Willemstad
Willemstad (All Photos: Adobe Stock)

Curaçao: a Dutch Treat

This Caribbean nation offers colorful sights, rich history, delicious food, and heavenly beaches.

The Caribbean nation of Curaçao, about 40 miles north of Venezuela, entices with sandy beaches, expansive coral reefs, rich marine life, and its famous blue liqueur. 

Though the island is on the outer fringes of the hurricane belt, the weather has been kind enough to leave intact a harbor fronted by a row of centuries-old houses painted in vibrant rainbow hues: corn yellow, horizon blue, pistachio green, and raspberry pink. These houses, in Curaçao’s capital of Willemstad, rest under the protection of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Originally covered in white stucco, they created a blinding glare in bright sunlight. An island legend claims a doctor advised the government to mandate painting the buildings to save the residents' eyesight. Other stories say the doctor owned a paint company. 

To appreciate the cultural diversity of Curaçao—which is now home to 165,000 people representing more than 50 nationalities—you need to understand its history. Early Dutch colonists here, including many Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal, grew affluent from the slave trade. They built the impressive colonial buildings that fill the capital as well as the former plantation estates that are scattered around the island. 

From 1662 to 1815, the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao the center of the Atlantic slave-trade triangle. They brought thousands of enslaved people from West Africa to the island before selling them elsewhere in the Caribbean, Europe, and the American colonies. While this story may have been hushed in the past, guides now openly discuss it, and it is prominently featured in Curaçao's Kura Hulanda and Maritime museums.

Take a Walking Tour

Walking tours offer an ideal way to soak up the vibe of Willemstad, which was founded in 1634. Guides typically start at Fort Rif, which was constructed in 1820 at the entrance to St. Ann's Bay in the Otrobanda district. Climb the stairs in the old defensive stronghold to overlook Willemstad on the opposite side. 

Proceed across the "Old Swinging Lady," the locals' nickname for the Queen Emma floating pedestrian bridge. Don't sweat the wobbling; the bridge, anchored by 16 pontoon boats and two motors, will get you safely to the Punda district. The bridge swings to one side if a ship needs to pass. It's fascinating to watch, but you may have to wait to cross. At night, Queen Emma's arches glow with neon illumination. 

Notice also the Queen Juliana Bridge, which connects vehicular traffic between the two banks of the waterway. At 185 feet above the sea, it is one of the highest bridges in the Caribbean. 

When approaching Punda, veer right for Fort Amsterdam. The oldest building on the island, dating back to 1635, it now functions as the governor's house and office. 

Meander through the many narrow cobblestone pedestrian pathways. You'll discover a bustling old town full of quirky little shops, clothing retailers, art galleries, cooling fountains, large statues, and vibrant murals, some in 3D. Rest your feet while sipping a coffee or cocktail by the larger-than-life installations of the words "Curaçao" and "Dushi." The latter refers to the popular local name for sweet or sweetie. 

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (the Snoa), consecrated in 1732, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the western hemisphere. It welcomes visitors awed by its exceptional architecture, antique mahogany furniture, and unusual sand floor. The sand symbolizes the desert where the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. A small but worthwhile Jewish Cultural Historical Museum sits across the courtyard. 

During the pandemic, large statues of Chichi began appearing in Punda courtyards. Chichi sculptures represent the curvy, oldest sister in a Curaçao family. The local project supports the artistic community and continues to be crowdfunded. Stop at Serena's Art Factory to learn more or make a Chichi figurine. 

Nearby, two more historic urban districts date from the 18th century. The Pietermaai District began as a residential neighborhood but evolved into the SoHo of Curacao. The trendy area thrives with boutique hotels and nightclubs. 

Scharloo showcases the extravagant mansions once inhabited by the island's wealthiest merchants. As the city expanded, the tropical climate convinced architects to add galleries and porches for better airflow. The result feels more like old Amsterdam, but with palm trees and a kaleidoscope of Caribbean colors. 

The Northwest Boasts the Best Beaches

Most visitors come to the Caribbean for its beaches, and Curaçao's most beautiful ones lie on the island’s northwestern shores. A rental car is the best way to get around. It takes less than two hours to drive from tip to tip. 

Unlike in neighboring Aruba, you won't find a string of resort hotels off a boulevard on one long beach. Aruba attracts about twice the number of tourists, mostly Americans. Dutch vacationers adore Curaçao, and they like to keep it a secret.

Curaçao's 35 beaches offer intimate, secluded coves and inlets. The beaches are rarely crowded and offer snorkeling right off the coast. 

Scuba divers love the sharp drop-off known as the "Blue Edge." Many snorkeling and scuba sites feature coral reefs that you can access without a boat—a real bonus. Swimmers search for corals, sea turtles, squid, octopus, and fish.

Playa Knip, the island's most famous beach, offers good amenities. Playa Lagún is quirkier, with weathered rowboats strewn across the sand. Porto Mari provides the starting point for many undersea dives. Playa Grandi serves as a fishermen's beach and draws plenty of sea turtles. 

Curaçao's location blesses the island with brisk breezes, so kiteboarding, standup paddleboarding, and sailing rule. Lessons and equipment are available at many watersports stands. In addition, Blue Bay Golf and Beach Resort offers fishing charters, catamaran sailing, kayaking, and the island’s best 18-hole golf course. If you want something more laid-back, sign up for a sunset cruise.

Lighthouse at Klein Curaçao
Lighthouse at Klein Curaçao

An Uninhabited Island

Take a day trip to Klein Curaçao, an uninhabited island known as Little Curaçao, where you can stroll past an abandoned pink lighthouse and glimpse shipwrecks on the shore. Jump into the sparkling turquoise water for a cooling swim, snorkel, or scuba dive.

Cyclists in Curaçao will find themselves amid desert-like landscapes that flourish with cacti. Sugarcane can't grow due to the scarcity of rainfall; thus, you’ll see no sugar mill ruins, a common site elsewhere in the Caribbean. You can join organized mountain bike outings and roll along narrow, unpaved roads that would be difficult to find without a guide. You can also opt to spend three to six hours on the eastern shores with an off-road ATV and buggy tour. 

Outdoor activities abound for youngsters as well. Beyond the beach, take them to Curaçao's sea aquarium, dolphin academy, ostrich farm, or the fantastic waterpark at Mangrove Beach Resort, which includes a special area for kids under age five.

The two national parks offer different experiences. Climbing to the highest point on the island requires an early arrival at Christoffelpark. A strenuous roundtrip hike to the summit (1,220 feet) takes about three hours but rewards with a 360-degree panoramic view. You can also choose among eight trails that vary in difficulty and require no guides.

Shete Boka National Park provides a much more dramatic picture. This park rests on Curaçao’s northernmost point, where massive waves constantly bombard and roar as they send spray skyward. You'll hear them before you see them. A boardwalk and viewing platform beckon for photo ops but be careful: "shete boka" translates to "seven mouths" and refers to the series of inlets carved by the funneling of turbulent water. 

The salt pans nature reserve at Jan Thiel presents yet another beautiful area for exploration. Park your car near the marked entrance and follow the path. Be prepared for a surprisingly different environment and a memorable encounter with wild flamingos. The quirky creatures twist and curl their necks around like backyard water hoses. Their coral color reflects against the tranquil water in the lake, creating a serene swirl of pink. Another location to observe flamingos is in the lagoon near Sint Willibrodus.

Market

Many Food and Drink Options

Curaçao's cuisine relies heavily on food and spices from Latin America and the Caribbean. Popular dishes include stobá (a stew made with ingredients such as papaya, beef, and goat), Guiambo (soup made from okra and seafood), kadushi (cactus soup), funchi (cornmeal paste similar to polenta), fried plantains (the versatile side dish), and, of course, fresh fish, usually pan-fried. Some restaurants serve lightly fried lionfish, and you might also spot iguana soup on the menu. 

Make your way to Plasa Bieu in Punda, the Old Market, for genuine Caribbean cuisine. Enter a pitched-roof food court with basic picnic tables and benches and watch the local homestyle cooks work their magic. 

Mixology enthusiasts will want to visit the yellow 19th-century Landhuis Chobolobo, home of the Blue Curaçao liqueur that was invented here in 1896. Take a guided tour through the distillery and learn about the production of the famous liqueur, which employs the dried zest of a laraha, a variety of bitter orange that grows only in the Caribbean. The liqueur is infused with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg and has a pronounced orange flavor with a slight bitterness. 

Originally developed by Edgar Senor in 1896 as an aperitif, it has been the inspiration for many cocktails, including the Blue Hawaii and the island's favorite drink, the Blue Lagoon. Of course, you'll receive complimentary tastings. 

Curaçao offers a multitude of unforgettable images and activities. It’s a must-see destination for island lovers who want a rich cultural experience—or even just a beautiful beach where they can unwind and enjoy paradisiacal weather.


Hemsworth PR covered the author’s expenses on her trip to Curaçao—Ed.

Traveler Report Card

Lodging:

The five-star Baoase Luxury Resort (A) offers 23 units, including 12 with private plunge pools. Zoetry Curaçao Resort & Spa (A-), an all-inclusive World of Hyatt property, features 72 suites. Sandals Curaçao (A-) an adults-only resort, opened in June 2022 with 351 rooms and suites and 11 dining options. Luxury villa rentals are available in Blue Bay Golf and Beach Resort (A). Landhuis Klein Santa Martha (B) is an updated 17th-century Dutch country house with a garden view and pool. All-inclusive Mangrove Beach Resort (B) welcomes children and features a waterpark.

Restaurants:

Dining options are plentiful and include many ethnic specialties. Traditional fine dining is available at the Wine Cellar (A), Steak & Ribs (A) in Fort Rif, and Baoase (A+) at the luxury resort. Jan Thiel Beach encompasses five restaurants, including the beachfront Zanzibar (A-) and Koko’s (B). The Blue Bay Beach area offers feet-in-the-sand dining at Pirate Bay (B) and Sunset Bar and Grill (A). Jaanchies (A) in Westpunt, the oldest restaurant on Curaçao, prepares island specialties at lunchtime.

Traveler Fast Facts

What It Is:

Curaçao is a 171-square-mile island nation in the southern Caribbean that is within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Along with Aruba and Bonaire, it is part of what are affectionately known as the ABC islands.

Weather:

The country has a tropical semi-arid climate with daytime temperatures fluctuating between about 86 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. No hurricane has made landfall here since the U.S. National Hurricane Center started tracking; however, pre-hurricane tropical storms have hit several times.

Activities:

Curaçao offers watersports galore, as well as boat trips, scuba diving, bicycling, golf, and more. 

Language:

The official language is Dutch. Most of the population can converse in at least two and often four languages, including Papiamentu (based on Portuguese and Spanish), Dutch, English, and Spanish.

Currency:

The official currency is the Antillean guilder, but U.S. dollars are readily accepted. 

Getting There:

Curaçao International, the island's only airport, has one of the Caribbean’s longest runways (11,200 feet). A general aviation center offers a private entrance and amenities. You can find direct airline flights from Miami; Charlotte, North Carolina; New York; Toronto; Panama; Bogotá; and Amsterdam. The Caribbean Pilot's Guide, available from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), may prove helpful with airport photos; maps; and customs, immigration, and hotel information.

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