Connecting With Curacao
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When the Spanish established a colony here in the early 1500’s, they were so disappointed at not finding gold or silver they dubbed Curacao (Cure – a – sow), and sister islands Bonaire and Aruba) “las isles inutiles” – the useless islands.
Who knows what the Spaniards were thinking (or drinking), but did they ever get it wrong.
This ethnically diverse, semi-arid, tropical gem is forty miles off the coast of Venezuela. It doesn’t have gold or silver, but it has a “rainbow culture,” deep turquoise waters, eye-popping Dutch Colonial architecture and a life style rich in history and beauty.
This is not your typical, lush tropical island good only for lazy days on the beach. The island has that too, but Curacao is best billed as a total travel experience.
The capital, Willemstad, is resplendent in brilliantly-hued rows of gingerbread mansions, colonial architecture with jutting verandas, porches, fretwork and shutters making it a photographer’s delight
A small, motor-driven, wooden (from Suriname) pontoon bridge divides Willemstad into Punda and Otrobanda.
Otrobanda is the soul of Curacao. Its secret alleyways, gabled roofs, crumbling grandeur and restored beauties are juxtaposed against Moorish arches that blend with colonial designs. And the heady beat of Afro-Carib music spills from most every doorway.
Take a walking tour. It’s a must. Hotels can give starting points and time.
Otrobanda unfolds by foot, a wonderfully eclectic mix of the restored, the forgotten, the neglected and the promising.
Punda, the other side of the Santa Anna Canal is more built up. More commercial. There are cafes lining the water, some good shops and the Floating Market. Daily, boats from Venezuela jostle for space along the canal and unfold their wares for sale. Bright fruits, colorful spices, gnarled roots, mounds of mangoes and things I have no name for. It’s great fun; clean and authentic. You’ll very quickly encounter the maddeningly delightful and ever-puzzling Papiamentu, the official “unofficial” language of the island.
This linguistic brew from the words and idioms of several languages was developed during the slave trade allowing slaves to communicate with each other. Eventually traders from different countries adopted it to talk business across linguistic and cultural divides.
Today it’s the argot of the land, the lingua franca. It’s fun to recognize a Portuguese or Spanish word here or there, think you’ve got it, then listen as the language does a somersault into incomprehensibility. But don’t worry, your partner will switch to whatever language you want to speak.
A visit to Marshe Bieu (in the Punda) is required for any traveler with a sense of culinary curiosity and adventure.
This hangar-like building is crowded with tables covered in bright yellow table cloths and crowded with families, friends, lovers and everyone else in search of real food. Along the length of one entire wall ladies ladle out Okra stew and serve plenty of advice with their fried chicken, rice, beans, potatoes, plantains, and fish from huge cauldrons balanced on charcoal pits. The spices, smells, great food, noise and gossip shouted across the room are a heady mix, to be savored.
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Then a side street spills unexpectedly into a classic Moorish courtyard: the Mikue Israel Emmanuel synagogue in Punda. This intimate place of worship with its rich wood and striking chandeliers from Holland has a floor entirely of sand. The Sephardic Jews who built Mikue in 1651 were forced to pray in secret in the lands of their persecution. So they used sand to muffle their footsteps as they worshipped. The small, handsome courtyard with a solitary fountain leads to a pocket-sized museum with an impressive display of Torah scrolls and Hanukkah lamps
Finally, rent a car and get out of the city.
Head west (West Punt) where the landscape changes dramatically. Isolated roads wind past a blue sea, past tall cacti and rolling hills. Sometimes it’s very arid and flat, bringing the sky in real close. Horses, goats and cows hang out around windmills busily turning in the constant breeze. Other times the land looks like jungle with thick vegetation forming canopies over the road.
A visit to the national park (Shete Boka) is to see vast deserted plains of coral spilling into the roaring Caribbean. Hollowed-out caves where natural stairs lead to dark, cool places and the pounding surf echoes and foams a few feet away.
There are many beautiful, deserted beaches in the west, especially Playa Knepa, not far from Jaanchies Café, the kind of lunch place Ernest Hemmingway ought to have owned. It’s wonderfully “seedy,” absolutely authentic and boasts the best conch and fish around.
That’s Curacao: a total travel experience
The Avila Beach Hotel (1-800/747 8162 www.avilahotel.com is sculpted from the sand, sea and land and mixes nicely with colorful Dutch Colonial buildings creating vivid palette of colors and an exceptional accommodation.
Carefully designed mini-beaches embrace the characteristic blue waters, and a series of wooden and stone walkways allow for private spots to sit and watch the sun set or enjoy the blues band near the outdoor bar and restaurant. Avila is just right for families, couples, honeymooners or anyone wanting a classy, intimate, understated retreat
The rooms have uninterrupted views of the blue sea, and some rooms are so structured that the swirling waters almost come up under the balconies creating soothing ocean sounds.
Avila offers an creative menu of Continental fare as well as native, Antillean food like Smoked Fish Salad or Grilled Beef on Potato Cake.
The octagonal shaped, bright yellow building, the Octagon, where Simon Bolivar stayed as he assembled his forces to end Spanish colonial rule sits right on the property.
• A visit to Kura Hulanda www.kurahulanda.com has to be one of the high points of any visit to Curacao. The brainchild of a creative, philanthropic genius, Jacob Gelt Dekker, Kura Hulanda is a Xanadu-like village magically combining courtyards and gardens; mansions and museums into an extraordinary complex. The hotel itself is one of the Leading Small Hotels of the World, and his world-class collection of Astrolabes forms the basis for one of his elegant restaurants with exceptional menus.
Dekker has created criss-crossing walkways studded with impressive sculpture. Several rooms in his mini-museums offer the largest African collection in the Caribbean, and another mini-museum houses painfully accurate collections of photographs, implements of cruelty and remnants of the slave trade in the Caribbean and the States.
Kura Hulanda deserves its own story because the vision that illumines it is so remarkable.
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Curacao Tourist Board
• Toll free 1-800-3CURACAO
• Website: www.curacao-tourism.com
• The approximate travel time to Curacao from Boston (not including stop
over time) is 6 Hours.
• US dollar is accepted however travelers will more than likely get change in Guilders.
• Curaçao is on Atlantic Standard Time, which is one hour later than US Eastern Standard Time. (During Eastern Daylight Savings Time there is no time difference between the East Coast and Curaçao)