Thursday, February 21, 2013

Aruba: Where We Stayed

I hope you enjoy reading about someone else’s vacation because for the next week or two, that’s all this blog is going to focus on: My recent two-week trip to the Southern Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire.

While we actually visited Aruba last, I'm going to start with that island since it’s freshest in my mind. Also, it’s where we did the least amount of stuff so it’s also the quicker island to write about.

Where We Stayed: The Riu Palace Aruba
I was actually a bit concerned about spending four nights at this all-inclusive resort, located on Aruba’s busy Palm Beach high-rise hotel strip, because of the really mixed reviews I found on It seemed like you either loved this place or you hated it and felt ripped off. I was worried I might end up in the latter category but thankfully I ended up being of the people who absolutely adore this resort.

I think it helped that unlike some of those unhappy visitors, I went to this place understanding exactly what it was all about: Providing sun, sand and plenty of booze to North Americans who just want to escape their lives for a week.  What it’s not about is seclusion, personalized high-end service or actual sophistication and luxury. If you’re looking for those qualities, skip the Riu (and actually skip Aruba’s Palm Beach in general).

However, if what you’re after is an above-average all-inclusive located on one of the prettiest stretches of beach on earth then this is your next vacation destination.

Aruba’s national motto is “One Happy Island” and nowhere is this more apparent than at the resort. Maybe it was because we’d just spent 10 days on Bonaire and Curacao, surrounded by European tourists and examples of customer service that made us envious of the service we received at the Dundas West subway station McDonald's, but everyone at the resort was just so happy.

Fuelled by plenty of alcohol, our fellow guests were friendly and chatty. The bulk of them were middle-aged and up Canadians and Americans but there were some younger people there as well as a surprising number of families with young children.

For the most part, the staff was also friendly as well as helpful and cheerful.

The view from our room
Overall, I give the Riu Palace Aruba an easy four stars. The hotel markets itself as five-star but there is enough little stuff to keep it from being a true five-star in my mind. For example, while the hotel is beautiful from a distance, a closer look reveals small maintenance issues. And while staff was generally great, I did witness a few incidences, like intra-staff arguing, that I as a guest shouldn't have seen.

But honestly, these flaws aren't noticeable enough to avoid this place and after a few drinks from the beach bar, they aren't noticeable at all.

I would happily (very happily) stay at this hotel again and in fact will be considering other RIUs for future vacations.

A few more notes…

Our Room
We booked a standard, double room and that’s what we got, though with a lovely pool/ocean view. We were in Block C, which, according to some on is a mold-infested hellhole but for us turned out to be a lovely place to stay.

Our room was spacious, clean and free of the musty smell that some have complained about (though we did often leave the window open so maybe that helped). It wasn't a perfect room, some spots on the walls were banged up, the TV was old and we never could get the AC turned down, but overall it was fine, especially since it had such a great view.

Even the beds were fine. Based on the reviews I’d read, I was prepared to be sleeping on a rock but no, our mattress was great, thanks to the fact that it was adjustable (though after talking with a few people, this feature doesn't seem to be in all of the rooms).
Click to see a readable version

Food & Drink
A major complaint about all-inclusives is that the drinks are weak and the food boring and repetitive. While the drinks could have been stronger, I have no complaints about the food. It was fantastic and it was clear that a lot of attention and care went into preparing and presenting it.

Even though I'm a very picky eater, I never, ever left a meal feeling hungry or disappointed (actually, that’s not true, I was often disappointed that I couldn't eat more). And while some things do repeat, they are things that you want to see, and eat, over and over again like amazing bacon or a chocolate fountain.

While four speciality restaurants are available (Italian, Japanese, fusion and a steakhouse), the buffet is where it’s at. We did eat one dinner in the steakhouse and while it was good, it didn't need a repeat visit, unlike that buffet. Oh, I wish I was at that buffet right now because it was just so good. Especially the smoked salmon, and the tuna sashimi, oh, and the salmon Wellington, that was just amazing.

Shawn's meal one night; that's bacon-wrapped tenderloin on the right

As for the alcohol, while the drinks weren't strong, they were made quickly and, for the most part, with mid-range alcohol (SKYY, Canadian Club, Bailey’s). The bartenders were always willing to whip up whatever you wanted and yes, they would add in a little extra if you asked.

I do though wish that they had cocktail menus or featured drinks available at all of the bars. I feel that I drank a lot of the same drinks simply because I couldn't think of what else to order.

Beach & Pool
Palm Beach is now my favourite beach in the whole world and if you need to know why just look at the pictures that are accompanying this post. While I do wish that it had some decent snorkelling, the upside of it being devoid of almost any life is sand that’s powdery soft and perfect for playing/lounging in.

Yes, Palm Beach is busier than Aruba’s Eagle Beach (which I did visit) but the chunk in front of the Riu was never crowded and it was always easy to get a chair (though not surprisingly the prime shaded areas were always claimed early in the morning).

As for the pool… I didn't love it as much as I loved the beach. Yes, it had alcohol, but the water was colder, it was busier and it was tougher to get a chair (though a couple of mornings we were able to snap chairs up at around 10 am). The condition of the pool also isn't perfect (a few missing tiles, some peeling paint) though I was impressed at how clean the staff kept it, given the many, many careless drinkers who were occupying it.

And that’s it for my hotel review. Up next, what we did in Aruba and my general thoughts on the island.

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