This article originally appeared on our sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!