Punda and Otrobanda sides of Willemstad
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The brightly hued island of Curacao, 42 miles east of Aruba, is part of the ABC chain of islands (which also includes Aruba and Bonaire). Legend says that an early governor suffered from migraines and so mandated the pastel-colored houses, now trademark on the Southern Caribbean island, because white paint aggravated his condition. Whatever the reason, there's something wonderful about approaching by cruise ship and spotting buildings in shades like cotton-candy pink and deep, ocean blue.
Curacao was discovered by the Spaniards in 1499 and was taken over in 1634 by the Dutch, who settled its capital city, Willemstad, as a naval base; the city drew Dutch and Jewish merchants (old Jewish neighborhoods -- like Scharloo, north of Willemstad -- still exist), and there's a distinctly Dutch feel in the centuries-old buildings that line the waterfront in all of those fantastic colors.
Nowadays, Willemstad, where cruise ships dock, is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with waterfront shops and cafes. It's eminently walkable and always warm -- but never stiflingly hot, thanks to constant, breezy trade winds. The city is split into two districts -- one on each side of a narrow but deep channel, traversable by a landmark floating pedestrian bridge. Beyond Willemstad, Curacao is rife with opportunities to dive and swim alongside flora and fauna, lizards and birds.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain, Trinidad • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Sample genuine Curacao liqueur (produced in Chobolobo, a 17th-century plantation house); belly up to the bar, and order drinks like the Blue Lagoon, Zombie, Bleeding Heart and Fuzzy Pirate.
If you can't bring back a bottle of Curacao liqueur, look for handmade crafts, such as painted wooden boxes or ceramics.
Expect to hear English, Spanish and Dutch spoken widely, as well as the local language of the ABC islands: Papiamento. ("Bon bini" means welcome.)
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency there is the Netherlands Antillean Florin, but nearly all vendors and shops take U.S. dollars. There are several banks located on the bustling street of Handelskade on the Punda side of town.
Where You're Docked
Willemstad is split into two main districts by the Santa Anna Bay, a deep but narrow channel; Punda is on the east side, and Otrobanda -- where cruise ships dock -- is to the west. There are two main docking spots. The new Curacao Mega Pier is designed for post-Panamax ships (that can't fit under the city's famed Queen Juliana Bridge). The aptly named Mega Pier is located in West Willemstad, just a few minutes walk into downtown. Smaller ships dock at the Curacao Cruise Terminal. Both are within walking distance of the Queen Emma Bridge, which connects the two sides of the city. (Punda, the side opposite the cruise docks, features the main shopping and business areas.)
Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (just like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal), is a great walking city, featuring sidewalk cafes, funky museums and shops and neat architectural touches, such as gables and arches.
On Foot:. Visitors to either terminal will have an easy stroll to the Queen Emma Bridge (known as the Swinging Old Lady by locals). This century-old pontoon bridge connects the two sides of the city and is a tourist attraction in its own right. It swings open (sometimes 30 times a day) to make way for ship traffic. If the bridge is open, you can take a free ride from one side to the other on a passenger ferry.
Taxis: Passengers should agree on a fare with the driver before the ride. There are taxi stands at both ports. For sightseeing, the rate is about $20 per hour.
Buses: If you're traveling on the most common urban routes, you can hop a "collective" car or van. (Make sure it says “Bus” on the license plate.) You can pick up a "Buki di Bus" (bus schedules and routes) on the island. Fares vary but are generally around $2.
Renting a Car: Drive on the right-hand side of the road. No special permits are required, aside from a valid drivers' license and an international credit card. Avis (800-331-1084) has operations at both piers with rates starting at about $45 per day. Budget (800-527-7000) offers free pickup at either pier; rates begin at $35.
Trolley: A fun twist on the standard city tour, this 1-and-¼-hour trolley ride takes in the main sites and begins at historic Fort Amsterdam.
Watch Out For
Though exceptions are often made when cruise ships are in town, shops and restaurants are generally closed on Sundays.
The new Museum Kura Hulanda, an anthropological museum that focuses on Curacao cultures, showcases African exhibits, dating from 500 B.C. The museum, at Klipstraat 9 (Otrobanda), is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Another option for history buffs is the Maritime Museum, which documents the island's rich naval history with a "floating market" of colorful ships from nearby islands just across the canal. It's located at Van den Brandhofstraat 7.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel is the oldest synagogue still in use in the New World and recently celebrated its 350th anniversary. There is a Jewish Historical Museum on the property, occupying two buildings that date to 1728, where you'll find artifacts like a Torah scroll, brought to the island by the first Jewish settlers, and hand-wrought, centuries-old silver items once used in religious ceremonies.
The art galleries of Curacao showcase everything from traditional to post-modern "Bumper Art;" the island has a thriving creative community, and artists will often be on-hand to discuss their work at venues like Landuis Bloemhof, Classic Caribbean, Arawak Craft Products and Kas di Alma Blou.
Curacao now has its first 18-hole golf course at the Blue Bay Golf Resort, designed by Rocky Roquemore. This par-72 course is 6,735 yards; facilities include a putting green, driving range, pro shop and bar.
Highly Recommended: Old Quarry Golf Course
Been There, Done That
On a visit to Den Paradera, explore an organic herb garden, teeming with plants traditionally used to cure ailments. There are remedies for matters of the heart -- including love potions -- and of the head -- like elixirs for curing baldness. Natural perfumes, oils and herbal potpourri are on sale.
At the Curacao Ostrich & Game Farm, see first-hand how an ostrich develops from an egg to the biggest and fastest bird in the world. (If you're lucky, you may even see one hatch.)
Take a tour of Landhuis Chobolobo (weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon & 1 to 5 p.m.) to see how Curacao (the liqueur, not the island) is made; you can watch the distilling process and sample the liqueur in its original orange flavor or other popular flavors, such as rum raisin, chocolate and coffee. If your day in port coincides with opening hours, beer aficionados can tour the Amstel Brewery (open on Tuesdays and Thursdays).
At the Curacao Sea Aquarium (which offers four tours a day and a feeding show), all species of marine life native to Curacao's waters are displayed in natural seawater aquaria: twenty-foot sharks, turtles as big as manhole covers, giant Moray eels and more. Some of the creatures are held in "touch tanks," so visitors can really get to know them.
One of the highlights for us was the trained sea lions that wave to the crowd and follow their trainers. You can also "kiss" a sea lion if you are so inclined!
Don't miss the "Animal Encounters Lagoon," where several large, open-water enclosures bring visitors face-to-face with the sea's most fascinating animals. In one pool, snorkelers and divers swim freely with stingrays, angelfish, tarpon, groupers and more. In the other, they can feed lemon sharks, nurse sharks and reef sharks. (It's safe; a combination of plexiglass and mesh fencing separates divers and sharks.) You can also swim with dolphins here. Reservations for "Animal Encounter" must be made in advance.
For diving and snorkeling, the Mushroom Forest is a top site.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Seaquarium Beach has all imaginable facilities (shops, bars, water sports vendors and restaurants), plus white sand and palm trees; it's a good choice for families.
Best Beach for Snorkelers & Divers: Playa Porto Mari has a unique double coral reef, where you explore one, swim over it and find another. Facilities are available, including equipment rental and a bar/restaurant.
Best Beach for (Really) Active Types: Curacao's newest park, the Caracas Bay Island, is geared to nature buffs (especially birdwatchers), families and explorers. Located on the Caracas Bay peninsula, options include mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, banana boat rides and snorkeling tours. A fully equipped dive shop is on the premises.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: The Cas Abao Beach on Banda Abao has a white-sand beach, palm trees and parasols.
Casual in-town joints: a number of eateries straddle the famous Handelskade, anchored by Penha & Sons (the oldest building in the city, built in 1708), and offer great views of downtown. Among them are the Iguana Cafe and the International cafe, which offer lunch and dinner favorites like chicken, fish, shrimp and burgers. Drinks include tropical favorites like Pina Coladas, Blue Whales (made from authentic Senior Curacao Liqueur) and locally brewed Amstel Beer.
At the Seaquarium, Mambo Beach Restaurant is a good, casual choice; you can eat on the beach, and the menu is deli fare.
If You're In The Neighborhood: In Westpunt, stop in at Jaanchi's Restaurant for Antillean cuisine; try the goat stew or fresh snapper, served Curacao style.
Gourmet Lunching: Bistro Le Clochard (Monday through Friday, 12 to 2 p.m.) is tucked away at the gateway to the Harbor in Riffort and serves Swiss/French cuisine with Caribbean touches. House specialties include New Zealand lamb chops, served with a seawater-thyme mousse and ratatouille and red snapper fillet in an oat crust with yucca and carrot puree, caramelized oranges and clove essence. Reservations are highly recommended; call 011-5999-4625666.
Staying in Touch
Cafe Iguana, on the waterfront in Willemstad, has computers with Internet terminals. Another option is the Time Out Cafe.
For More Information
Curacao Tourist Board: 800-270-3350
On the Web: www.curacao-tourism.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Curacao
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
Updated by Kathleen Tucker, Publisher, and Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor
Photo of the dolphin show at the Curacao Sea Aquarium appears courtesy of Niels Karsdorp