In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci first spotted Curacao. The Spaniards ruthlessly exterminated most of the native
Arawaks; however, they were ousted by the Dutch in 1634. Fighting off French and English invasions, the Dutch converted the island into a miniature but tropical Holland. Peter Stuyvesant ruled in 1644, and the island bristled with forts to guard the harbour's narrow entrance and several coastal approaches. Now, many historic buildings have been transformed into restaurants, shops, or hotels.
Curacao along with Bonaire, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, and Saba, makes up part of the
Netherlands Antilles. Just 56 km (35 miles) north of the coast of Venezuela, Curacao, the C in the Caribbean's Dutch ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) islands, is the most populous and the largest at 60 km (37 miles) long and 11km (63/4 miles) across at its widest point. Architecturally, there is more European resonance here than anywhere else in the West Indies, featuring building styles you expect to see in the Netherlands, but painted in beautiful pastel shades.
While Dutch is the official language, the people have developed Papiamento, a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. Most speak this language in addition to Dutch, English, and Spanish. Almost everyone speaks English. Visitors will enjoy a multi-lingual, distinctive culture, friendly people, duty-free shopping, lively casinos, and recreation in crystal-clear water.
Oil created a huge impact, quiet here until 1915 when the
Royal Dutch Shell Group built one of the world's largest refineries to process Venezuela's crude oil. From the harbour, one can now watch multiple tankers transporting energy to the world. Workers from many countries have moved in, making Curacao a multi-cultural community of 171,000.
The easiest way to explore
Willemstad, the capital, is to take a 1.25-hour trolley tour, which covers the city highlights in open-sided cars. Tours leave at 10 am or 11am beginning at Fort Amsterdam near the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge. ($25 for adults, $20 for children 2 to 12)
The city is developed on both sides of the canal, divided into Punda (old-world Dutch ambience and good shopping) and Otrabanda (the "Other Side," which is more contemporary).
The Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, a pedestrian walkway, connects the two areas.
From the bridge, there's a good view of the old gabled houses. Legend has it that the bright colors resulted from a governor with eye troubles, and as flat white produced headaches...anyway, it gives the town a storybook finish. The houses are 3-4 stories tall and crowned by steep gables and roofed with orange Spanish tiles.
Leaving Willemstad, you encounter desert-like countryside, an arid landscape studded with unique candelabra and Turk's cap cacti, spiny-leafed aloe, and divi-divi trees. The western shores have a series of beautiful beaches, each occupying a separate cove. Also in the west is Christoffel Park. By car, walking or on horseback, travel through the kadushi cactus, tamarind, divi-divi trees and lignum vitae trees as the road curves upward to a beautiful view of Mount Christoffel.
A visit here should include the following:
The Curacao Underwater Marine Park, famous for snorkeling sites stretching for 20 km (12 miles) along the southern coastline. You will encounter sunken ships, a plethora of hard and soft coral, and, of course, swarms of brilliantly-coloured fish.
2. Willemstad with its shops and rows of appealing pastel-colored, red-roofed town houses. Check out the historic city center and the island's natural harbor,
Schottegat, which have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, consecrated on the eve of Passover in 1732. It houses the oldest Jewish congregation in the New World.
Christoffel National Park, toward the western tip, saturated with flora and fauna, including donkeys, wild goats, iguanas, Curacao deer, and varied species of birds. Flower lovers will find rare orchids in the higher regions.
Hato International Airport (CUR) is 7.5 miles from the capital, Willemstad. Flying Times from Amsterdam - 9 hours, Caracas - 45 minutes, Miami - 2.5 hours and Newark - 4.5 hours.
Renting a car may be desirable to cover the island as all points of interest are easily accessible via paved roads. Canadian visitors can use their own licenses. (Traffic moves on the right.)
Annual average temperature is a lovely 27 C (80 F) while average humidity is 77%. Trade winds keep the island comfortable.
Curacao is on Atlantic Standard Time year-round, 1 hour ahead of Eastern
Standard Time and the same as eastern daylight saving time.
The water is safe to drink, coming from a desalination plant.
Few hotels are in Willemstad; most are in the 'burbs', 10-15 minutes from the shopping center. Bigger
hotels offer free shuttle buses to town; most have their own beaches and pools
The Floating Market is at the north end of Handelskade in the capital where fishing boats tie up near the main shopping area. Arriving from Venezuela, Colombia, and other West Indian islands, they sell tropical fruits and vegetables.
In winter, the
Curacao Carnival offers parades with floats, Jump Ups (outdoors), Jump Ins (indoors) and colourful costumes.
Curacao also hosts a jazz festival, a gospel festival, a food festival and a kite competition. The locally famous
Jazz Night at Blues Restaurant on a pier overlooking the sea is not to be missed.
Courtesy of Caribbean Tourism Organization
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.