• Justin Key

One Happy Island

Updated: Apr 11

"You gotta marry that girl," the voice in my head said as a brown-haired girl in a hooded sweatshirt walked into math class on the first day of high school. I mentally scolded myself for such an outrageous reaction to a new face. Fast forward twelve years and I find myself drifting in the Caribbean under a golden sky. I have my arm around my wife as we cuddle in the net of a catamaran celebrating one year married to "that girl". It's in this moment with the sun setting and the turquoise water lapping below us that the voice in my head says "this is perfect."


We had arrived in Aruba four nights earlier for our anniversary honeymoon and after three days of technology separation, I was free from the LCD urges. I surprised Sarah with a romance package upgrade that included a champagne breakfast and a sunset cruise. The sky was clear, the sea was calm, I had my lady love and an open bar. The voice in my head couldn't have been more right, again.


Both of us were ready for a relaxing week in the Caribbean especially after a full sprint from end to end of Miami's terminal B only to find our flight was delayed. We had woken up at 2:30am in Denver and by the time we reached our room at 9:00pm that night, a bed had never looked so good.

Something happened to us while we slept, maybe it was the island spirits fighting off our stress, or the subliminal "One Happy Island" message that was everywhere from the license plates to the carpet in the airport, but we woke up feeling like the palm trees outside our window flowing in the breeze. We had nowhere to be, nothing to do, for the first time in our relationship I was experiencing Sarah's ideal vacation and it felt good.


We took our time finding breakfast where we would end up eating among iguanas and their various cousins. Then we changed into our bathing suits and boarded a boat for a private island for hotel guests only. The Renaissance Resort in Oranjestad was our home for one day just so we could go to this island that featured a beach inhabited with flamingos.


The flamingos were the clear draw as people took turns posing next to the free-ranging pink birds. Sarah and I found loungers on the palm tree-dotted, white sand beach where the warm turquoise water nibbled our feet. There were hammocks and cabanas, shade and sun, whatever personal preferences you had for relaxation were available. As we rocked in a hammock surrounded by mangrove trees over a secluded bay of saltwater, there was a new voice in my head, it was Sarah saying I told you so.



From Oranjestad, we journeyed to the northwest village of Noord. To get there we rode past white-sand beaches, that became hidden behind low rise hotels and eventually the high rise sector. The high rises came to an end with the Ritz Carlton and across the street hidden in an oasis of palm trees and seclusion was our little slice of AC. The Boardwalk Small Hotel is about as fancy as a New England lobster shack but with all the charm and hospitality of their bed and breakfasts with a sun and sand twist.

The Boardwalk became our private getaway in paradise. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the high rise lined Palm Beach it was an easy escape for peace and quiet with a romantic atmosphere. One night after the air cooled down, Sarah and I split a bottle of wine in the cabana by the pool. Without a soul around, other than the occasional gecko, we enjoyed a crisp white wine and talked like we hadn't conversed in years. Without distractions, without the stress of the daily monotony, we connected in a way we simply couldn't at home.


Most of our time was spent on a beach alternating between land and sea when the sweat pooled up too much. The humidity was thick to the point that stepping into it from an air-conditioned space felt like walking through mud. Wading into the Caribbean water helped. While the water was bathwater warm, it felt incredible with the sauna-like atmosphere of the beach.


There was some time set aside for adventure. We procured a jeep for a day and drove through Arikok National Park where we hiked through sand dunes and explored two caves where we saw ancient cave paintings while dodging bats. From there we drove to the southeast tip of Aruba to Baby Beach. A hot spot for the locals, Baby Beach was much quieter than Palm Beach but just as pristine. We attempted to snorkel but without much to see we retreated to the beach. (We would later find out that further up the beach there were sea turtle encounters that same afternoon.) 

We arrived at Mangel Halto Beach prior to golden hour. Mangel Halto had coarser sand than most we had visited, but it was hidden in a grove of mangrove trees that provided a sanctuary for the private beachgoers. While the sun was still high I stumbled my way to a reef to do a little snorkeling. The water didn't get deep very quickly and as the sand path turned into a grapefruit-sized rock bed the water was approaching my knee. I continued to trip and slide along the rocks until I saw a round white form in the rocks. With my mask on I stuck my head underwater to discover a sea urchin the size of a softball. Rather than step on an ocean pin cushion I left my mask on and crawled my way to deeper water.

Once the water was swimming safe I stood up to adjust my mask and turn on my GoPro. I had just submerged my face when something shot across my eye line. Startled and slightly panicked I assured myself that what I'd seen wasn't a fish. Hidden in the rocks, doing its best to camouflage itself, was an octopus. One of my favorite sea creatures was five feet away, staring at me. I was hesitant about approaching it, not knowing what the eight-legged alien would do but well aware the GoPro wasn't going to pick up much unless it was a lot closer. I could see it was studying me as I slowly approached. It jettisoned from its hole into an open area as I watched ecstatic as it changed color to match its new surroundings. I didn't want to overstay my welcome but as I swam away I couldn't help but wonder if it had been more intrigued by me than I of it.



I've noticed it in myself as much as I have the majority of the population. Moments are no longer a private experience. While I am not trying to instantly post and share my life, I am losing out on the moment by trying to preserve it with the camera. Hawaii was my wake up call after I realized I'd spent most of the trip worrying about the photographs rather than taking time to enjoy the memories. It has become inherent as it has gotten easier to display a personal experience for others. In that moment, watching that big orange ball, the only person I wanted to share that moment with was in my arms.

I awoke on our final day in Aruba feeling loose and light again. The sun was shining as it had all week and the humidity was there to greet us when we walked out the door. Sarah and I enjoyed breakfast on our patio and tried to preserve this slice of perfect for a little bit longer. We had time to kill after we checked out so we walked up the beach where a shipwreck was sticking out of the water. We went for one last snorkel around the rusted pile of jagged steel abundant with sea life. A school of thousands of yellow fish hugged the hull and we spotted a pair of lobster hiding in the reef. 


As we floated in the sea, there was nothing else. There was no flight home, there was no work in the morning, no traffic on the road or errands to run. There was no LCD burning our eyes. There was nothing to remember and nothing to forget. Even the voice in my head was silent. It wasn't the place, it wasn't the time, it wasn't the company of my wife swimming next to me, it was everything. Everything was perfect.

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© Justin Key Photography