Aruba 2015 - Hilton and Bucuti

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Resort report and review of our holiday in Aruba in Aug/Sept 2015 at the Hilton and Bucuti hotels.

Aruba

Aruba is a small island (20 miles by 6 miles) in the far south of the Caribbean, just 18 miles from Venezuela.  It’s part of the Netherlands Antilles islands, a Dutch possession, consisting of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao (also called the ABC islands).  It is a dry, arid, cactus-covered place, meaning little rainfall and sunny weather, and is consequently popular with tourists, especially from northern America, the Netherlands, and Venezuela.  It’s a modern, prosperous island, where everybody learns four languages at school: Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento (local creole).  The island does not really have a Caribbean feel.  The oldest buildings on the island date from the mid-19th century.

Aruba is a very expensive island.  It’s only half the size of the Isle of Wight, and arid, so practically everything has to be imported, and costs about 50% more than you’d expect.  For example, we bought two small beers from the Hilton’s beach bar, and were charged over US$15 (about £10).  After that, we bought cold cans of beer from the hotel shop for US$3.25 each instead!  The cheapest bottle of wine in any restaurant was about US$41 inc tax and service (about £25).  One "gotcha" is that service charge and government taxes sometimes aren't included - this can add 20% to the bill.

Although Aruba is outside the Hurricane zone, that doesn’t mean it isn’t windy - there was a constant force 4 or 5 wind blowing all day, every day while we were there – it didn’t abate much after dark, either.  This got on our nerves quite quickly.  It only died away on just one day when Tropical Storm Erika passed by well to the north and its westerly airstream cancelled out the easterly trade wind.  It’s also hot – the temperature was 30-31°C in the shade every day, though the trade wind helps to make this more bearable on the beach.

Our holiday was thanks to the Aruba Tourism Authority (ATA) – Linda won a week’s holiday in Aruba, including flights and private transfers, in a competition run by ATA.  The prize was 4 nights at the Radisson (which became the Hilton just before we arrived), and three nights at the Bucuti, both on a room-and-breakfast basis.  As it’s a long way from the UK, we paid for another week at the Bucuti.

The flights were with KLM from Heathrow via Amsterdam.  This meant a lengthy trip to Aruba, and even longer on the return journey as the plane stops at Bonaire on the way back (from the moment we left the hotel to pulling up outside our house was 20 hours).  We enjoyed the KLM flight, as there seemed to be more legroom, better food presentation and more attentive cabin staff than we’re used to on recent BA flights.

Hilton

The Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino is on Palm Beach (part of the High-Rise hotel strip, as many of the hotels are in tall blocks).  The hotel is actually owned by ATA, and managed by Hilton Hotels (until July 2015 it was managed by the Radisson hotel chain, and then became the Hilton overnight).

The hotel is good quality, but looks to be in some need of refurbishment, as much of the furniture looked a bit, shall we say, venerable.  To be fair, the place was getting a coat of paint while we were there, and one of the restaurants (Gilligan's Beach Grill Restaurant) was closed in the evenings for refurb (annoying for us).

Our room…

… was basic and comfortable, with a small balcony and a garden view.  There were two double beds, with a single bedside table between them, a chest of drawers containing the minibar and tea/coffee making kit, a large LCD TV, and a wardrobe with hanging space, some shelves and a good-sized room safe.  There was also a table and a couple of chairs.  The bathroom had one basin set into a large worktop, a WC and a bath with shower over.  There were several free US-style electricity sockets for recharging stuff.

Dining and other facilities

We had a very acceptable breakfast at the Laguna buffet restaurant, but couldn’t understand why this wasn’t also open at lunchtime and in the evenings.  There were tables both indoors and outdoors on a large terrace overlooking a lagoon with lots of carp.

We ate at the outdoors Mira Solo bar on a couple of evenings (it’s usually just a bar in the evenings, but was pressed into service as a restaurant because Gilligan’s was shut), but the food was fairly average.

We didn’t visit the Sunset Grille restaurant during our short stay, but it looked to be a good place to dine.

The hotel shop was popular, with a wide range of essentials, souvenirs, nibbles and drinks.  Prices for beer, wine, tonics etc were much less than in bars/restaurants.

There is a Columbian Emeralds shop in the hotel, if you have any money left over after staying here...

There are loads of restaurants, cafes and bars across the road outside the hotel, and we had a delicious Italian meal at the Hostaria da Vittorio a short walk away.  We’d purchased some Aruba “Dine-around” vouchers for US$40 each, and we used these to get a 3-course meal at various restaurants during our stay.

Hotel grounds and the beach

The gardens were very attractive and well-looked after.  There are lots of beautiful parrots, macaws and cockatoos in various cages in the grounds, and they frequently get taken down to the beach to be introduced to kids.  Huge lizards are to be seen basking in the sunshine, and you have to be careful to avoid stepping on smaller ones as you walk along the garden paths.

There are two pools, and there are lots of “palapas” (large sunshades, either thatched or fabric), with sunbeds, on the areas round the pools and on the beach.  There’s a towel hut providing beach towels, and, at 4pm, a queue forms at the hut to book your palapa for the following day.  The palapas on the beach are packed fairly close to each other – it’s like being in a forest, which had the beneficial effect of reducing the wind to a more gentle breeze. 

There are lots of water sports available from huts all along the beach, and there’s a continuous to-ing and fro-ing of jet-skis, parascending speedboats, banana-boat rides, sunset cruises and so on.

The market segment that this hotel appeals to was most obvious on the beach, with many well-built North Americans whooping and hollering at each other and having a good time.

Bucuti

The Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort is on Eagle Beach (part of the Low-Rise hotel strip nearer the capital Oranjestad).  It’s adults-only, giving a much quieter experience.  The beach is exceptional – there are several hundred metres of soft, white coral sand to walk over to get to the sea.

The hotel is really top-class – the management and staff go out of their way to ensure your stay is as relaxing as possible, and the rooms are tastefully decorated in a modern style with some really luxurious gadgets.  For example, the bathroom mirror has a TV and lighting built into it – you can watch TV while showering or shaving!

The hotel consists of two blocks: Bucuti building where we were, and the Tara building, which had an extra couple of floors and seemed to consist of suites.  The Tara building has its own dining area.

Our room …

… was on the top floor of the three storey Bucuti building, with a good-size balcony overlooking the Manchebo hotel next door, but with a good side view over the garden and some palm trees out to the beach and the sea, and the spectacular sunsets.  On the balcony was a clothes-drying rack and a table with a couple of chairs.

Inside, there’s a massive bed, bedside tables, a chest of drawers with more storage space than hotel rooms usually offer, and with a massive flat-screen TV on the wall above it (HDMI sockets just reachable).  A USB recharging station sits on a table and chairs, and there are several spare US-style power sockets.  The wardrobe has plenty of hanging space, an ironing board and a good big room safe.  There’s a sofa and a massive (but rather noisy when turned up high) de-humidifier in the room, as well as aircon and a ceiling fan. 

In the corner is tea/coffee-making kit, a good-sized fridge and a microwave.  You can fill up your ice-bucket from an ice-machine just down the corridor.

There were a lot of quiet gurgling and trickling noises – we couldn’t work out if they were coming from the aircon or the plumbing. 

Dining and other facilities

The main restaurant was Elements, a glass-walled, rectangular building with dining tables both inside and outside on a large deck area by the beach.  Breakfast is buffet-style, with all the usual desirable breakfast foods available.  After a couple of days we decided to eat inside, as birds (cocky Carib grackles) descended in flocks on any unattended tables outside, walking over the tables, perching on fresh cutlery and napkins, drinking from glasses, eating any unattended food, and pooing everywhere.  The staff tried to shoo them away, but this was like herding cats.

We dined at Elements a few times in the evenings as well – both inside and outside on the deck after the grackles had gone to bed!  The food was plentiful and of very good quality.

Next to Elements is a seating area and the Sandbar – a lively circular bar with attentive staff and plenty of atmosphere.  Bar food is served here – we tried the excellent Cuban Sandwich (like a massive toasted cheese, ham and bacon panini sandwich), and the enormous Bucuti burger, an 8oz burger with cheese and bacon.  Drinks are half-price during Happy Hour from 4 to 6pm, and again at 9 to 10pm.  To one side are a couple of cages containing parrots who enjoy talking to the guests, screeching loudly, and one of them, called Paco, loved having his/her head tickled.

We also took the opportunity to dine a few times at the neighbouring Manchebo hotel, and can recommend both the French Steakhouse and especially the poolside Ike’s Bistro for their excellent quality food.

Bucuti also has a laundry room with a washing machine and spin-dryer for use by guests.

There’s a shop in the hotel selling a wide variety of stuff, but we discovered that there is also a considerably cheaper mini-market just a couple of minutes’ walk away, in a small shopping mall with souvenir shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.

Hotel grounds and the beach

The hotel grounds are mainly left to lawn, with some huge cacti featured.  The beach is stunning – it takes several minutes to walk across the beach to the sea.  There are more than enough big palapas and comfortable sunbeds next to the hotel on the beach.  Good, big beach towels are available every day from the Towel Hut.  Each palapa has a small table and rubbish bin.  You can hoist a red flag on a pole to signal to the bar staff that drinks are required – they’ll come to take your orders.  At mid-day staff bring round refreshing cold towels, and a little later bring round small bowls of fruit – this attention to detail makes Bucuti special.

The beach is a public beach, so there were often people walking up and down the shoreline a couple of hundred metres away, and occasionally putting down their own towels on the sand, but because the beach is so vast, this didn’t feel an intrusion.

Because the beach is more open than the Hilton’s (the sun-umbrellas are more widely-spaced), it’s a lot windier: we were regularly sand-blasted every afternoon, which took the shine off this otherwise magnificent beach.

Underwater

Bucuti had recommended the Aqua Windies dive outfit, just a short distance away, and I booked by email a package of four 2-tank dives.  They will pick you up from your hotel between 0800 and 0815, and take you to the shop, where you can collect your kit (you can leave your wetsuit there to dry between trips).  They then transport you all in a minibus to their boat in Oranjestad.  After the dives they bring you back to the shop to rinse and hang up your kit, and then drop you back to your hotel.  You might not get back to your hotel until after lunch, but they supply cheese rolls on the boat during your surface interval, and there’s water and iced tea on the boat too.

I rented a BCD and a regulator.  The kit was mainly Cressi, and of good quality, though some of the BCDs and regs looked well-used.  The BCDs all had integrated weight system – the first time I’d been offered this anywhere, and I was most impressed. 

The dive masters were good, majoring on safety, and communicating mainly in English, sometimes in Dutch or Spanish.  They occasionally pointed out stuff you’d missed.  The boat was pretty fast, and had space for a dozen divers, though there were usually between 5 and 9.

All dive sites were pleasant, undamaged, with plenty of soft and hard corals.  Visibility was fair to good, with water temperature around 28°C.  There were always Banded coral shrimps and Arrow crabs to be seen, and frequent Green or Spotted morays and Lionfish (the dive masters said they went Lionfish hunting on Sundays, and deep-fried Lionfish featured on the menu at the dive shop’s restaurant).

Sites I visited were:

  • Airplanes: two passenger aircraft, deliberately sunk.  The older one is smashed into bits by a hurricane, but part of the fuselage is still intact.  The newer one is intact, and I swam through the fuselage (the seats have been removed), and peered into the cockpit from the passenger cabin.  There were several shrimps on the captain’s seat.  We were blessed with a calm sea and excellent visibility thanks to Tropical Storm Erika sucking the prevailing wind away.
  • Sponge Reef: lots to see, including morays, jackknife fish, and an octopus.
  • Fingers: a pleasant reef, with a couple of lobsters and the highlight of a group of seven squid.
  • Harbour Reef: we were pleased to see a turtle at the start of the dive, but unhappy to see that it had fishing line wrapped round its head, across its mouth, and round a front flipper.  Unfortunately the poor thing was panicky, and swam away fast before we could catch it.  And none of us had a diver’s knife to cut the line anyway.
  • Jane C:  an intact, deliberately sunk, 75 metre cement freighter sitting upright on the sand at 25 metres, now thoroughly encrusted with coral.  A group of 6 scribbled filefish.
  • Tire Reef: a pleasant reef, with another group of 6 scribbled filefish.
  • Antilla:  the largest wreck in the Caribbean until recently.  A 125m German freighter which was deliberately set on fire and scuttled by its Captain and crew in 1940 to prevent it being impounded by the Aruba marine guards after Germany invaded Holland in WW2.  Pretty broken up.
  • Arashi reef:  another pleasant reef, with a turtle and a small stingray.

Wrecks are interesting, but for me, a little wreck-diving goes a long way.  While there were pleasant hard and soft corals, and a reasonable amount of reef fish, there was little of the more interesting stuff.  The dive operators here all boast of Manta and Eagle rays, Whale and Nurse sharks, schools of Barracuda etc, but I certainly didn’t see any.  Neither did I see any small stuff like seahorses or nudibranchs.  The much rougher, more exposed east side of the island is said to be better, but few operators take us tourists there.

My 4-trip, 8-dive package, inc BCD and reg, cost US$469, which converted to £307, ie just over £38 per dive.

Conclusion

We enjoyed our flight with KLM more than recent flights we’ve had on BA, but it’s a long journey if you have to go via Amsterdam, especially on the way back with the additional stop at Bonaire.

Aruba is a prosperous and much-developed tourist destination, with little Caribbean feel to it.  Everything there is very expensive.  We weren’t attracted by the trips offered to see the island sights.  The Hilton hotel was comfortable, but in need of a renovation, and attracted a mass-market North American clientele.  The Bucuti hotel was first-rate, with a classier guest profile - we enjoyed our stay there. 

The constant Force 4 or 5 wind really got on our nerves quite quickly.  Aqua Windies are a professional, attentive, safety-conscious dive outfit.  The diving was relatively cheap and pleasant, but unspectacular. 

Would we go again?  No, probably not…

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