Winter Weekend Break: Curacao
With JetBlue’s recent addition of a direct flight from JFK Airport to Willemstad, Curacao, the “C” of the ABC islands just got that much closer to those New Yorkers seeking to escape another chilly winter. While less popular among American tourists than its neighbor, Aruba, Curacao has its share of pristine beaches and rugged coastline ready for exploring. Even though you won’t see many Americans in Curacao (yet), the secret’s already out with Europeans, particularly Dutch tourists who have long known that Curacao is a cheaper, less crowded alternative to Aruba with a charm all its own. Here’s how to make the most of a long weekend in Curacao.
Invariably, every guidebook or brochure covering Curacao boasts of the stunning and colorful colonial architecture of Curacao’s capital. Willemstad is definitely worth a visit, though a day is plenty to experience its charms. Start early in the day, and stop in Willemstad to see the multicolored houses. Don’t miss the quirky charm of the Queen Emma bridge. Separating the Punda and Otrabanda districts of the old town of Willemstad, the Queen Emma Bridge is a pedestrian bridge that turns 90 degrees to let boats pass through. If you happen to “miss” the bridge when it separates from the shores, don’t worry, there are ferry boats ready to take you across the harbor while the bridge resets. Punda is the more bustling part of sleepy Willemsted, featuring the requisite duty free and souvenir shops. Punda is also the home of the floating market, a motley group of stands manned by vendors who sail the 40 miles from Venezuela with tropical fruits and vegetables. It’s definitely an interesting spectacle, but, as is the case on many Caribbean islands, the produce is less exciting than you would expect. Also in Punda is the Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, the oldest synagogue in North America. The synagogue, founded by Spanish and Portuguese immigrants to Curacao in the 1650s, has a unique sand floor, which was meant to remind congregants of their ancestors’ need to hide their places of worship.
On the other side of the Queen Emma Bridge is Otrabanda, which is home to the recently restored Kura Hulanda Museum. The Kura Hulanda Museum is a set of restored Dutch Colonial administrative buildings, some of which comprise the hotel of the same name, which is also set on the grounds. The museum houses interesting collections covering African art, slavery, and, surprisingly, Roman glass.
While there’s plenty to keep one busy in Willemstad, between the middling hotel choices and distance from the beaches, it’s better to base oneself further west and reserve Willemstad for a day trip.
2. Shete Boca National Park
The most surprising thing about Curacao is how empty it is. Once you leave Willemstad and head west, the drive winds through vast wildlife preserves, dotted with the occasional Dutch “landhuis,” which are the colonial farmhouses left behind by the Dutch settlers. Some have been converted into inns or museums, while others continue to be inhabited by locals. Like Aruba, Curacao has a rugged Atlantic coast, where the beaches are replaced by rocky shorelines and crashing ocean waves. The most popular attraction on this side of the island is the Shete Boka National Park, which includes a number of “Bokas” or blowholes, where the ocean waves crash up through the rocks. Needless to say, there is a lot of selfie taking in these parts. But, even on the most crowded days, there’s a good chance you’ll get a patch of coastline for yourself.
Curacao is a beach lover’s dream. From the disco-loving throngs of Mambo Beach to the upscale charms of Cas Abou, there’s something for everyone. If your idea of the perfect beach includes people watching, DJs, and leopard print, Mambo Beach is for you. Situated east of Willemstad, Mambo Beach also has a collection of interesting souvenir shops with more than the usual tourist trinkets — be sure to look out for the stylish “I am Super Dushi” t-shirts to take to your friends at home.
For those looking for more sedate beaches, make like the Village People and go west. The western tip of Curacao is the home of Playa Knip, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. Blessed with white sand, calm turqouise waters, and no current, Playa Knip is a popular local beach, but has limited amenities. The food stand does sell fried Dutch treats like frikandels (fried sausage) and fries, but if you’re in the mood for something else, be sure to bring it with you. There are a few picnic tables and shade under the trees, but this is definitely a low key hang.
If Playa Knip is a little too rustic for you, Cas Abou may be more your speed. Located past a gated community, Cas Abou is a private beach. You will pay an entry fee as you park on the beach, and there is a charge for chairs, but the broad stretch of sand and the crystal clear waters are certainly worth the trip. If staring into the water isn’t enough activity, there are water sports for a fee, bars serving the usual variety of tropical drinks, plus food stands offering snacks and, yes, more fries.
4. Local Flavor
For many, a trip to the Caribbean means getting from the plane to the beach, and staying there until it’s time to go home. On Curacao, this would be a huge mistake. More than once during my stay, I noted how incredibly kind people were in helping with directions, recommendations, or just making sure we knew about the best sights to see. While eating a delicious grilled fish meal at Sol Food, we mentioned that we had just arrived to the owner. Without any prompting, she gave us a copy of her own typed guide to Curacao that she provides to the guests who stay at the attached inn (which we were not). Our charming waitress at Warung Jawa Smulboetiek was so determined to make sure we experienced the local nightlife that she insisted that we hit Mambo Beach after dinner. On more than one occasion, individuals we asked for directions simply had us follow them, sometimes for more than 20 minutes, as they led us to our destinations in their cars.
5. Getting Around
I’m not sure why this is, but there seems to be an acute map shortage on Curacao. If you can, take one with you before you go. From the rental car counters to the hotels to the souvenir stores, there was not a single map to be found (except for one that the hotel concierge hoarded until just before we checked out, and even then only let us look at briefly). This is quite inconvenient if one is driving around unfamiliar, unmarked winding roads. And one most definitely is. This also explains why people were so keen to lead us with their cars — there was literally no other way to show someone how to get from point A to point B.
So, if you’re looking for a unique long weekend with a little bit of everything (except maps), Curacao is the place for you.