Travel during COVID!? We sure did – and it was an experience worth sharing! Another trip that’s impossible to forget and will never be duplicated.
Let me start by saying we had already cancelled 3 trips earlier this year (Mexico twice (April & May) and Alaska in July). We had booked several other trips in July/August/September with high hopes we’d be able to go SOMEWHERE warm. I just kept rebooking trips, but would have to cancel because borders hadn’t reopened (or they'd close again). We were able to visit our friends in New Jersey and Chicago, but it just wasn’t quite the same :)
❌ April Mexico
❌ May Mexico
❌ July Alaska
❌ July Bonaire
✅ July New Jersey
❌ August Bonaire
✅ August Chicago
❌ September Mexico
❌ September Bonaire
❌ September St. Thomas
✅ September Aruba
This was our first time to Aruba and it’s never really been on our list - but during COVID times, they checked every box:
✅ Allow Americans
✅ Strict travel entry requirements
✅ Located out of the hurricane zone
✅ Perfect weather
✅ Beautiful beaches
Due to all of our other cancellations, I booked everything only 2 weeks prior and soon enough, we were off to 10 nights of vacation bliss!
Before I begin, I will say that in order to enter Aruba, we were required to have a negative COVID test no older than 72 hours. We also had to purchase Aruban health insurance for the length of our stay, but after checking a few other boxes, we eventually received the green light for entry 48 hours prior to our departure. Throughout the entire trip, masks, thermometers, hand sanitizer and outdoor dining were abundant and we never felt anything other than socially distanced. They also practiced contact tracing so it was an all-around excellent place to visit during these times.
Of course we were nervous about traveling on a plane, but the experience was much better than we anticipated. We flew Delta through Atlanta and it was a seamless and uneventful flight. The airports were pretty sparse, there were no anti-maskers in the airport or on the plane and Delta does not assign middle seats, so we had our row to ourselves.
We returned on United first class and once again, had no issues. They served alcohol as usual and we received snack boxes instead of a warm (and always terrible) meal.
Island of Aruba
Let's get started with our actual destination. So many people have no idea where Aruba is located, so I’ll start with a brief geography lesson.
Aruba is a Dutch-owned country located 18 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. It's 20 miles long and 6 miles across with a population of ~117k.
It's located in the Eastern time zone, which is so convenient for us when traveling. It's a 4-4.5 hour direct flight from NY/NJ/BOS, which is why so many people from the Northeastern US vacation to Aruba regularly.
Boardwalk Boutique Hotel
Many of Aruba’s beaches are filled with high-rise hotels and time shares, so when we sought out a place to stay there were too many options. We love our small boutique hotels and none of these really fit our style – particularly at our price point!
As we were frantically searched for something…anything…we came across the Boardwalk Boutique Hotel. So cute!! While it’s not located directly on the beach (which I kind of wanted…) it was a short walk and met all of our other needs. It was adorable, beautiful, quiet and affordable.
We visited 7 beaches during our stay, but spent 90% of our time on Palm Beach. The beaches of Aruba are very diverse and we only saw ½ of the island. Some beaches were shallow with perfect turquoise blue water and soft, flawless white sand, while others were ideal for snorkeling – deeper waters with an abundance of rock and coral.
All of Aruba’s beaches are open to the public, so it was no surprise to see locals at our beach every day. They really only differentiated themselves by setting up their towels and coolers under trees instead of under an umbrella or palapa.
Palm Beach was our home base. Because our hotel offered a private area, it was nice to have a place to keep our towels and bag. We were located in between the Ritz and the Marriott with the Ritz being most northern of all the high-rise hotels.
The water at Palm Beach was perfect – There were zero waves with shallow and clear water and the sand was white and soft. I hate getting salt water in my eyes and waves are so much work. I want to relax in a raft and let my skin wrinkle from the water and get brown from the sun. We’d let the Aruban trade winds cool us down and move us slowly out to sea. This was like a gigantic pool, but so much better! The water was so shallow you could walk out more 200+ yards and the water was still only waist-deep.
Eagle Beach is stunning. There is a reason it’s been named the 3rd most beautiful beach in the world. It has the turquoise waters you see in movies and the softest white sand that your feet have ever touched. It was about a 5-10 minute drive south of where we stayed, so we stopped on two different occasions. Some sections of the beach are particularly wide, but the water is a little deeper and there are a few gentle waves that keep you on your toes. Eagle Beach is where most of the low-rise time shares are located. It’s near the middle of the island, closer to the airport and cruise port.
Baby Beach is at the southernmost part of the island and a 45 minute drive from our location. We visited once and walked the entire length of the beach. This part of the island is much less developed. Once again, the water was gorgeous, but the beach itself was relatively small and clearly a spot for locals.
Rodgers Beach is located next to Baby Beach and mostly where boats docked. Another small beach where locals tended to visit.
Arashi Beach was probably our favorite beach. It was only a 5 minute drive north and another local hang out. It was a perfect combination of my ideal beach (calm, beautiful, quiet), but also had good snorkeling. We entertained ourselves for over an hour. We were relaxed and determined to return (we didn’t…)
Just 30 seconds down the road from Arashi Beach was Boca Catalina. It was recommended by the hotel for great snorkeling, and as a result of the low tourism, the water was more clear than usual. I can say Boca Catalina was arguably the best snorkeling experience we’ve ever had. This also confirmed to us both that we love shore snorkeling - you don’t need anyone to drop you anywhere and you’re on your own schedule. At Boca Catalina, we entered the water by walking down a set of steps carved out in the coral stone. From there, we just put on our masks and explored the underwater world. We saw 1,000’s of fish and 100’s of species. It was fascinating. We loved it so much, we went back another time when we were the only people in sight. The water was significantly deeper here (12+ ft) and obviously more rocky and full of coral. This was not a beach to lay in the sun, but almost strictly to snorkel.
Mangel Halto was a 30 minute drive south of our location and was recommended by our hotel as a nice snorkeling spot. We arrived, tried and failed. This was a true local hangout and the five locals there had their share of laughs as they watched us try to walk on rocks (we have delicate feet!) and snorkel in shallow water with an undercurrent. Let’s just say, we did not return to Mangel Halto :)
We were very excited to try different restaurants in Aruba. There are so many to choose from and it’s nearly impossible to really know what you’re getting yourself into if you’ve never visited before. We’re very used to the all-inclusive experience, but our real preference is to try different cultures and step out of our comfort zone. We did a little of everything on this trip and food was surely a highlight.
Wacky Wahoo’s was one of our favorites. We ate here twice and enjoyed 4 different types of seafood - Wahoo, Barracuda, Grouper & Yellowfin Tuna. The seasoning and sides with each was relatively the same, but the taste and texture of each fish was so different. I preferred the Wahoo, while Steve really enjoyed the Tuna. The atmosphere was quirky, the food delicious and prices reasonable.
I’m not sure what to say about Eduardo’s other than it exceeded our expectations 10 fold. The hype is real. Everything I researched said “GO TO EDUARDO’S!!” so we gave it a try and couldn’t stop. In the end, we wish we didn't buy so many groceries so we could go to Eduardo’s every day. It was only a 15 minute walk down the beach and their food was fresh, delicious, healthy, and reasonably priced…exactly what you want before, during or after a day at the beach.
We loved the tuna ahi bowl and every fruit bowl we tried. The fresh pressed juices were phenomenal too. The Boardwalk Hotel offered Eduardo's for breakfast delivery, so we tried that once...and they even delivered to our beach chairs on our last day!
Let me start by saying I LOVE pre-fixe dinners more than almost anything. Of course they're expensive, but you're paying for more than food and wine - you're also paying for the experience! Literally, my favorite experience. Aruba offered a few of these and Fred was ranked as the #1 restaurant in Aruba on TripAdvisor. I was tentative. Was it the real deal? There is usually a 3-6 month waiting list to get in, so there is a huge appeal. I did a little more research and it seemed like our style. There were only 10 diners, 1 chef, 1 host and we were all served the same 5 courses. Wine was an optional addition (yes, please!)
We started on an outdoor rooftop patio where each of the 5 couples were appropriately spaced. Tom poured us all a glass of prosecco and let us chat with the other diners who were all Americans from Chicago, New Jersey, Boston and Cleveland. This was the first time Steve and I had talked to anyone in 9 days, so it was sensory overload for a few minutes :)
This was an unforgettable meal where I was able to step out of my comfort zone and truly enjoy the experience!
Zeerover is another place we read "YOU MUST GO!!!" and we're so glad we did. We were both 100% intimidated by the experience, but like they say...when in Aruba! It's a local spot where they catch the fish that morning and pull right up to the dock. It's usually packed with both tourists and locals, but due to COVID, we walked right up to the window. They offered two fresh catch of the day (today it was whole red snapper and amberjack) as well as fresh shrimp, fries and a few other sides. We decided to go big or go home and shared a whole red snapper with shrimp and fries, which was then all fried up and brought to us in a plastic basket.
Absolutely intimidating, but also outstanding! I managed to figure out how to eat it without getting any bones and it was probably the most delicious fish I've had in my life. The Hot Delight papaya hot sauce just put it over the top. Perfectly seasoned, tender and crispy and went down nicely with a cold beer.
They came in sets of 2, so we enjoyed the Korean chicken, baja fish, smokey pork, shrimp, chicken morita, la gringa and buffalo chicken. The Korean chicken, baja fish and shrimp were the stand-outs of the group.
Old Cunucu House
We wanted to be sure we tried local Aruban cuisine during our trip and Old Cunuco House was just that.
We started with iguana soup and a basket of authentic Pan Bati bread, followed by Aruba's national dish of Keshi Yena (basically just gouda cheese and chicken) and coconut shrimp. For dessert we enjoyed Pan Bollo (bread pudding).
I'm not sure what we were thinking when we ordered 64 oz of Aruba's own Balashi beer??? I guess it felt right at the time!
Sunset Grille at the Hilton Hotel
We choose the Sunset Grille on a night when we had no idea where to go and didn't want to drive or take a taxi. We had walked through the Hilton previously and seen their nice patio overlooking the pool and beach areas. They also handed us a pamphlet with this $99 four course menu for two.
So, when we didn't know where to go - we went to a hotel restaurant - which is something we wouldn't typically do. But this was quite a deal AND it included a glass of wine! It was overindulgent and we both could have been done after our first course. Needless to say, we took home a ton of leftovers and ate them for breakfast and lunch a few times - and we saw a beautiful sunset.
Azia was a sushi restaurant that is part of a larger chain - also something we don't typically do - but it was different and seemed like a place where we could get smaller portions.
We started with a couple of fancy cocktails and then proceeded with sushi, stir fry vegetables and Brussels sprouts.
This was probably our least favorite restaurant. The veggies and Brussels weren't that great, but the sushi was exactly what we expected.
I couldn't write this post without mentioning the incredible cheese selection at the local grocery store. It was overwhelming and I honestly can't even remember how many times we went back to replenish our cheese selection. Dutch Gouda cheese was coming out of our ears. It was amazing! If you visit Aruba, please do yourself a favor and buy some Gouda cheese. You'll thank me.
We visited One Happy Island and the outcome was incredibly relaxed and very HAPPY!