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Travel Log | Checking out Curacao: Pretty as a postcard |

Checking out Curacao: Pretty as a postcard

2018-08-31T08:30:11-05:00 en-US Aug 31, 2018

Photo: Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort with a trio of pools, Credit: SBRCuracao

By: Melanie Reffes

A Dutch Caribbean island with a candy-colored capital city that last year celebrated 20 years as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Curacao sits pretty 70 miles east of Aruba and 35 miles north of Venezuela.  Inviting with reliably sunny skies, the perennially popular vacation getaway is a short three-hour flight from Miami. American Airlines will add a third daily flight from Miami on December 19 and JetBlue added Tuesday flights from New York’s JFK Airport through September 4 in addition to flights on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.   To speed up arrival through the Hato International Airport, visitors can complete the entry card in advance.   

Photo: Willemstad celebrates more than 20 years on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Credit: CTB

“The new and additional flights will bring more connectivity to the island allowing travelers to customize their trip to their needs, “said Gianina Atalita, sales and marketing coordinator, Curaçao Tourist Board in North America, “additional flights  mean additional seats as we aim to increase our arrivals from the North American market which will lead to economic growth for the island. “

Beds for heads

Photo: Santa Barbara Beach & Golf impresses with views from a swanky suite, Credit: Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort

At the base of Tafelberg Mountain between the Caribbean Sea and Spanish Water Bay, Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort bundles authenticity (not a chain resort) and amenities in one family-friendly resort on the beach.  Inviting with 350 seaview rooms   and suites, the 4-diamond resort sits on 27 acres on the 2,000 acre Santa Barbara Plantation. ”The resort is the largest on the island, “ said Rob de Bekker, general manager, “ our expert staff is delighted to welcome couples, families and those celebrating special occasions  with a host of activities that suit all vacation desires.“

Photo: Shore Restaurant with an international menu of surf and turf, Credit: Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort

Not an all-inclusive although meal plans are offered including a breakfast-only option and one that includes 3 meals, onsite restaurants include Medi with a big buffet for breakfast and a varied menu for lunch and dinner, Splash by the pool for fish tacos and a decadent Banana Blizzard milkshake and fine dining at the Shore and Jun’s Sushi Bar where local Chef Heinrich Hortencia works his magic in the exhibition kitchen after honing his culinary chops in Holland. Dishing up a Caribbean vibe, service is stellar, wine list is extensive and the menu impresses with crispy seafood ceviche, octopus carpaccio, coconut-y fish stew jazzed up with curry and plantains, skillfully prepared surf and turf and chocolate desserts worth the splurge. “We support our community by sourcing produce like lettuce, papayas and zucchinis from our local farmers, “Chef Hortencia says recommending the delectable local snapper to a honeymooners from Miami.

Photo: Old Quarry was voted #1 golf course in the Caribbean by USA TODAY 10Best Readers Poll, Credit: SBRCuracao

Options to keep busy include hiking and biking, 24-hour fitness center, 4 tennis courts, 3 pools, water sports, dive trips and massages in the Atabei Spa.  For the kids, there’s Camp Arawak ($55. per day including lunch) and for nature lovers; feed the iguanas every Wednesday and Friday at noon. “There is plenty to do for everyone at the resort, “said Ezzie Cijntje, marketing and communications specialist, “from water sports, enjoying our pools and beach to a game of golf on our championship course.”       Voted best golf course in the Caribbean in the 2018 USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Poll,   Old Quarry is a Pete Dye-designed 18-hole course overlooking the Caribbean Sea and Spanish Water Bay.

Photo: Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino on the Otrobanda waterfront in Willemstad, Credit: RenCuracao

For a city stay, it’s all about location at the 237-room and suite Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino on the Otrobanda waterfront in Willemstad.  Painted in a rainbow of colors with a lobby to match, the rooms and suites – some with roomy balconies - are artistically outfitted and uber-comfy with modern amenities including high speed Wi-Fi and spacious closets. There are plenty of restaurants in the adjacent Rif Fort and Renaissance Mall with options at the hotel including Blue Lobby Bar for light bites and cocktails and Nautilus for a Dutch Caribbean breakfast and local treats for lunch and dinner. For an afternoon respite, head to the Infinity Beach Club with its unique faux-beach fronting a saltwater lagoon that slopes into an infinity pool.  Big on the chill-out factor, there are 3 spa cabanas, beach bar and sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea. For an afternoon away from the resort, the super friendly staff will hail a cab and suggest a boatload of activities on the island. When the sun sets, there’s live music in the lobby and slots and table games at the adjoining Carnaval Casino that stays open until 3 a.m.  “We have many repeat guests who call the hotel their second home , “  said Karen Felida-Evans, marketing and e-commerce manager enjoying lunch at The Nautilus , “ and also new guests who love being so close to the city and to all the attractions the island has to offer. “

Making waves

Photo: Playa Knip is a family favorite beach on the west coast, Credit: CTB

The island hits the beach bullseye with 37 sandy strands rimming the coastline. On the west coast, Playa Kenepa is really two beaches; Kenepa Grandi or Grote Knip is the bigger beach and Kenepa Chiki or Klein Knip is the smaller one. One road leads to both where you can bring your own cooler and sample crunchy munchies called pastechi sold by the snack vendors at the entrance.   Klein Knip is the go-to for snorkeling while Grote Knip is the better beach for drawing your own line in the sand. Halfway between the two is a lookout where Selfies reign supreme and cliff divers test their skills.

Cas Abao is what beach connoisseurs like to call full-service. On the northwest coast, the marquis beach with talc-soft sand and denim blue water is adored by swimmers, kayakers and divers exploring the reefs.  In an upscale neighborhood southeast of Willemstad, Jan Thiel is a hip beach with day beds shaded by coconut palms and livebands at night. With calm surf, families who like to snorkel can rent equipment at the dive shop. Less than an hour from Willemstad, Playa Porto Mari is a sandy swath fronting shallow water that is home to coral, colorful fish and sea turtles.  Next door to the Sea Aquarium, Mambo Beach is family-friendly with a breakwater that keeps the water calm, even on days with rough surf. 

Take a walk on the wild side

Photo: Mount Christoffel is highest point on the island, Credit: Curaçao Tourist Boar

To see the rugged countryside, head west from Willemstad towards Mount Christoffel, the highest point at 1,239 feet and the Christoffel National Park where the scene is less crowded than at the tourist meccas at the opposite end of the island.  Keep your eyes open along the scenic drive for wild cactus, gaggles of goats crossing the highway , snack bars serving iguana soup , rock walls built by the slaves in the 1700’s and their small houses that are now museums. Within the Shete Boka National Park, you’ll find an array of wildlife like barn owls, inlets where sea turtles lay their eggs and big waves up to 40 feet high crashing onto the rocks. Trails are suitable for leisurely walkers and experienced hikers who climb to the top of the mountain. For those aiming to beat the heat, sunrise Jeep tours are available. 

Photo: Blue Room Underwater cave, Credit: Curaçao Tourist Board

While many nature buffs prefer to get their fix above ground, exploring a cave is just as exciting. On the west coast, Blue Room is an underwater cave accessible only through a narrow opening.  Popular with snorkelers, the dome is the go-to for cavorting with schools of glassy-eyed sweeper fish.   On the eastern side of the island, Bika’s Caverns are also home to bats although they prefer to flutter near the top of the caves that are separated by pockets of sunlight.  Tours traverse the caves and to the lookout with mesmerizing 360 degree views of the island.  Asked to explain the name of the caves, Terence Ching,   project coordinator at Stichting Uniek, a group that protects the island’s environment likes to quote local lore, “it is said that Bika, a female slave, was the paramour of the land owner and after he passed away he left the land in her name.”    

Stately spans

Photo: Queen Emma Bridge is the only floating bridge in the world, Credit: CTB

Named after Dutch royalty, picturesque bridges connect Willemstad’s 3 districts;   Scharloo, Punda and Otrobanda. Nicknamed the ‘Swinging Old Lady’, Queen Emma is the only floating bridge in the world.  Pedestrian-only, the bridge built in 1888, is hinged with propellers so that it can swing parallel to the shore allowing oil tankers and cruise ships in and out of St. Anna Bay.  On both sides, cafés and restaurants line the waterfront and at night the bridge sparkles with twinkling lights. While the opening and closing of the bridge takes just a few minutes, those who prefer not to wait can ride the free ferry to the other side. For cars, Queen Juliana Bridge 185 feet above the St. Anna Bay and is the tallest bridge in the Caribbean. Weighing 3,400 tons, the stately span opened in 1974 to accommodate the oil tankers passing through the narrow harbor. 

City vibe

Photo: Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas, Credit: CTB

On the east side of St. Anna Bay, Punda which translates to ‘city ’in the local language Papiamentu, is the oldest part of Willemstad built in the 1600’s.  Today the cobbled lanes are full of restaurants, galleries, shops and gabled houses that were painted white until 1817 when the Governor ordered them repainted in a palette of crayon colors to combat the glare from the sun.  Eye-candy for photographers, the promenade is wildly colorful with showstoppers like the bright yellow Penha building built on the corner in 1708 and the big Curacao sign in the park. Easy to find on a bistro-lined street in Punda, Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas and an architectural jewel with a mahogany interior and sandy floor that pays homage to the earliest Jewish settlers who muffled their footsteps when meeting in secret during the Spanish Inquisition.  The $10.00 entrance fee includes admission Jewish Cultural Historical Museum built in 1728 as the Rabbi’s residence and where artifacts are on display like a treasured silver tray brought from Holland hundreds of years ago.  Not –to-be-missed, Thursday Punda Vibes is folklore festival with dancing on the main plaza and fireworks over the Bay.  .   

Photo: Pietermaai is a trendy neighborhood with bars, clubs and galleries, Credit: Curaçao Tourism Board

Worth checking out, Pietermaai is a stylish neighborhood with historic houses that are now boutique hotels, restaurants in airy courtyards and swagger bars that stay open late. Billed as the first and only beach   in the city, City Beach 88 is popular with boho travelers staying at the adjacent Scuba Lodge Hotel who come for the buckets and bottles on sale during Happy Hour.

On the other side of the Queen Emma Bridge, Otrobanda grew up in the 18th century as a city suburb.   As local as it gets, you’ll find dive bars, discount stores on the main drag called Breedestraat   , upscale shopping, wining and dining at Rif Fort and the Museum Kurá Hulanda where the solemn collection of African slave trade artifacts is the largest in the Caribbean.

Artsy side

Photo: Chichi dolls are one of the most sought after souvenirs made on the island, Photo: Credit Chichi Curacao

On a narrow alley in Willemstad called Windstraat, Chichi Punda is a must-see gallery owned by artist Serena Israel who created the original Chichi from chicken wire, paper and glue.  With a robust Chichi standing guard at the entrance, a variety of dolls painted in vibrant colors are striking souvenirs. Artist wannabees can paint their own Thursday the shop in Willemstad and also at Serena’s Art Factory on the east side of the island.    A few steps from the World’s Best Mojito Bar on a lively street called Columbusstraat, Ecco Bambu is a new store owned by five eco-astute women who paint driftwood they find combing the west coast beaches. 

Photo: In Scharloo , National Archives is in a wedding-cake shaped mansion that dates to the 1800's, Credit: Melanie Reffes

Not yet super trendy but well on its way, Scharloo across the footbridge from the floating market  is where the wealthiest Jewish merchants lived during the 1800’s and 1900’s and today is home to paintings on centuries-old buildings and the National Archives in a forest green wedding cake-shaped mansion. Explore on your own or take a tour on a three-wheeler called a ‘tuk tuk’.

Fun for foodies

Photo: Avila Beach Hotel hosts sunset happy hour at the Blues Bar on the pier, Credit: Avila Beach

At the oldest hotel on the island, The Pen at the Avila Beach Hotel is sea-to-fork with stand outs like fresh tuna and red snapper with red curry.  Linger awhile for a cocktail at sunset at the Blues Bar on the pier where the servers like to say ‘the food is hot and the music is cool’. Happy Hour from 5:30 pm. to 7 p.m. steps it up with gratis

Photo: La Boheme opens early for a strong cuppa Cuban coffee, Credit: Melanie Reffes

Open at 8 a.m. for a $5.00 pancake breakfast and a strong cuppa Cuban coffee,   La Bohème on the Punda side of the Queen Emma Bridge is a true find for foodies who like to eat local.   Owned by a Chilean family, the menu is as global as the chefs and servers who come from Holland, Caribbean and South America. In the Punda area of Willemstad, the bistro is a cozy perch for people-watching from the tables on the sidewalk and digging into a Venezuelan sandwich called an arepa; cornmeal patty stuffed with cheese, fish or meat.

Along the Waaigat Harbor in Willemstad, local boats moor alongside those from Venezuela at the Floating Market where the captains sell everything from vegetables and fruit to fish and handicrafts. At the end of each day, everything is packed back onto the wooden boats and the vendors sleep onboard.  For cheap and cheerful late night munchies, food trucks or a truki pan do a brisk business dishing up hefty slabs of ribs piled high in takeout containers.  For a no-frills meal on wheels during the day, waffle trucks are popular with a refreshing batido or fruity milkshake blended at colorful kiosks around the city. Say cheese and dig into a hefty mélange of sautéed chicken, raisins, piquant peppers and salty olives called Keshi Yena. Baked in a hollowed out waxy Gouda or Edam shell and served in the shell or plated with plantains, the cheesy casserole was born during the slave trade and today has outgrown those humble beginnings as a menu mainstay in ritzy restaurants and mom and pops. 

On the east side of the island, Landhuis  Brakkeput Mei Mei in an 18th century plantation house is a Latin steakhouse with an outstanding salad bar, pitchers of fruity sangria and daily specials like Salsa Night on Monday, Paella on Wednesday, Lobster on Thursday and Whole Red Snapper on Friday. For the kids, there’s a playground and mini-golf course that stays open until 10 p.m.

Go for the green

Photo: Netto Bar in Otrobanda opened in 1954 and is adored for the signature shots of green rum, Credit: Caroline Castendijk

Along the Bredeenstraat, in the non-touristy neighborhood of Otrobanda, Netto Bar has been around for six decades and although it’s a bit worn around the edges, it fills up fast with locals and tourists knocking back shots of green rum called Ròm Bèrdè made bittersweet with orange peels and anise must-do.

Rhythm & Blues

Photo: Genuine Curacao Liqueur is distilled and bottled at Landhuis Chobolobo, Credit: Senior Curaçao Liqueur

One of the most famous liqueurs in the world, Blue Curacao is distilled in a 19th-century mansion called Landhuis Chobolobo.  Flavored with the dried peels of the bitter ‘Laraha’ orange grown only on the island and bottled by Senior Liqueur since 1896, the estate is delightful with a cocktail bar, open-air café and gift shop with shelves of flavored liqueurs and  chocolates infused with the heady spirit . The only distillery in the world that produces the blue  liqueur which is naturally colorless and made blue from added coloring, self-guided tours are free although diehards opt for the   ‘Blue Curacao Cocktail Experience’  that includes a mixology workshop and 2  cocktails.  Tour prices range from $12.50 - $40.00, per person.  In a hot pink building on the waterfront in Willemstad, Blue Experience will open in October with a menu of shots and snacks.

Photo: Motown Soul Bar at the Restaurant Gouverneur de Rouville is the happiest happy place bar on the island, Credit: Melanie Reffes

Once the Governor’s mansion, Restaurant Gouverneur de Rouville in Otrobanda is a hot spot   not only for the signature beef stew with plantains but also for the Motown Soul Bar on the balcony overlooking St. Anna Bay.  With a nonstop soundtrack of golden oldies and cocktails like the Caribbean Vibe shaken with Blue Curacao, rum and pineapple juice, the soulful perch is the hippest happy place bar on the island. 

Save the date  

September 26-30:    Curacao Pride is a 5-day party saluting the LGBTQ community with shindigs on boats, drag shows on the beach, White Party at Club Spoonz and the grand parade that starts in Willemstad and struts along the coast.

September 29 – October 6:  Curacao Dive Festival is fun above and below the water.

November 12-18: Curacao Cycling Week is for fans of mountain biking.

November 25:  KLM Curacao Marathon welcomes runners along the waterfront and across the Queen Emma Bridge.

About the Author

Melanie Reffes, Travel Journalist
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