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Going Dutch - a gourmet guide to Aruba - Caribbean

Where to stay

Boardwalk Boutique Hotel The word boutique isn’t something you’ll run into much on Aruba’s hotel scene, but this turquoise-tinged jewel box of a resort shows that even here, small can be beautiful. Located on a former coconut plantation by Palm Beach, its rustic-chic casitas – wooden bungalows painted in welcoming candy colours – cluster around a serene free-form pool. Inside, rattan furniture and hand-painted murals conjure a beach house vibe, with some featuring their own private plunge pools and hammock-strewn terraces.
Doubles from £275. Bakval 20, Palm Beach, 00 297 586 6654, boardwalkaruba.com

Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort As Aruba’s sustainability star, island stalwart Bucuti & Tara’s accolades include being the first hotel ever to win the UN’s Climate Action Award; guests’ sessions on the gym’s treadmills and bikes even fuel the hotel’s power grid. Equally, it excels at beachfront luxury, with a sophisticated adults-only set-up, spacious suites and bungalows, groomed grounds, dreamy spa treatments and a food offering that champions island ingredients. Book into a Tara suite for unbeatable ocean views – after all, this hotel boasts the biggest stretch of Eagle Beach.
Doubles from £434 (five-night minimum stay). JE Irausquin Blvd 55B, Eagle Beach, 00 297 583 1100, bucuti.com

Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa Standing no taller than the surrounding palm trees, Manchebo is perfectly embedded in its enviable Eagle Beach setting. After accepting your mojito welcome drink, you can make a beeline for a thatched palapa on the beach or take a dip in the recently refurbished freshwater infinity pool. By fusing the best bits of a spa break with an all-inclusive, toes-in-the-sand escape, this 72-room resort has become a longstanding favourite – think complimentary daily yoga and Pilates overlooking the ocean, and healthy dining options such as an omakase sushi experience.
Doubles from £372 (three-night minimum stay). JE Irausquin Blvd 55, Eagle Beach, 00 297 522 3444, manchebo.com

Renaissance Wind Creek Aruba Resort While this Downtown property overlooks the sumptuous yachts of Oranjestad’s marina, beach lovers will be pleased to know that it also offers its own private island for true away-from-it-all relaxation. Hop aboard a speedboat in the lobby’s lagoon to reach its sandy shores, then take your pick from adults-only and family-friendly sides of the island.
Doubles from £312. LG Smith Blvd 82, Oranjestad, 00 297 583 6000, renaruba.com

Travel Information

Aruba is an island country in the southern Caribbean Sea. It sits just outside the hurricane belt, 29km north of Venezuela. Official languages are Dutch and Papiamento, and English and Spanish are also spoken. Currency is the Aruban florin, but US dollars are widely accepted. Time is four hours behind GMT. Flights from the UK take upwards of 9 hours.

KLM offers flights from London Heathrow and London City Airports to Queen Beatrix International Airport via Amsterdam. klm.co.uk

TUI Airways flies direct from London Gatwick to Queen Beatrix International from May to November. tui.co.uk

Aruba Tourism Authority is the country’s official tourist board, full of helpful information to help you plan your trip. aruba.com

Where to eat

Bochincha Container Yard This series of repurposed shipping containers, each serving up a different world cuisine, is set around a central bar and dining area. Graze your way around offerings such as sushi, pizza and tacos. Mains from £8.
Rockefellerstraat, Oranjestad, 00 297 732 0808, bochincha.com

Eduardo’s Beach Shack Get your health-food fix right on Palm Beach, with a menu of poké bowls, smoothies and vegan energy balls. The stars of the show are the açai breakfast bowls laden with berries and tropical fruits. Smoothies from £4.50.
JE Irausquin Blvd 87, Palm Beach, 00 297 592 9551, eduardosbeachshack.com

Huchada A rival to The Pastechi House (see below) for the island’s best pastechi, this bakery in Aruba’s interior makes a great pit stop for picnic supplies. Sweet-toothers should try the cashew cake or Dutch-inspired apple tart. Pastechi from £1.20.
Rte 4, 328, Santa Cruz, 00 297 585 8302

Infini Chef Urvin Croes draws on his Aruban and Asian heritage for a phenomenal tasting menu, which changes every three months. The intimate, elegant chef’s counter setting allows diners to observe the team’s culinary mastery up-close. Twelve-course tasting menu, £110pp.
JE Irausquin Blvd 266, Eagle Beach, 00 297 699 3982, infiniaruba.com

Kamini’s Kitchen At this homely San Nicolas spot, Trinidadian chef Kamini Parsan Kurvink presides over the kitchen, stirring her secret- recipe curry paste into Indo-Caribbean dishes such as curried goat with handmade roti. Mains from £8.70.
St Christoffelbergweg, San Nicolas, 00 297 587 1398, kamini-restaurant.business.site

Mi Boca Dushi Snacks Popular spot for Venezuelan bites run by a husband-and-wife team who will happily slice up dragonfruit from their backyard as a refreshing accompaniment to your empanada or arepa. Snacks from £2.50.
Caya Ernesto Petronia 66, Ponton, 00 297 582 9691

The Old Cunucu House A sunshine-yellow cottage serving hearty portions of traditional recipes from conch stew to quesillo. Mains from £12.
Palm Beach 150, Noord, 00 297 586 1666, theoldcunucuhouse.com

Papiamento Step into the Ellis family’s former home for some of the island’s best fine dining, still presided over by the father-and-son team. Refined versions of Aruban classics are served either in the serene courtyard or antiques-stuffed interior, while a well-stocked wine cellar and cigar lounge tempt diners to linger after dessert. Mains from £21.50.
Washington 61, Noord, 00 297 586 4544, papiamentoaruba.com

The Pastechi House Locals flock to this island institution for the eponymous stuffed pastries. Besides traditional fillings, options include Greek-inspired spanakopita or pizza flavour. Pastechi from £1.20.
Caya GF Betico Croes 42, Oranjestad, 00 297 582 4242, thepastechihouse.com

Zeerover Aruba’s take on seaside fish and chips: the freshest catch served in finger-licking buckets on an oceanfront deck with plantain and pickle. Make sure you’re there by midday to beat the queue. Lunch for two, with beers, from £40.
Savaneta 270, Savaneta, 00 297 584 8401

Food Glossary

Bolo preto
Laden with booze-soaked prunes and molasses, this traditional cake isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s synonymous with celebration in Aruba, from Christmas to weddings
Cornmeal is boiled, then fried in chunky chips or wedges (possibly with cheese melted on top) to make this classic island side
Keshi yena
Meaning ‘stuffed cheese’, this was originally made by filling a leftover wheel of Gouda or Edam with stewed tenderloin and chicken before baking – highlighting Aruba’s Dutch influence. Today’s version is more commonly made in a casserole dish, with raisins, olives and cashew nuts folded in for a sweet-sour flavour hit
Pan bati
An Aruban bread basketwill typically feature these moreish cornbread pancakes, likely to remind Brits of a savoury drop scone
Imagine a Caribbean spin on Cornish pasties: half-moons of thin pastry generously stuffed with cheese and ham or salt fish and then fried. A local breakfast favourite
Pika di papaya
A bowl of this punchy hot sauce is a mainstay of the Aruban dinner table, ready for dolloping on to any savoury dish
A custard-based flan that’s drizzled with caramel
Saus di pinda
Another must-try condiment, made of ground peanuts, satay-style – wickedly good served as a dipping sauce for chips

Food and Travel Review

In downtown Oranjestad, a tram rattles past elaborately gabled buildings along streets bearing names like Havenstraat and Schelpstraat.At the same time, my ears snag on words that sound Spanish or Portuguese – ‘Bon dia,’ a pair of women greet each other – and Latino music drifts from verandas with open doorways. All the while, palm trees stretch towards a blazing Caribbean sun. It’s a slightly surreal collage, but one that makes much more sense when you hear about Aruba’s history.

‘The Spanish claimed the island first, then it passed into Dutch hands in the 1630s,’ explains Nathaly De Mey, owner of sea-to-table restaurant Taste My Aruba, as she serves up fishcakes made from the day’s catch, grouper. ‘I’m crazy about my heritage. It’s here in Downtown that you see it best – fusion is our tradition. And today, we have over 100 different nationalities living here.’

Aruba is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and, along with Bonaire and Curaçao, is one of the ‘ABC islands’. It’s close enough to South America that, on a clear day, the mountains of Venezuela, a mere 29km away, can be glimpsed across the water.

This confluence plays out not only in the architecture and language but in the kitchen too. Think saltfish simmered in Creole sauces, Afro-Caribbean favourites such as goat stew, and quesillo (caramel flan) and ayacas (tamales baked in banana leaves) inherited from its South American neighbours. When I head inland to the town of Santa Cruz and join the line of locals at Huchada, a family-run bakery painted egg-yolk yellow, I find arepas, croquetas and pastechi (Aruba’s version of empanadas) on display next to Dutch apple tarts. So, as much as I’m loath to use a food cliché, in this case it’s apt: Aruba’s cuisine is a melting pot.

One that’s resulted in a few dishes all Aruba’s own. Keshi yena, for instance, makes a hollowed-out wheel of Gouda or Edam the vehicle for a spiced meat stew that folds in cashews, capers and prunes; this sweet-savoury creation is traced back to Dutch West Indian slaves, who would repurpose leftover rinds of cheese and meat scraps. ‘You might think that on a warm tropical island we’d eat salads or refreshing food,’ observes chef Urvin Croes, ‘but our diet is what Europeans or Americans consider winter food – heavy stews or soups.’

That’s not to say it can’t be refined. At Infini, an 18-seat chef’s-table concept on the Eagle Beach resort strip, Croes reimagines ‘childhood memories of Grandma’s cooking’. Take the Johnny Cakes that open this season’s tasting menu.

‘These fried cornmeal flatbreads originated from the Windward Islands, where they were called Journey Cakes, as the ladies of the family would make them for their husbands or sons when they went on long fishing trips.’

At Infini, they are reborn as a bite-sized disc of fluffy dough injected with mechada, an Aruban braised pulled beef stew, and topped with slivers of pickled onions and pearls of avocado cream. Granny Croes didn’t dish up anything quite this dainty and Instagrammable, I’d wager.

Bhuni Upadhya, executive sous chef at Oranjestad’s harbourside hotel Renaissance Wind Creek, finds exciting parallels between the cuisine of Aruba and his native Indian style of eating – particularly the taste for spicy condiments. He urges me to try two, in particular, with a plate of grilled rock lobster and yuca chips: his house-made, smoked garlic relish, which blends 20 different ingredients including fenugreek leaves, onion seeds and scotch bonnet; and pika di papaya, the hot sauce that graces every Aruban table. Both deliver deliciously piquant flavour punches. ‘The heat of the local peppers is amazing with the incredibly sweet, ripe papayas that grow on the island,’ he says.

But besides hot peppers and papayas, can much produce flourish on this small, arid island, I wonder? Along Palm and Eagle Beaches on Aruba’s more developed west side, a few hardy Fofoti trees cling to the golden sand, their trunks and branches sculpted by the trade winds to point southwest. On the island’s northern edges, the landscape is positively lunar – plains of rose-gold rubble descend into wave-lashed bluffs hewn into natural bridges and sea pools, where the only signs of life are skittish lizards. A legion of towering cacti stand sentinel over abandoned gold mines and caves that conceal 1,000-year-old paintings made by the first settlers, Arawak Indians who arrived by canoe from South America.

Just outside Oranjestad, meanwhile, fields of spiky, pale-green plants hark back to a time when aloe vera covered some two-thirds of the island. Their benefits are pharmaceutical rather than culinary, though, and to this day, the Aruba Aloe company’s cooling gels and lotions are exported worldwide.

A lunchtime pit stop in the inland town of Ponton comes with a surprise. James Ramos, who runs the snack bar Mi Boca Dushi Snacks with his wife Maria-Elena, is slicing up dragonfruit as a refreshing side to their best-selling cheese arepas. Sprouting green ‘wings’ from its rosy skin, the fruit looks impressive from the outside, but even more on the inside, which is an intense violet hue and tastes subtly of pears. Another, smaller, variety reveals a glistening, coconut- flavoured white flesh speckled with black seeds.

‘Are these local?’ James repeats my question back to me with a chuckle. ‘They’re from my garden! Want to see?’ Five minutes later, we’re trundling up the dusty track leading to Cunucu di Jimmy. On a one-hectare plot behind the couple’s bungalow, an oasis of green unfolds: rows of dragonfruit plants alternating with green beans, squash, okra and a rare indigenous corn, plus trees laden with figs and lychees. ‘People don’t believe we have farms like this,’ James says, describing how he comes out in the dead of night to hand- pollinate each flower. ‘I’m the bee,’ he grins.

Nuts grow well in Aruba, too, he adds, popping a raw peanut out of its pod for me to try. Indeed, you’ll find cashews used in everything from a homemade liqueur at The Old Cunucu House to popsicles at Zeerover fish shack and a frangipane-like filling for traditional island sponge-cake desserts. But the dragonfruits are James’ pride and joy – he geeks out on varietals with an international WhatsApp group of growers, and now supplies his 10 local hybrids to Aruba’s luxury hotels.

One grateful recipient is Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort on Eagle Beach. ‘In the past seven or eight years, I’d say, the farm-to-table scene’s really been expanding,’ reflects food and beverage director Marc Giesbers.

‘When I started working in hotels here in the early 2000s, I still remember them bringing in Maine lobsters every week. But now a lot of restaurants are looking to source locally.’

This has seen him devise dishes like a vegan gado gado salad, blending the local peanuts into a satay dressing, while tiny local cucumbers – ‘they have a more intense flavour than your British cucumbers, a kind of acidity and less water content’ – are sautéed with tomatoes and spices to accompany freshly caught snapper. Handily, Bucuti’s eco- minded owner Ewald Biemans is also an avid farmer and beekeeper, helping to supply the kitchens with his produce.

And while we’re talking in the resort’s beachfront restaurant, Elements, a box of microgreens is delivered by Petite Greens’ Lorraine Cooijman. She’s a former Dutch Royal Marine who moved here in 2015, later turning her hand to growing delicate herbs. ‘Those pea shoots will top some beef and this basil will garnish a Caprese salad, using mozzarella made by an Italian guy on-island,’ she says. As with most Caribbean islands, a certain reliance on imported produce is inevitable, of course. But slowly, happily, a more artisanal scene is emerging, with pandemic supply chain issues only adding impetus. Food and drink start-ups are getting a boost from young Arubans returning from abroad with fresh ideas and know-how (heading to university in the Netherlands is something of an island rite-of-passage), as much as enterprising expats.

You see it in the sultry, Manhattan-worthy interior of Apotek Speakeasy, which pairs adventurous mixology with pharmacy paraphernalia, and at Palm Beach’s new small- batch Arabica micro-roastery Arabica. Another example is T2 Pan, Aruba’s first sourdough bakery.

Walking up the driveway Zaida Everon’s house, it’s obvious from the warm wafts of cardamom and cinnamon escaping from the garage that something pretty special is happening within. I’m not wrong – instead of an old banger or old gardening gear, there are great sacks
of organic flour, bowls of brioche dough fermenting on stainless-steel surfaces and trays of za’atar-dusted focaccias emerging golden-brown fresh from the oven.

Zaida was researching gut health and looking for nutritious recipes to feed her family when she was struck by the synergy between fermentation and her career as a science teacher. ‘I thought, “Yes, this is what I have to do – apply my microbiology to baking,” she says. ‘What I like about sourdough is that it’s a living product, and there are so many factors that can influence the outcome, so you have to be very mindful in what you’re doing; no two loaves are identical.’

A process of trial-and-error ensued, including several frisbee-like loaves, as she set to learning from online videos and blogs. What was meant to be a slow transition took on a life of its own in lockdown when ‘suddenly everyone wanted to have bread’. T2 now sells around 300 loaves a month to a mixture of tourists and locals, the latter subscribing to her Bread Club to have loaves delivered every Tuesday.

There are plans for an off-site café eventually, but the garage space will still be T2’s hub, she says. ‘This spot used to be a convenience shop run by my father Tito. He died in 1992 and now I’ve taken over the same space as a bakery. There’s a nice continuity in that.’

As for ingredients, Zaida concedes that although flour has to be shipped from the US (to be milled on-site), her bakes maximise the island’s seasonal offerings. ‘During mango season in the summer, we had mango sour bombis, focaccia, loaves – mango everything, basically. The same thing happens during pumpkin season.’

For International Women’s Day 2021, she even joined forces with island brewery Balashi to create a special sourdough bread using the spent barley grains from its Magic Mango beer. It was a neat collaboration given that this particular beer had been created by Balashi’s first female Brewmaster, Marisol Heronimo. Zaida still looks far afield for flavour inspiration, though – specifically to the Med. ‘I love the way they play with herbs in that region. It gives me ideas, like today I’m putting some thyme into the strawberry custard for our doughnuts. But it’s fresh thyme from my herb garden out back.’

Tearing into the chewy, still-warm dough, I savour that subtle herbal edge to the fruit filling, and it strikes home that the island’s openness to the outside, blended with its growing farm-to-table thinking, is a sweet thing indeed. New influences continue to arrive on these shores and mould its culinary culture, as sure as the waves lapping its beaches, and Aruba embraces them with its customary warmth. As they’re so ready to say in the local language, Papiamento, ‘Bon bini.’ Welcome.

Words by Estella Shardlow. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor.

This feature was taken from the January/February 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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