Caribbean / Mexico, Feature Destination

Curaçao’s Secrets

Photo credit: Soul Aperture

Curaçao an island in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the Venezuelan coast. The Country of Curaçao, which includes the main island plus the small, uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao (“Little Curaçao”), is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Its capital is Willemstad.

But you also probably did not know that the term Curaçao is a generic term used for several orange-flavoured liqueurs that are made from the peel of bitter Curaçao oranges grown exclusively on the island of Curaçao. These liqueurs maybe tinted blue, amber-coloured or clear.

Dutch culture prevails on this small island jewel. Here you can experience the cuisine and architecture of the Netherlands against a gorgeous Caribbean backdrop. Exploring the streets of the capital, Willemstad, you’ll think you’re in Amsterdam. Despite the 7,855 kilometres that separate Willemstad and Amsterdam, Holland’s capital, the two are remarkably alike. Both are adorned with narrow, gabled buildings crowned with red-tiled roofs. Both tempt visitors with Dutch cuisine and a hopping nightlife. And both brew a great beer (Curaçao’s Amstel stands alone: It’s brewed with desalinated seawater).

Curaçao is the largest and most populous of the three ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) of the Lesser Antilles, specifically the Leeward Antilles. It has a land area of 444 square kilometres.

A brief history …

The original inhabitants of Curaçao were Arawak Amerindians. The first Europeans to see the island were members of a Spanish expedition under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards enslaved most of the indigenous population and forcibly relocated the survivors to other colonies where workers were needed. The island was occupied by the Dutch in 1634. The Dutch West India Company founded the capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet called the ‘Schottegat’.

The slave trade made the island affluent, and led to the construction of impressive colonial buildings. Curaçao features architecture that blends Dutch and Spanish colonial styles. The wide range of historic buildings in and around Willemstad earned the capital a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Landhouses (former plantation estates) and West African style “kas di pal’i maishi” (former slave dwellings) are scattered all over the island and some of them have been restored and can be visited.

As well, Curaçao’s proximity to South America was an influence from the nearby Latin American coast. This is reflected in the architectural similarities between the 19th century parts of Willemstad and the nearby Venezuelan city of Coro in Falcón State, it also being a UNESCO world heritage site.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the island changed hands among the British, the French, and the Dutch several times. Stable Dutch rule returned in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, when the island was incorporated into the colony of Curaçao and Dependencies.

In recent years, the island had attempted to capitalize on its peculiar history and heritage to expand its tourism industry.

Curaçao’s beaches are its best-kept secret. The best beaches are not the long, expansive patches of sand found in other islands, but rather smaller, more intimate beaches found in secluded inlets, called “bocas” in Papiamentu. Many of the best beaches are found at the west end of the island, which is fittingly named Westpunt, or “West Point”. The island claims to have 38 beaches in all, yet you’ll certainly find more along the secluded and rough coastlines of the eastern and northern coasts. Topless sunbathing and swimming is tolerated on most beaches in the resort areas, but not on resort grounds.

As well, Curaçao is known for its coral reefs, excellent for scuba diving. The beaches on the south side contain many popular diving spots. An unusual feature of Curaçao diving is that the sea floor drops steeply within a few hundred feet of the shore, and the reef can easily be reached without a boat. This drop-off is known as the “blue edge.” Strong currents and lack of beaches make the rocky northern coast dangerous for swimming and diving, but experienced divers sometimes dive there from boats when conditions permit. The southern coast is very different and offers remarkably calm waters. The coastline of Curaçao features many bays and inlets, many of them suitable for mooring.

The coastline along the south is irregular, peppered with small bays and inlets, including the spectacular bays and beaches at the west end of the island. The largest bays are located along the central-east and east end of the island, where you’ll find the capital and major port of Willemstad. Most of Curacao’s 130,000 residents live in and around this historic town.

Not to be missed in Willemstad is the Mikvi Israel-Emanuel Synagogue. Erected in 1732, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. The traditional sand floor reminds the congregation of the years the Jews spent wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land. Also in Willemstad, 17th-century fort Amsterdam encloses the Dutch Reformed Church (look for the cannonball embedded in the wall; it was fired by Captain Bligh) and the Governor’s Palace.

Two bridges have put Curaçao on the map: the Queen Juliana, the highest in the Caribbean, and the Queen Emma Pontoon, which swings wide many times daily to allow access to one of the busiest ports in the world. It also separates the two halves of the city.

When you want to explore, you will find it easy to find the sights of Curaçao. There is plenty to see and do in the cunucu (countryside). Just north of town, near Hato International Airport, are the Hato Caves. The caves, gouged out of limestone cliffs long ago as the island emerged from the sea, are still forming, albeit one drop at a time. You will see water dripping from the walls and massive stalactites that hang from the ceiling.

At the west end of the island is Christoffel Park, part of the island’s national park system since 1978. The park, about a 40-minute drive from Willemstad, is the home of the 377-metre Mt. Christoffel, the island’s highest point, as well as dozens of species of trees and plants, including an orchid forest, birds, lizards, and sea life, including nesting sea turtles.

The Curaçao Sea Aquarium is possibly Curacao’s most popular attraction. It is one of those places where you can immerse yourself, even literally, in a vast underwater world. Located on the south coast just east of Willemstad, the Aquarium area comprises a marina, a large beach and the aquarium complex. It is located next to the Curaçao Underwater Park, a protected marine area set aside for divers and for exploration by marine biologists and other scientists, in an area called ‘Bapor Kibra’, or ‘Broken Boat’, after the steamer Oranje Nassau, which went down off the shore in 1906.

Try the Kriyoyo

Photo credit: TripAdvisor

Local food is called Kriyoyo (pronounced the same as criollo, the Spanish word for “Creole”) and boasts a blend of flavours and techniques best compared to Caribbean cuisine and Latin American cuisine.

Popular dishes include Stobá (a stew made with various ingredients such as papaya, beef or goat), Guiambo (soup made from okra and seafood), Kadushi (cactus soup), Funchi (cornmeal paste similar to fufu, ugali and polenta) and a lot of fish and other seafood.

The ubiquitous side dish is fried plantain. Local bread rolls are made according to a Portuguese recipe. All around the island, there are snèk’s which serve local dishes as well as alcoholic drinks in a manner akin to the English public house. The omnipresent breakfast dish is Pastechi: fried pastry with fillings of cheese, tuna, ham, or ground meat.

Around the holiday season special dishes are made, such as Hallaca and Pekelé, made out of salt cod. At weddings and other special occasions a variety of kos dushi are served: Kokada (coconut sweets), Ko’i lechi (condensed milk and sugar sweet) and Tentalaria (peanut sweets).

Surinamese, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Dutch culinary influences also abound. The island also has many Chinese restaurants that serve mainly Indonesian dishes such as satay, nasi goreng and lumpia (which are all Indonesian names for the dishes). Dutch specialties such as croquettes and oliebollen are widely served in homes and restaurants.

Did you know that …

  • Travel book and online publishers have named Curaçao one of a select number of Hottest Destinations for 2011. SmarterTravel calls Curaçao one of the Destinations to Watch in 2011 and voted the island’s Cas Abao Beach as one of the Top 10 Beach Destinations for 2011
  • Until 1949, the island was known as a part of the Dutch West Indies
  • The Spanish first occupied Curacao in 1527

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