Aruba + Red Sail

Aruba and Red Sail At the 2009 SITE International Conference in November, we set off on a sort of “luxury beach safari” to sample Aruba’s diverse collection of group venues and activities, all interwoven together with uncommon logistical ease.

For example, while shipwreck diving is usually reserved for scuba divers, the 400-ft German U-boat Antilla lies eerily just a few feet below the clear water’s surface, with the barnacled hull almost close enough to touch. Plus, you can almost swim to the Caribbean’s largest wreck from your hotel pool bar. Antilla sits right offshore from the handful of flagged, group-friendly hotels lined up on Aruba’s Palm Beach, renowned for its ivory white sands and vivid blue sea.

Local DMC Red Sail Sports operates a wide docket of island adventures from here, with four sleek catamarans carrying 100, 90, 55 and 45 passengers. Group options using up to all four cats at once include a U-boat snorkel and lunch, 1-day scuba lessons, and sunset dinner sails like the 2-hr Mexican Fiesta with mariachi music and margaritas.

It’s a completely different story on the other side of Aruba. The wide-open landscape is hardscrabble desert with cacti, mountain caves and a craggy shoreline pounded constantly by the crashing surf. Red Sail hooks groups up with 4×4 Land Rovers or buggy-like “Tomcars” that attendees can drive themselves through the desert plateaus and twisting passes while stopping to visit old gold mines and archaeological sites. The combination of dry desert air, fresh ocean spray and the adrenaline rush from punching the pedal yourself is a total high. Open-air seats are in the back if you don’t want to drive, or want to share the wheel.

“I tell everyone the two things you must do in Aruba are the sailing and jeeps in the desert,” says Michel van Leeuwen, sales/marketing manager for Red Sail. “The Tomcars are quite popular. They’re more active like ATVs but a lot safer.”

Van Leeuwen’s favorite event is a private party on Renaissance Island just offshore from the downtown capital of Oranjestad, 20 minutes south of Palm Beach near the airport. For one “Fortune 10” group, he created a Venetian-style masquerade ball with a recreated Rialto Bridge, masks, costumes, Italian cuisine and live opera singers.

“We sailed everyone over and placed video screens and a theater stage in the water—it was a special night,” he says.

Back on Palm Beach, the advantage of having all the hotels together makes it easy for everyone to walk to dinner or meetings at the various hotels without requiring shuttles. For instance, some 500+ attendees strolled along the beach boardwalk snaking along the sand to the Radisson Aruba Resort, Casino & Spa for the South Africa Tourism luncheon. (See our May/June 09 issue for a Planner’s Pick discussing the 4-diamond Radisson).

We popped in to say hi at the Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino, which just wrapped up a $20 million renovation including four new specialty suites ranging from 1,150-2,500 sf. The new look is residential with authentic Italian furnishings, leather woven rugs, Mitchell Gold sofas, McGuire lounge chairs and soaking tubs by French high-fashion designer, Philippe Starck. The rest of the 360 rooms share the clean and homey outlook incorporating European-style furnishings and expanded designer bathrooms.

Likewise, the Occidental Grand Aruba completed a $24 million rehab to its 380 rooms. This is an excellent value will full-time all-inclusive pricing and six restaurants, including the à la carte Italian O’Lio and Mexican El Olvido. Check out Occidental’s VIP Royal Club, an exclusive hotel-within-a-hotel product located on the top floors overlooking Palm Beach.