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Did You Know … ?
- Willemstad’s buildings were first painted in pastels (1817) on orders of a governor who claimed white gave him a headache.
- Willemstad’s Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest (1732) in continuous use.
- Blue Curacao is made using rinds of laraha oranges, the wild (and bitter) descendants of Spain’s Valencia oranges.
- Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland (later, New York), lost his leg while governor of Curacao.
- Ninety-six percent of Curacao’s population lives in Willemstad.
Dutch treat in full sun
Curacao is located in the southwestern Caribbean, 35 miles north of Venezuela — and outside the Caribbean hurricane zone.
It is a warm and sunny place with sandy beaches and a deep blue sea that promise fun near, on or in the water. In particular, the 171-square-mile island is a top draw for divers.
But, because of an arid climate, Curacao’s landscape is reminiscent of the U.S. Southwest while its architecture suggests the Netherlands, but in pastel colors under full sun. The island’s population is a modest 142,000 but represents 50-plus nationalities.
Tourism is tops, but the second industry is an oil refinery that can deliver odors and pollutants downwind. The oil business shouldn’t much affect visitors except for the visual reminder when a tanker moves through Willemstad under the Caribbean’s highest bridge.
But the Dutch appearance — a vivid reminder of the island’s history as a Dutch colony and its current status as an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands — and a rich mix of nationalities and traditions make the island appealing to visitors interested in a beach vacation with more than sun and sand. Even those who come only for sun ‘n’ fun walk the streets of Willemstad’s historic center, now a UNESCO site.
Dedicated sightseers visit Dutch plantation homes and the hemisphere’s oldest synagogue. Museums reveal much about the island’s original inhabitants, its past as a slave-trading hub, its long-established Jewish community and, of course, the colonial history, involving England and Spain, as well as the Netherlands.
The diverse population informs the island’s food, festivities and language. Dutch is the official language, but many locals speak English, Spanish and/or the Curacao Creole called Papiamentu.
Willemstad is a lively port city with enough restaurants and nightspots to divert any vacationer. And there is abundant duty-free shopping.
Finally, this is still the Caribbean. Visitors enjoy the full range of water-based activities, starting with scuba diving. The countryside and a national park invite visitors for ATV touring, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. For those who prefer groomed landscapes, golf is on the Curacao menu, too.
Things to do for Venturers
- Go diving at the coral-rich Mushroom Forest or at the Tugboat, the latter a manmade site created by sinking a boat.
- For food you won’t get at home, order iguana one evening. Or ostrich. Or cactus soup.
- Join one of the weekend beachfront dance parties; beach parties are a staple on Curacao.
- Charter a boat for sailing or for waterskiing. You may consider windsurfing, too, remembering the winds here could blow you to Venezuela.
- Try your kite surfing or kiteboarding skills at St. Joris Bay. Or get out of the water for spelunking in the Hato Caves.
- Compete in the annual Amstel Curacao Race, a 50-mile cycling tournament in November for champions and recreational bikers.
Things to do for Centrics
- Come to Curacao for its Carnival, which lasts from early January to late February or early March.
- Stay in an old plantation home that has been converted into a bed-and-breakfast inn.
- Tour the Curacao Liqueur Distillery at Landhuis Chobolobo, and sample the product, a liqueur unique to this island; then, buy a bottle to take home (in your checked luggage).
- Tour Christoffel Park on horseback or in a Jeep.
- Attend services at the historic Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue; also, visit its associated Jewish Cultural Historic Museum. The sanctuary floor is covered in sand; one theory says the sand represents the desert where ancient Israelites lived after escaping from Egypt.
- Join a group kayak or canoe trip. If you want more distance between the water and you, go fishing.
Things to do for Authentics
- Stand on the Queen Juliana Bridge, the Caribbean’s highest bridge, for great photos of the colorful downtown Willemstad.
- Stay at Hotel Kura Hulanda, which was created from a collection of 18th and 19th century colonial buildings. Or, at least visit the converted Kura Hulanda development. It includes a museum, at the site of slave trading, where you will learn about Curacao’s involvement in the slave trade.
- Shop for tapestries, cloth dolls and other handicrafts. While in the shopping frame of mind, look for the duty-free finds, as well.
- Take a walking tour of Willemstad’s historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s like a tropical version of Amsterdam. Get outside the city, too, to see one or more of the island’s landhuisen, or plantation houses. Landhuis Bloemhof, for example, is a center for the arts.
- For the kids (or yourself), book time at the Curacao Sea Aquarium to feed the sharks. Also, take a motor tour of the Ostrich Farm.
- Find a cozy cove for a day of quiet beach time; in the evening, wend your way to a casino table.
For more information, consult the Curacao Tourism Board at www.curacao.com