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Drinking on Island Time

I’ve written about many of my travels in these Brew Time columns over the last couple of years – Germany, France, The Canary Islands – so when the Covid pandemic hit, the subsequent travel-ban really sucker-punched me hard. I love to travel. I love learning about and experiencing different cultures, eating the regional food, drinking the native beverages, observing the different flora and fauna, exploring the history, art and architecture, all while embarking upon unique adventures in each country. Being that I’m an RN in real life, this past year and a half has been exceptionally difficult being in medicine. Therefore, I knew I needed a truly relaxing vacation. When vaccination became a reality and the easing of restrictions began, that was my cue to bounce on out of CNY and experience the world again!

First stop post-pandemic: Aruba!

This Dutch Island in the southern-most portion of the Caribbean is actually considered to be part of South America being that it is only 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It also happens to be wonderfully situated outside of the Hurricane belt, which means that ANY time is a good time to visit! The country itself is approximately 20 miles long and 6 miles across at its widest point. Aruba’s climate is very warm (85-90 degrees on average year-round), largely arid and is spotted with more cactus than actual palms across the landscape, along with plenty of white sand beaches amongst a few secluded black sand ones due to the volcanic rock that also dots certain areas of the island along the coastline.

My significant other and I booked the trip through CheapCaribbean.com (it’s actually my second trip booked through them, and I couldn’t be happier!) and found ourselves at the all-inclusive Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, owned by Marriott, situated on the port-side of the capital, Oranjestad. Usually, this particular area is quite busy due to the docking of cruise ships and all of their accompanying passengers visiting the island, however with the global pandemic it was quiet and meant a much less-crowded and much more-relaxing vacation overall. The hotel actually boasts two separate properties – one for adults only and one for families – but adults can visit and utilize the amenities at both. Each had different restaurants, bars, pools, shopping and unique landscaping. The two properties are within a 3-5min walk of each other which was very convenient. Our actual hotel housed several restaurants including L.G. Smith’s Steakhouse, which happens to be the best on the island – we saved this for our last vacation dinner and it did NOT disappoint with a multi-course meal and some of the best steaks we have ever had! (And yes, it WAS included in our all-inclusive package!)

But the best thing (and probably our main deciding factor) about this resort is that it has its own private 40-acre island of white sand and mangroves, exclusive for guests of the hotel, situated just off the coast and only accessible by boat. The island is a mini-paradise in and of itself – they have their own flock of flamingos that roam the beaches and will eat out of your hand, along with a variety of wildlife from tropical fish to lizards and iguanas to pelicans! Guests have their choice of two different beaches: Flamingo Beach that is adults-only, and Iguana Beach that is family-friendly. Each side has private cabanas for rent – which we opted to do as an extra luxury on our trip and it was well-worth it for a whole day of private butler service, extra-cushy lounging couches, and a hammock overhanging the ocean below, amongst other amenities! Even when we didn’t have the cabana, the beach – both sides – were just fantastic. No crowds, soft ocean waves, and plenty of floats and snorkeling equipment to utilize, free of charge. Two beach bars with food and drinks are also aplenty on the island!

Our excursions booked through Viator took us off-roading in an open-air Jeep with De Palm Tours and scuba diving with Pure Diving Aruba. Both were exceptionally fun and gave us an entirely different view of the island. The Jeep tour was a full-day adventure that took us to the California Lighthouse, Alto Vista Chapel, back-roading to Aruba’s Natural Bridge made of limestone over the ocean, a short stop at the Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins, Blackstone Beach which is one of the aforementioned secluded volcanic black-sand beaches, past the Ayo rock formations, to Studio Murano – a multi-generational family owned glass blowing and art studio, where we also had lunch provided, and then onto the island’s Donkey Sanctuary (which was ADORABLE, I might add!) and lastly to Baby Beach, one of the most well-known beaches on the island, for a dip in the ocean which was a perfect end to the excursion. The day was jam-packed but we were really able to see the entire island and everything in between – because you’re driving everywhere, both inhabited and uninhabited. Though it’s not for the faint of heart – it’s both very dusty and bounced around!

Scuba diving was also fun – this was my second time diving – the first being in The Canaries, and every time is bringing me ever-closer to actually obtaining certification! Our guides were of Dutch descent and very much pro-divers themselves. A fellow RN from Ireland joined me on my underwater quest, who was actually on assignment in Aruba due to the pandemic. The waters at Tres Trapi (“Three Steps”) are sublime
for diving. It’s a small sandy cove that’s known for being able to view sea turtles. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any turtles during my dive however we did see a few large Flying Gurnard fish swimming around in a circle together with their “wings” spread out that were either fighting or mating – our guides had never seen that before, so it was quite exciting to see!

By now, if you’ve read this far, you must be wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about beer yet! Patience, young grasshopper!

Anytime I go on vacation, I seek out beer that’s brewed in the area, state, or country I am visiting. It’s not only great article fodder, but it’s a total passion and interest of mine to try new brews! Prior to visiting Aruba, I researched the different breweries on the island. To note, there are only two! Balashi Brewery and Fireson Brewing Co. Due to the Aruban government regulations regarding Covid-19, Balashi was closed to the public, however, Fireson was open and not terribly far from our hotel, so one evening we grabbed a cab outside our hotel and made the trek to Fireson, which is near the Holiday Inn Resort in Palm Beach.

Fireson Brewing Company first opened in July 2018. A family-owned business co-owned by Radinka and Tony van Vuurden, it’s the only micro-brewery on the island. Because they are very small, they normally only have 1-3 beers available on draft, but dabble in a variety of different brews from Kölsch to Oatmeal Stouts. When we arrived, they had their New England Style IPA on tap. Baranca (7.3% ABV) is brewed with Mosaic and Amarillo hops giving this creamy mouthfeel haze-fest a dank and earthy flavor with slight citrus notes. It was very good! In addition, we opted to try some of Aruba’s classic bar food options via the Fireson Goodness Platter that included Funchi fries made of polenta and topped with shredded melted gouda cheese and served with homemade chipotle sauce, fried meatballs with barbeque sauce, Aruban beef croquettes with a spicy mustard sauce, and empanadas filled with meat and potatoes. We felt like locals at their local watering hole, sitting outside on a picnic table with a beer in one hand and feasting on Aruban specialties with the other. It was a really great experience and I highly recommend if you ever plan a trip down to Aruba.

While Balashi Brewery wasn’t open to the public for a visit, their beers are all over the island and easy to find both on tap and in the local convenience store. Balashi is a full-scale production microbrewery that was founded in 1998 via a partnership between local brewers and German beer experts who came to Aruba with the goal of creating a fresh, local island brew. Their flagship beer – Balashi – is a Pilsner that is a favorite with the residents. At 5% ABV it’s a light and classic beer that upon first sip is extremely reminiscent of a Heineken in my opinion! I had a taste of this on tap at our swim up bar at the hotel while I was there. I then went searching on the outskirts of our hotel for some bottles and cans to bring home – or as I like to call them: Suitcase Beers!

I was able to find 2 other Balashi beers: Balashi Chill and Magic Mango, which we popped open with friends when we arrived back home so everyone could have a taste from afar. Balashi Chill (5% ABV) marketed as a “Caribbean Beer” is every bit a classic Lager, best imbibed cold for that clean, crisp, refreshing flavor with a subtle aroma. It’s perfect for a hot day, sipping on the beach while doing some easy-livin’. Similar to a Corona, this would be excellent served with a lime. Definitely can see why the cashier in Aruba told us that THIS was her favorite!

Magic Mango is a 5% ABV Pale Ale that is brewed by Aruba’s first female Brew Master,

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!