An island with a distinctly European feel, yet set in the prime climate of the Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao is an ideal place to soak up both sun and culture. Visit the island’s most famous landmarks, such as the floating market, the 350-year-old synagogue, and the historic Fort Amsterdam in Punda, the heart of Willemstad. Venture across the floating bridge to Otrabanda, a neighborhood currently experiencing a thrilling renaissance, and pop into the anthropological Kura Hulanda Slave Museum, bold art galleries like Kas Di Alma Blou, and even a sophisticated champagne & chocolate bar at Angelica’s Delights. When the sun sets, experience a heady, thriving nightlife at hotspots, where you can kick up your heels to the irresistible sounds of salsa, merengue, bachata or tumba, the official music of the Netherlands Antilles. Or try your luck at any number of the island’s lively casinos. There is another side of Curaçao, too. Dig beyond the cosmopolitan crux of the island and discover a laidback, unspoiled beach paradise. You’ll find gorgeous talcum-powder sand and azure water everywhere on the island. But to explore the most scenic and secluded beaches, take a day trip to the undeveloped west side of the island, where more than 25 intimate beaches are tucked into the nooks of the coastline. Because Curaçao is located just below the Hurricane Belt, the tropical weather can be enjoyed year-round. The secret charms of Curaçao hide in the most unusual places— submerged off the coast of Caracasbaai, obscured behind the limestone walls of a nondescript building in Punda, tucked into an alley off the main square of Otrabanda, and concealed underground behind the airport. Explore these sights either on foot, by boat or by safari Jeep. Attractions Mikve-Israel Emanuel. Hanechi di Snoa 29. 461-1067. The 358-year-old Mikve- Israel Emanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Its sunny limestone and coral façade may appear unassuming from the outside, but inside the Spanish-tile courtyard, dark wood benches and elaborate chandeliers are strikingly dramatic. The floors of the synagogue are covered entirely with sand imported from Spain, a tribute to the Jews of the Spanish Inquisition who were once forced to muffle their footsteps to pray in secret. Floating Market. The Caprileskade promenade serves as the major artery in the shopping district of Punda. South American fruit and vegetable vendors arrive here by boat early in the morning to sell indigenous and exotic produce, like green plantains and fiery red habaneros, directly from the water. Christofelpark. 864-0363. Nature enthusiasts may explore the park on foot, horseback, mountain bike, car or Jeep. The most popular hike is the Christoffel Mountain Trail, a two-hour climb to the top of the tallest mountain in Curaçao. Hikers will wander past prickly pear cactus, divi divi trees and rare orchids. The real reward, however, is the sweeping panoramic view of the island from the summit. The park is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p. m., and on Sunday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $9.00. Guided walking tours are $15.00. Hato Caves. Rooseveldweg. 868-0379. Explore wonders both natural (massive stalactites and stalagmites) and human (1500-year-old Indian cave drawings). The 45-minute tour meanders through the maze of limestone and waterfalls and covers the fascinating history of the caves, which originally served as shelter for the native Arawak Indians and later as safe haven for escaped slaves. Multilingual tours are given on the hour from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Open daily, admission $6.50 for adults, $5 for children. Senio r’s Curaçao Li queur Distillery. Landhuis Chobolobo. Schottegatweg Oost 129. 461-3526. At the 19th-century Chobolobo Mansion, Senior’s Curaçao—the official producer of the worldfamous “Blue Curaçao” liqueur—offers free tours and liqueur tastings. Try the coffeeflavored Kofi Korsow or the sweet Rum Raisin. All flavors are made with peels of the native “Laranha,” a bitter orange that was brought to Curaçao in the early 1500’s from Spain. The souvenir shop sells gift sets like the 3-pack, which includes Kofi Korsow, Chocolate and Rum Raisin, or the 5-pack, With one bottle of each of “CURAÇAO of CURAÇAO” liqueur colors. The little, handpainted ceramic houses filled with liqueur are unusual and charming collector’s items. Open weekdays, from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1 p. m.-5 p.m. and some weekends. Ostrich Farm. Groot de Joris, Santa Catharina. 747-2777. You don’t realize what a truly strange and fascinating creature an ostrich is until you see one up close. And you don’t realize how delicious an ostrich tastes until you try an ostrich burger! Do both at the Curaçao Ostrich Farm. Engage directly with the animals on a Jeep safari tour. Afterwards, play with baby ostriches in the nursery, try the ostrich steak with African red wine sauce at the Zambezi Restaurant, and browse the jewelry, fabrics and hand-carved wood sculptures at the Art of Africa gift shop. Allow 2.5 hours minimum. Tour: $10 adult, $6 children, reservations required. Sea Aquarium. Martin Luther King Blvd. 461-6666. The Sea Aquarium complex is Curaçao’s one-stop spot for family fun and marine adventure. Feeding shows and exhibitions, like the dolphin training demonstration, take place throughout the day. For a more hands-on experience, bring a bathing suit to snorkel or scuba dive at Animal Encounters, where visitors are encouraged to hand-feed the stingrays, sea turtles and sharks. Get up-close and personal with the sea lions during a Sea Lion Encounter or swim, snorkel and even dive with the dolphins at the Dolphin Academy, one of the most popular attractions. Kura Hulanda Museum. Klipstraat 9, Otrobanda. 434-7765. This anthropological museum is set within the Kura Hulanda Hotel, or the “Project Kura Hulanda,” an historic preservation village complex where the original cobblestone streets and 18thcentury buildings of Otrobanda have been meticulously restored and recreated. The exhibits focus on the predominant cultures of Curaçao with an emphasis on the African slave trade and West African influences. The museum also houses an intriguing collection of Mesopotamian relics and Antillean art. Open daily from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Adults: $9. Senior Citizens, Children: $6. Klein Curaçao. The uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao is 15 miles off the southern coast of Curaçao. This is the pictureperfect beach you’ve always imagined— completely unspoiled with pure white sand and impossibly clear blue water. The reef also teems with rich, abundant marine life. Sunken Tugboat. A remarkable coral wonderland only 14 feet below the surface, where brightly colored parrotfish, angelfish and sunfish dart in and out of the Hull. It’s an excellent spot for snorkelers. Access to the sunken tugboat is available either by swimming from nearby Baya Beach, where you can rent snorkel gear, or on board organized sailing trips, on boats such as the Bounty and the Insulinde. Mushroom Forest. For divers, the Mushroom Forest consistently ranks at the top of Curaçao’s list of underwater dive spots. Sport Diver magazine even named it one the World’s Best Dives. The site gets its name from the overgrown, mushroomshaped formations of star coral, which create a maze of walls through which both fish and humans can play. BEACHES There is a beach for everyone in Curaçao, from surfers to casual beach bathers. Beaches found towards the center of the island tend to be larger and more serviceoriented, with full-scale amenities such as restaurants, snack bars, boutique shops and activity centers. But intrepid day-trippers can head further west, wander down the unmarked dirt roads and discover some spectacular, secluded cove beaches tucked between rocky cliffs. There may be fewer amenities here, but the panoramic views of the diamond-dappled Caribbean Sea are unparalleled. Sea Aquarium. The longest stretch of white sand beach on the island, the popular Sea Aquarium beach, is a full-service complex. Grab drinks and snacks at the beach bars, browse the trendy accessories at the boutique shops, or book a boat dive through Ocean Encounters. Stay dry with a pick-up game of beach volleyball. It is Also just as entertaining to lounge on a yellow-and-white striped beach chair and people-watch. Jan Thiel. A beachfront playground and good shallow-water snorkeling make Jan Thiel Beach a popular destination for families with small children. Adults can play too at Scuba Do, the on-site dive facility. The protected inlet guarantees that the water remains safe and calm. Baya Beach. If nearby Caracasbaai Beach gets too crowded on the weekend, drive past the ruins of the old Dutch fort, Fort Beekenburg, to the tiny but fun-filled Baya Beach Club. Sporty types can rent jet skis and canoes, but for a real treat, rent snorkels and swim over to the sunken tugboat wreck (note: this activity is not recommended for beginner swimmers). Brakkeput Ariba. There’s not much of a beach at Brakkeput Ariba, but there is no better place to learn how to sail than in the mirror-surface calm of this Spanish Water Lagoon harbor. Pro Sail Curaçao rents kayaks, motorboat Zodiacs, one-person Sunfish and open-sloop Centaurs, with or without a skipper. Sailing courses and instruction are also available. Porto Marie. The small, white-sand cove of Porto Marie on the west coast is one of the island’s hidden treasures. Artificial Reef Balls, which provide a habitat for fish and other marine life, have been dropped to create a snorkeling trail, which attracts a wide array of vibrant, colorful fish. Porto Marie Beach is also the starting point for two nature trails, the Historic Trail and the Bird Watch Trail, which can be followed on foot or by mountain bike. PortoMarie Sports rents diving and snorkeling equipment and the PortoMarie Restaurant & Bar provides the post-hike or post-dive refreshments. Cas Abao. One of Curaçao’s most beautiful beaches, Cas Abao also lies in a selfprotected bay on the west coast. The water trampoline is a hit among kids, but older thrill-seekers get a kick out of the jet skis and the banana boat rides. When the stress of a long day spent at the beach becomes unbearable, soothe yourself with a massage under a palapa hut followed by a cappuccino, fruit smoothie or glass of wine at the beach bar. Grote Knip. Skip the amenities and come to Grote Knip for one reason and one reason only— to soak in the sun at the one spot locals consider to be, hands down, the main island’s one truly picture-perfect beach. With crystal-clear water and blinding white sand, Grote Knip needs no other incentives to draw a crowd. Klein Knip. Next door to Grote Knip, Klein Knip (literally “Small Knip”) is a charming, more intimate companion to its larger sister beach. There’s no restaurant or bar here, so bring a cooler and pack your own beverages and picnic lunch or make like the locals and bring a portable BBQ. Playa Kalki. This cozy little West Coast beach makes an excellent base for exploring some of Curaçao’s underwater gems, like the “Alice in Wonderland” reef 100 feet off the beach. Ocean Encounters West, located on-site at Playa Kalki, offers boat trips to nearby dive spots like the top-rated Watamula and snorkel spots like the Blue Room, famous for its eerie lighting. Playa Kanoa. The rough, savage waters of the North Coast make the beaches here very dangerous for swimming. But adventurous surfers delight in the breaks at Playa Kanoa. The less intrepid can watch the hypnotic waves hit the dramatically jagged, battered cliffs from a safe distance at the open-air restaurant on a hill, overlooking the fisherman’s marina. SHOPPING Combine window-shopping and sightseeing in Punda, the bustling heart of Willemstad. Make Penha (Heerenstraat 1), across from the floating Queen Emma Bridge, your starting point. The stately yellow building, with the distinctive Dutch-style white trim and green shutters, dates back to 1708. The store sells designer clothing and cosmetics, but the real draw is the outstanding line of heavily discounted perfumes. Wander through the store-lined alleys and haggle with street vendors to pick up local artwork to take back home as gifts. But treat yourself to two of the most popular island souvenirs: cigars from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, (on display in the climate-controlled cedar cigar room at Little Holland (Braedestraat 37) and five-pound wheels of Dutch Gouda cheese at Say Cheese (Keukenplein 10). Unlike the Cuban cigars, which are prohibited entry into the U.S., the cheese can be vacuum-sealed to be enjoyed when you return home. Serious art aficionados will be thrilled to discover a thriving art gallery scene in Curaçao. Because nothing brightens up dark and dreary winter like a bold piece of Caribbean art, purchase an investment piece at either Kas Di Alma Blou (Landhuis Habaai, Frater Radulphusweg 4) in Otrabanda or from noted local artist Nena Sanchez, who sells her paintings at both the Bloempot Shopping Center and at the airport. If, however, you prefer to shop and swim, browse the bikinis, sundresses and chic beach accessories like wide-brim straw hats and jewel-encrusted flip-flops at the Bikini Shop at popular Mambo Beach. Summer Breeze, a short walk or a leisurely swim away at Kontiki Beach, also stocks snorkel gear and sunglasses in addition to beach apparel. Still want to kick your island beach wardrobe up a notch? At Promenade Shopping Gallery, Sea & Sand specializes in luxury swimwear brands, like European labels Björn Borg, Huit and Cyell. Across the street, let Obsession Swimwear appeal to your wilder, trendier fashion sense. Zuikertuin Mall is Curaçao’s major shopping gallery. Once a colonial plantation house, a recent renovation has transformed this architectural gem into a small collection of high-end boutiques such as Tommy Hilfiger, Façonnable and Lacoste. However, the original landmark façade remains and “Zuikertuintje” continues to serve its purpose as the island’s unofficial town hall, with immensely popular restaurants like Omundo, Gran Café de Heeren and Gelati Bella Italia packed with locals throughout the day. The on-site Plaza’s Gourmet Market is an excellent place to pick up snacks for your hotel room or treats like chocolates imported from Venezuela and wines from Chile and Argentina. For serious grocery shopping, your best bet is to hit Centrum Supermarket (Doormanweg 26, Mahaai). In addition to the kitchen basics, the bakery cooks up tasty island specialties like the savory pastechis or the sweet bolo. Centrum also has an impressive wine and liqueur selection. The Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn (Van den Tweel, Kaya Jacob Posner 28) is the island’s premier shop for imported, quality European products. Shop here for a standout selection of Dutch cheeses like Gouda, Edam and Old Amsterdam, and for a delicious assortment of European candy like licorice-flavored drops and chewy winegums. As a general rule, expect stores to be closed on Sundays. The Curaçao guilder or florin (Nafl) is pegged to the dollar, which means the Exchange rate is permanently fixed at $1=1.77 Nafl. U.S. Dollars are accepted everywhere. TOURS Bounty Adventures. The Bounty captures all elements of high-sea excitement with three separate sailing excursions. On the “Entertainment Sailing” trip, the 90-foot wooden classic schooner makes stops at the famous tugboat wreck and the Christoffel National Underwater Park. The “Deep Sea Fishing Charter” transports anglers on a heavy duty, twin-diesel trawler to the best breeding grounds to catch wahoo, dradu, tuna, marlin and barracuda. On the “Passport to Paradise” trip, a 54-foot sailing catamaran lets you travel in style to the stunning, uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao for a full day of snorkeling, swimming and sunbathing. Lunch and fully-stocked bar included. Rates start at $69 per person. Sailing on the Insulinde. The Insulinde sailing ship, a 120-foot sleek beauty, offers two snorkel-and-swim day trips: either an adventurous full-day excursion to the uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao or an afternoon snorkel at the sunken tugboat wreck at Caracasbaai. Rates start at $50 a person. Angelica’s Kit chen Culina ry Walking Tour. Local chef/restaurateur Angelique Schoop leads groups on an enlightening culinary tour of Otrobanda and Punda. Stops include an Otrobanda batido stand for local fruit smoothies, the Floating Market, where vendors from South America sell indigenous fruits, vegetables and spices, and Marshe Bieuw, the Old Market. The tour ends either with a kriollo lunch at the Old Market or a cooking class at Angelique’s Kitchen, where Angelique will incorporate select ingredients from the Floating Market into traditional island recipes. The tour with Old Market Lunch is $45 per person. The tour, cooking class and Angelica’s Kitchen lunch is $70 per person. Willemstad Trolley Train Tour. A whimsical pink and green trolley whisks you through Willemstad for a 1.5 hour tour of all the major city sights, including Fort Amsterdam, built in 1635, the Floating Market, Pietermaai Cathedral, Mikve Israel Emmanuel, Queen Wilhelmina Park and the Waterfort Arches, an imposing fortress built on the site of the Willhem III Barracks. The train also wanders through Scharloo, formerly the most affluent residential neighborhood on the island, lined with historic, 19th-century mansions, like Bolo di Bruit, the “wedding cake” house, Curaçao’s most photographed building. The tour is $25 per person. Jeep Eco Tours. Curaçao Actief offers a variety of thrilling island safaris. A full-day Water & Land Jeep Tour ($88 per person) kicks off at a sleepy fisherman’s village and continues to salt plains and former fruit plantations. On hikes, expect to encounter flamingos, herons and possibly even the island’s famous indigenous hawk, the wara wara. When snorkeling at Playa Lagun, you are just as likely to spot tropically-colored parrotfish. More targeted Jeep Eco tours include the Desert and Cave Tour ($88 per person) and the Christoffel National Park Sightseeing Tour ($101 per person). Historical and Cultural Tour. Another Curaçao Actief option focuses on the stunning examples of 17th and 18thcentury architecture on the island. The most distinctive and attractive buildings on Curaçao are the colonial-era plantation houses, the bright-yellow landhuizen. Some of these historic buildings are now abandoned, while others have been turned into museums or restaurants. This tour takes visitors inside the most carefully and lovingly restored of these landmark homes. Rates start at $50 per person and include free hotel pick-up and drop-off. DINING The combination of classically-trained European chefs and fresh local seafood make Curaçao an undisputed top culinary destination. But people who flock to the island only expecting creative seafood dishes served with impeccable service on an oceanside veranda are missing out on one of Curaçao’s best gourmet charms—the traditional kriollo (Antillean “creole”) cuisine. Some of the best local food comes in Styrofoam containers. And you eat it with your hands. And an ocean view? Nowhere to be found. Venture off the beaten path to places like the after-hour druki pans, or the “bread trucks,” open from 11 p.m.-4 A. m., and order island specialties like the pan ku lomito (steak sandwich) or the karkó (conch). In the mornings, drop by the snéks, or snackbars, to try savory pastries like the pastechis, the Chinese-influenced loempias or the spicy Caribbean roti. At typical, no-frills kriollo restaurants such as the stalls at the Marshe Bieuw, or Old Market, you’d be remiss not to try the galiña stobá, the chicken stew, an island staple, or the other variations such as the chewier kabritu stobá, goat stew. The meal wouldn’t be complete without the traditional side dishes: funchi and tutu. Funchi is a spongy polenta that is the perfect consistency for soaking up leftover stobá juices. Tutu, a mash of butter beans and cornmeal, serves the same purpose. A true Antillean table is never fully set without a jar of pika. You’ll know it when you see it: a vibrant relish of red, orange and yellow habanero peppers. Beware: This condiment is incredibly hot and spicy, but it tastes delicious when slathered on fresh grilled fish like the grouper. The Dutch influence on Curaçao cuisine is most apparent in the types of hor d’ouevres, or hapjes, available at fine dining and casual restaurants. Don’t miss the crunchy bitterballen or croquettes, which are generally consumed in the evenings as a delicious pre-dinner snack, best enjoyed with a beer or a glass of rosé. On breakfast menus, keep an eye out for pannekoeken, or crepe-thin, oversized Dutch-style pancakes. Pannekoeken can be eaten savory-style, with ham and cheese, or sweet, with apple or rum and raisin. Menus may even include a combination of the two, such as the ham, cheese and pineapple varieties. The Dutch were also responsible for adding another flavor to the Curaçao palate—Indonesian spice! Transported from one Dutch colony to another, tantalizing Indonesian dishes such as the bami (spicy noodles) and nasi goreng (spicy rice) are likely to show up on menus all over the island. But the best Indonesian contribution to island cuisine is, without a doubt, the thick, smooth pindasaus, or peanut sauce, which can Complement everything from fresh fries to chicken satays. Even at high-end restaurants, traditional island favorites make an appearance, sometimes in sophisticated disguise. Sopi pampuna, or pumpkin soup, is often dressed up and served as a starter. Keshi yená (literally, “filled cheese”) may be filled with other ingredients such as olives, meat or chicken, and offered up as a main course. If in doubt, or should the list of deliriously appetizing menu options seem too overwhelming, stick to the basics. Curaçaostyle fish, marinated in lime juice and simmered on a grill, is simple and delicious, The fresh local catch to look for include piská korá (red snapper), mero (grouper) or the dradu (mahi-mahi). NIGHTLIFE The official music of the Netherlands Antilles is the tumba, but Curaçao has also fully embraced other familiar sounds and rhythms of its Caribbean neighbors. The quick-paced, light-footed and easyto- learn Dominican merengue is highly popular, but at local hotspots you’re also likely to hear the romantic, waltzlike bachata from Santo Domingo and the soulful yearning of the Colombian folk music, vallenato. At venues like Gran Café de Heeren, Asia de Cuba and Mambo Beach, large crowds flock to hear the island’s hottest bands such as Rhydd’m, Rumba Band and Julio and the Cuban Express. Any concern that you might not be able to keep up on the dance floor can be easily Eliminated with a crash course on sultry salsa moves. Salsa instructor Heinrich Provence gives free lessons at Cas Abao Beach on Saturday afternoons from 3 to 4:30. Every night spent in Curaçao is an occasion to celebrate. For the latest events and most buzz-worthy parties, check the weekly K-PASA guide, available at stores and restaurants everywhere on the island. Make like the locals and kick off the weekend early with the island’s popular Thursday night parties. Either keep the night low-key with wine, jazz and a sunset at the Blues Bar, or join the throngs who head to Gran Café de Heeren to salsa to the irresistibly danceable rhythms of Julio and the Cuban Express. Serious techno fans can dance ‘til dawn at trendy nightclub Cinco. If you miss Julio on Thursday, you’ll get another shot on Friday when he takes the stage at Asia de Cuba. Friday is also a good night to check out the scene at sophisticated Omundo, which boasts the most extensive wine list on the island. But if your idea of “Caribbean nightlife” involves kicking up your heels in the sand and drinking fruity cocktails, don’t miss Happy Hour at Wet & Wild Beach Club. End the weekend with a bang at any one of the wild Sunday beach parties at Sea Aquarium Beach. The raucous festivities kick off at 6 p.m. at Wet & Wild Beach Club and party on at Mambo Beach, Kontiki Beach and Hemingway. Casino-hopping offers another nightlife option. Sip cocktails and play blackjack at the glitzy European-style boutique Kura Hulanda Casino, or grab a beer, hit the slot machines and enjoy the rowdy party atmosphere of the Holiday Beach Hotel Casino Royale, one of the largest casinos in the Caribbean. Jennifer van der Kwast is a New York-based writer who lived on Curaçao for 15 years. Her travel articles have appeared in Modern Bride, Plenty Magazine, Nymag.com and Experience Curaçao. Her debut novel, POUNDING THE PAVEMENT, was published by Broadway Books in 2005.
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