Curaçao: Dutch Heart, Caribbean Soul
From ancient caves and historic buildings to underwater wonderlands, the 171-square-mile island has plenty of must-see highlights.
The candy-colored Curaçao (pronounced Cure-a-sow) is often likened to a tropical Holland. The small, sophisticated island is located 35 miles or so off the coast of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean Sea. Willemstad, the island’s capital, is a multihued architectural jewel buzzing with an energy that distinguishes this destination from the collection of laid-back Caribbean isles.
The sun-saturated island is surrounded by bath-like water in an inviting shade of blue. Jump on in and explore some of the top dive sites in the Caribbean—there are 65 to choose from—or stick closer to shore on any of the island’s 38 white-sand beaches. Nature lovers can explore the marvels contained in the national parks and the Hato Caves, while history buffs will love exploring historical Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage City brimming with examples of distinctive Dutch architecture. Duty-free shopping abounds on both sides of the bay, so be sure to save some time for a proper treasure hunt.
The picture-perfect waterfront resembles something out of a fairy tale: a pastel rainbow of gingerbread townhouses in neat rows shimmers across the smooth-as-glass waters of the bay.
Local lore tells the source of the signature color palette: One of the island’s first Dutch governors decreed that houses not be painted white because the reflection of the sun could cause headaches and even blindness. Hence, the tropical color palette for which Curaçao is known. Though eventually, it was revealed that the politician actually owned stock in a paint company.
Curaçao has been one of the southern Caribbean’s most important commercial centers since the Dutch West Indies Company claimed the land in 1634. The island’s sheltered, deepwater harbor supports a thriving shipping industry and a flourishing capital. Willemstad is home to about 150,000 people hailing from 55 different nations.
The colorful capital city was originally founded in the 1500s by the Spanish, who dubbed it Sint Anna. Today, that name is reserved for the narrow Santa Anna Bay, which divides the city into two districts: Punda and Otrobanda.
Along the island’s coasts, blue waters frame 38 beaches ranging from small inlets shielded by craggy cliffs to long expanses of sparkling sand. Along the southern coast, it tends to be rocky in the shallow water, so reef shoes are recommended. The west coast affords more stretches of smooth shoreline. There are snack bars and restrooms on most of the bigger beaches, but the smaller ones offer a better chance of finding tranquility, especially during the week when there are a few cruise ships in port.
From Willemstad, head north to explore an uninhabited coast. The flat, rugged terrain is dotted with 10-foot-tall cacti and characteristic landhuizen (land houses)—former mansions of plantation owners. The land is ideal for cycling or hiking past the intriguing flora, which includes the famous divi-divi trees. Due to a weak bark, the branches of the tree are bent to the southwest, the direction of the prevailing trade winds.
Just north of Willemstad, the Hato Caves are a top attraction. The ancient Arawaks first used them for shelter, and runaway slaves hid in the caves during colonial times. These days, guides lead groups past the pools and waterfalls and point out the 1,500-year-old cave paintings, all the while relating the legends and history of this mysterious underground enclave.
Farther north is Shete Boka National Park, the home of the natural marvel, Boka Tabla. Sit by the edge of the surf and watch huge waves thunder into an underground cavern that was carved out of the limestone by constant pounding breakers. It’s a spectacular sight to witness, so don’t forget your camera.
Much of northern Curaçao is part of Christoffelpark, a 4,450-acre wildlife preserve where white-tailed deer, barn owls, neon-blue iguanas, and rare wild orchids flourish. Eight hiking trails wind through the park, the most challenging of which leads to the top of the 1,230-foot-high Mount Christoffel.
South of Willemstad, the Curaçao Sea Aquarium is a great stop for families. The shallow waters of adjacent Mambo Beach are perfect for small children, and kids of all ages will enjoy exploring the aquarium, watching live feeding shows, and handling some sea creatures in the touch tank, an aquatic version of a petting zoo.
Board a trolley for a historical tour through Willemstad. Start at Fort Amsterdam, then see Scharloo’s picturesque homes built during the 1880s. Continue to the Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, the oldest in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Visit the historic Curaçao Winery, the Caribbean’s first vineyard, and enjoy a wine-tasting experience featuring locally produced vintages. Discover the unique differences between European and Caribbean vineyards with an experienced guide, followed by a scenic stop at the Rif Fort.
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