Just off the coast of Venezuela lies a tiny island of white sand beaches, rugged cliffs and cacti-strewn deserts. While Aruba is only six miles wide and home to over 100,000 people, vast areas still remain completely untouched by civilization. Magnificent limestone cliffs are sculpted by the assault of strong ocean currents along the north and eastern coasts while one fifth of the island, covered in cacti plants and bending Divi Divi trees, is protected as Arikok National Park. The action lies on the south and west coasts, where the bustle of human activity consists of sun-bathers lounging poolside at one of Aruba’s many luxury resorts and architecture-enthusiasts leisurely admiring the Dutch colonial buildings of Oranjestad, the country’s capital. With its relaxed pace and diverse terrain safeguarded by the island’s position outside the hurricane belt, Aruba sets the stage for the ideal wellness escape.
Tucked away at the end of Palm Beach, the resort strip that makes up the island’s east coast, lies the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba. It is floating atop the secluded shallow waters of the luxury resort that I found myself unwinding and resetting after a long winter in New York City. Soaking in the mineral-rich Caribbean Sea, weightless, I felt both my worries and dry skin begin to dissipate. While a salt water bath could easily be found at home with a hydrotherapy session at one of Manhattan’s many spas, nothing compares to receiving all the benefits the Earth has to offer naturally, in the crystal-clear waters warmed by the tropical sun.
The same salt waters provided the perfect opportunity to deepen the mind-body connection by offering their calm and buoyant nature to my first Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga (SUP) experience with Island Yoga. As the wind and ocean current began to threaten the stability of my board, the material foundation of my practice, I realized it had been a long time since my mind was truly present in a yoga class. It took the fear of falling in the pristine water to force me to devote all my focus to that very moment, a skill that is much harder to foster in a city of constant distractions. My experience of mindfulness extended off the water and onto the sand, where Island Yoga led a thirty-minute sunset meditation. While my meditation practice back in New York can be uncomfortable and rushed amidst the sound of sirens and incoming emails, here it felt light and transformative with the warm ocean breeze on my back and the sound of gentle waves rolling on the shore. As we watched the giant sun rapidly fade into the horizon I realized, how often are we physically rooted to the earth?
As an engaged traveller who seeks a deepened understanding of local culture, I have always shied away from wellness retreats, assuming that the distinctive cultural experiences of a given destination will be overlooked in favor of the itinerary activities. But my experience at the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba Spa proved that I have been sorely mistaken. With 13 treatment rooms, a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and oxygen bar, the 15,000-square-foot spa surely leaves one feeling refreshed. But it is their special Divi Divi Massage that ensured I still felt engaged in a uniquely Aruban experience. The Divi Divi tree, Aruba’s signature geographical feature known for its south-westerly-facing bend due to the winds from the northeast, produces an oil that when used in the Divi Divi Massage is said to improve metabolism, circulation and rejuvenate the skin.
Similarly, the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba Spa offers a Misterio Di Aloe Treatment which includes a facial, body massage and foot reflexology and features the use of products made from the island’s Aloe Vera plant. Aruba is home to the oldest Aloe company in the world, Aruba Aloe, that was founded in 1890 and at one point covered two thirds of the island in aloe fields. While no longer Aruba’s primary economic driver, the 127-year old aloe plantation is still producing aloe-based skin, hair and sun care products for local and international export. Through the use of a plant that not only offers endless wellness benefits, such as detoxing the body and healing wounds, but has also played an essential role in the island’s development, the Ritz-Carlton, Aruba Spa provided me with a wellness experience that is grounded in Aruban culture.
With Aruba’s crystalline waters perfect for snorkelling, sailing, paddle-boarding and kayaking, the rugged coasts of Arikok National Park ideal for hikers, and an overall relaxed pace, the island is arguably the ultimate wellness destination. But the benefits of an Aruban wellness retreat have the potential to extend beyond the traveller to positively impact the lives of Arubans too. In 2012, the Aruban government announced the “Smart Island Strategy for Aruba” in partnership with The Carbon War Room for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The plan aims to “improve mobility, reduce obesity and improve public health” as well as transition the island to 100% renewable energy by 2020. The creation of more businesses that promote an active lifestyle, mindfulness and self-care not only offers a source of income for Arubans seeking employment, but also has the potential to cultivate a wellness culture that raises awareness about healthy living amongst the local population.
With over 2 million visitors annually and tourism accounting for the majority of Aruba’s economic activity, hotels and resorts will play a large role in determining both the development of a wellness industry and the country’s ability to achieve their sustainability goals. Through the establishment of more businesses endorsing a healthy lifestyle and hotels increasing their wellness offerings, Aruba might just become the epicenter of wellness for both travellers and locals alike.