Feb
08
2013

Fall in love with Curaçao's Dutch roots and Caribbean spirit

Discover the unique appeal of the capital of this Caribbean island

It is sometimes said that opposites attract. When it comes to the island of Curaçao, that holds true. Here, Dutch and Caribbean cultures have bonded to create a romantic, tropical getaway where pastel buildings cozy up to palm trees, ribbons of white sand and magenta bougainvillea blossoms.

It’s no wonder the island has evolved from an off-the-radar destination known primarily to the Dutch (who still make up more than 35 per cent of Curaçao’s tourism traffic), to one that draws an international mix of visitors, including A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Tom Cruise, as well as reality TV stars.

The Bachelorette

On the final episodes of last season’s The Bachelorette, Curaçao served as the backdrop as single mom Emily Maynard searched for her Mr. Right. In the course of whittling her many suitors down to one, she and her final three prospects embarked on fantasy dates that took them swimming in Fuik Bay, cruising on a vintage boat called Insulinde and sightseeing by helicopter. To prevent any secrets from being spilled, filming was super-hush hush—even locals didn’t know why the cameras were there.

With its many intimate nooks and crannies, you can see why Curaçao worked so well for The Bachelorette. The beaches (numbering 35-plus) aren’t the long stretches you might see on other islands. Here, they curve around small coves like smiles, creating a private oasis for couples who want to frolic in the waves and steal passionate smooches while stretched out on the sand.

History

But the island’s lure extends well beyond its beaches. Curaçao, which is one of the Dutch Leeward Antilles, has a colourful history. The Spanish, French, British and Dutch all took turns ruling the island—each leaving an indelible mark, whether on the language, food, architecture or arts.

To experience Curaçao’s vibrant culture, head to its capital—Willemstad. The port town (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) is split into two halves: Punda, established in 1634 when the Dutch captured Curaçao from the Spanish, and Otrobanda, the “newer” part, dating back to 1707.

Sights

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Both sides are united by the Queen Emma pontoon bridge. It floats between the two halves of Willemstad and is a popular spot to take perfect “wish you were here” photos with a colourful row of buildings in the background. It’s not uncommon to see wedding parties posing in front of a photographer on the “Old Swinging Lady,” as locals call it. (When it’s time for boats to come into the harbour, the entire bridge swings over to one side to let them pass.) As Curaçao’s best-known spot, it’s not to be missed.

Once you’ve seen the bridge, sign up for a guided walking tour, or just wander and see where your feet take you. You may run across Fort Amsterdam (circa 1635), where a cannonball from long-ago skirmishes is still embedded in the southwest wall. Or find the bright yellow Penha building from 1708, housing the store of the same name. Slip down alleyways and side streets to find bistros that would look right at home in Amsterdam, serving Dutch beer like Heineken or Venezuela’s Polar beer. Watch your fellow diners eating orders of crispy French fries and you’ll soon learn where they are from. The Dutch dip their fries into mayonnaise; North Americans opt for ketchup.

Willemstad has a floating bridge, so why not a floating market? Boats from Venezuela and Columbia make the trek to sell fish, fruits and vegetables to the locals on the pier, while other vendors sell decorated calabashes (dried gourds), paintings, whole cinnamon bark and okra. Bargain-hunters looking for souvenirs do well both here and at the Old Market, just a three-minute walk further down the street.

Stop for lunch at the Old Market. It’s not fancy or chic, but it’s the ideal spot to see what makes Curaçao so special. Picnic tables line the open space where tourists and locals, alike, sit down together for heaping plates of homemade specialties like curried goat or chicken, grilled red snapper, fried plantains, rice and beans. The prices (in Netherlands Antillean Florins or guilders) leave you plenty of money left over to go shopping at boutiques lining the streets.

Throughout Curaçao, the divide between tourists and the people who live here seems to have vanished. Even at the resorts, you don’t get the feeling that you’re in a bubble, far from real island life. It may help that locals can buy a day pass at many of these resorts and bring their families to swim in the pools, build sandcastles on the beach and picnic in the sun. The island’s welcoming vibe makes everyone (regardless of religion or sexual orientation) feel like they can truly kick back and relax.

Language

To become a part of the island family, learn a few words of the native language, Papiamentu—one that seems to have been created by putting seven different languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English, into a blender. You’ll be greeted with “Bon Biní!” (“Welcome!”) and “Kon ta bai?” (“How are you?”). Mom always said, “Say please and thank you,” so learn Por fabor and Danki.

Another word to know is Dushi (pronounced doo-shee). It’s a one-size-fits-all word. It can mean “darling” or “sweetheart,” or the equivalent of “delicious.” Parents say it to their kids. Couples say it to one another. And diners might say it after biting into a sweet coconut cake.

Dushi is a good way to describe the famous Curaçao liqueur made on the island from the peel of bitter local oranges. The liqueur is best known for its electric-blue hue, but you’re in for a colourful surprise when it’s seen in red, orange and green versions (all taste the same), plus other varieties like coffee, chocolate and coffee rum.

Drink

While blue Curaçao is exported in limited qualities, it’s much easier to find on the island. Look for the pine tree on the label as a sign of authenticity. Then pick up cocktail tips from the master bartenders at the Floris Suite Hotel, where South Beach chic meets Caribbean flair. (Think white billowy curtains and furniture that creates a stripped-down, clean esthetic.) Fans of St. Patrick’s Day may also want to pick up some green rum, an island favourite served up at the Netto Bar. It’s a hopping place for music and nightlife, where the rum is poured straight up or served with coconut water.

Sleep

The Floris Suite Hotel has a romantic vibe, as do many of the resorts in Curaçao. The Hotel Kura Hulanda is less a hotel and more like a village with its collection of 18th- and 19th-century Dutch colonial buildings, sculpture garden, museum, sidewalk cafés, shops and cobblestone walkways. It also features the courtyard where bachelorette Maynard gave out the last rose to her chosen guy, Jef Holm.

At the Baoase Luxury Resort, talents from the annual North Sea Jazz Festival (including Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys) bed down in posh villas (starting at US$1,300), some with deluxe kitchens, outdoor showers and private Jacuzzis. The fact the resort has its own helicopter pad is a clue about the type of clientele it attracts. Meanwhile, Dutch royalty can be found periodically at the historic Avila Hotel.

No matter where you stay, be sure to plan a visit to Dinah’s Botanic & Historic Garden—especially if you’re looking for your own island romance. Dinah is famous for her plant-based remedies, creams and teas. And she can create a love potion that just could do the trick.

Or you just might end up falling in love with Curaçao itself, which isn’t so bad. You’ll find it’s a passion that lasts well past the honeymoon stage.

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