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Inside: Everything you need to know about the Caribbean ABC Islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. PLUS: Where to stay and all the best things to do.
Commonly known as the ABC Islands, the three western most islands of the Caribbean’s Leeward Antilles – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao – are situated just off the Venezuelan coast.
Because they conveniently fall south of the Caribbean’s hurricane belt, the islands are a popular tropical destination for visitors year-round. With little rainfall and an idyllic sunny climate, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao are some of the Caribbean’s best island destinations.
From white-sand beaches and turquoise seas to spectacular diving and friendly locals, the ABC Islands boast something for every sun-seeking traveler.
What country are the ABC Islands?
All three ABC islands share ties to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and are considered part of the “Dutch Caribbean” once known as the Netherlands Antilles.
Today, the islands of Aruba and Curacao are autonomous, self-governing constituent countries. While Bonaire (including the sister islands of Sint Eustatius and Saba) is a special municipality of the Netherlands proper.
What language do they speak in the ABC Islands?
The official languages of the islands are Dutch and Papiamentu. Papiamentu is sort of a musical Creole language that blends a number of languages including Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Caribbean Indian.
But English is also widely spoken across the islands (and might as well be the third official language!), so English-speaking visitors will have no trouble communicating with the locals in the ABC Islands.
How to travel between the ABC Islands
Travel between the ABC islands is primarily via inter-island airline Divi Divi Air. Flight times are short and fares are affordable making this an easy way to experience all three islands on the same trip.
Note that all Divi Divi Air flights go through Curacao so if you’re flying from Aruba to Bonaire, you’ll have to make a stop in Curacao.
2022 Update: New Jetair flights!
In July 2022, Curacao-based Jetair launched new service between Aruba and Curacao so there’s now one more way to travel between the ABC islands. Direct flights run 4 times a week on Mondays and Fridays only.
The Bottom Line: It’s now even easier to include all three islands on your ABC islands vacation itinerary!
Now, let’s dive deeper into each of the ABC islands to see what makes each one so special.
First up, Aruba!
The Caribbean Powerhouse of Aruba
The island of Aruba has been part of the Dutch community for nearly 400 years.
For centuries the citizens of Aruba have shown their loyalty and devotion to the Dutch royal family by naming schools, streets, and public buildings in their honor.
Even the island’s capital city, Oranjestad, is named for the Royal House of Orange and features traditional Dutch architecture. The Queen is the head of state and her birthday is celebrated here as a national holiday.
Which of the ABC Islands has the best beaches?
While Aruba is the smallest island of the three ABC islands, it’s easily the most popular with visitors. It’s also the one island known for the most pristine beaches of all three islands. Aruba’s picture perfect beaches, sunny climate, and friendly locals have earned it the apt nickname, “One Happy Island.”
Where to Stay on Aruba
When it comes to hotels in Aruba, there are a TON of accommodation options. Everything from all-inclusive mega-resorts to small boutique properties.
There are three main areas of the island where the majority of hotels (and activities) are concentrated: Oranjestad, Palm Beach, and Eagle Beach.
Best Hotel in Oranjestad – The Aruba Renaissance Resort
In the capital city of Oranjestad, the Aruba Renaissance Resort is the top choice for one big (and pink) reason – exclusive access to the resort’s private island, Renaissance Island.
If you’ve seen the images of flamingos walking the beaches of Aruba and want to see them for yourself, you’ll have to book a room at the Renaissance. (In fact, even if you choose to stay at one of the beach resorts, spend your last few nights on Aruba here. Flamingo Beach is worth it and you can take advantage of their pre-departure testing!)
Flamingo Beach Aruba
The Renaissance’s private island has two beaches, Iguana Beach for families and Flamingo Beach (which is adults only). While both are equally fabulous in sand and surf, Flamingo wins the prize for wildlife.
A dozen or so pink flamingos prance around the shoreline drinking seawater and searching for food. In fact, if you buy a few pellets of food from one of the nearby machines, they will literally eat right out of your hand.
It’s one of the best wildlife encounters you’ll find on a beach…anywhere. And for sure the best in the ABC Islands!
Best Hotels in Palm Beach Aruba
Lively Palm Beach is the island’s most popular resort area. This 2-mile long strip of white, sandy beach is bordered on one side by turquoise waters and on the other by Aruba’s high-rise resorts. From bustling beach bars to high-octane water sports, you’ll find it all along this stretch of picture-perfect Caribbean Sea.
Top hotels on Palm Beach include:
- For Couples – Ritz Carlton Aruba – Set on a pristine beachfront, this is a luxury resort with all the bells and whistles. Widely considered one of Aruba’s best hotels, rooms are bright and elegant with spectacular ocean views. The staff is attentive, accommodating, and unobtrusive.
- For Families – Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino – Newly renovated rooms include spacious family suites with bunk beds. Amenities include a casino, a full-service spa, and two expansive pools (including one with a 2-story water slide).
- All-Inclusive – Barcelo Aruba – For one-stop shopping in Aruba, this resort is a terrific choice. With 7 restaurants, 6 bars, nightly entertainment, daily activities, and numerous watersports, you’ll find plenty to do. Great for couples or families (there’s also a kid’s club).
Eagle Beach has been rated as one of the best beaches in the world and it’s easy to see why. Here, you’ll find soft white sand, sparkling clear water, and Aruba’s most photographed fofoti (divi) tree. This pristine stretch of sand is home to Aruba’s low-rise resorts.
Top hotel choices on Eagle Beach include:
- For Couples – Bacuti & Tara Beach Resort (Adults Only) – For romance, luxury, and top-notch service on a brilliant stretch of beach, there’s no better choice.
- For Families – Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort – These spacious suites and studios come with fully equipped kitchens or kitchenettes, perfect for families or anyone looking for a little more space.
- On a Budget – MVC Eagle Beach – This small, colorful property is just across the street from Eagle Beach and is one of the best values on the island. Rooms are slightly smaller than average in Aruba but clean and modern.
Top 5 Things to Do on Aruba
Aruba’s gorgeous beaches are so inviting you may find it hard to tear yourself away in search of activities. But if you do, you’ll find plenty of options from sunset cruises and snorkeling to ATV tours and more. Here are a few of the best things to see and do around Aruba:
1. Flamingo Beach
Yes, you have to be a guest at the Renaissance Resort, but this is truly one of the best activities on the island. Don’t leave Aruba without visiting these pink-feathered island residents.
2. Natural Pool
Located within National Park Arikok, this peaceful hidden pool was created by a unique rock formation that protects it from the pounding sea. It’s a great spot for swimming or snorkeling. However, you’ll need a 4×4 vehicle to reach it so booking a tour is a good option to visit.
3. Wind Surfing & Kite Surfing
Aruba’s constant trade winds and flat water locations are ideal for both windsurfing and kite surfing. If you’ve never done either, this is the perfect place to try a lesson!
4. Island Tours
Whether by ATV, Jeep, or horseback, local tour operators offer half or full-day tours to help you explore the best of Aruba in one day.
5. Diving & Snorkeling
Get underwater for a peek at Aruba’s coral formations and rich marine life (including some of the Caribbean’s best wreck dive sites!). If underwater exploits aren’t your thing, you can still view Aruba’s best underwater sights from the comfort of a submarine.
Next up in the ABC Islands, Bonaire…
A Bonaire Affair
In 2010, Bonaire joined sister islands St. Eustatius and Saba in creating a new constellation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands known as the BES Islands.
While the political change was barely noticeable to visitors to the island, one thing that did change was the currency – Bonaire now uses the US dollar as its official currency.
Like Aruba and Curacao, the US dollar was generally accepted island-wide before, but here it’s now law of the land.
How to Get to Bonaire from Aruba
Though separated by only 120 kilometers, getting from Aruba to Bonaire requires two flights on Divi Divi Air, with a brief stopover in Curacao. Though each flight is only about 30 minutes, the overall travel time is approximately 3 hours.
There are no ferry services connecting the islands.
Good News! Direct flights to Bonaire from the US resumed in February 2021 on United, American, and Delta.
Where to stay on Bonaire
- Beachfront Luxury – Harbor Village Beach Club – Bonaire isn’t especially known for beaches but this resort sits on one of the island’s best. Couples will love the serenity of the resort’s private beach. Families will appreciate the spacious family suites.
- For Divers – Delfins Beach Resort – Home to a PADI 5-star dive center, this modern resort is situated on Bonaire’s western shoreline with access to superb shore dive sites.
- On a Budget – Divi Flamingo Beach Resort – Oceanfront rooms feature balconies that dangle over crystalline waters below. And you’ll find plenty of 5-star snorkeling right in front of the resort.
Top 4 Things to Do on Bonaire
Bonaire has long been known as the “Diver’s Paradise” of the ABC Islands but the island has more to offer than just underwater attractions.
1. Diving & Snorkeling
Bonaire’s Marine Park boasts more than 85 dive sites and more than 350 recorded fish species. Dozens of experienced dive operators are located around the island offering dives with varying degrees of difficulty.
For non-divers, the same traits that make Bonaire spectacular for diving make it equally magnificent for snorkeling. And you won’t have to go far. Many of Bonaire’s exquisite coral reefs are easily accessible from shore.
2. Bonaire’s Beaches (or lack thereof)
One of the reasons for Bonaire’s lush and healthy coral reef is the island’s lack of miles and miles of sandy beaches. Too much sand stirred up and settling on coral suffocates it. But what Bonaire lacks in white sand beaches it more than makes up for underwater.
Luckily, there are a few lovely Bonaire beaches well worth a visit. Don’t miss Eden Beach, Atlantis Beach, and Te Amo, to name a few.
3. Klein (Little) Bonaire
This small, uninhabited island just off the coast of Bonaire is part of the protected Bonaire National Marine Park. Its main beach, called “No Name Beach,” is one of Bonaire’s best and makes a great day trip either by group tour or water taxi. Note: Aside from two structures for shelter, there are no facilities on the island.
4. Eco Adventures
Bonaire is one of the world’s top destinations for sustainable tourism and many local tour operators offer a variety of ways to explore. From biking and hiking to birdwatching and caving, don’t miss a chance to experience Bonaire’s vibrant natural landscape.
Overall, you’ll find that Bonaire has a far more laid-back vibe than Aruba. It’s a terrific place to escape from mega-resorts and the world in general. Even if you’re not a diver, you’ll find plenty of reasons to love Bonaire.
And now, for our final stop in the ABC Islands…
The Colors of Curacao
Situated in the middle of the ABC islands in the Leeward Antilles, the island of Curacao is just a 20-minute flight from the neighboring islands of Aruba or Bonaire.
The island was once considered worthless by its original Spanish masters. However, it was the Dutch who realized Curacao’s true potential as a trading base when they took it unopposed in 1634.
Aside from a certain electric-blue liqueur, the island of Curacao is probably best known for its colorful, Dutch-inspired capital of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The gabled buildings that line the sea could just as easily be located in Amsterdam if not for their rainbow of colors.
The Queen Emma Bridge
Connecting the two sides of this historic city is the Queen Emma Bridge. Built in 1888, it’s better known as the “Pontoon Bridge” or my favorite, the “Swinging Old Lady.”
The bridge is supported by 16 floating pontoon boats and swings open several times a day to allow ships to enter the port. When the bridge is open, a free ferry shuttles pedestrians from one side to the other.
Where to Stay on Curacao
Yes, Curacao has a number of great beach resorts. But its vibrant capital also merits some quality time. Luckily, if you choose to stay in Willemstad, you don’t have to give up the beach.
Best Hotel Choice in Willemstad
Renaissance Curacao – Just a short walk from Willemstad’s main avenue, the Renaissance is situated next to the 19th-century Rif Fort and surrounded by a multitude of shops and restaurants. But this modern hotel in the city is locally famous for its Infinity Beach Club.
This man-made infinity pool on the second floor (yes, second floor) of the hotel is an engineering feat. It combines the sandy beach of Las Vegas stunner Mandalay Bay’s pool with the ocean-edge views of the infinity pool at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Ocean water is pumped up to the beach area and water pours over the infinity edge giving the illusion that it is returning back to the sea. It’s hard to find a more tranquil spot to spend the day.
Best Hotel for Beach Resort Lovers
Curacao Marriott Beach Resort – Located on a beautiful stretch of beach just a few miles from Willemstad, the 5-star Marriott resort has everything you need for the perfect beach vacation. Rooms are sleek and modern with stunning views of the sea.
Best Hotel for Anyone on a Budget
Dolphin Suites – Situated in a tranquil location just off busy Mambo Beach, this boutique hotel is a great choice for families or anyone on a budget. All rooms, studios, and suites feature either a kitchenette or full kitchen facilities.
Guests have free access to the nearby Curacao Sea-Aquarium (more on that below). There’s also a free twice-daily shuttle to the supermarket for provisions.
Top 4 Things to Do on Curacao
Start your exploration of Curacao in the charming capital of Willemstad, then branch out to some of the island’s other top sights. There are tons of fun things to do on the island of Curacao, here are just a few ideas:
1. Take a walking tour of Willemstad
From the Queen Emma Bridge to the historic neighborhood of Punda, Willemstad’s colorful architecture and quaint shops make for a perfect day.
2. Hit the Beach!
Curacao has a number of beautiful beaches to spend a lazy Caribbean afternoon. Don’t miss Playa Porto Mari, Cas Abao Beach, and Kenepa Beach.
3. Klein (Little) Curacao
Take a day trip to Curacao’s whitest and longest beach. Located 2 hours offshore, many tour companies and dive operators offer day trips (including lunch) to this uninhabited island with calm, crystal-clear waters.
4. Curacao Sea-Aquarium
Less typical aquarium and more marine rehabilitation center, Curacao’s Sea Aquarium is a terrific activity for the whole family. The open-water system provides a natural habitat and all marine life originates from the seas directly around Curacao. Interact with dolphins, flamingos, rays, sea lions, and more in a sustainable, humane environment.
So which of the ABC Islands is the best?
Well, for sandy beaches, glitzy resorts, and casinos (not to mention flamingos!), it’s hard to beat Aruba.
And for a vibrant Caribbean city scene, Curacao’s colorful Willemstad wins hands down.
But for pure rest and relaxation (not to mention great diving!), Bonaire rises straight to the top.
Of course, the Aruba flamingos may well be the highlight of your trip. After all, it’s not every day you get to swim with flamingos.
So, which of the ABC Islands is the best depends on what type of Caribbean vacation you’re looking for. All three islands – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao – are well worth a visit.
And while most visitors to the ABC Islands spend their entire holiday in Aruba, the neighboring islands of Bonaire and Curacao have so much to offer.
So if you’re planning a trip to Aruba, don’t miss the chance to take the quick flight over to Bonaire and Curacao to spend a few days.
You’ll be glad you did!