FOR YEARS, Curaçao was another
face in the crowd among its neighbouring Caribbean islands. There
was nowhere to go but upeven though it has been quite the
process. However, this process has shaped it into a destination
that goes beyond the beacheven with many picturesque shorelines
to brag about, as well as inland parks and other assorted natural
In the last couple of decades, its mix of cultures (Dutch,
Portuguese, Spanish and African) shaping it through its storied
history has raised the stakes for the island nation, which just
recently won it its own identity as an independent
nation (rather than one of the Netherlands Antilles). While most
adults are familiar with Blue Curaçao and other liqueurs
from the Mansion Chobolobo
Distillery) and its iconic long-necked, round bottomed bottles,
many multinational companies have moved in and staked their claim
in one of the most international, multicultural societies on Earth.
Even with the evolution, improvements, and mélange of
Dutch old world charm and Caribbean colour, in recent years, the
island has transformed from an interesting cruise ship port of call
to a long-term destination. The capital city of Willemstad has a
revitalized waterfront “skyline” so distinctive that
this “old Dutch-meets-New World Caribbean” now stands
as the island’s official logo. Hotel giants such as Marriott
and Hyatt have taken advantage of the situation, as have small,
ambitious boutique hotels. While many of the upscale properties
on the island are brand new (the Hyatt opened in early 2010), they
are respectful of the history that preceded them.
Kura Hulanda Hotel, conceived and curated by global entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker is emblematic of this. This village-within-a-village on the Otrabanda side of Willemstad oozes of luxury and at first glance looks almost like a set from a 1950s Technicolor Cary Grant movie. However, wander through the property, and you will fast discover it is still rooted in reality thanks to Dekker’s conscientious efforts to balance luxury with the preservation of Curacao’s history and the African cultures that fed into it over the years. The grounds constitute a maze yielding wonderful surprises at every turn: impeccably cultivated courtyards, a waterfall, gorgeously situated sculptures and tucked away art galleries with meticulously arranged historic artifacts and paintings. Dekker’s visionary village is also home to the outstanding Astrolabe and Jaipur restaurants, each with their own distinct flavour capturing the island’s essence as a world crossroads.
The Kura Hulanda Museum, which anchors the hotel, is an enormously moving look at the Caribbean slave trade and African culture. It reminds visitors that this multicultural, and now booming, paradise of today had a dark side that should never be forgotten. Around town, there are also plenty of lovingly preserved reminders of the fact that European Jews also played a key role in Curaçao’s growth as a business hub and represented 58 per cent of the population between 1750 and 1820). The 280-year-old Mikve Israel-Emanuel Jewish Synagogue still thrives as an active place of worship and houses a museum with religious artifacts that date back to the middle ages-objects that may have possibly been lost to history from World War II or other political conflicts had Jews not settled on the island.
The treasures of the deep and rare wildlife gems are also available to all in abundance. Christoffelpark , the largest national park, is rich in hiking trails, local flora, fauna and wildlife. More adventurous types will want to scope out rustic spots such as the Blue Room sea cave and Santa Cruz beach as well as numerous scuba-diving concessions that circle the island like a pearl choker.
If you don’t swim, but have the desire to embrace their inner
Jacques Cousteau, you will appreciate Substation
Curacao, whose Curasub takes guests nearly 1,000 ft below
sea level-much further than even divers can travel safely-to experience
the wonders of the deep. The Curasub is also a technology
wonder to behold in its own right, designed and built by Nuytco
Research of Canada, a world leader in undersea technology with safety
systems certified by Lloyd’s of London. The Curasub
experience may not come cheap at US$650,
but it delivers beyond the novelty of traveling on a real sub down
to the depths. While it is one thing to see Technicolor-bright fish
in an aquarium, it is another to see them in their natural habitat
and making their homes among elegant coral and sea foliage.
Speaking of the sea, there will be plenty of seafood
served up, in interesting ways and in interesting environments.
Though there are dockside grills similar to those found in every
tropical port from Oahu to Bali, local Curaçao businesses
have gotten creative with restaurants that not only transform local
ingredients, but neighbourhoods as well. Mundo Bizarro (think Rio
de Janeiro’s Lapa District, Buenos Aires’s Palermo Soho,
and Havana blended together) is the culinary and cultural hub of
Pietermaai Smal, now in the midst of a “Latin quarter”-style
renaissance. The area is also home to über-trendy barlounge
Moon. In the rustic northwest of the island, Jaanchie’s delights
with its playful Amsterdam café-meets-Caribbean hideaway décor and
hearty seafood and stews. Often, a complimentary serving of iguana
will be thrown in.
Bieuw (Old Market) offers for very little money some of the most
stellar food in the Caribbean, as well as prime people-watching.
Locals on their lunch break mix with American and European
families on holiday and fashionable, affluent couples
decked out in Ralph Lauren and Prada. Foodies who delight in recreating
their vacations in their home kitchens, meanwhile, should book a
group session at Angelica’s
Kitchen. While the actual kitchen and dining terrace are delightful
in a 1950s meets 2011 kind of way, what sets this cooking school
apart are the goof-proof recipes and the instructors’ spot-on
direction. This not only ensures dinner will be flawless, but you
also bond with whomever you are partnered with to execute a certain
dish. Worth considering for a pre-wedding girls’ night out-and
practical, too, as you get sent home with the recipes.
Though the Kura Hulanda Hotel in town is quite special,
there are a host of resorts for every type of Caribbean holiday,
be it destination wedding, girls’ weekend away or family affair.
Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort and Emerald Casino is also
family friendly, but has plenty to keep each age group busy. Across
the way, you will find the Philippe Starck-esque Floris
Suite Hotel, with suitably mod restaurant and a lounge bar that
makes good use of Blue Curacao and its multi-coloured siblings.
Curaçao’s southeast, the newly opened Hyatt
Regency Curaçao is wowing business groups with expansive,
scenic meeting and reception areas and everybody else
with unusual terrain, golf, hiking, biking, tennis, a marina and
nature-meets-minimalist rooms. Clement Hugeot’s cocktail
creations for Medi are among the best on the island, while
Shor does both fancy seafood and a luxe burger-and-shake dinerbar
menu. Its Atabei Spa is also inspired, thanks to its use of space.
Instead of common waiting rooms that give way to treatment areas,
each guest is treated to his or her own suite complete with multi-jet
shower, treatment area and dressing area. You can even indulge in
a decadent Blue Curaçao manicure or pedicure, created by
resident Shermanie, who was hired based on this exclusive recipe.
Like other spots in the Caribbean, Willemstad is also
a shopper’s paradise. The Floating Market is a great place
to shoot photos and get good, inexpensive souvenirs on the fly.
You will find landmark store Penha, Little Switzerland and Freeport
Jewellers stocking every major international brand of fine jewellery
as well as a handful of Caribbean-produced lines. However, if its
something local you want that leans more classy and less towards
kitschy, be sure to seek out Beads & Pieces, Different Design
Jewellery, Jolanta Pawlak (über-high-end statement jewellery) and
Ffolio in Punda. The Zuikertuintje and Salina malls, meanwhile,
have a nice assortment of designer swimwear and European clothing
boutiques. While most of the stores at the Renaissance Mall are
familiar US brands, the Columbia-based
surf shop Totto features cute resort pieces that are also nicely
made and tailored, run by a lovely couple and their elementary school-age
For more information on travel to Curacao, visit www.curacao.com or www.ctb.an.
Punda, including its floating street market
Sunset at the Marriott
Shopping for treats
Amsterdam by the seas
Floating bridge to Otrabanda
Santa Maria beach
Kura Hulanda pool
Eel, viewed from the Curasub
Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.