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Travel guide to Aruba

Jessica Padykula is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto, Canada covering a wide range of  topics for several online lifestyle publications. She is a regular contributor for SheKnows, covering travel, style, relationships, health and...

Where to stay, eat and play on Aruba

The term “Caribbean” takes many a mind to long beaches and turquoise water (which is lovely), but there’s a lot more to Aruba that the brochures might tell you. Don’t get us wrong, we love the beach, but Aruba is an island worth exploring.

 Travel guide to Aruba

Why you should go

There's nothing wrong with wanting to sit on the beach all day and never leave your resort, but Aruba is so much more than a spot to hole up without exploring. The diverse landscape (one that goes from white-sand beach to beds of towering cacti) is the first thing that sets the island apart from many others. Add in the extensive array of activities suited to everyone from kids to groups, gorgeous beaches, fabulous food and locals that live up to the motto of "One happy island," and you have a destination worth coming back to. We weren't surprised to find out the majority of visitors we met come back year after year.

Where to stay

One of the most versatile hotels we noticed on the island (and the one we were also lucky enough to stay at) was the Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. The something-for-everyone property manages to be as ideal for honeymooners (and we met several) as it is for families and groups of girlfriends. Whether you're on your own, with friends or business associates, or it's just you and your significant other, you'll likely feel at home at the Aruba Marriott. We enjoyed some much-needed downtime at the H2Oasis adults-only pool (note that you'll need your room key to enter), but the large free-form main pool is ideal for families. Grab a spot on the lengthy stretch of Palm Beach outside the hotel, sunbathe, swim or try your balance on a paddle board, which you can rent on the beach from Vela Windsurf.

The extensive property also boasts a full fitness center (which we unfortunately didn't have time to try), a large casino, a spa and a whole host of daily activities — from yoga and step class for the fitness minded to bracelet making and bottle painting for kids. Staff who go out of their way to help and who genuinely seem to enjoy their jobs add to the overall experience.

 Travel guide to Aruba

What to see and do

Since the island of Aruba is quite compact (19.6 miles long x 6 miles across), it’s possible to easily traverse the entire island in one trip. We got the chance to see the island from end to end with friendly and informative De Palm Tours. The open-air jeep ride (hold onto your hat — it gets windy and bumpy) makes several stops, including the Alto Vista Chapel, the island's first Roman Catholic church, and Baby Beach, an ideal spot for snorkeling.

If you happen to be in Aruba on a Thursday, do yourself a favor and head to San Nicolas for the weekly Carubbian Festival, a fun and lively festival, carnival and food fair all rolled into one unforgettable event. Sample local treats like Johnny cakes with cheese or salt fish, pick up some souvenirs and enjoy the parade of dancers and other performers who take over the stage in an enthusiastic procession we still can't believe happens every single week. The night ends with a parade through the streets, complete with drummers and costumed dancers. The Carubbian Festival takes place every Thursday from 6-10 p.m., and you can arrange a visit through De Palm Tours.

Beach tennis is something of a national sport in Aruba and a fun activity any visitor should try. It's basically like playing regular tennis but on a regulation beach-volleyball court using paddle rackets and a slightly depressurized tennis ball. The sport is easy to learn and makes for a great workout. Learn more about beach tennis at Beach Tennis Aruba.

Where to eat and drink

If you only eat at one restaurant in Aruba, make it Simply Fish, where not only will you get attentive service and perfectly cooked creatures of the deep, you’ll get to enjoy your delicious meal while wiggling your toes in the sand. That's right, the majority of the seating is on the sand — and we wouldn't have it any other way. Although we opted for the macadamia-crusted grouper from the à la carte menu, you can also choose from several daily fish and seafood offerings along with how you'd like the fish or seafood prepared (i.e., grilled, baked, poached, etc.) and the two sides of your choice (which ranged from coconut rice to fried plantains).

No matter where you are, there's something romantic about dining with a stunning view, which is what you get when you're enjoying a meal overlooking the water at Pinchos Grill and Bar. Situated on a pier over the water, the setting is part sophisticated picnic and part stylish backyard cocktail party with fresh, creative dishes and unique cocktails.

Eating local is a must when you travel, and in Aruba, that experience is easily had at Zeerover, a simple waterside eatery where they turn out fresh-caught fried fish by the bucketful, along with French fries and some of the best fried plantain we've had so far in our travels.

As for drinks, if you like your beverages strong, fruity and flavorful like we do, order an aloe rum punch (aloe is Aruba's main export) from the bar at the H2Oasis pool at the Aruba Marriott. The boozy concoction is a perfect balance of sweet and tart notes. But beware — one is enough if you have things do to.

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