The Real Curacao
Explore the undiscovered side of this Caribbean island 35 miles north of Venezuela
By Stacey BrandonContrary to popular belief, there is much more to the Caribbean than its beautiful beaches. And while a vacation spent lying in a lounge chair sipping tropical drinks is just as tempting as it sounds, it is not the only way to experience an island such as Curacao.
Curacao (pronounced Cure-a-sow), located in the southwestern Caribbean 35 miles north of Venezuela, offers endless stretches of white-sand beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and the sounds of a steel drum beating in the distance. While the natural beauty and nearly perfect climate make it a popular choice for vacationers, don't let the sun drain you of the desire to see the real culture, the real people or the real Curacao. The Netherlands-owned island is a smorgasbord of charm and character.
Have you ever heard of painting the town red? How about pink, green, blue and yellow? Aside from the visual spectrum of color that is visible throughout the island, Curacao also provides a colorful array of cultural and historical activities that will leave you feeling as if you've traveled the world.
Willemstad, the capital and only city on 38-mile-long Curacao, was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, placing the town among such cultural icons as the Great Wall of China, Vatican City and the Taj Mahal. There are currently 765 monuments and sites in historic Willemstad showcasing its unique heritage.
Gables and arches mix with the bright neon colors that make up the town's unique skyline for a perfect blending of small-town European charm and Caribbean flair. Willemstad's cobblestone streets, lined with shops, boutiques and cafes, are easy to navigate without a map. The narrow avenues line up in a grid system along the water's edge, making it tourist-friendly, a big plus since most visitors end up looking at the striking architecture rather than watching where they're going.
It's easy to walk right on past Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, situated behind a gated arch amid local businesses. From the street, one might not even know it's there, but inside the walls is the oldest continually worshipped-in synagogue in the New World, now celebrating its 350th anniversary. It also houses a museum where visitors can look through an awe-inspiring collection of religious artifacts from the congregation's vast history.
Much newer to the island's cultural diversity is the Museum Kura Hulanda. Opened in 1999, it features an anthropological journey of African exhibits dating from 500 B.C. Focusing on the predominant cultures of Curacao, it presents a top-notch look at the African slave trade, pre-Columbian gold and Antillean art. Located within a village complex known as the World Heritage Village at Kura Hulanda, the property spans eight city blocks and includes an intense collection of carefully restored 18th- and 19th-century Dutch Colonial Caribbean buildings situated around numerous grand courtyards.
"Kura Hulanda" is Papiamento (Curacao's native language) for Dutch courtyard. Multiple dining and shopping establishments line the cobblestone streets of Kura Hulanda, and there's also an 80-room luxury boutique resort and spa.
With its uniquely decorated suites (no two rooms are identical) and Indian marble bathrooms, Hotel Kura Hulanda offers an experience like no other. Situated within the World Heritage Village, the boutique hotel offers a unique cultural and historical experience with the amenities of a luxury resort. There are five dining options, a spa and fitness center, tranquil waterfalls and pools, and charming courtyards.
You would certainly miss out on the true flavor of the island if you did not dine like the locals. One of Curacao's greatest treasures is its local cuisine, representing the many nationalities that call this island home. A trip to Curacao would be incomplete without visiting the Old Marshe, or "Old Market." Located in the center of Willemstad, this local hot spot is jamming at midday, mostly with Curacaoans on their lunch break. Walk past the counter vendors and tempt your palate with the exotic aromas that fill the open-air seating arena, while your food is grilled right in front of you.
Try traditional dishes such as keshi yena, which means "filled cheese" and is usually stuffed with meat or fish, or funchi, a simple cornmeal mush that resembles polenta and is a staple in the Netherlands Antilles. The adventurous can try the kabritu (stewed goat) or iguana. After picking up a hot meal, take a seat with the locals at one of the picnic tables that fill the Old Market. It's a great place to people-watch and listen to the sounds of the native Papiamento language while your taste buds delight in the local cuisine.
Another lunchtime favorite is Jaanchi's Restaurant (pronounced Yan-cheese), where "there is no menu. Jaanchi is the menu." Here, it's the setting that makes for an unforgettable dining experience. Jaanchi personally makes his way to every table, inserting jokes into the menu he recites: "Our fish today is the Wahoo. You take a bite, and you say, 'Wahoo!'" One would certainly miss the real flavor of the island without a visit to Jaanchi's.
Those looking to learn the tricks of the trade can be both chef and gourmand at Angelica's Kitchen. Groups of 10 or more work together to prepare an eclectic feast before sitting down together to eat their creations. Owner Angelique Schoop, who bought and restored the childhood home that she so fondly remembered for its impressive kitchen, now offers tourists a taste of native Caribbean fare by teaching them to cook the meals in a fun and social setting.
Guests mingle, drink and sometimes dance to salsa music while preparing a multicourse meal. "Our philosophy is to prepare food that looks good and tastes wonderful while giving people the time to be with their friends," says Angelique. "This experience allows the luxury of both, cooking and socializing."
Perhaps the greatest treasure of this island is the friendliness of its people. The locals are always quick to give a warm welcome, or "bon bini," in their native Papiamento. Though the official language is Dutch, English is taught in Curacaoan schools today, so it's fairly easy to communicate with the people.
A quick walk through town will lead you to the Floating Market, where vessels arrive daily from Venezuela and Colombia as well as other West Indian islands. Just across the harbor from the splendid Willemstad skyline, boats dock along the Waaigat Canal to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Local fishermen can be found here selling their fresh catch of the day. A great place to interact with the locals, tempt your palate with tropical flavors or just sit and people-watch, the Floating Market will introduce you to the hospitality for which this Caribbean island is known. Vendors, often gone from their families for months at a time while trying to make a living, are eager to offer a smile and a handshake.
Sunday afternoons are a favorite time for Curacaoan families to relax at the beach. Located outside the hurricane belt, Curacao boasts a warm and sunny climate year-round, as well as 38 beaches. The island's best sandy stretches are those that the locals visit, and each has its own charm and character. It is not uncommon to find a group of men gathered around a card table, engrossed in a game of dominoes. Adults strum guitars while children sing along. All the while, the locals will treat you like one of their own, bringing you into their circle and making you feel like a part of their family.
To really see the island and experience the true colors of Curacao, talk to the people. Learn their names. Play with the children. They are more than happy to meet you and learn about where you come from. The most rewarding vacation can be one where you gain an understanding of new people and new cultures.
Information: Learn more about the Hotel Kura Hulanda and other hotels and resorts in Curacao by visiting Vacations To Go or calling (800) 998-6925.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November 2005 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.