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curaçao


Curaçao skyline Punda is full of colourful buildings that make up a revitalized skyline in the newly formed nation

Curaçao: on a higher plane

All Caribbean islands offer diving, luxury resorts and deeply discounted diamonds and designer labels. Curaçao’s rich, multicultural history, meanwhile, carries the tropical retreat experience to a higher plane, writes Elyse Glickman
photographed by the author

 

FOR YEARS, Curaçao was another face in the crowd among its neighbouring Caribbean islands. There was nowhere to go but up—even though it has been quite the process. However, this process has shaped it into a destination that goes beyond the beach—even with many picturesque shorelines to brag about, as well as inland parks and other assorted natural wonders.

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 bar–lounge 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.

Marsche 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.

Hyatt bathroomIn 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 diner–bar 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 daughters. •

 

For more information on travel to Curacao, visit www.curacao.com or www.ctb.an.

 


Historical Curaçao



Punda, including its floating street market


Sunset at the Marriott


Shopping for treats


Amsterdam by the seas


Floating bridge to Otrabanda


Santa Maria beach


Diving platform


Kura Hulanda pool


Hyatt grounds


Eel, viewed from the Curasub

 

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.

 

 

 

 

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