CARIBBEAN

Welcome to Aruba

Welcome to Aruba

Welcome to Aruba!

Welcome to Aruba!

Bon Bini
Welcome to Aruba—One Happy Island! It’s truly the most beautiful island we’ve been to with the largest beaches, the whitest sands, the bluest water, the friendliest people, the most amazing food, incredible shopping, fun and fantastic tours and it’s a hundred, thousand times more safe than the United States. If I was asked to define it in one word, that’s easy — P A R A D I S E.

The sunset from our balcony at the Tam

The sunset from our balcony at the Tam

Tom and I compare everything to Aruba. It’s almost unfair to the other islands. We’ve tried a lot of them, and every time we do, we circle back around to Aruba and are more reluctant to try a new one. We went to Aruba for our honeymoon in 2001 and stayed at the Divi Divi Resort because of a recommendation from one of Tom’s friends from work. And we’ve stayed at the Tamarijn (Tam), a sister resort, sharing the properties between the two. There are pros and cons to each resort, but both resorts will offer you a most excellent vacation.

The balcony of our ocean-front room, looking over at the Bunker Bar.

The balcony of our ocean-front room, looking over at the Bunker Bar.

The Tam offers all ocean front rooms and the views are absolutely spectacular. We could sit on our balcony and watch the sunset over the ocean. Talk about a magic moment. And it was absolutely peaceful as at that time there were very few people on the beach. Maybe a couple walking along the water’s edge. There’s probably 6 different pools that support the Tam and the Tam’s timeshares. There’s very few people at the pools so you can sun bathe and swim in absolute quiet. The rooms are not luxury by far, but they very much feel like a caribbean retreat. The view and the balconies totally make up for the room decor. The only con for me to this resort is it’s sheer size. We had a room half way down in the 1800 building. If we had been any further away from the hub of the hotel, I would have had to take the shuttle just to get breakfast.

Just outside our balcony is the Bunker Bar at the Tamarijin.

Just outside our balcony is the Bunker Bar at the Tam.

Kids are free at the Tam, but not at the Divi, so there are obviously more kids at the Tam. But that’s really only relevant if you want to use the main pool.

Both the Tam and the Divi have outdoor wood-fired ovens with personal pizzas that they make custom to order until 1 am. We got one almost every night right before the bar closed. They also make open-faced panini sandwiches — the roast beef was the most amazing sandwich — I have never found another place anywhere that can make a roast beef panini like they do. These alcohol bars are also snack bars, offering fried chicken fingers, cheese fries, burgers and other bar-type food, made to order, any time of the day. We were never hungry. In the evenings we ate at either the open door, screened in buffet, which was amazing in itself or made reservations at one of the fine dining restaurants. The Tam has an incredible Italian restaurant — we ate there numerous times, as well as a “cook your own” kind of restaurant with grills on the table. The Divi has a restaurant called The Red Parrot — offered lots of seafood — and it overlooks the beach. Um, I had to order from the kids menu (since I’m allergic to a lot of seafood) and the waiter made fun of me all night. Not my favorite restaurant.

I've never been to a beach like this anywhere.

I’ve never been to a beach like this anywhere.

At night we would hang out at the bars or the lounge chairs around the pool and enjoy the nightly entertainment. They also have large screen TVs in the open air lobby at the Divi, and we watched a Steelers game in December 2007 there. That was fun. Actually, December in Aruba was an experience in itself! It was so strange to have Christmas lights on the palm trees and nativity scenes in town with 88° weather and a warm caribbean breeze.

We would also hit the Alambra Casino every night, which was a short walk or golf cart shuttle from the Divi. It was definitely a shuttle ride from the Tamarijn, but they ran often. I think this is the best casino on the island. All of the others are very crowded. The one in the Marriott was shoulder-bumping crowded. There were a few casinos off the beaten path with maybe 25 slot machines. Also very crowded with the locals. The downtown casinos were more crowded than the Alambra as well. When we went in 2001, the Alambra offered entertainment. Tom was so excited, because the show was an impersonator show — and he loved those in Vegas. But it turned out to be transvestite impersonators. I laughed so hard when I saw his face when he realized they were men dressed like women. Oh, I’m laughing about it right now. If you only knew Tom. They don’t offer entertainment anymore.

Drinks. Aruba had tropical drinks made like nowhere else! They offered a daily tropical drink, which we tried everyday. These included: Blue Hawaiian, Yellow Belly, Neptune, Killer Kool Aid, Bubble Gum, Sex on the Beach and Aruba Ariba. We also had plenty Pina Coladas, Strawberry Daquiris, Banana Daquiris, Miami Vice’s (combination of Pina Colada and Strawberry Daquiris) and a couple other awesome drinks such as the Zoom, Pink Panther and Brown Lady. Aruba also makes it their own beer — Balashi — which is one of Tom’s favorite beers. And you can only get Balashi in Aruba. I’ll be sure to post a drink recipe a week for the next couple of months so I can share the love!

You can take a bus or cab ride to town, which was only 10 or 15 minutes from the Divi/Tam. It’s only 20 minutes from the airport. This resort is so close to everything. There’s a couple different casinos downtown. We of course checked them all out. Downtown offers what I’ll call air-conditioned shopping that sold more expensive things, and the open air huts with Arubans selling what you think is island merchandise (if you look, you’ll easily find the “made in China” stickers on everything). These Arubans also sell at the hotels one or two nights a week, and you can negotiate with them as well. I’m not such a good negotiator, not when I know this is their livelihood, so I pay the extra two dollars. You can also see the cruise ships coming into port from the Divi/Tam so you know when NOT to go downtown.

As far as tours, they have it all. Aruba is an interesting island in only about half of it is inhabited. The other half is a very rough surface from volcanic activity at some point during the island’s development. But it’s also very beautiful with the sea coming up and crashing across these rocks. You can rent a car or a jeep and it takes a day to explore the whole island, maybe two if you’ve never been there before, or you can choose to take a jeep tour.

The Jeep Tour. If you go to Aruba, you have to take the official tour by jeep. You drive and share a jeep with another couple, so four fit in the open top jeep. The tour takes you to all the tourist attractions on the island. They literally take you over a mountainside that you would have never driven over if you hadn’t taken the tour, trust me! When we first learned we had to drive over the edge, Tom almost turned around and said, “not in a million years.” But since we shared the vehicle with another couple, we couldn’t really chicken out! This experience alone is worth taking the tour! The jeep tour includes the “natural pool” — and, I have to say, it’s definitely “natural”. First, it’s a major climb down another mountainside (while not in the jeep) with stairs carved out of the rock. So some are high and some are low. I was in good health when we did that climb. Going down wasn’t bad, but going up was tough, especially with 90° heat. And you’d think the climb was worth it — ah, a “natural pool.” It’s a natural formed “hot tub” where the ocean crashes up and over it and the water is very warm. It’s about 6′ deep in the center, so if you can’t swim, it’s probably not a good idea to jump right in. I had a major freak out moment when I got in the center of this “hot tub” and realized the sides of the walls were covered in these giant, crablike spiders. They were easily the size of soccer balls, hanging all over the black rocks, moving slowly like giant tarantulas. There was nothing “magical” about that moment!

If you ever get the chance to go to Aruba — GO! I highly recommend you pay the few extra hundred dollars to stay at the Divi or Tamarijn. And if you have any questions about Aruba, drop me a line!

Where Else Have We Gone?
I also loved the Riviera Maya. The culture is the most interesting part of the Riviera — as everything here is authentically Mexican. The blankets I bought in Mexico were not made in China. We’ve gone there twice and stayed with Barcelo resorts both times. Fantastic! We went in 2000 and 2003. And you’d think only three years between those that not much would have changed. Well, there were about 25 new resorts in 2003, but more noticeable was the Mexican police, highly armed at various places along the route. It didn’t feel safe as we made the hour bus ride from the Cancun airport. And as the drug situation got worse over the years, we never went back.

I have a very fond memory from the Riviera — the night we ventured out of the resort in February 2000. My boss at the time had taken the entire office for a long weekend. Our hotel had discussed safety with us, and told us to be sure we took taxicabs from the hotels and pick them up at the same place. So we went with Daniel and Erica, another couple from the agency. The taxicab was the size of an eco-friendly car you’d see today, and we could barely fit the four of us in it. Tom rode in the front and being the jokester that he always is, says to the Mexican driver (who speaks no English), “Ándele, Ándele, Árriba, Árriba.” Well, this Mexican hits the gas, we all got thrown back in our seats, and he was going 90 miles per hour — the entire car was vibrating and the crucifix on the review mirror was swinging like a pendulum. Erica was sitting in the middle of the backseat, ready to be launched through through the window at a moments notice, saying a Hail Mary. Tom was trying to find a seatbelt, but there was none. I asked him if he was okay, and he could not speak to me. This driver continued to scare us — passing trucks and cars on a single-lane road with oncoming traffic. I think Tom kissed the ground when we reach Playa Del Carmen. Oh, I’m laughing about it right now. If there’s one thing about Tom — he can make me laugh.

We went to Punta Cana in 2004. It’s safe to say that we will never, ever go back there again. If we won a trip there today, we’d pass. If you decide to go, I mean the hotels are surely gorgeous, and it’s relatively cheap to go there, make sure you pack a very large bottle of Pepto for each of the travelers with you. And if you go on any excursions, don’t eat a single thing outside of your hotel.

We made the mistake on a tour to a deserted island where they cooked us spaghetti. Well, we figured that the pasta was cooked in boiling water, surely the bacteria was dead. About 30 minutes after eating, we had to go to the bathroom. They had two outhouses where the lines were 20 people deep! Obviously everyone had the same problem. The tour guides told us there were additional “outhouses” behind those palm trees, down that way… Tom was telling me those two outhouses looked liked two holy grails with heavenly light coming from them as we got closer. I got inside for about 30 seconds when I realized there were huge tarantulas all over the inside! I had put my hands on each side of me so I didn’t have to sit on the seat and one of the spiders was crawling by my hand. I had a total melt down, barely getting my suit back over my body as I fled the outhouse! At this point, vanity was not an issue and the ocean was my savior! Tom never even realized there were spiders in the outhouses. Definitely not a magic moment.

Overall, I thought the drinks were watered down. We lost four days of our vacation with bathroom issues, even with drinking the Pepto. I was afraid to eat or drink anything by the last day. All of the meat tasted the same. It was all salty. We were told not to eat the fruit and some of the vegetables. We even considered trying to get an earlier flight home. Now that’s a bad vacation.

The Pier at the Wyndham Resort in Nassau, Bahamas.

The Pier at the Wyndham Resort in Nassau, Bahamas.

Our first day at the pool.

Our first day at the pool.

We’ve been to the Bahamas numerous times. That’s like an extension of Florida only you have to go through a lot of extra security checks at the airport. Tom and I have been able to get cheap four- or five-day jaunts with Cheap Caribbean and their last minute specials. I’ll subscribe a couple of months before we want to go and get specials via email. And the Bahamas is one of those places that is a shorter flight for us northerners. So it’s easy to take a shorter vacation.

The Wyndham Hotel and Casino, Nassau, Bahamas.

The Wyndham Hotel and Casino, Nassau, Bahamas.

Going to the Bahamas is not like going to Aruba or other resorts in the caribbean. The resorts are no where similar in any way — they’re more like large hotels with a pool and a small stretch of beach. The water is beautifully aqua blue, but you have to contend with lots of seaweed continually washing up on the shore. It’s a nice place to get away — but you can’t go much later than the first week of November or you can’t really swim as it’s just not warm enough.

The view from our balcony at the Wyndham Resort and Casino

The view from our balcony at the Wyndham Resort and Casino

Shopping in downtown Nassau is very similar to all the other caribbean islands. The native Bahamians sell all kinds of merchandise, including their own seagrass woven baskets. You can watch the women making these baskets and just how quickly they finish them. It’s about 15 minutes to downtown by bus. The Bahamas is probably the most “Americanized” island we’ve been to, meaning that our culture is very apparent in their everyday lives.

 

Our beach front cottage upgrade — all because our AC wasn't working.

Our beach front cottage upgrade in Antigua at the Jolly Beach Resort.

Last summer we went to Antigua, and stayed at the Jolly Beach Resort. The island is absolutely gorgeous. At times, it gave Aruba a run for it’s money. And, I would have to admit that the landscape of the island is the best of the caribbean. The hotel overall needed some TLC. We had paid for a room upgrade in the renovated part of the resort. Our room was to have a master suite with a sitting room and double balconies with day beds. Now we opted for this, because it was only a few hundred dollars additional. I figured it would be nice to have the additional room to hang drying bathing suits and such.

Our cottage at Jolly Beach. It's still surreal that we were upgraded to this cottage.

Our cottage at Jolly Beach. It’s still surreal that we were upgraded to this cottage.

The first night we had no air conditioning. I called the front desk and a man came and messed around with it and said that we didn’t have the right remote control. So he “turned it down” and left us a new remote control. After two hours, it seemed cooler, but it was still hot. I called the front desk again — now 1 am. A different man came and said it was working properly — making me feel like I was a spoiled American, complaining about nothing.

The cottages were nestled right on the beach. Ours sat slightly behind this one.

The cottages were nestled right on the beach. Ours sat slightly behind this one.

The next morning after we tossed and turned all night, I sat on the edge of the bed and said to Tom, “only seven days to go.” We were miserable. I called the front desk, and she told me she would have maintenance drain the lines. So we went to breakfast and swung by the front desk. I asked the manager to just give us a fan, we could probably manage with a fan. She promised they would take care of the AC, to go enjoy ourselves at the beach. Well, I couldn’t do that very well, I was too worked up, and I was finding something wrong with every single thing. Tom kept telling me to relax. And then it started to rain. And it poured. And poured. And the dark clouds continued to roll over the resort. And the sun was gone. It never rained in Aruba. Never. It never rained anywhere else we’ve been to in the caribbean. We went to the lobby to wait for our friends. After all, there was not much else we could do.

Our first night at the bar in Antigua.

Our first night at the bar in Antigua.

We were expecting our friends to arrive from Pittsburgh around 1 pm. Now, they had two rooms, one for the adults and one for their adult children. Their rooms were several doors down from ours. They were easily twice the size of our room and the AC was so cold they had to turn it up. Now, I was upset and felt like I had been getting the run around! I called the front desk again, and she told me they had drained the lines and said it was fixed, but nothing had changed. I told her I wanted a new room, and I didn’t even care if it was a downgrade — I just needed a room with AC or a fan.

The water was absolutely breathtaking.

The water was absolutely breathtaking.

At this point Tom was grumpy, because he was hungry, so he went to get food with the rest of the Pittsburgh crew. I stayed in the room, because I wanted to resolve the AC issue. I couldn’t do another night at 100°. About an hour later the manager called me and told me they were moving us, but he needed an hour or so to take care of arriving guests before he could do that. This was fine, because I was all unpacked and needed to repack so we could move. By the time Tom got back to the room, I had us all packed with our suitcases at the door. He was all chilled out, while I was still high-strung. I had no idea where we were moving or anything, but it didn’t really matter at this point. The bellman came and took our suitcases and had us get in his vehicle to transport us to our new room. I couldn’t imagine how far he must be moving us if he had to take us by vehicle.

The landscape was very mountainous.

The landscape was very mountainous on the Atlantic.

We had been upgraded to a beachfront cottage. They had three of those, and you couldn’t purchase them on their website. My friend Gert had called to see what they would cost, and they wouldn’t reserve a room for her — they told her they were upgrades for VIPs. So I guess Tom and I were now official VIPs! This cottage was way too much room for us. It had two bedrooms that slept four. Each bedroom had its own full bath. Each side of the cottage had its own AC unit. There was a large living area and a huge front porch with a hammock. I never meant to cause a stir to get a room upgrade like this. I never even raised my voice. I was willing to take a downgrade and a fan! I have to give them credit. They went above and beyond to make our stay all that we expected.

Just another downpour. A typical occurrence.

Just another downpour. A typical occurrence.

It rained every single day. Sometimes it was just a 15 minute downpour, followed by a couple of hours of sunshine. Other days, it would rain for 15 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of no rain, and then start all over again, all day long. It was maddening, because you could never relax. I couldn’t even take my camera to the beach — I had to zip everything in a plastic pouch. Our towels would get wet, our clothes, our beach bags and magazines. I didn’t read any books on the beach, because I didn’t want to get my Kindle wet! I think it rained every single night, off and on throughout the night.

Drew, Spencer and Tom having a blast on the catamaran excursion.

Drew, Spencer and Tom having a blast on the catamaran excursion.

Once you get past the rain, this island had a lot to offer and we did a few excursions. One of our excursions was a catamaran tour of the island. The best part of this trip was that the catamaran went 360° around the entire island. We were able to see some of the most gorgeous landscape imaginable, as well as celebrity homes, including Oprah Winfrey. The water was ultra blue and calm on the caribbean side, but when we hit the open waters of the Atlantic, it was a rough ride and incredibly exciting! The boat stopped for an hour for snorkeling, of which I didn’t do. I went ashore a small island that we had stopped on. Of course, it rained while we were on that island, but that was okay, since we were already soaked from the boat ride, plus I was getting used to the rain. Spencer and Drew friended the captain and the rest of the week as the party boat pulled into Jolly Beach, the captain threw cold beers to them from the boat.

We stopped at some incredible places during our private tour.

We stopped at some incredible places during our private tour, including Devil’s Bridge.

 

The lookout at Shirley Heights was amazing and it was incredibly windy.

The lookout at Shirley Heights was amazing and it was incredibly windy.

We also did a private van tour, where the driver took the six of us in an SUV around the island. First of all, an SUV in Antigua is no where the size of an SUV in the states. We were practically sitting on top of each other. And the third row seating was made for children 10 and under. Tom and Spencer were stuck back there and quite crunched the entire trip. But we made the most of it as we enjoyed the incredible sites on the island. Of course, it rained at least three times on the tour. I think everyone was thoroughly annoyed that I complained about the rain the entire trip. I couldn’t help myself.

We stopped for lunch at a local pub-type restaurant. The food was okay, but the atmosphere was pretty cool. Of course, this had to be around the same time as breaking news was hitting the states about the shooting at the movie theater during the Batman movie: The Dark Knight Rises. It was weird to see that kind of breaking news in Antigua and how the natives were glued to their televisions. We hadn’t heard news from the States for an entire week — and we just didn’t want that reality from Antigua.

Tom and I at the lookout on Shirley Heights.

Tom and I at the lookout at Nelson Dockyard National Park.

The private van tour took us to some incredible places. We visited Shirley Heights, that had an amazing lookout. It overlooks a dockyard that we visited on our catamaran tour. We stopped at Fort James, a historical site with remnants of old canons facing outward to the sea and very old buildings from 1706. We stopped at an old sugar mill, called Betty’s Hope. There’s still an old windmill amidst the sugar cane stalks. There were wild goats wandering among the stalks. We also took a drive through their jungle where there were the most amazing plants and trees. We didn’t see any wildlife. And we learned that there’s not a single snake on the island. They have mongooses that literally killed them all and made them extinct on Antigua.

If we were to go back again, I’d rent our own vehicle and explore the island without a tour guide. There is just so much to do and see and we barely scraped the surface. I also know that we’d never go back again in July, during their rainy season. But, I would consider going back there. It’s an amazing island with amazing people.

So where to this year? We’ve thought about Jamaica or Cozumel or maybe the Cayman Islands. Or maybe we’ll go back to Aruba. We have about a month to decide. I’ll keep you posted!

Please enjoy a few tips about traveling to the caribbean. If you have any questions, please drop me a line. Safe travels!!!

Pam’s Caribbean Tips
The best way to experience the caribbean is to do it on an “all-inclusive” plan. That means that all of your drinks, including alcohol and meals are included. Many of the water sports (except motorized water crafts) are included. Nightly entertainment is included. And many other amenities. You pay for your vacation in the winter and just show up in the summer — ready to kick back, soak in the sun and have a vacation like no other. Now some people don’t do this so that they can explore the restaurants and local food of the island. If that’s your preference, then the all-inclusive plan is not for you.

I’d also recommend you choose a low-rise hotel. That means less than two or three stories high. It usually means an older resort and no elevators. But this also means less people per square foot on the beach or at the pool — it’s amazing — it can feel as if you have your own private beachfront. Almost every island offers low-rise hotels. Now if you’re looking for a 5- or 6-star hotel with marble bathrooms and complimentary robes, you probably won’t find that in a low-rise hotel.

If you go to Aruba — give yourself two and half hours at the airport for your return flight — and that’s after you get there. So if it takes you 30 minutes to get there, you need to leave three hours prior to your flight. This is when traveling on Fridays and Saturdays. I don’t know about the rest of the week. Trust me, you’ll be panicked and worried and on edge if you don’t. It takes so long, because they do US customs right in Aruba. The Bahamas do this too. That makes it so wonderful if you have a connecting flight when you get to the states — and if you’re from Pittsburgh — you know you’ll have a connecting flight!

Be prepared. Check out the official websites of the caribbean island you’re traveling to and research:

  1. What kind of fees and departure taxes are required? Be sure to take exact cash to pay those.
  2. Look for a travel tips section — for instance Antigua prohibits the wearing of any camouflage clothing.
  3. What kind of electrical outlets do they have? Do you need to take adaptors for your curling iron??? Last time I was in Mexico, I needed the adaptor!
  4. What kind of cellular service do they have?
  5. What kind of medical facilities do they have?
  6. Can you drink the water?
  7. What requirements are there to drive on the island?
  8. What is the local currency? Do I need to find a bank? Can I use American money?
  9. Know what you can and cannot bring from the caribbean back home.
  10. Always get a room safe, even if you have to pay additional for it.

Be sure to take your passport and lock it in a safe. Know where to go if you’re a victim of crime or lose your passport. Save any and all paperwork you’re given upon entry. Before leaving home, make a copy of your passport and other travel documents and leave them with someone at home.

And lastly, if you go to Aruba, bring home Balashi beer!

Let me know your thoughts!