The islands share Dutch heritage, visible in the street names, gabled roofs, and cafes where keshi yena (Gouda cheese stuffed with meat or fish) is as common as strong coffee. Despite the similarities, Aruba and Bonaire appeal to different vacationers.
With sunny weather virtually guaranteed, Aruba and Bonaire lure work-weary urbanites fleeing cold climates. Both islands, situated off the coast of Venezuela, lie below the Caribbean’s “hurricane belt,” so big storms remain rare and rain is confined mostly to November and December.
Aruba spreads out in a dry desert landscape of red dirt, cactus and volcanic rock interspersed with divi-divi trees, their branches bent from the 10-25 knot breezes. The non-stop breezes make Aruba a windsurfing Mecca, host to international competitions. At Hadikurari beach you can watch the experts skim the waves. Aruba also has a bustling capital, Orangestad, and glitzy casinos in most major hotels.
Palm Beach is a long stretch of sand fronting the island’s high-rise hotels. Teens, twenty-somethings and families like the beach’s bustling vibe plus the parasailing and other vendor-offered Caribbean adventures. The shops and cafes that face Palm Beach’s hotels on the inland side make it easy to find souvenirs as well as dining options, including inexpensive meals and snacks. But beware: Some hotels lack enough chaise lounges. That motivates guests to rise early to claim their spaces.
Bounce along the island’s rugged northeast coast in a Jeep, admiring the fast-breaking surf and the ruins of a gold mine. Explore Arikok National Park’s trails and caves and get a close encounter with some big birds at the Aruba Ostrich Farm.
Where to stay
Ritz-Carlton Aruba: The beachfront property offers a casino, spa, and a Ritz Kids program for ages 4 to 12.
Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino: The chain is scheduled to complete a multi-million dollar renovation this month. With 15 acres, the hotel offers more beachfront space than many other Palm Beach properties.
Bonaire’s well-preserved, offshore marine park makes the island a diver’s and snorkeler’s paradise. More laid-back than Aruba, Bonaire has few beaches.
The best beach on the island, white sand Sorobon at Lac Bay, is also known for its superb windsurfing. The water remains relatively shallow – 2- 4 ½ feet deep – for a long way out and the constant breezes always blow towards shore. No worries about being blown out to sea. Rentals and windsurfing lessons are available.
Many of the snorkel and dive sites begin right offshore, making it easy for children and new snorkelers to explore. At 1000 Steps, walk in from the shore and swim through iron formations, teeming with fish.
Klein Bonaire, one of the more than 80 dive sites within a 15 minute boat ride from the coast, features brain coral, gorgonians, angelfish and the occasional turtle.
Where to Stay
Both Harbour Village Beach Club and Buddy Dive Resort have on-site dive centers that offer dive packages and lessons. Harbour Village, a bit more upscale than Buddy Dive, offers hotel rooms to 4-bedroom residences. Buddy Dive features studios to three-bedroom units.