a long time. At the Hilton Aruba, we quickly learned that the staff's genuine hospitality creates the most memorable experiences.
Positioned at the top of a cascading waterfall and a prime spot for watching the sunset, the Mira Solo Bar is ideal for light bites and a pre- or post-dinner cocktail. Rising from the center of the bar is a lighted sculpture that mimics a Divi-Divi tree. Distinctively shaped to grow in the direction of the prevailing winds, the ubiquitous trees are associated with tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity. Ordering an Aruba Ariba, the island's signature drink is a must. It was created at the hotel by Juan "Jockey" Tromp during a mixology contest in 1963. The drink’s refreshing fruitiness belies some serious punch, so imbibers beware! I was a fan of the Aruban Spice and Everything Nice cocktail that had a buttery complexity courtesy of a dash of local pica di papaya hot sauce.
The lunch-only Gilligan's Seafood Shack, positioned between the beach palapas and the pool, offers generous portions. A similar menu is available from the comfort of your lounge chair by the water as well. The loveliest ladies served us an afternoon espresso each day at Oscar's Market, a grab-and-go option for lighter fare and snacks.
The most memorable meal has to be the one that's custom- crafted for guests through the Sunset Concierge program. Guests are served a bespoke five-course at their choice location, either on the property or off. We chose to supper a short stroll from our room and with our toes in the sand at the water's edge. For quite some time, our rapt gaze fixated on a sailboat that appeared almost if it were on cue, and became perfectly silhouetted in the center of the sun as it slowly slipped into the infinite horizon. To our delight, Juan was our concierge for the evening. He perfectly paced the meal, prepared to our specifications, and far exceeded our expectations.
On property, activities include watersports, a kid's club, a daily complimentary Wellness Journey either on land or sea and the Eforea Spa. The spa had just reopened at the time of our visit, and it was here where COVID precautions were most apparent and disruptive (for obvious reasons) of the typical spa experience. Even without the use of locker and relaxation rooms, and wearing a mask throughout our massage, the staff went above and beyond to make the treatment as relaxing as possible. Normally open twenty- four hours a day, the sprawling fitness center that is part of the spa complex has limited hours and is kept as clean as a whistle.
Similarly stringent protocols are in place in the resort's casino, which is the only one on the island to offer poker tables with glass partitions separating each person around the table.
Just across the street from the hotel are scores of shops and restaurants catering to tourists. While it was closed during our visit, Papiamento Restaurant (papiamentoaruba.com) came highly recommended for its commitment to serving authentic local cuisine in a 126-year-old Aruban "cunucu" house and gardens.
While Palm Beach is the island's social hub, it's worthwhile to engage De Palm Tours (depalmtours.com) to arrange for rental of a UTV for a self-guided tour of Aruba's rugged northeast side. Using intuition and dumb luck to navigate the dirt roads, we encountered rock arches, secret swimming holes, and hardscrabble watering holes seemingly cobbled together with jetsam and flotsam. After making a few inadvertent circles and accidentally coming too close for comfort (on my end) to a cliff's edge, we followed the advice of Lilian Polsbroek, Hilton Aruba's Senior Sales Manager, to head in the direction the Divi-Divi trees were growing. Sure enough, they pointed us in the right direction, and we were soon back in civilization.
For a less bumpy adventure, take a short walk down the beach to the pier where Red Sails Sports offers snorkeling trips, stopping at the SS Antilla, the largest shipwreck dive in the Caribbean. The behemoth cargo ship, scuttled in 1940, now serves as an ideal host for tube sponges, coral formations, tropical fish, shrimp, lobsters, and orange anemones.
Despite the hoop-hopping required to visit Aruba, and the voluntary two-weeks of self-quarantine upon our return, I will say that once we arrived at the Hilton Aruba, it was easy to escape into island time and a vacation state of mind for a few delightful days.
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