Alternate Aruba

By Jase Peeples
Originally published: 9/21/2011

Dancing around the room like a 6-year-old on Christmas Day isn’t something I do very often. Okay, all it really takes is a good remix on my iPod, but I can say with honesty that I usually keep those choreographed moments behind closed doors. However, when my editor asked me if I would like to represent on a press trip to review the Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Aruba I found myself repeatedly busting out in a happy dance, regardless of who was around, until the day I stepped on the plane.

By the time the weekend was over I’d rediscovered my love of water sports, rubdowns, and finding sand in random places—in other words I definitely had a gay ol’ time.

When I arrived at the resort late Friday night I was pleasantly surprised to see two different gay couples holding hands right alongside their straight counterparts. I knew that the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino was a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, but observing gay couples feeling comfortable enough to show public affection as they leisurely passed by was a wonderful first impression.

The lobby was spacious and looked more like a sleek, state-of-the-art palace than a hotel. Wall-mounted LCD screens as well as oversized couches and chairs littered a low-lit lounge area next to a circular bar— where I’d later discovered the joy that is an aloe flavored martini. Restaurants and shops lined the hallway on either side of the entrance and the gentle, friendly staff members made me feel welcome instantly.

Knowing I needed to catch some shut-eye for my weekend of sun, sand, and surf I immediately zipped up to my room. The view was absolutely amazing. Each room has a 100-square-foot balcony featuring an exquisite view of the sparkling waters of the Caribbean Sea, and seeing it in person is the perfect pressure valve release to end a travel-filled day.

The next morning I met up with David, Michael, Bobby and Matthew—the small group of gay journalists traveling with me for the weekend. After introductions—and a killer latté from the lobby café—we strolled out to the beach where we dug our toes in the warm, white sand and got a head start on our tans before trying our hand at paddle boarding. If you’re never experienced this combination of surfing and canoeing before, Aruba is the perfect place to pop your paddle-boarding cherry. Though you may take a few falls before you’re able to stand upright and move with any grace, (I took quite a few tumbles myself), there is nothing like slowly hovering over the crystal clear waters of Aruba under a cloudless blue sky on a perfect sunny day.

Once we’d wrapped up our morning water workout, we grabbed a beachside table at Waves Beach Bar & Grill before hopping on a catamaran for an afternoon of snorkeling.

Our first stop, Catalina Bay, was the perfect shallow spot to break in our flippers and check out the colorful fish and corals that stretched along the smooth sandy ocean floor. Then it was onto one of Aruba’s most famous snorkeling spots—the Antilla Ship Wreck. Yellow tail snapper, blue tang, fresh angel fish, and butterfly fish were only a fraction of the marine life that surrounded the sunken ship, making it the most picturesque spot on the snorkeling tour.

After our undersea adventure came to a close we buddied up for a few rounds of beach tennis. In this mixture of tennis and beach volleyball, players volley a slightly deflated tennis ball back and forth over a net using tennis racquets. If you’re experienced with sports the basics won’t take long to learn, and a few rounds make for a great workout.

If working up a sweat on your getaway doesn’t sound interesting you may still want to swing by for a quick peek. The sandy courts are filled with enough shirtless athletes to make the short walk from the warm waves worthwhile.

Ketsu Sushi Bar was the dining spot of choice for us that evening.  Located in the hotel lobby, the restaurant shares seating space with the lounge area and features an extensive traditional sushi menu that is fun and fresh. While the atmosphere is sophisticated, Ketsu is only a few feet from the open doors of the Stellaris Casino, preventing it from being a romantic dinner destination. Still, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing, low-key meal before a night out.

After dinner—and a rousing performance of “Smooth Operator” from the live lounge singer that would have made Sade herself stand up and applaud—we met up with the rest of our group and piled into a taxi for a short drive to the island’s only gay bar.

Jimmy‘s is the spot where gay locals and tourists mix and mingle complete with an expansive back patio, dance floor, and adorable bartenders. Upbeat dance tracks filled the air alongside plenty of laughter and smiles from the crowed. It was clear that anyone who stepped into Jimmy’s was there to have a good time.

The next morning I found the cure to a slow start at the Madera Spa located in the Marriott Resort. With 4 couples rooms, 12 private treatment rooms, a relaxation lounge, hair salon, and 4 pedicure thrones it’s the perfect place to recover after a night of dancing and drinks. I would recommend the Massage del la Aruba for anyone who loves a good rubdown. Described as the traditional massage of Aruba, the technique is a “combination of long, gentle strokes used to induce deep relaxation and improve circulation.” It left me felling completely relaxed and recovered from the previous evening. However, if massage isn’t your preferred choice of relaxation, the spa offers a variety of other treatments including aromatherapy, facials, wraps, and scrubs.

An afternoon of leisure was in order after my spa session and I took full advantage of the resort swimming pool. Complete with cascading waterfalls and a swim up bar, the resort’s large pool is ideal for those who want to enjoy a cool dip under the warm sun without the sand and surf.

Of course, knowing a great daiquiri is only a few floatable feet away doesn’t hurt either.

For our final night on the island, the entire group decided to meet once more for a farewell dinner at a restaurant that had been recommended by one of the locals we met earlier that weekend.

Soenchi’s is located on the high-rise strip and combines stylish settings with flavorful food. A long canopy covers the comfortable open-air seating area, which is accompanied by a delightful ambiance.

The menu boasts a collection of “healthy, flavorful dining choices” across a variety of cultures, blended to create a unique composition. Each dish was a work of art, framed by colorful and dramatic plating techniques, but the amazing Aruba Reef Crystal Tear dessert was the star of the show.

The mixture of papaya, banana, and passion fruit sorbet served in a frozen teardrop was both elegant and delicious.

The final chapter of our Aruba adventure unfolded later that evening at the Miss Gay Aruba drag extravaganza. A large and supportive crowd cheered 8 drag queens as they took the stage in a fierce competition for the 2011 crown. The love of Aruba’s LGBT community was unmistakable as each performance concluded with thunderous applause from a diverse audience.

The fabulous emcee even performed double duty by translating much of the Spanish-spoken show when she learned that some of the audience members were native English speakers. While I knew the official languages of Aruba were Dutch and Papiamento, I had almost forgotten that I was in another country as this was the first place we visited where English wasn’t primarily used. I learned that many locals also speak Spanish and English in addition to their native language. Also, because of tourism, the use of English had become even more prolific in recent years.

The emcee’s inclusive gesture was right in line with the friendly and welcoming spirit that seemed to surround the island. Miss Gay Aruba wasn’t just a drag pageant. It was a true celebration of diversity that crossed boundaries of gender, race, culture, language and sexual orientation.

Early the next morning as I boarded the plane home I found that I was truly impressed with Aruba’s lack of homophobia and the country’s inclusive attitude towards the LGBT community. While other vacation destinations may have more in to offer in the area of gay nightlife, Aruba is definitely a place where gay tourists can rest easy, whether they’re lounging by the pool, discovering a new sport, or walking along the beach hand in hand.