Cruise in this multicultural mélange of the Netherlands, where the picture-perfect capital, beaches, hiking sites, and foods are as colorful as the inhabitants.
Curaçao is a triple blessing for boaters. She’s famously far enough south to be on the outside edge of the hurricane belt, her main harbor is lined with gabled 17th-century Dutch homes, and she has a wild beauty that appeals to snorkelers and hikers alike.
Often called the last—and at 444 square kilometers, the largest—of the ABC islands, Curaçao sits in the southern Caribbean just off the Venezuela coast, roughly halfway between her sibling islands of Aruba and Bonaire. Before the island became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010, it was the capital of the Netherland Antilles. Thanks in part to this heritage Curaçao is steeped in colonial architecture, so much so that in 1997 the port of Willemstad was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As Dutch as the island looks, the culture of Curaçao comes from a much broader palette colored with the Arawak and African cultures, and is blended with English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French settlers. Today, its cosmopolitan population of 150,000 originates from more than 55 cultures from around the world.
Much like Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is a desert island. A cap of ancient limestone atop prehistoric lava fields, most of the coast is a serrated shelf of iron shore with only occasional breaks where rivers once tumbled into the sea. These bights, known locally as “bokas,” are where some of the prettiest and most intimate beaches are found.
Islanders claim there are 38 beaches pocketed around the island, with the most accessible and popular ones gathered along the calm southwestern coast—some of the most popular beaches have an entry fee. Topless sunbathing is technically illegal, but locals turn a blind eye to it on several of the beaches.
Early sailors loved Curaçao for the dependable trade winds. Today, boaters come here to enjoy the island’s calm, clear waters, friendly locals, and easy access to European and American supplies. Despite the boating culture, Curaçao has only a few marinas, all concentrated between Willemstad and Spanish Waters, a protected bay just a few miles east.
The two most popular are adjacent to the sprawling Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, a palatial Mediterranean-style property with more than 350 rooms. The Barbara Beach Marina, just off the resort’s namesake white sand beach, has 15 slips that can handle yachts up to 100 feet. Just beyond the Barbara Beach Marina is the much larger Seru Boca Marina, with 135 slips for yachts up to 170 feet.
The resort is the perfect base for fun and recreation with four restaurants, three pools, the Atabei spa, the Tafelberg Tennis Center, and a complete dive shop and water sports facility. Golfers will appreciate access to the the Old Quarry Golf Course, a Pete Dye-designed championship course.
Watersports are popular—not surprising given the arid climate—particularly snorkeling and scuba diving. Some of the best diving and many of the island’s 65 named sites are within the Curaçao Marine Park. Rangers enforce a no-anchoring—there are established moorings—and the no-spearfishing policy. The waters have abundant coral and sea life nourished by the nutrient-rich runoff from nearby South America. Caribbean Sea Sports offers daily trips around the island, while the Go West dive shop specializes in diving along the more remote northwest coast.
Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy the challenge of climbing Mt. Christoffel, the island’s highest peak at 1,230 feet. The trail is rugged and braided—goat trails are common and confusing—but you can hire off-duty rangers as excellent guides. The panoramic views from the rock formation on top take in the island’s wild northwest, rolling hills of cactus and thorn trees. A steady sea breeze gives welcome relief from the sun. Because the trail is so exposed to the sun and the climb so arduous, rangers will not let hikers start later than 11AM.
Down on the coast not far from the peak, Shete Boka National Park has some easier hiking trails that lead across rocky barrens to several “bokas.” The trails dip down on cut stone steps and wooden staircases to let visitors watch the thundering waves in action as they carve into the bluffs.
Hato Caves, just a few minutes from the airport, are prehistoric caves that were used as refuges first by the indigenous Caiquetio Indians, who left behind 1,500-year-old petroglyphs and later by escaped slaves. The stalactite and stalagmite structures are haunting, and the cave provides a pleasant escape from the sun on a scorching day. The short Indian Trail outside the caves leads to the petroglyphs.
Willemstad, the capital, is the most popular tourist attraction on the island. The city is split in half by Saint Anna Bay, a saltwater reach. It has a record 765 historic buildings that are registered national monuments. Built in 1634, Punda is the historic eastern side of the bay and site of the original port. Fort Amsterdam still remains intact and houses the government offices. Wander the restored streets including Columbusstraat, Madurostraat and Handelskade (Commerce Street) for a picture postcard view of the colonial Dutch past. The tall, narrow merchant buildings held offices, residences and storerooms. All are painted in pastel yellows, pinks and blues, and their façades rise in steep-pitched gable roofs.
Locals and tourists alike shop at the floating market at Caprileskade, where rows of Venezuelan boats are docked stern-to-bow. They make the 40-mile crossing from South America to sell fresh produce. Just around the corner from this floating market is Plaza Bieu, an open-air string of lunch stalls that cook up traditional specialties such as goat stew and pumpkin pancakes.
Across the bay via the floating, pedestrian pontoon Queen Emma Bridge is Otrobanda (literally “the other side”). Although considered the “newer” center of commerce, many of the buildings date back to its founding in 1707 when overcrowding in Punda forced merchants to find new land.
Among the maze of streets in Otrobando is the Kura Hulanda Museum. In restored 18th– and 19th-century Dutch colonial buildings, the museum chronicles the complicated blend of cultures that brought Curaçao from its days as an African slave-trading port right up through the colonial Dutch period.
The Dutch West Indies offers a welcome diversity of cuisine, thanks to both Asian—the Dutch colonies in Indonesia are well remembered—and South American influences. Eateries run the gamut from the very local, very authentic Equus—an outdoor barbecue on a hill with no menu, no plates, no cutlery (just use your fingers with the hanging skewers)—to the Bistro Le Clochard, a fine French-Swiss restaurant located in the historic ruins of Rif Fort.
For those wishing to escape the city and marinas for a few nights, Curaçao’s quiet northwestern coast beckons. The Kura Hulanda Lodge & Beach Club, a romantic retreat perched on limestone cliffs overlooking white sand beaches, offers some of the most comfortable rooms, and the lodge’s Christoffel Sunset Lounge invites sundowners at the end of the day. Dine on the property or head to the nearby Landhuis Daniel, a former 18th-century plantation house that serves a variety of modern French-Mediterranean and nouvelle cuisine with Creole influences. Its open-air terraces will fill your senses, a memory that will linger until you return to the Dutch West Indies.
Curaçao Yacht Club
Contact: Micheal Leu, manager
Kura Hulanda Lodge & Beach Club
8 Langestraat, Willemstad
Seru Boca and Barbara Beach Marinas
(Near the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort)
Contact: Robert van den Heuvel, harbor master
Story & photos by Jad Davenport, Southern Boating Magazine October 2015