One Happy Island. It's the official slogan of Aruba, a small Dutch constituent in the southern Caribbean. With the word happy in the motto, celebrating my birthday there last week seemed ideal. The low airfare, as well as the promise of abundant sun, turquoise water, and immaculate white sand beaches were enticing. So was the travel time. The non-stop flight from Houston is only about four hours long, which meant I’d commence my week-long vacation without jetlag. Happy birthday to me!
Aruba is densely populated — about 102,500 inhabitants in a land area of 69.1 square miles — and according to the cheery fellow who drove my husband, Matt and me from the airport to our hotel, most Arubans work in the tourism industry.
Our driver also informed us that the island has no other major means of commerce besides tourism. While researching Aruba before booking the trip, I discovered the roughly 10-mile stretch of beachfront on the island’s northwest coast is divided into two main areas: the high-rise area and the low-rise area. The former sits on Palm Beach and as the name connotes, is home to all the high-rise hotels and resorts, including brands like Marriot, Hyatt, and Hilton. The cozier low-rise area sits on Eagle Beach and consists of smaller hotels and resorts, all only a few stories high. The island’s famous Divi trees also proliferate the low-rise area, I assume because there is less development there.
Since the birthday girl gets what the birthday girl wants, I decided what I wanted was a quiet, relaxing vacation. I didn’t want to be swept up into the hustle and bustle of other tourists, nor did I want to spend much time (if any) around families vacationing with children. This trip wasn’t about excursions or shopping, sightseeing or watersports. And the only nightlife we were interested in would see us tucked in bed by 11:00 p.m. every night. Reading and swimming, sunbathing and walks on the beach — that’s what this trip was about. The low-rise area sounded just right.
Unfortunately the low-rise area doesn’t have a 5-star resort. Still, not even the promise of one (the Ritz-Carlton in the high-rise area) was enough to dissuade me from choosing the 4-star, adults-only Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort on Eagle Beach. My decision was influenced by glowing Trip Advisor reviews promising a superior beach with few tourists. And did I mention ADULTS-ONLY? Not having to worry about crying babies and parents allowing their kids to run amok during our peaceful vacation? The. Best. Birthday. Gift. Ever.
Upon arriving at our hotel, we knew immediately we'd made the right choice for the type of vacation we wanted to have. Missing from the Bucuti & Tara’s modest property were the touches of opulence to which I'm usually partial when traveling, but what they lacked in crystal chandeliers and marble surfaces, they made up for tenfold with impeccable service, delectable dining, and exclusive access to an unsullied beachfront.
The first day we laid out on the beach, I was worried about getting a "good" spot. But since we're not the type of people who rise at the crack of dawn to stake our claim with towels and belongings (we hate those people), we resigned ourselves to accept whichever chairs were available by the time we got down there. Besides, we'd been assured by both the hotel’s in-room information packet and numerous Trip Advisor reviews that the hotel had more than enough lounge chairs to go around. Being armed with this knowledge still wasn’t enough to stop me from stepping out onto our balcony several times as we were getting ready that morning to make sure there were still empty chairs. There always were. From the looks of it, the hotel easily had double the amount of chairs necessary to accommodate each guest, even if every last room were occupied. I'd been worried for nothing. We found not only two, but three chairs in a prime spot (I used the one not covered by the umbrella whenever I wanted to maximize my sun exposure!) and promptly raised our little red flag for service. Two Pina Coladas, please!
And so began our vacation. We woke up each morning anxious to plant our feet into the cool, powder-soft sand and walk to "our" lounge chairs. "Our" because even though guests never had to claim chairs, we all had our favorites. Every day, people just returned to the same chairs they'd used the day before. An unspoken agreement. It’s how we spent most of our vacation — reclining in our favorite chairs, fruity concoctions in hand, staring out at the sea. The sun was hot, but the trade winds kept us cool. We watched the sun set every night, either from our balcony or the restaurant patio. On my birthday, Matt treated me to dinner in a private palapa, where we sipped sparkling rosé as the sun slunk into the sea. Ahhhhhruba.
The one day we ventured to the high-rise section for dinner, I was struck by the Fort Lauderdaleness of that area. Cool if Fort Lauderdale is your thing, but I can do without the chain restaurants and retail stores, not to mention the large crowds. Because Palm Beach is smaller than Eagle Beach, there is less surface area for beach chairs. Some are set so close together, you could reach out and touch your neighbors. No thanks. The high-rise area also had all the trappings of tourism that annoy me — everywhere we walked someone was trying to hand us a flyer or coax us into their shop. Stray dogs roamed the street in small packs — some of them pregnant or nursing — looking dejected and pleading for scraps. It was depressing to watch. After a quick al fresco meal at an Italian joint called Gianni’s (the highlight of the journey to the high-rise area), we returned to Eagle Beach, firmly convinced we'd made the right choice for ambiance and tranquility.
As all good vacation go, it was much too short. But I am grateful to have spent an incredible week in a place I’d always heard of (sing it with me: “Aruba, Jamaica, oh I wanna take ya, Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama...”) but never given much thought about visiting until I saw a great price on a plane ticket. While the Mediterranean is still my favorite sea, it’s hard to beat the Caribbean’s proximity, beauty, and affordability. In all three areas, Aruba shines as bright as its sun. And that thing about One Happy Island? It’s not an empty promise. We were greeted with welcoming smiles by every Aruban we encountered. Whether they were in the service industry or not, they were friendly and helpful, clearly happy just to be living in such a lovely place. As I type this, I’m looking at a giant conch sitting on my desk. Along with a gold charm for my bracelet, it is the only souvenir I brought back. The shell is nice, but the story behind it is even better:
One afternoon, Matt and I were walking along a stretch of sidewalk near Eagle Beach when we passed a fenced-in construction site. Two workers on ladders were hard at work and seemed not to notice we’d paused just on the other side of the fence to admire the conches the construction had unearthed. Several were within reach on our side of the fence so we began picking them up, looking for one to take with us. We found one that was in good condition, though on the smallish side. As we turned to go, Matt pointed out a large conch. It looked perfect, but it was on the construction side of the fence and too far for us to reach even if we stuck our arms through the gaps. We gave each other a look that said, Oh, well, and turned to go.
“You want?” It was one of the men, calling down to us from his ladder. Before we could answer, he scrambled down, scooped up the shell, and brought it to us. Sweat was pouring down his face, but he handed the conch through the fence with a big smile, as if he were offering not an empty shell, but the island itself. We thanked him and tried to tell him he didn’t have to do that, but he informed us in a mix of Papiamento (the official Aruban language) and halting English that he didn’t understand us. Still smiling, he said two English words he did know, “Thank you.” Yes. He thanked us. As he returned to his ladder, Matt and I walked on. We were speechless. Can you imagine a construction worker in the U.S. doing such a thing? We sure couldn’t. But that was the norm all over the happy island of Aruba. People were thrilled to be of service, even when service wasn’t their job. We told the construction worker anecdote to a taxi driver one day and she told us that’s just how Arubans are. “We are raised this way,” she said, beaming. “Being nice is why we so happy.”
The Aruban people get it.
It’s not a novel idea, this concept that niceness equates to happiness. But it is a reminder we could all use from time to time. I seldom bring back tangible souvenirs from vacations, preferring instead to bring back lessons. What did the vacation teach me? What can I learn from people in other parts of the globe? These lessons are the gifts that keep giving long after the trip is over.
In addition to the reminder to be as happy as an Aruban, I also learned to embrace sweetness the way the Arubans do. They even have a word for it: dushi. According to one of the bartenders at our resort, dushi is Papiamento for "sweet." When used as an endearment it can mean “sweetheart,” when used to flatter, “sexy.” She pronounced dushi like the American slang word douchey, which, I think we all can agree, is definitely not a compliment.
I’ve been back home for two days and I’m already missing the dushi life. In rush hour traffic today, I told myself to think nice thoughts about the other drivers (despite the fact that many of them were behaving like dushi’s homophonous twin). Just keep it dushi, I instructed myself, just keep it dushi. I think it’s my new mantra.
I hope you’ll add Aruba to your list if you haven’t been already. Trust me — you’ll have one happy vacation if you do.