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Dutch architecture reflects Aruba's Dutch colonial history in Oranjestad. (Photograph by Caribbean, Alamy)

Beyond the Beach in Aruba

Visiting Eagle Beach for the first time feels like déjà vu. Haven’t I seen this place before? Oh yeah, it’s the dream beach on my credit-union checks and desktop wallpaper. Except that nothing beats experiencing it in person: the caressing breeze, the blindingly white sand, the perfect-temperature turquoise water.

Aruba may be known for its aquatic assets, but this Caribbean getaway has a lot more to offer.

Here are five ways to go beyond the beach in Aruba:

1. Explore the island’s wild side: Arikok National Park, a scrubby preserve on Aruba’s windward coast, covers fully one-fifth of the island but remains relatively devoid of tourists.

An unpaved trail leads to a calm rock pool called Conchi just this side of the crashing surf. Bring water shoes; it’ll make you feel a bit more comfortable negotiating the slick stones around the natural swimming hole. Most visitors arrive here on a tour, but if you can hike or drive an all-terrain vehicle sans chaperone, you’re likely to have this secret oasis to yourself.

The national park’s unique caves feel like a find as well. There’s no attendant or entrance fee, but inside Fontein Cave, a gallery of thousand-year-old rock art—red handprints, sun shapes, animals–awaits.

A natural skylight pierces Guadirikiri cave’s main chamber, illuminating a formation that looks like a reclining figure—the focal point, my guide Ralph Ecury tells me, of religious ceremonies by Amerindians who may have also used the cave to hide from slavers hoping to ship them to plantations on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Deeper in, hundreds of bats hang out, as bats tend to do.

2. Uncover Aruba’s past: My park guide turns out to be island royalty of a sort. A great uncle, Boy Ecury, became a WWII hero, honored by a statue in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital.

The old Ecury family complex now houses the National Archaeological Museum. Its filigreed, brightly painted exterior belies the contemporary, interactive exhibits inside, with labels in both English and Papiamento, the local language.

Press a button to hear a day-in-the-life story of Aruba’s first inhabitants, the Amerindians, told from the perspective of a man, woman, or child, then step into a replica of the thatched huts they lived in. A whimsical way to get to the museum is the new free downtown trolley, done up in vintage style, that runs along Main Street.

3. Sample the island flavor: Like its language, Aruba’s cuisine has roots in African, Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish cultures. At Papiamento, the keshi yena—a shepherd’s pie-like dish of ground beef, olives, and cashews topped with melted Gouda cheese—reflects the island’s Dutch colonial heritage. It’s served as an appetizer but really you should just order a double portion.

Across the island, inexpensive snack shacks, like Mi Boca Dushi, offer chicken-stuffed potato balls, cheesy empanadas, and juicy halves of dragonfruit that you scoop out with a plastic spoon. And Boca Prins, a roaring cove fringed by shell-encrusted limestone in Arikok National Park, gives its name to a casual restaurant specializing in pinchos, grilled meats.

At no-frills seafood hut Zeerover, the only decision to make is how many pieces of fried fish or shrimp you want. The food arrives at your waterside table accompanied by corn bread, fries, plantains, and a vinegary onion relish. Pair the feast with a locally brewed Balashi beer, and the meal couldn’t get more perfect.

If it’s available, order the Aruban summer salad at chic White Modern Cuisine and try to ignore the unfortunate view of a shopping mall parking lot. Chef Urvin Croes composes the salad from some 30 items, 80 percent of which is sourced on the island, including edible flowers and foraged greens. (They even have an on-staff forager.)

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Practice yoga while breathing in the seaside air at Manchebo resort. (Photograph courtesy Manchebo Resort)

4.Unwind with the wind at your back: Manchebo resort offers beachside yoga classes open to the public ($15 when I went) in a Bali-style wooden pavilion, where the soft lapping of waves accompanies inversions. My session there makes me realize that sun salutations really should be done out where the sun shines.

5. Meet the (global) locals: Aruba’s population represents more than 90 nationalities, and many residents are a mix of several. In addition to a complex colonial history (the most recent being Dutch), the island’s location, just 17 miles north of Venezuela, has influenced its demographics as well.

My Manchebo yoga instructor introduces herself as Anouscka van der Kuyp, originally from Suriname. My waitress at Elements, at the adults-only Bucuti and Tara Beach Resorts, tells me her heritage is Arabic, Indian, and Trinidadian, among others.

The best surprise of all: driving back to Oranjestad from Baby Beach I spot a large roadside sign that reads: “Alipio Snack and Take Away.” No wonder this place feels familiar: A snack shack has been calling my name.

Amy Alipio is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @amytravels and on Instagram @amyalipio.