We took a break this summer, from almost everything. I’ve been plugging away at a proposal for my next project, and it’s mostly done (except for all the second-guessing and self-doubt and despair); the rest was just reading and cooking and working on some new recipes. And though we couldn’t/still can’t really afford it, we escaped for a couple of weeks to Aruba to give the kidlet a vacation and do a bit of culinary research.
It might be the best thing we’ve ever done, because it might have been the most necessary thing we’ve ever done. The brain needs breaks, stretches of passivity where it just takes stuff in and doesn’t critique or react. I have spent so long critiquing and reacting, managing the busyness of just being an adult in 2016. I know that we are not supposed to talk about being busy, because busyness is a sign that we’ve failed to set our priorities or manage our time or some fixable thing, but I am in that stage of life where this is how it is. And so we wandered around Aruba, tanning our skin, filling our bellies, and resting our brains.
Now, I am no expert, having only been once to Aruba and only recently. But I have fielded enough questions about this wonderful place that I thought perhaps you might be interested in what we did and ate and saw. With a grain of salt, as always, here is my perspective.
Where we stayed
We stayed in Noord, in the Del Ray Apartments, which was just far enough from the stretch of tower hotels around Palm Beach and the port at Oranjestad – it was quiet, there were grocery stores and locally owned restaurants nearby, and it was dark at night with no noisy tourists outside. The best thing about Aruba is the wind: it is very windy, so that there is not very much noise. If your hair is like mine, it will look just awful all of the time, but if I’m being honest it never looks all that great anyway. The wind is nice. It cools when it’s very hot, and it’s consistently very hot there as it is pretty much a desert. There are cacti.
We wanted something with a kitchenette to cook breakfast or fry croquettes, and some privacy so that we’d have evenings to ourselves once the little one was in bed, and it was perfect for us. There was a pool, and it was clean, and the people who worked there were nice, even arranging a rental car for us when we decided it was time to drive off and explore. Renting a car was inexpensive. We were the only Canadians, and there were no Americans – lots of Spanish-speaking South American and Dutch-speaking European families. In short, it was nice to meet people from new places and try to plow through the language barrier to find out what they were planning to eat, see and do on the island.
There are all-inclusive hotels, if you prefer that sort of vacation, but the island is safe and small enough that you can explore most of it in not too long and you should. There’s so much more to it than just the hotel strips (and the food is much better away from there anyway).
What we ate
My favourite thing to do anyplace is go to the local supermarket and buy everything interesting or different, and so we did that. Aruba is part of the set of islands that comprise the Dutch Caribbean, and so there were wonderful Dutch cheeses and meats to select from the deli, and croquettes and bitterballen in an astonishing variety of flavours from the freezer section. They had European yogurts, American junk food, Indonesian spices, South American produce and the freshest, most wonderful local seafood. Aruba itself doesn’t have much of an agriculture industry (again, desert), but the seafood is impeccable. If you can stay somewhere with a barbecue, pick up some of their big fat shrimp and grill them whole; marinate a red onion in a bit of vinegar to serve alongside and you’ll never eat better.
The fish counter at Super Food Plaza in Noord offered freshly fried local fish and cold Balashi beer – do not pass that up. Zeerovers in Savaneta was another favourite – buy your seafood by the pound, order every side dish, and feed your shrimp shells to the gulls and the fish in the water below the pier.
Some of the highlights were a mix of Dutch favourites and local specialties; one thing I can’t stop thinking of was the keeshi yena we ordered at The Old Cunucu House. Keeshi yena is a local creole dish of chicken stuffed cheese. The chicken is stewed with spices, capers, dried fruit, and cashews, then spooned into a dish lined with strips of Gouda, then covered and baked until the cheese is melty.
We visited Bright Bakery a few times for pastechis (a local, empanada-like pastry), fish croquettes, and sweets. My favourite pastechi was the “chop soy” version filled with cabbage, onions, and shredded chicken. The cheese balls – actual deep fried balls of cheese – were magical, and the macaroons were heaps of toasted coconut in a puddle of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.
We were driving one day and smelled Fermins BBQ from the car – we followed our noses were not disappointed. The prices were good, the chicken was smoky and delicious, and the ribs were excellent. More cold beer. Endless cold beer.
For the little one, Linda’s Dutch Pancakes & Pizzas was perfect – I don’t want to admit to how many chocolate-covered pannekoeken he ate; the sandwiches made a cheap, filling lunch.
Restaurant Indo offered Indo-Surinamese cuisine, with a particularly impressive rijsttafel, a Dutch feast via Indonesia where many small dishes are served with rice and condiments. Order the rijsttafel and add chicken liver sambal – it’s small, so get two if there’s more than a couple of you dining. Even if it seems like a lot of food, don’t miss out on bara, savoury Surinamese doughnuts made with split black lentils and Indian spices and served with chutney.
There are innumerable Chinese restaurants that also happen to be bars – it would have been a very different trip if we were child-free, so if you’re curious, don’t hesitate to stop in. We visited one and were delighted to find our food came with a bottle of mayonnaise (probably for the Dutch). Nick ordered roast chicken, and it came with what we thought was gravy but actually turned out to be a warm, thin peanut sauce that was surprising and hard to stop dipping my finger into. We might have preferred to stick around for rum drinks afterward, but travelling with a four-year-old is not conducive to enjoying cocktails late into the night.
If you’re driving, there are loads of little snack stands – they sell a range of things, from sandwiches and pastries to fruit smoothies and cold drinks, but they’re worth checking out if you’re thinking you’d like a bite to eat and want to avoid the usual fast food chains.
What we loved
Arashi beach. Spotting herds of wild goats just, like, chilling wherever. Feeding one particularly obstinate donkey at the donkey sanctuary. Feeding the Shetland pony at Philip’s Animal Garden. Feeding the fish at Zeerovers. Icy rum and tonics on the balcony at our hotel after an early purple sunset. Iguanas! Eavesdropping on American conversations at Palm Beach, where we pretended we were guests of the Holiday Inn so we could use their deck chairs and towels and order buckets of Balashi to where we sat. The colourful houses, especially in Savaneta and San Nicolas. Frozen blue cocktails. The platter of Dutch deep-fried snacks at The Paddock in Oranjestad our first afternoon in Aruba.
Aruba offered us a reasonably priced getaway (summer is off-season for the island), and a trip that was family friendly, totally relaxing, and exactly what we needed. If you go, let me know – I’ll insist you pick me up a couple of boxes of hagelslag and some fancy aloe vera.
I’m already ready to go back.