Affectionately dubbed “Holland of the Tropics,” Curaçao is a melting pot on bold display with more than 100 nationalities calling the cosmopolitan island home. Forty- four miles off the Venezuelan coast and a three-hour hop from Miami, the island is below the hurricane belt making it a popular choice for travelers who can do without the angst of weather delays.
Thirty-eight curvy beaches ring the coast. With a pastel-painted promenade, delightfully narrow streets and gabled colonial architecture in the capital city of Willemstad, Curaçao is Caribbean chic at its finest.
For an authentic slice of island life, check out our list of the coolest must-dos in Curaçao.
Willemstad and more than 50 cannons still inside its coral walls. Reimagined by the Renaissance Curaçao Resort, the former soldiers’ barracks now house designer boutiques, restaurants and bars where funky bands play after dark. For an afternoon respite, the resort’s clever faux-sand beach slopes into a pool filled with saltwater siphoned from the ocean right behind it.
Good-sized barracudas follow divers at Punt’i Piku across the channel from Barbara Beach; fishermen shoot the breeze at one end of Daaibooi Beach as snorkelers cavort with sponges and star corals below the surface. At Divers Leap, sea horses perch near the sea wall that is spectacular with an abundance of deep-water fish. A convenient home base for a diving vacay, Hilton Curaçao makes it easy with “Dare to you Dive” that includes the room, snacks and excursions organized by Caribbean Sea Sports, the resort’s new PADI-certified dive center.
In an 18th-century plantation house overlooking the salt pans of St. Marie and the flamingo sanctuary of Willibrordus, Nena Sanchez Gallery is a vibrant feast for the eyes. Inspired by the flowers, cottages, banana trees and people of the island, her brightly-colored paintings and statuesque sculptures are popular buys with tourists and locals who also flock to her “Paint to Relax” workshop held every second Sunday of the month. A second gallery is now open in Willemstad.
CARIBBEAN IN THE BUFF: Best nude resorts
Taste the melting pot
Easy to remember because its address is also its name, No. 5 at 5 Penstraat — one of the most historic streets on the island — comes with a Belgian chef, a Dutch owner and a menu that marries French flavors with Italian recipes. A jazzy soundtrack, discreet service, and a shareable steak grilled medium-rare with a pesto swirl alongside have earned the tiny eatery high marks for a romantic dinner for two.
East of the Queen Emma Bridge, Kome is owned by a pair of culinary whirling dervishes from Florida who love showing off their frenetic exhibition kitchen to hungry diners. Get there early for the fried chicken and Funchi Fries (think French fries but with a smooth middle made from corn meal) and the addictive tomato jam (like ketchup but better) made with onions, nutmeg, cloves, hot peppers and cinnamon.
Arrive before 7 a.m., when Venezuelan schooners unpack their wooden fishing boats that double as their living quarters. Setting up shop along the water on the Punda side of Willemstad, rows of fruits, vegetables, herbs and fish plucked from the sea are for sale at the Floating Market. Next door in the big round building, vendors in the New Market hawk everything from handicrafts to homemade honey in reusable bottles.
Eat like a local
Behind the Post Office in Willemstad, Marshe Bieuw is a no-frills food court dishing up ‘krioyo’ or local fare served at communal tables decorated with jars of pickled onions and hot peppers. Hearty plates of goat stew, stewed chicken and kingfish with sides of plantains and funchi will run USD$22 for two, including tip and drinks.
A big hit with aficionados who crave the distinctive cheeses of Holland and Switzerland, Royal Dutch Cheesery in the Renaissance Mall now offers cheese classes and wine pairings. Palate pleasing for newbies and connoisseurs, reservations are recommended as classes fill up fast.
Take the air-conditioned bus from Willemstad (USD$1.50 for a one-way fare) to Jan Thiel Beach. East of Willemstad, the beach is popular with families who come to enjoy lunch at the Papagayo Beach Club where the fresh tuna salad — ask for the vanilla-tinged salad dressing — is divine. At the dive shop on the sand, snorkel equipment can be rented and day tours arranged.
Escape the crowds
Heading to Westpunt towards Mount Christoffel, the island’s highest point, the scene is less crowded than at the tourist meccas on the opposite end of the island. Keep your eyes open for the rock walls that were built by slaves in the 1700s and their small houses that are now museums. Snack bars serve iguana soup; gaggles of goats cross the highway, and plenty of small beaches make for lively distractions.
A stop at Shete Boka National Park is worthwhile for the uninterrupted vistas of the rugged coast and a seat at a picnic table, where sharing a salted fish sandwich with a drizzle of Willy’s piquant pepper sauce is as local as it gets.
Open only on Friday, Equus is the neighborhood joint of choice for juicy skewers of beef and chicken grilled on a brick fire pit. Buckets of beer, garlic-smeared toast and dipping sauces come with the long strands of cubed meat that dangle from giant hooks hung over each table. With Country & Western tunes punctuating the air, no menus, no cutlery and a cash-only policy, dinner is an un-guide-book gem. Low tech without a website or Facebook page, the best option for directions is via email: [email protected].
Throw one back
The oldest bar in Curaçao is also one of the most charming. In the non-touristy neighborhood of Otrabanda, Netto Bar has been around for six decades and although it’s a bit worn around the edges, shots of the signature green rum or Ròm Bèrdè still fuels sprightly conversations about football and politics among locals who gather every day at Happy Hour.
For the fifth year, the North Sea Jazz Festival heats up the island on August 29 and 30 with marquee names like soul superstar Smoky Robinson and hip crooner Bruno Mars. Concerts are staged at the World Trade Center with after-parties island-wide until the sun comes up.