Friendly and culturally diverse, Curaçao appeals to Caribbean travelers who seek adventure, history and relaxation.
By Brendan Byrnes
Step off the plane at Curaçao International Airport and you’re likely to hear any of the following: welcome (English), welkom (Dutch), bienvenido (Spanish) or my favorite, bon bini (Papamiento).
In Title: One of the friendly faces that wait for you on the island. Curaçao Tourist Board photos
Above: Smaller beaches closer to Westpunt have fewer tourists and offer a gorgeous slice of serenity.
Below: Diving and snorkeling are the big adventure activities on the island.
This Caribbean nation, past member of the Netherlands Antilles, is 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is a melting pot of culture, history, natural beauty and resort living.
Curaçao speaks the language of nature lovers. Thirty-two beaches dotting the island’s long southern shore provide ample opportunities to cherry pick the sandy experience right for you. Several small beaches closer to Westpunt were completely empty save for a few trees and tiki umbrellas offering shade and serenity. Others, such as Mambo Beach, offer restaurants, bars, plenty of people watching and dancing on the shore.
Adventurers seeking more activity can head towards Christoffel Park on the western side of the island. Here, trails lead to the summit of Mount Christoffel, the highest point on the island, for the best views of Curaçao. Bring plenty of water and be prepared for a workout.
While on this side of the island, visitors can take another hike, albeit a flatter one, at Shete Boka (Seven Mouths) National Park. The seven inlets that characterize this park are met with violent waves that crash upon the shore and have created a stunning landscape with caves for exploring.
On the trek home, you’ll pass some of the many of the 80 landhuizen, or colonial plantation homes, that dot the countryside. Some are museums, some are restored and open to the public and some are private. One is more colorfully decorated than the rest; Landhuis Jan Kok is home to the gallery of Nena Sanchez. If you spot a bright yellow and pink school bus peeking above the island foliage, you know you’re close.
Sanchez’s affable sister, Louise, runs the gallery and shop. Nena Sanchez, a former Miss Curacao and renowned painter, depicts Caribbean scenes with the brightest colors imaginable.
A true escape waits just off the main island on Klein Curaçao or Little Curaçao. Only accessible by boat, this one-mile-long uninhabited island offers the longest and whitest beach the country has to offer. Many tours come for the fantastic dive spots, followed by beach parties and barbecue lunches.
Standing on the shore of St. Anne’s Bay with the colorful yellow and green Fort Amsterdam at your back, Rif Fort appears directly in front of you across the bay with colorful roof tops of the Renaissance Resort and Carnaval Casino peaking over tan coral stone walls.
To the left stand the tall coral stonewalls of Water Fort. The 17th-century fort clearly depict why this small island nation was so attractive to the Spanish and Dutch sailors.
In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Christopher Columbus, came to the island in search of gold, spices and riches. Upon finding none of the former and a lack of freshwater for farming, Ojeda dubbed the island, “Isla Inutiles,” or “useless island.”
The Dutch, looking for a trading port, found that the deep natural harbor at St. Anne’s Bay was perfect. They evicted the Spaniards in 1634 and built the forts at the mouth of the bay that still stand. The main trade became slaves from Africa heading for the American colonies. This dark period in history is captured in all its gruesome detail at the Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad. The museum includes a replica hull of a slave ship and many artifacts.
Strolling through the capital of this small island nation, the color and architecture of the city offers surprising attention to detail and historical significance. The church in Fort Amsterdam still has a cannonball lodged in its yellow stucco façade from an attempted British invasion by Capt. William Bligh. The Penha House on the corner by the floating bridge is still privately owned and features an intricate baroque style.
Visitors will likely be impressed to find that the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere is located in Curaçao. Temple Mikve Israel-Emmanuel in the Punda section of Willemstad has held services weekly since 1732.
The “wedding cake house,” a landmark in Scharloo,once a residential area for wealthy merchants, is covered in ornamental decoration and architectural art, making it appear like a giant wedding cake. The neighborhood is now occupied by offices, including such international companies such as PriceWaterhouseCooper and Deloitte, indicative of the large off-shore banking industry present here.
Feel the healing Caribbean air at Curaçao’s Hyatt Regency resort where you never have to fully step inside. The long driveway entrance leads to an expansive open-air lobby with billowing curtains and a massive two-tier coral design chandelier. Exterior hallways lead guests to rooms on three levels. Once inside, the simple and luxurious rooms boast floor to ceiling balcony doors that slide open completely, allowing ocean breezes to fill the space.
Located 30 minutes south of the airport, the resort is nestled within 27 acres between the Caribbean Sea and the calm Spanish Waters bay. Guests lounge in one of three pool areas surrounded by chaise lounge chairs and canopy beds. The active set can head down the white sand beach along the bay to Ocean Encounters where sailing, snorkeling, kayaking and paddle-boarding are all enticing options.
Take a Hobie Cat into the Spanish Waters where you’ll sail with forceful winds back and forth among shores with stunning private homes and yachts. Back at the 350-room resort, tired and sun-drenched guests have three options for dining, multiple bars to whet the whistle, including one in the lobby and countless chairs and loungers to watch the clouds float by.
Upon boarding my flight home, I was sent off with fond farewells and an invitation to come back, volver (Spanish), terugkomen (Dutch) and bai bin beck (Papamiento).
Brendan Byrnes is manager of public relations for AAA Carolinas and is based in Charlotte, N.C.