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 mandated the pastel-colored houses, now a trademark of 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 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 still a distinctly Dutch feel in the centuries-old buildings that line the waterfront in all those fantastic colors.
Willemstad, where cruise ships dock, is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with waterfront shops and cafes. It's 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, with more than 35 uncrowded beaches.
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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 is the Netherlands Antillean Florin, but nearly all vendors and shops take U.S. dollars. Several banks are located on the bustling street of Handelskade on the Punda side of town. Most have ATM's, and money exchanges are available at the port with currency exchanges. For the latest exchange rates, visit xe.com or oanda.com.
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. The port has two main docking spots. The new Curacao Mega Pier is designed for large ships that can't fit under the city's famed Queen Juliana Bridge. The 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.)
Curacao's port facilities include ATM's, currency exchanges and port guides on site. Taxi stands are also available outside the port.
It's an easy walk from the port to Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (just like the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal) that features sidewalk cafes, funky museums and shops, and neat architectural touches like gables and arches.
On Foot: Visitors to either terminal can take 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. You'll find taxi stands at both port locations. 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, but you'll need a valid driver's license and an international credit card. Avis (800-331-1084) has operations at both piers with rates starting 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 75-minute trolley ride takes in the main sites and begins at historic Fort Amsterdam. (You can't hop on and off.)
Watch Out For
Though exceptions are often made when cruise ships are in town, shops and restaurants are generally closed on Sundays.
The Museum Kura Hulanda, an anthropological museum that focuses on Curacao's culture, showcases African exhibits dating from 500 B.C. (Klipstraat 9, Otrobanda; open daily, 10 a.m. to 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. (Van den Brandhofstraat 7; open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., during the cruise ship season)
The Hato Caves site boasts limestone formations, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Take a guided tour of this underground world to hear tales of Curacao's legends and check out the iguanas and bats. You can also stroll the Indian Trail Walk on your own to view island vegetation and 1,500-year-old carvings. (open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 45-minute tours given on the hour)
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, Arawak Craft Products (at the Cruise Ship Wharf, Otrobanda, Willemstad) and Kas di Alma Blou.
Curacao features two golf courses. The 18-hole golf course at the Blue Bay Golf Resort was designed by Rocky Roquemore. The par-72, 6,735-yard course offers a putting green, driving range, pro shop and bar. The second, the Old Quarry Golf Course at Santa Barbara Plantation Resort was designed by Pete Dye and overlooks the sea.
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 on display in natural seawater: 20-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 get to know them up close.
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, tarpons, 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 there. Reservations for "Animal Encounter" must be made in advance. (aquarium open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
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 also on sale.
At the Curacao Ostrich 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 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. (open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m.)
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. 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. (open Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Best 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 for Snorkelers & Divers: Playa Porto Mari features 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. Also popular for snorkeling and diving, Playa Kalki, located on Curacao's west coast, is considered one of the island's most attractive beaches. The quiet cove is home to a reef that divers have dubbed "Alice in Wonderland" because of its labyrinthine quality, and it's not uncommon to spot stingrays and dolphins in this dive spot.
Best for the Dedicated Beach Bum: The Cas Abao Beach on Banda Abao has a white-sand beach, palm trees and parasols.
Curacao offers a wide variety of sidewalk cafes, gourmet restaurants offering international dishes and local eateries influenced by a melting pot of more than 55 different nationalities. Options range from fresh fish and fine dining to gumbo and grilled fare.
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, which offers lunch and dinner favorites like chicken, fish, shrimp and burgers. Drinks include tropical favorites like pina coladas and Blue Whales made from authentic Senior Curacao of Curacao Liqueur. (Handelskade 13 Punda, Willemstad)
At the Sea Aquarium, 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 is tucked away at the gateway to the Harbor in Riffort and serves Swiss and 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. (011-5999-4625666)
Staying in Touch
For Internet access, try the Internet Cafe Marie Pampoen (Martin Luther King Blvd. 36 B), Big Daddy Internet Cafe (Middenstraat 1-A, Punda), Swift Internet Cafe (Blok steeg 6, Punda) or Pleincafe Wilhelmina (Wilhelminaplein 25, Punda). The public library (Chumaceiro Blvd. 17) also offers Internet access.
Best for First-Timers: Take a half-day motorcoach tour of the island to see Curacao's top attractions. A typical tour combines a visit to the Curacao Museum with trips to the Hato Caves (to see stalactites, waterfalls, bats and cave drawings) and Chobolobo, where Curacao liqueur is distilled. Active travelers can opt for tours that combine a cave visit with a walking tour of Willemstad's highlights, or try their hand at snorkeling or diving.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've already seen the major sights, take in Curacao's natural beauty with a half-day tour to the picturesque volcanic west coast of the island. Tours may take in the Boka Tabla natural arch, Knip Beach, the Tula Museum and the salt flats, home to pink flamingos. You'll have ample photo opportunities.
Best for Families: Who doesn't love a dolphin encounter tour, especially children or grandchildren? Take this half-day excursion to touch, hug and kiss a dolphin in waist-deep water. A trainer will provide an interactive lesson on the dolphin's body and behavior. Excursions typically include the encounter, a visit to the Sea Aquarium and animal shows.
For More Information
On the Web: Curacao Tourist Board (800-270-3350)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Curacao
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--By Erica Lamberg, Cruise Critic contributor