Before You Go To Aruba… Lessons Learned From Our Vacation In Aruba

riu-palace-hotel-resort-aruba.jpg In November, we were fortunate to be in Aruba on vacation. It was an all-inclusive trip with one price including:

  • Airfare
  • Ground transportation to and from the airport in Aruba
  • 7 days and 6 nights at the RIU Palace (pronounced Rio), an all-inclusive resort that’s located on the beach (Palm Beach) at the far north (or west) end of the island
  • All beverages (including alcohol of every size, shape and flavor — even a fully stocked bar and refrigerator in the room)
  • All food (round the clock, available at restaurants, buffets, and 24-hr room service with full menus and desserts)
  • Complimentary sun loungers in the pool and parasols on the beach (yeah, kinda trivial… but the experience of drinking while lounging in the pool or at the built-in pool bar were so cool!

Here’s a review of the RIU Palace hotel & resort.

We went with our friends, Terry and Rhonda.

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A First Time For Everything

I had never stayed at an all-inclusive resort before. In fact, every time someone mentioned “all-inclusive” in the past, my mind always went to Sandals. I’ve never been to a Sandals resort, but somewhere along the line I’d heard that Sandals had become overly commercialized and over-hyped.

Which is kind of how I characterize Carnival cruises — where everything is available to you for free, but the employees aren’t really happy with their jobs and the customers are treated like nuisances rather than “guests”. (At least that’s how things were on the Carnival Cruise I went on — even though I still had a good time.) My experience was completely different when I went on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

So, I didn’t know what to expect when we began planning our first vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Aruba.

And now, after staying at my first all-inclusive resort, I’m 100% convinced that I would choose an all-inclusive resort over an all-inclusive cruise, if given the option again.

We enjoyed the “all-inclusive” things on this trip that much…

Read: 10 Reasons To Visit Aruba

 

What’s To Drink?

The free drinks are so plentiful that you never tire of drinking the same thing twice. Though Jim and I each found our “favorites” and we stuck to those most of the trip. Now, you just have to mention one of the ingredients and our mouths water!

Jim’s Favorite: Aruba Ariba:

  • coco-rosa-and-aruba-ariba-drinks.jpgrum (3/4 oz of 151 proof)
  • vodka (3/4 oz)
  • banana liqueur (1/2 oz)
  • orange liqueur (1/2 oz)
  • fruit punch (2 oz, or pineapple + cranberry juices)
  • triple sec (only our bartender in Aruba added this; not standard)

This is an island-wide favorite, served by Aruban bartenders all over the island.

Lynnette’s Favorite: Coco Rosa:

  • vodka
  • coconut cream
  • granadina syrup
  • lemonade

The Coco Rosa appears to have been concocted by the bartenders at the RIU Palace Hotel & Resort in Aruba.

favorite-aruba-bartender.jpg

 

What About The Money?

You may be inclined to convert your U.S. money over to Aruban money (Florins) as soon as you hit the ground after the flight. BUT DON’T! We did, and we found it nearly impossible to spend their Aruban money anywhere. No joke. They prefer U.S. money, and they all have the conversion rates in their heads when dealing with tourists.

Some (if not most) places in Aruba will simply not accept Aruban Florins. They’ll pass up the sale instead. I know, it seemed absurd to us too! But it happened to us more than once. It’s as if only the “locals” use Aruban money and not in the touristy areas. For what it’s worth, the prices they changed in U.S. dollars all seemed quite fair to us.

Everyone from Aruba that we asked said that 99% of the tourists simply use their own money, rather than converting it to Aruban money. This surprised us. But then again, we don’t get out of the country  much — perhaps this is standard in tourist areas worldwide.

We needed some money to spend, so here’s what we ended up doing (since we had already converted several hundred dollars at the Currency Exchange place at the Aruban Airport)…

Jim sat at the blackjack table at the casino in our hotel. He gave them his $700 worth of Aruban money, and they gave him the U.S. dollar equivalent in chips. He played for a few minutes, then cashed out. Wa-lah, we were back in possession of our U.S. dollars once more.

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What About Debit And Credit Cards?

Credit cards are accepted everywhere in Aruba, without hesitation. But everyone we dealt with specifically asked for Visa or Mastercard. They were very reluctant to take American Express.

We used our Mastercard instead of our AMEX on 3 separate times for a grand total of $747 (U.S). As a result, Mastercard subsequently charged us a $32 “foreign currency exchange fee” for the privilege of using our Mastercard in Aruba that month. Ugh. (I believe it was a percentage of the total amount we spent.)

We also used the ATM machine located in our hotel twice. Not only did the machine charge us on the spot (just a couple of dollars each time), but our own bank also charged us some crazy amount for those transactions (something close to $10 each if I recall correctly).

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Water Fun

We rented jet-skis one afternoon for $50/hr per person (eek!). The price was a tad higher because we utilized the services of a local boat cabbie who picks you up at your hotel’s beach, drives you (via boat) to the part of the island where their jet-skis are located, then boats you back to your hotel. The fast boat ride there & back was actually half the fun.

My most memorable water fun adventure was the deep sea fishing trip we went on our second-to-last day there. I’ve never been deep sea fishing before, even though I’ve been in boats and on the water a lot. I didn’t really fear getting seasick beforehand, but I decided to take a Dramamine pill an hour before we set sail, then again moments after we boarded. (Mistake #1 – you should take Dramamine several hours prior to seasick-prone adventures!)

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The morning of our afternoon deep sea fishing trip, the skies were dark and rainy and it seemed the sun would never shine. We ventured on board the boat (“Lucky Star”), with rain slapping us in the face and the boat rocking to and fro from the waves.

As we got into deeper water, the captain sped up even faster — thinking we actually liked all the wave jumping! Perhaps most tourists do, we didn’t really. Nor did they speak English, so it was hard to communicate to them that we weren’t especially enjoying it.

About 30 minutes into the trip, I asked where the best place would be “should I get sick or something”. Within moments, those two Dramamine pills had worked their way up, along with all of the breakfast I’d enjoyed from the morning’s buffet.

jim-deep-sea-fishing-aruba.jpgI must’ve created a lot of chum for the fish, because immediately after I got sick, Jim’s fishing line started whirring at fast speed — he had a huge fish on the line!

So I’m busy creating more chum, then applauding and photographing his fine catch, then adding more chum, and so on. Even though I’d feel fine for 10 minutes at a time, I eventually got the dry heaves and no vision of the horizon could calm my stomach. Each time I thought I felt fine, it turned out I didn’t.

Unfortunately, after Jim caught his big fish, he started creating his own chum. At this point, the non-English speaking first mate starts hosing both of us down with salt water (from the hose that’s typically used to wash the blood from fish off the boat). He was trying to keep us cool, otherwise, we’d become dehydrated and overheat. But it was slightly annoying — especially since I had my $1,000 camera around my neck!

terry-deep-sea-fishing-aruba.jpg Next in the fast-paced stream of activity… our buddy Terry caught his own humongous fish! It was a few pounds heavier than Jim’s, and just as exciting to watch him reel in.

At this point, Jim and I could barely focus on the fun part of all this. (We were still having fun, I kid you not! But our stomachs were not cooperating.)

Terry and Rhonda look over at us and then at the captain and without pause said, “Could you please take us back to shore?”

rhonda-terry-fishing-aruba.jpgWe motored on back to the hotel, much slower and with much less wave-jumping action than we had ventured out on. All in all, it was a great adventure! And I was fine as soon as we hit dry land.

We ended up forfeiting 3 of our 4-hour deep sea trip (that we pre-paid for!). But the smiles returned to everyone’s faces once we stepped food on dry land and we went on with our day.

In case you’re wondering the Lucky Star was something like a 30-foot boat, and in the middle of the ocean we were tearing up the incredibly high seas (along with wind & rain). It looks extremely calm in the photo below because it was — close to shore. The hotel beach where they picked us up and dropped us of was in a little inlet. Oh, and the fish the guys caught were 5-foot Wahoo in the 70-lb range.

deep-sea-fishing-aruba.jpg lucky-star-aruba-deep-sea-fishing-boat.jpg

To give you some idea of how rough the water was… here’s a video showing 6-8 foot seas. We had every bit of that and more. Most of the time, we had more like 10-20 foot seas. Plus, it was incredibly windy and rainy.

Two hours later, we all went in town and bought lots of jewelry!

tanzenite-necklace-aruba-jewelry-store.jpg terry-and-rhonda-jewelry-shopping-aruba.jpg

 

Some Things You Should Know Before You Go

Aruba is only 19 miles long and 6 miles wide. The entire island can be seen in one full day by car.

The RIU Palace Hotel & Resort (like most of the major hotels in Aruba) is located 2-1/2 miles from “downtown” and 6 miles from the airport, at the small but  “touristy” north (or west) end of the island.

Our cab fare from the airport was $20 (U.S.). At the time, we didn’t know that ground transportation was included in our package deal. Which was actually one of the downsides to this trip… we never received our introductory package in the mail prior to traveling, so we just had to wing it until we got there.

aruba-airport-cab-driver.jpg aruba-one-happy-island.jpg

The first thing we learned: Aruba is “One Happy Island, Mon.” Just ask our cab driver, whose name was Honey. He said there’s not much else to do around here but be happy and enjoy the alcohol!

All of the cab fares are pre-set by the Aruban government; they don’t use cab fare meters. Interestingly, they don’t post the rates in public, but the cabbies will show you the cab fare rates, if you ask.

There are a few cruise ships with stops in Aruba. Two ships docked near downtown when we were there. (Aruba’s downtown area is called Oranjestad.)

In addition to all the shops, stores, and flea market booths that are located “downtown” (which is barely more than a roundabout or two), there is a much more upscale and touristy shopping district located at the northwest end of the island. It was within walking distance of our hotel.

oranjestad-downtown-aruba.jpg flea-market-booths-aruba.jpg

 

Everywhere we went, we felt incredibly safe. Even in some of the less-touristy areas, where the locals lived. (We had a 4WD Jeep, so we went everywhere.) The Aruban people do not invest a lot of money in their homes and vehicles, that’s for sure. Their priorities are obviously elsewhere. But, as the Island motto states, everyone in Aruba is HAPPY.

Yes, 2 years after the fact, the Natalee Holloway case was on our mind, and we talked about it amongst ourselves a couple of times. But there were no signs that it was still being talked about in November 2008 when we were there. Perhaps that was the reason everyone was so “happy” — to overcome any pre-existing impressions that tourists might have.

We actually went to the movie theater on 2 different nights. We were surprised to see the exact same movies playing in Aruba that were in the States that week. Though the selection wasn’t as plentiful, and we wouldn’t have paid to see these particular movies in the States, movies were something fun to do at night in Aruba. After we’d filled up on food & drinks all day long at the beach and the hotel, a quite & calm night at the movies seemed like a good change of pace. We saw RocknRolla and Quantum of Solace.

Definitely rent a Jeep! Even considering all the wackiness that took place on our Aruban Jeep adventure, we think a Jeep is the best way to see the island — on your own. It was one of the most fun things we did while there.

Check out photos from our day spent Jeeping around Aruba.

The island of Aruba is also known as the Caribbean Desert. That was one of the biggest surprises to us. Yep, there is dry desert land practically everywhere you look (that isn’t beautiful blue ocean water!). This “desert” theme most came into play on our Jeep ride. The short version: we ventured to a lot of cool places offroad, saw a lot of interesting wildlife roaming free, explored some caves, unique rock formations, and beaches. Oh, and we got a flat tire.

jeep-aruba-desert.jpg country-desert-in-aruba.jpg aruban-desert-jeep-ride.jpg

 

Aruba has lots of beaches, but you rarely feel inclined to leave the luxurious beach at your hotel. Besides most of the other beaches are off the beaten path.

Even though the weather is generally nice year round, we were there during the “rainy season” (November). And while it did rain toward the end of our trip, thankfully, we got in most of our outdoor activities earlier in the week when it wasn’t raining. And when it rains in Aruba… it POURS! There was flooding like crazy on all of the side streets the last few days we were there.

The night after my deep-sea fishing adventure, somehow I managed to get sick (a different kind of sick, trust me) at a meat-eater’s paradise kind of restaurant called Texas de Brazil. It’s a popular chain in the States. They continually bring out thick hot & juicy pieces of fresh cooked beef, pork, and lamb all night long and you get to tell them Yes or No — you want them to slice you off a piece or not. It’s all-you-can-eat, and even if you’re saying No, your tablemates are often saying Yes. I only made it through the salad and one taste of beef. Seeing all that meat continually passing by me and under my nose as it was being freshly sliced on our table just got to be too much. I actually love beef, pork, and lamb — just not so much of it all in one place I guess. And not in a speed-eating kind of setting. I know a lot of people who would love this kind of place. I guess I’m not one. I was up all night with fluids coming out of both ends and it lasted 2-1/2 days — including our entire last day in Aruba. Food poisoning? Caught a bug? I dunno. I was still sick the day after we got home. (No one else felt ill, and they ate the same things and went to the same places I did.)

Read: Top 20 Restaurants In Aruba

 

What To Wear

I learned a valuable lesson about what to pack on trips like this.

Like most tourists, I took a ton of clothes & shoes on this beachy vacation. But all you need for 7 days, 6 nights in Aruba in November is:

  • a good pair of flip flops (I never once broke out another pair of shoes – even at the “nicer” dinners)
  • a swimsuit
  • a couple pairs of shorts
  • a couple of tank tops
  • 1 pair of lightweight casual pants
  • 1 jacket or sweater
  • your camera (I took 529 pictures!)
  • lip balm of some sort with SPF
  • sunscreen (…and lots of it!)
  • deodorant

I so wish I’d left all that other stuff at home. That way, I would’ve had more room to bring back souvenirs! I will definitely pack much lighter on our next trip.

Oh, and it’s kinda silly, but I’m so glad I got a short wash & go style haircut right before we left. Because you’re always on the go when you’re on a beachy vacation. And no one really cares what you look like; everyone goes out looking a little less made-up than they would normally. A carefree hairstyle enables you to be more spontaneous, without having to spend time “getting ready” when there are so many fun things to do — day and night.

Another thing I did was to visit the tanning booth a few times beforehand. I never burned on this vacation; I actually left with a really nice tan. Rhonda, Jim, and Terry were a tad sunburned when we left Aruba.

 

 

Would We Do It Again?

Since this trip, the 4 of us have decided to make it an annual event. Each year, we’ll choose a different vacation destination. Fun, fun, FUN!

We all agree that we would definitely like to stay at a RIU hotel & resort again in the future, but we’ll probably choose a different location, just for something different.

If you’re looking for a fun vacation resort, I highly recommend choosing one of the RIU’s 60 all-inclusive resorts, because that’s what made the RIU in Aruba so enjoyable for us. Many of their hotels are not all-inclusive.

The RIU Ocho Rios Jamaica $91/night special sounds pretty good to me! (available Aug 25 thru Oct 31)

Lynnette Walczak

I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money -- so I frequently write about "outside the box" ideas that most wouldn't think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed several years until switching gears to pursue things I was more passionate about. I've worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo -- to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun websites).

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Fun From Around the Web

  • http://twitter.com/Emmi134 Emmi Bances
  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.hill.94064 Joe Hill

    I went on Luck Star and we caught fish . They were the same as the going rate,wich was about $450.00 for a boat load of 6. Everything was fine untill we were about ready to leave. We caught 2 large tuna ,3 small tunawhich looked like bait and a Bar jack. as we were leaving thet kept the prise winners and gave us the small tuna. We had no idea they get 70% of the fish caught. Beware the whole island is like this. We would have been happy with one large tuna to feed our friends and family,instead they gave us the sca=rape and kept the good ones!

  • Willow Lundgren

    Thank you, Lynnette! I am doing less packing than ever before based on your suggestions. Off to Aruba — my first time in the Caribbean — Friday. Thanks for all the great tips!

    • http://thefuntimesguide.com/ FunTimesGuide

      Wow – sounds like fun, Willow! Can’t wait to hear about it when you get back :-D

  • Brian and Christine Martin

    49 Days and counting. I just copied your suggested packing list. Maybe I wont do what I always do and pack too much. This will be our third time and we can;t wait.

    • http://thefuntimesguide.com/ FunTimesGuide

      I used to always pack way too much… Even now when I consciously try to pack the bare minimum, I still end up with things we didn’t need. Usually way more clothes than necessary – for every version of temperature change :-D *HAVE FUN IN ARUBA*

  • KAREN

    Thank you soooooo much – we are going in September and this has been the most information I’ve been able to find – great job (6-15-2013) Karen

    • http://thefuntimesguide.com/ FunTimesGuide

      Oh good! I’m glad that you found the info helpful. Often the best tips come from others who’ve been there, done that :-D HAVE FUN ON YOUR TRIP!!!

    • Donna

      I am taking a girls trip there in Sept as well. This page has been a big help.

  • Dina

    wow, thank you for all the great info! I wish people would write about their vacations in other areas too. My friend and I want to go someplace next Feburary, but we haven’t decide ‘where’ for sure yet. Aruba is one option, or Cozumel or Belize or Jamaica. I wish there was so much info on each place, it would be easier to pick one!

    • http://thefuntimesguide.com/ FunTimesGuide

      So glad you found the info about our trip to Aruba helpful!! I haven’t been to Cozumel, Belize or Jamaica (yet), so I can’t give you any personal advice there. Wherever you go, if you end up having any tips for future travelers, please let us know. Can’t wait to hear about your trip!!!

  • lasnj6

    We’re going to Aruba in two weeks! Hoping the rain isn’t too bad then. I am wondering about souvenirs that you brought home and shopping. We like to get something a little artsy to display in our house (something with a local flare) and then I do like jewelry that is particular to a place we visit too. Any ideas there?

    • http://thefuntimesguide.com/ FunTimesGuide

      I didn’t do a whole lot of shopping myself, but there are a few cute shops (some artsy and selling local jewelry too :-D) within walking distance of all the hotels on the main strip. We walked there one evening and had dinner and browsed the shops a bit.