Aruba, Jamaica, oooooo I wanna take ya
Paradise is a place where you can lay on a warm, white sand beach with crystal clear waters and have a freshly made piña colada brought to you with just a wave of a flag.
Paradise is Aruba.
I had never given the tiny little island much consideration when debating where I would spend my next beach-oriented vacation, but after spending a week sun-bathing, off-roading, and snorkeling, I genuinely can't figure out why I hadn't thought of it before.
Located just off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is a quick 4 hour flight from the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport but a whole world away from the stress of everyday life.
We stayed at an all-inclusive resort named Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa. Nestled on the corner of Eagle Beach just outside of Oranjestad, Manchebo is a quiet retreat from the rest of the resort strip. The open-air entrance naturally flows to the main dining area and pool deck beyond which lies a beach front bar and seemingly endless rows of palm-frond umbrellas. With only 72 guest rooms on the entire campus, service feels personal yet private. The island had a fair amount of visitors coming to celebrate the holidays and ring in the new year, but Manchebo never felt over-crowded.
Breakfasts were light but filling, lunches were nothing short of satisfying, and dinner was always quite the event. We left every table practically bursting at the seams. We were able to keep a pretty normal wait staff, so by the end of the week we had developed a relationship and they were able to make customized recommendations and suggestions. Manchebo is responsible for my appreciation of post-dinner decaf coffee and my affinity for banana pancakes. It's my time in Aruba that clarified what meets the true mark of luxury.
Let's be real. As great as the resort experience was, I would've lost my mind staying in the same place doing the same thing every day for 7 days. That's where the excursions come in.
During our stay, we had three major outings planned so as to prevent us from going for each other's throats. The first was arguably the most arduous: an off-roading tour of Aruba.
For this full day of adventure, we piled into a truck that had it's bed refurbished into covered rows of seats and headed to the northern most tip of the island. There, we saw the island lighthouse where you could pay to climb to the top for a "breath taking" view of the island, but our tour guide advised against it, so we kept going onto the off-roading portion of the tour that trailed the Atlantic side of the island and led us to stunning cliff overviews.
After stopping for a photo op, we continued onwards to a tiny yellow church named The Chapel of Alto Vista for yet another photoshoot before heading to the coolest destination of the day: the Natural Bridge. The original Natural Bridge actually collapsed well before we visited the island, but thankfully Baby Bridge was still intact to give us an idea of how impressive the natural formation was.
Our second outing was arguably the most romantic - it was a sunset Catamaran boat ride - but I was (and still am) incredibly single, so I used it as an excuse to drink a little more than my fair share and dance the night away. This evening activity was a precursor for the next day's adventure which would be a full day multi-stop snorkeling tour on the same boat with the same staff, but we'll get to that later. For now, just enjoy the view.
P.S. those sunglasses fell off of my face into the big ocean blue shortly after these photos were taken. #RIP
As I not-so-subtly hinted a moment ago, the third and final excursion was an all-day snorkeling trip. My family loves snorkeling. They like snorkeling so much that I could probably write a blog post on where to snorkel and where not to snorkel in just the U.S. Virgin Islands (note to future self: write snorkeling blog post). We know all of the tricks for how to prevent your goggles from fogging, how to blow water out of your mouth piece, and even how to spot lobsters hiding under rocks. But unlike most of the snorkeling tours we've been on, this trip offered a Snuba option.
For those of you that don't know, Snuba is the hybrid off-spring of snorkeling and scuba diving. It has all of the basic components of snorkeling, but the mouth piece is tethered to a floating oxygen supply, so you can dive up to 40 ft below the surface of the water without completing a scuba certification program.
We, of course, opted for the Snuba upgrade. Out of the three stops on the tour, we chose to use our Snuba upgrade on the shipwreck dive. It had been a long-time bucket list item of mine to dive a shipwreck because I had always found it to be rather creepy and yet a bit ethereal. It was a PHENOMENAL experience. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you're on the fence about taking a scuba class.
Not gonna lie, I was terrified at first. When I first jumped off the boat, I didn't know where the ship was in relationship to where I was facing. I got myself hooked up to the Snuba equipment and adjusted my weights without seeing the wreck, but then our guide tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind me. I turned around and there it was. So close I felt like I could touch it. I had to stop myself from screaming out of instinct, but after a moment my fear turned to sheer wonder and awe. A whole barge lying sideways completely engulfed by the sea and over run with aquatic life. It was unforgettable.
As our time on the tiny little island came to a close, so did 2016. For our last night in Aruba, we decided to crash a nearby New Years Eve party at one of the neighboring resorts. Rumor had it that the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino was the place to be for the big countdown. The rumors were true.
Walking into the hotel lobby was like crashing a posh wedding reception. There were decorations strung up everywhere, the bartenders were wearing hats, and confetti was on every table top. Everyone was talking, laughing, and cheering. The music was at just the right volume so you could have a conversation or dance in your own little corner of elbow room. In a classic Martinez/McVerry family move, we hit the bar almost instantly before journeying to the real destination: the beach party.
Passing through the lobby led you to the pool which was lit with blue underwater lights. The pathways followed the slow curves of the water and were lined with thick tropical plants, grass, and palm trees. Luxurious bed hammocks hung in the corners. The edge of the pool was met with a white sand beach. That was where the real party would be taking place.
The Marriott had set up an exclusive paid-access beach party on their lot, and the entrance fee was a steep $99 per person before you even purchased a drink. Unable to justify spending that kind of money, we figured we would just hang out to the way side where we could bum drinks off of an on-going dinner party and listen to the music from a reasonable distance. This is where luck (and my charm) kicked in.
In search of a walk-up outdoor bar, my Dad found a secret unmanned cut-through into the beach party hidden behind a photoshoot backdrop. My Dad grabbed my Mom and they headed in without a second thought. I took off my heels and followed suit. We were in.
Unfortunately, we couldn't purchase any drinks because you had to have a wristband to indicate to the bartender that your entrance fee was already paid, but it was only 15 minutes to midnight so I didn't bother wasting time trying to sweet talk my way into 3 free drinks. Instead, I used that time to track down a waiter carrying a tray of champagne flutes. 5 minutes later I found myself carefully treading the sand with both of my hands full of midnight celebratory drinks for the fam.
Before we knew it, the countdown began. The crowd turned towards the water in anticipation of the fireworks.
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... I found my little brother in the sea of people. We'd been roommates for the past 7 days and somehow managed to not kill each other, so I figured we should end the year on a good note as well.
6 ... 5 ... 4 ... We met up with our parents at the water's edge. I had actually complained to them before we left for Aruba that I was being taken away from my friends for my favorite holiday, but 7 days of fun in the sun and the feeling of a genuine escape helped me come around. I've always said that people are what matter to me most, so I was upset that I couldn't spend New Years with my close friends. Aruba helped me value my family more than what I already did, and by the end of the night I didn't want to be anywhere else.
3 ... 2 ... One Happy Island
For more images from my time in Aruba, check out #mcverrymerrychristmas2k16 on Instagram.
For Aruba travel inspiration, checkout #onehappyisland on Instagram.
For more information on what Aruba has to offer visit their official tourism website.