I sheepishly admit that despite having honeymooned on one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) a little over two years ago, the only thing I knew about Curaçao was its blue liqueur. After a week visiting mainstays and newer attractions, I have gained an appreciation of the small Caribbean island. (I can taste the yummy liqueur now.)
Though you can buy different flavors of the liqueur in the U.S. (look for the word “genuine” on the label to ensure you’ve purchased an authentic bottle) our tour group couldn’t resist visiting Curaçao liqueur factory at Landhuis Chobolobo.
The factory building itself is a juxta-position of old repurposed for new—or at least newer, as it has been the home of Genuine Curaçao Liqueur since 1947. Landhuizen or “plantation houses” dot the island. At the turn of the 20th century, the island boasted 100 such large homes, though less than half that number remain today. The remaining grand houses are private residences and museums.
We were psyched to take a brief tour of Landhuis Jan Kok, where celebrated local artist and former Miss Universe contestant Nena Sanchez displays her artwork, though for those who don’t have time to tour her gallery, some of her colorful works—charming, semi-naïve—adorn alleyways in downtown Willemstad as permanent public art displays.
Though its sister island, Aruba (where I honeymooned), is better known for its long spans of sandy beaches, Curaçao boasts more than 30 tranquil beaches and countless dive spots. Having left my snorkeling gear at home, I relished the opportunity to explore the warm Caribbean waters on a self-propelled, submersible scooter that looked like a moped with a retro diving helmet affixed to the top.
Aquafari runs 45-minute underwater tours seven days a week out of Pirate Bay Beach. Two guides kept our group on track, took underwater photos and surprised us with a canister of fish food I eagerly shook to attract colorful reef fish.
Most late afternoons we spent lying on the beaches near our hotels, first the Hilton Curaçao and then the luxurious Kontiki Beach Resort—luxurious and restful for sure—but I was grateful to change things up with a mid-week visit to Shete Boka National Park.
We perched on rocky cliffs and took in the gorgeous, wave-crashing action.
Back in Willemstad, known for its picturesque, brightly painted buildings, which garnered the entire city a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, we were greeted by Clarita Hagenaar, an expert tour guide, for a culinary walk.
Our first stop was a food truck that makes mango smoothies known as batidos. She let us gawk at the city’s historic architecture before herding us over the Queen Emma bridge, known fondly as the “swinging old lady” because it swings open and shut to let through ships, from one side of the city, Otrabanda, to the more upscale Punda.
As we passed the Governor’s House and the floating market stalls filled with produce brought on ships from Venezuela, she related the history of the island, making sense of how the native Caribbean, Dutch, South American and African slave traditions have merged to form the unique modern culture.
To give us an authentic taste of the island Hagenaar ushered us into Plasa Bieu, the “Old Market.” Hagenaar told us to sit near the first open-air kitchen, and spoke quickly to one of the cooks in the local Creole language, Papiamento. Within a matter of minutes hot platters with beef skewers, okra soup, and fish served with a roll of funchi, a sweet version of polenta, arrived.
We journeyed another day to the far western end of the island, to check out lunch at a Jaanchie’s.
Jaanchie Christian, proprietor since taking over the no-frills restaurant from his father in 1968, announced to the dining room what the kitchen had prepared that day. He pulled up a chair to our table to take our order, narrating the meal options in lieu of a menu.
I demurred when offered iguana—an aphrodisiac, Jaanchie told us—though my more daring companions confirmed it does, as the cliché goes, taste like chicken.
Wilma Gonzalez, manager of the Papagayo Beach Resort, dined with our group one evening. As we admired the sleek, all- white décor of the resort restaurant, Gonzalez rattled off the amenities available at the revamped villas and new beach hotel overlooking Jan Thiel Bay.
“What makes Curaçao different,” I asked her?
“The people,” she said.
This was the same answer given by other property managers and locals, and by the end of the trip, I knew it was true. Watching people interact with one another, easily slipping in and out of one of the four languages spoken on the island — Dutch, Spanish, English and Papiamento—or offering a quick smile or a helpful hint to a tourist, I knew I was documenting something intangible from the trip that I’ll always keep with me.
HOW TO CURAÇAO
HOP SKIP JUMP This summer American Airlines announced an expansion of flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, including Curaçao. The most common path is to fly Baltimore to Miami and then on to Curaçao. Be sure to pack your passport. You can register your travel plans with the State Department at step. state.gov/step.
LOCAL LINGO Dutch and Papiamento, a local Creole language, are the official languages of the island, though English and Spanish are spoken by most locals. You’ll likely be greeted with “bon bini,” meaning “welcome” —and don’t be taken aback when locals refer to each other as “dushi” (it’s a term of endearment meaning “sweetie” or “sweetheart”).
CURRENCY Since the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, Curaçao is its own country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island’s official tender is the Netherlands Antillean Guilder, or Florin, but United States currency is widely accepted.