My friend had told me so many times of an island near Venezuela that had so much to offer for families and solo travelers. I had to visit myself just to see what the draw to this place was. As a scuba diver and nature lover, I was interested to visit Curacao, the sister island of Bonaire, in the Netherlands Antilles. While there are plenty of sites for scuba divers to enjoy themselves, the island also has a thriving nightlife and many other tourist sites that are not available on Bonaire.
Let’s start with a geography lesson. The islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao were in the Lesser Antilles (meaning they were one of 5 islands owned by the Dutch) but Curacao is still currently a Netherlands protectorate. Curacao has its own government but relies on the Netherlands for military protection.
The islanders speak Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish, and English. Curacao lies at a diagonal so the West End is the northern portion of the island and East is south.
The main city is Willemstad and it is spread out over a fairly large area, comprised of the harbor, historic area and inner city. If you stay at one of the many hotels in Willemstad, it’s likely you’ll be on the beach and very near to the harbor or shopping district.
The harbor is unique in that it has a floating bridge. Pedestrians walk across the bridge to save driving miles around. The stores and restaurants are on both sides of the harbor. The bridge opens for boats when they need to enter the harbor so the pedestrians just wait on the float until the boat passes. There is also a wonderful market that supplies fresh local produce as well as goods imported from the Netherlands, South America or the US. It is a remarkable place in that you can get some amazing goods there and very inexpensive. The area also has more than its share of shopping ranging from high-price watch stores to $2 T-Shirt stalls. Everyone will find a place to get an affordable and memorable gift in town.
There are several historic areas in Curacao, mostly related to their history in the slave trade, the colonial era with Britain, Spain or the Dutch. There are six forts on Curacao and all are interesting in their own way. There is the commercial Fort Nassau with its restaurants and shops, and the mostly ruined Fort Amsterdam at the east end. I enjoyed the old fort here as there is a hand-made (maybe original) ladder that you must climb to get to the top. It commands a view of the east end bay and has several cannons that were original as well.
Once you get away from Willemstad, it is easy to get lost. There is really not a good map of Curacao, not every street is labeled and even locals get lost. The worst part for me was that there is no main road that runs along the coast. If you want to visit a special place, you need to head to the main road in the center of the island and reach the coast by twists and turns. I was lost many times.
I was staying at the west end which is fairly isolated. If you come to the west end, you are pretty much stuck in the hotel for everything. Some travelers enjoy the all-inclusive nature. Others, like me, need a car.
Car rentals are expensive as in many Caribbean destinations. Hotels are reasonable and there are many budget choices. Restaurants are all very good; service is generally pleasant but slow for us Americans. The food is actually very tasty. There is a creole-like island flavoring that may have African roots but is tinged with South American flavors. I ate the baked iguana at a restaurant called Janchies… delicious! The best meal was at a place called Landhaus Misje where I had the traditional Oxtail stew with island spices. The restaurant offers outdoor seating under the stars and has an excellent wine list.
On the west end is a nature park at Shete Boca. It is a wild place on the windward side so the waves and wind is very strong. There are nature walks through wooded areas and down to the sea, there is even a beautiful natural bridge cut from the waves. If you go, bring water (it’s hot) and a windbreaker (it’s very windy).
Under the Water
I did do two things in Curacao that are a bit unusual. Close to the east end, they have an ostrich farm where the birds are raised for food and decorative items. They have a small park there and they offer guests an opportunity to ride an ostrich. Yes – I have the pictures to prove it. The other adventure was at a facility near Willemstad called Substation Curacao, where guests can travel in a 4-man submarine down to 600 feet beneath the sea. As a diver, I was intrigued by the idea. The price tag is quite high and I debated doing this but finally decided on it. I was delighted and amazed during the trip – it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That said, you’ll need to decide for yourself if the value is good.
I was, after all, on a dive vacation so I did do some scuba diving on the island. It is set up similarly to Bonaire in that you may drive around until you find a beach, put your gear on, and go diving at will. Some beaches are private or charge a fee but many are simply open. The diving is outstanding. There is so much healthy coral and marine life to see very close to the shore. There are tropical fish and turtles to be seen on every dive. Even if you are not a scuba diver, this island offers an amazing way to combine the pleasures of the land with the sea.