Destination Spotlight: 6 Surprises in the ABC Islands

July 17, 2014 | By | 8 Comments

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When I imagined the islands of the Southern Caribbean (also called the ABC islands, for Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), I envisioned deep turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, towering resorts and those long-reaching divi divi trees, bent along the trade winds at a 90-degree angle. What I didn’t expect during my cruise on Carnival Freedom to the “A” and “C” islands was prehistoric birds, desert terrain and such close ties to South America. Read on for six things that surprised me.
curacao willemstad pastel buildings
Pastels Prevent Headaches
Would you believe a government decree required the famous facades of Willemstad to be painted in their photogenic pastels? It’s true – and it’s all because an early governor of Curacao suffered so badly from sun-induced migraines that he ordered the pastel paint to avoid the blinding reflection off of white buildings. Despite the initial intention, the scenic waterfront and historic buildings of Willemstad earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1997.
ostrich farm curacao
Ostrich Overload
It’s not what might come to mind when you think of the mesmerizing pontoon bridge and downtown shopping of Curacao, but the island is home to the impressive Curacao Ostrich Farm, the largest outside Africa — and a tour is worth your time. Knowledgeable guides will take you on a safari-style tour through the grounds, which also feature pigs, alligators and sheep that look like goats (all part of a sustainable system). At times you may get the feeling you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park Lite, but a gift shop (and a cafe that serves ostrich) remind you this is still, in part, tourist territory. To avoid an eyeroll from staff, pass on the temptation to ride an ostrich.
eiffel tower aruba casibari multilingual
Say What
Have you ever dreamed of speaking four languages? If you want your children to learn, move to one of the ABC islands. Islanders in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao seem to have a flair for languages, and it’s due to their complicated roots. The native dialect, Papiamento, is already a blend of Afrikaans, Portuguese, Spanish, English and other languages, all rolled into one. Because these are Dutch islands, locals also learn to speak Dutch and English in school. To add to that, it’s not uncommon for Spanish or German to be spoken in the home. After a primary education, many locals attend universities in the Netherlands and abroad.
dushi sign curacao
Dushi Dushi Do
The immature may have trouble stifling a laugh the first time they encounter the regional catchphrase popular across Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. But “dushi” – meaning “sweet” – is so popular with islanders that it’s become part of Curacao’s official tourism campaign. Originally a Papiamento word to describe literal sweetness, as in a local dish called pan dushi (meaning sweet bread), dushi is also a way to describe the sweet way of island life in the Southern Caribbean. Dushi can also be used as a term of endearment.
cactus aruba southern caribbean


The Cacti Coast
These islands have the beaches and spectacularly blue oceans you’d expect from a Caribbean cruise. But go a small ways inland, and it’s all dirt, rocks and forests of cacti. I didn’t expect such a distinct difference in landscape; one minute resort domain and the next, you’re cast out among weather-beaten roads that could be in the middle of Arizona. Lizards crawl around rock formations overlooking cliffs that drop to the sea (a good indicator you’re still on an island and not in the Southwest), and cacti is used as a natural fence by residents. All of this manages to complement the islands’ more tropical Caribbean image.
floating market venezuela willemstad curacao
South America Calling
One of the main attractions in Willemstad is the floating market, docked each day in colorful boats and providing fresh fish and seafood. What I didn’t know prior to touring this marketplace is that all of the boats sail in daily from Venezuela, the fruit stands sell fruit from Venezuela and the craft market is run by Jamaicans — not a Curacao local in sight. Curacao is just about 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, making it a close neighbor of South America (the island was first settled by its native Arawak Amerindians). This relationship plays an important role in the culture of Curacao.
Do you have your own surprises from a Southern Caribbean cruise? Tell us in the comments!
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    8 Responses to “Destination Spotlight: 6 Surprises in the ABC Islands”

    1. AudalSomerset
      July 17th, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

      Absolutely loved all three islands. Beautiful coloured houses, beaches great, loved the iguanas. Only disappointment was arriving in Aruba on Sunday most shops closed but get on a local bus to a beach. Also great place to buy Aloe Vera.

    2. Candace
      July 17th, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

      We just got back from Aruba and liked it fine. After over a three hour wait to get through the airport, we vowed never to go back!

    3. krosmon
      July 17th, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

      On my cruise in 2007, we were told that the governor of Curacao also owned the paint factory that made the paint used on the buildings and decreed that all the buildings had to use his paint. There is a very cute and informative tram that takes everyone on a nice tour of the city.

      Aruba also has some very interesting caves that was on one of the tours we took of that island.

    4. JimAOk1945
      July 17th, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

      We had a fantastic visit to Aruba and Curacao on the Adventure of the Seas last December. We were completely surprised by the arid landscapes on Aruba and the equally amazing lush vegetation on Curacao. A very enjoyable experience. Happy cruising to all. It’s a great way to see the world.

    5. Jessica
      July 17th, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

      I totally agree about the surprise of Aruba’s “desert” feel. I too had only seen the blue waters and white, sugary soft sand of its beaches. We booked a private horseback riding tour and it took place on the interior of the isle as well as the rougher Atlantic side of the island. It was VERY surprising to see all the cacti, smaller dired shrubs and dirt, and just “dry-ness”, it reminded me of west TX. In Bonaire, we didn’t really notice the Dutch language as all the locals with stands were speaking English as did our snorkeling tour guides. What we did notice was the over-priced souvenirs, so be warned it’s a racket! Can’t wait to sail to Curacao though! The pastel building fronts remind me of the ones I’ve seen in Innsbruck, Austria and the bolder colored ones in Murano, Italy….LOVELY!!!

    6. Lynn Gerrish
      July 17th, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

      I was on this same cruise with Brittany and fell in love with Aruba and Curacao. The area is rich with history and the walking tour we took on Curacao was an excursion we will never forget. I cannot wait to go back and see more of these islands.

    7. Sharon Curtis
      July 17th, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

      We took that cruise on the Carnival Freedom last yr.
      Loved the open air craft market – -bought the sweetest embroidered baby dress there, AND cute little marracha’s for the older grandchildren.The temp. was in the 80’s – HOT & SUNNY – just the way you want it to be at the end of Jan.
      BUT – – the coolest thing was the swinging bridge.
      People could actually walk across it while it was moving! We didn’t go to the downtown area, because it was at
      the other end of the bridge, but BOY it was unique!
      Some day we hope to go back to Curacao, as it is very pretty, & the people are very nice!

    8. Bonnie Brown
      July 18th, 2014 @ 8:31 am

      We where in Aruba in April and we too was very surprised by the landscape and the wind! Our tour guide explained the fact the government told them what color to paint their houses, but what he also told us, is they also paint the Mausoleums the same color as their house. to make the dead “feel at home”.

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