Aruba is the smallest and most Western island of the Dutch Antilles, which, known locally as the ABCs, also include Bonaire and Curaçao. Aruba is a popular cruise destination, and it's little wonder why. The beaches are so perfect they're almost cliched: miles of white, sandy beaches, turquoise waters and the requisite year-round sun. Over a million visitors arrive on this tiny island each year, enticed by its luxury resorts, first-class restaurants, 24-hour casinos and excellent watersport facilities.
Most visitors stay either in the capital, Oranjestad, or just to the north in one of the many resort complexes on Eagle and Palm beaches. The remainder of the island is much less developed and in the arid interior there is nothing more substantial than cacti and divi-divi trees, contorted by the consistently strong trade winds. For those who need more than sunbathing to get their kicks, there are plenty of activities available on the island. There is good diving and snorkelling along the reef on the protected leeward coast and the windsurfing is excellent a little further north at Fisherman's Hut. Deep-sea fishing can also be arranged through many of the hotels.
Windsurfing and kite surfing are undeniably two of the biggest drawcards for visitors to Aruba, with the island providing some of the best conditions possible in the world for these two sports. Whether a beginner or an expert, there are spots suitable for everyone as well as plenty of schools and shops that provide lessons and equipment hire. Further water-based activities include snorkelling and diving along the shallow, world-class coral reefs, tubing, banana-boating, and much more.
Holidaymakers with a yen for horseback riding can indulge themselves in Aruba's topography, which provides plenty of adventurous and enjoyable excursions, from sand dunes to arid desert plains. Riding experience is not required to join a guided outing from one of the two main horseriding operators, Rancho Notorious and Rancho Del Campo. Most excursions take in the island's sights and landmarks, like the Arikok Hills, the lighthouse and natural bridge.
A visit to the waterfront in Oranjestad is all it takes for deep-sea fishing enthusiasts to hire themselves a private boat with captain and crew, for a day or a few hours, to set out to sea in search of game. The island's temperate offshore waters boast a wide variety of Atlantic game fish, including white and blue marlin, Barracuda, Shark, Blackfin, Bluefin and Yellowfin Tuna. In high season charters may be difficult to come by, so it may be wise to book ahead through your hotel.
And of course, for the less actively-inclined, there are miles and miles of pristine white beaches, fringed with palm trees and ringed with warm, bright blue water. An idyllic spot to relax and unwind.
San Nicolaas is the industrial centre of Aruba, and the island's oldest and largest town. Until the late 19th century it was a small fishing village but all this changed with the mining of phosphate on the island, and more recently the discovery of oil off the coast of Venezuela. The town provides a glimpse of old British-Caribbean charm and contains a handful of restaurants and shops, most notable in a section of the town's main road that has been turned into a promenade.
There are a few popular beaches to the east of the town that offer good swimming and snorkelling opportunities and are suitable for families. The main natural attraction in San Nicolaas is the natural bridge, carved out of rock by wind and water, that can be found in nearby Seroe Colorado.
Charlie's Bar is another popular attraction. Established in 1941, local lore has it that the bar used to serve rowdy sailors and oil refinery workers. Over the years, the bar's patrons have often left little keepsakes there - a licence plate, a shirt, a hat, a frisbee, and much more. All of these items now hang from the bar's ceiling, giving the space an eclectic feel. The bar has been featured in two recent novels by the American author Daniel Putkowski.
Arikok National Park encompasses a significant chunk of the interior and a long stretch of the northern coast. The park has miles of well-marked hiking trails and this, for most, is the best way to discover it.
Between the towering cacti and the contorted divi-divi trees can be found the best preserved Indian cave paintings on the island, deserted plantation houses, and the ruins of an old gold mine. There are also two ancient Aruban adobe huts, made entirely from materials found on the island, that have been carefully restored using traditional building techniques. The huts give a fascinating insight into the life of Arubans before they were able to import many useful materials into the country.
Within the park is Mount Jamanota, which at 620ft (188m) is Aruba's biggest hill, as well as the only slightly less high Arikok Hill. From the top of either hill one can enjoy good views of the island and on a clear day one can see across to Venezuela. At the southern reaches of the park are the Guadirkiri Caves and the Tunnel of Love. Legend has it that the headstrong daughter of an Indian Chief was trapped here with an unsuitable suitor and left to perish but their love-boosted spirits shot through the roof of the cave and into heaven.
Just north of the capital, Aruba's best stretch of beaches extends four miles (7km) between Eagle Beach and Palm Beach. The endless golden sand and crystal-clear shallow water has attracted crowds and with them the high-rise, luxury hotel complexes that line the beach.
There is no shortage of bars and restaurants to choose from and beachgoers are able to hire all sorts of toys including kayaks, windsurfers, snorkelling gear and catamarans. North of Palm Beach there many colourful reefs and shipwrecks to entice divers and snorkellers. Some shallower reefs are so close to the shore that it's possible to walk out into waist-high water to look at the sponges and coral. Diving trips, windsurfing and sailing lessons can be arranged through most hotels. Tubing, parasailing and banana-boating are also available, and very popular.
For those looking to take a break from the beach, the nearby Butterfly Farm is a fun outing. There's also the Bubali Bird Sanctuary, a small marshland where visitors can view hundreds of species of migratory waterfowl including coots, cormorants, terns and herons. A favourite place to enjoy the sunset is at the restaurant by the California lighthouse on the northern tip of the island. The lighthouse was built after the British steamship, the California, which ran aground here in 1891.
Also known as 'Conchi' or 'Cura di Tortuga', Aruba's Natural Pool is a must-see tourist attraction. It is formed from a depression in the surrounding volcanic rock, and filled by the spray of the tide smashing into the deserted coastline below. The Natural Pool is a unique geological formation, and a tranquil place to spend the day swimming.
The pool is situated in the heart of Aruba's most rugged terrain, and is inaccessible by car; however, visitors can hire or charter a Jeep to take them there, or hike there, or (most romantic of all) get there on horseback. The sense of discovery in 'finding' the Natural Pool in the midst of the rocky, almost lunar landscape, is second-to-none. Take note, though, that the rocks around the pool can be sharp and are also slippery because of the spray, so it is a good idea to wear shoes when clambering over the rocks. There are also often little crabs crawling all over the rocks.
Oranjestad has a tropical climate with average daily highs reaching 86°F (30°C) year-round. The temperature never gets too high due to the cooling trade winds, but the best time to visit Oranjestad is in peak tourist season between mid-December and mid-April. Rainfall is infrequent, but likely to occur between October and January, if at all.
With an average temperature of 82°F (28°C) all year round and never dropping below 68°F (20°C), Aruba is constantly hot. Luckily, visitors are kept relatively cool by the constant trade winds. The peak tourist season is between mid-December and mid-April, and if you can visit outside this period, you can expect room rates to be almost halved. Rainfall is infrequent, but if it occurs at all it's usually between October and January. You can visit Aruba all year round with great weather, but to avoid the busiest times, go in late April or early May.
The official currency is the Aruban Florin (AWG). The Florin is tied to the US Dollar. US currency is accepted everywhere and other major currencies can be exchanged at banks. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted and there are ATMs in Oranjestad.
The official languages in Aruba are Dutch and the native Papiamento. English and Spanish are taught in school and are also widely spoken. Some French is also understood.
Electric current in Aruba is 127 volts, 60Hz. Flat two and three-pin plugs are standard.
United States passport holders must have a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals require a passport valid for period of intended stay and may stay for 90 days without a visa.
Canadian nationals require a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
Australian nationals require a passport valid for period of intended stay, but no visa for stays of up to 90 days.
South African nationals must hold a passport valid for period of intended stay, and a visa. Holders of a valid multiple entry 'C' or 'D' visa issued by a Schengen member state can stay for up to 90 days without a visa.
Irish nationals require a passport valid for period of intended stay, but no visa for stays of up to 90 days.
United States passport holders must have a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
New Zealanders require a passport valid for period of intended stay, but a visa is not needed for a stay of up to 90 days.
All passports must be valid for period of intended stay. It is highly recommended that travellers always have six months validity on their passports after departure. Visitors must hold sufficient funds, onward or return tickets, and all documents for next destination. As part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travellers travelling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean region are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. If departing from the USA a valid passport will be required by immigration authorities.
Most visas can be extended up to a total of 180 days per calendar year.
There are no special health requirements for visitors to Aruba, but travellers coming from yellow fever infected countries in Africa or the Americas, aged over six months, need an immunisation certificate. Aruba has experienced occasional outbreaks of dengue fever, a flu-like illness transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes that favour densely populated areas. The use of insect repellent is advised. Visitors are warned that some types of fish, including some tropical reef fish, are poisonous when eaten, even cooked. Medical care is good in Aruba, which has one hospital, the Dr. H.E. Oduber Hospital. There are three classes of service for patients depending on the level of their insurance. Health insurance is recommended. Food and water are considered safe.
A 10 or 15% tip is usually included on restaurant, bar and room service bills in Aruba, otherwise a tip should be added, usually 10-20% depending on the service. There is an 11% room tax on hotel bills. Taxis should be tipped around 15% and porters expect a tip of US$1 per bag.
Crime is not a major problem in Aruba and most visits are trouble-free. However, visitors are still advised to take common-sense precautions, such as locking valuables in the hotel safe and taking care when walking home at night.
Oranjestad is the main business centre in Aruba and the focus for the island's growing international financial services. English is considered to be the language of business. Meetings are generally held in formal settings such as offices or conference centres; smoking and chewing gum are not acceptable. Handshaking is customary for introductions between both men and women; female business associates should be treated with as much respect as men and often hold high positions in companies. Punctuality for meetings is required. Business hours are 9am to 5pm.
The international dialling code for Aruba is +297. Internet cafes, as as well as hotels with free wifi, are widely available. The Aruba Tourism Authority has also introduced free wifi zones in renowned tourist areas on the island.
Travellers to Aruba over the age of 18 do not need to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars; 1 litre alcohol and gift articles to the value of AWG 100. If goods per person exceed AWG 500 in value this should be declared on customs forms for clearance at the freight department.
Aruba Tourism Authority, Oranjestad: +1 800 862 7822 or www.aruba.com
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Aruba): +1 202 244 5300.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Aruba): +44 (0)20 7590 3200.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Ottawa, Canada (also responsible for Aruba): +1 613 237 5030.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa (also responsible for Aruba): +27 (0)12 425 4500.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for Aruba): +61 (0)2 6220 9400.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Dublin, Ireland (also responsible for Aruba): +353 (0)1 269 3444.
Royal Netherlands Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand (also responsible for Aruba): +64 (0)4 471 6390.
US Consulate General, Curacao (also responsible for Aruba): +599 (0)9 461 3066.
British Consulate General Amsterdam, Amsterdam (also responsible for Aruba): +31 70 427 0427.
Consulate of Canada, Curaçao (also responsible for Aruba): +599 (0)9 560 9936.
Hiring a car is a great way to get around the island, and many companies offer three-day specials for such excursions; however, travellers planning to stay on or near a resort will quickly find they don't really need a car. Aruba has a good bus system that connects most hotels with downtown Oranjestad, running roughly every 30 minutes from 8am to 6pm and every hour from 6pm to midnight, Monday through Saturday. Taxis are also available (although hard to hail, so it's best to have the hotel or restaurant call for one), and a preferable mode of transport after dark. There are no meters but drivers have a list of official fares.