Shannon Sims c.2020 The New York Times Company
Your weekend agenda on this Dutch West Indies isle: cove-hopping, sipping blue Curaçao liqueur, exploring a complex past and late-night people-watching
Turquoise waters, delicious seafood, colourful snorkelling and white sand: There are a lot of places in the Caribbean that have all these wonderful things, but Curaçao is one place you might not have discovered.
Sandwiched between Aruba and Bonaire, and a short boat ride from the Venezuelan coast, Curaçao is bigger than its island neighbours and packed with memorable treasures for enterprising travellers to discover.
Of the Dutch West Indies, Curaçao may very well be the most Dutch; the island’s capital, Willemstad, looks like a colourful mini Amsterdam, and Curaçao’s currency is called the guilder, the former currency of the Netherlands (though US dollars are readily accepted across the island).
Restaurant menus often feature both bitterballen (fried Dutch meatballs) and kabritu stoba (Antillean goat stew), and when the Dutch soccer teams play, the bars are packed with orange shirts drinking Heineken and speaking Papiamento, the local language.
Amid this blended culture is a beach hopper’s dream, and the best way to enjoy all the island offers is to rent a car and roam until you find the perfect blue cove.
Nestled on a central street in Punda, Willemstad’s old town, is La Bohème Curaçao, a cafe that appeals to travellers for its smoothies and strong coffee.
Grab a seat outside where vendors stroll by with handicrafts and fruit, and recharge with some vitamin-packed drinks like “The Hulk”, a green smoothie packed with broccoli and celery that somehow tastes like sherbet. Don’t forget to also get an arepa: the chicken curry ones are especially tasty.
La Bohème, a cafe and restaurant in Willemstad’s old town, is a great place to recharge over a cup of coffee or a smoothie. Picture: Scott Baker / The New York Times
One of the best ways to get started in Curaçao is by wandering Punda’s tight alleyways full of shops and art galleries. Drop into Nena Sanchez’s gallery to check out the local artist’s bright canvases of colourful fish and tropical flowers.
Stop by Senior & Co. for a sample of their blue Curaçao liqueur, made from the peels of Curaçao’s laraha oranges.
Keep your balance as you walk over the scenic Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge — a floating bridge that swings open to let ships pass — to the other side of Willemstad, called Otrobanda.
And finally, gaze back across the water at Handelskade, the colourful strip of colonial Dutch buildings that offer Curaçao’s classic postcard shot.
Willemstad’s colourful Dutch architecture. Picture: Scott Baker / The New York Times
To understand the blend of cultures in Curaçao, you’ll need to first understand the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Find out about that and more at the small Kura Hulanda Museum in Otrobanda, close to the harbour where the Dutch once traded slaves.
The exhibition, spread across 15 structures, walks visitors through a slave’s journey from Africa to the big port of Curaçao, where Dutch businessmen in the Dutch West Indies Company traded slaves, alongside spices and cheese, with the Spanish, Portuguese, French and other plantation owners.
The museum is considered one of the most complete exhibitions on the Caribbean slave trade in the region.
In Willemstad, the Queen Emma Pontoon is a floating bridge that’s perfect for strolling. Picture: Scott Baker / The New York Times
Ready to get close to the water? For a low-key and beautiful sundowner, head to Pirate Bay, an open-air bar set on a fisherman’s bay in Otrobanda. Call ahead to reserve a table closest to the water.
And come in your swimsuit; once you’ve tasted your first Curaçao-spiked bright blue tropical drink (try the Blue Lagoon) and snacked on lightly fried lionfish (an invasive species in the Caribbean), take a dip in the clear waters of the bay as the sunset reflects off its surface.
Walk past the hungry tourists waiting for a table at Mosa and duck into the restaurant’s sister establishment, the dimly-lit, grotto-like Caña Bar and Kitchen, where locals and a few knowing tourists crowd the bar, and where you’re bound to rub shoulders with a new friend by your second round of drinks.
Speedy (and handsome) Dutch bartenders craft smart tropical cocktails from passion fruit, basil and other fresh ingredients. The ceviche and ribs are not to be missed.
The most beautiful beaches on Curaçao are on the northwest end of the island, in Sabana Westpunt. Make your way north, through the cactus-dotted landscape, and along the way, stop by Landhuis Klein Santa Martha.
This 17th-century manor on a hill is a well-restored model of Curaçao’s historic landhuis, or Dutch colonial country houses. They host overnight guests, but also serve anyone healthy meals with a vast view over the Santa Martha bay and its hills.
On its open sun deck beside the plunge pool, enjoy the apple crostini or a focaccia breakfast sandwich with your mint tea.
The best way to enjoy this stunning region is to rent a car and go beach hopping. Although most beaches have a chair rental option, few have much else in terms of facilities, so consider packing a cooler with water and snacks, and don’t forget your goggles and snorkel.
Start with two of the most popular beaches, Playa Porto Mari and Cas Abao, both peaceful inlets with a good amount of space for sunbathers to spread out and the occasional palapa.
Next, visit Playa Lagun, nestled between tall cliffs with good snorkelling. Then drive over to Kleine Knip, being sure to snorkel where the cliffs meet the sea, and where sea turtles like to swim.
Save plenty of time for Grote Knip (also called Kenepa), perhaps the most scenic and calm beach on the island, with bright, implausibly blue waters the colour of the liqueur the island is famous for.
Finish your beach hopping with a snack of funchi (polenta) fries and fresh lemonade at Restaurant Playa Forti, where you can watch daredevils jump off a cliff into the sea.
Grote Knip, one of the calmest and most beautiful beaches in Curaçao. Picture: Scott Baker / The New York Times
The instructors at Ocean Encounters dive shop are ready and waiting to blow your mind with a night scuba dive using fluorescent (rather than white) lights, which make the already beautiful reefs of Curaçao glow with astonishing patterns.
Look out for eels’ eyes peeking out from coral castles, and watch the glowing green tentacles of a sea anemone wriggle in the tide. You can arrange a private tour or go with a group.
Starving from your dive? Head to one of the hippest places for dinner in Curaçao: Kome. This two-story spot in Pietermaai, known for using local ingredients, offers stiff drinks and big servings.
Snag one of the tables on the patio or climb up to a perch beneath the soaring rafters, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the busy bar. Sample the roasted vegetable plate, or go for the rib-eye with chimichurri sauce. Don’t miss the homemade hot sauce.
Stroll through the Dutch fairy tale old town of Pietermaai, filled with alleyways crisscrossed with strings of lights and brothels-turned-boutiques.
Duck into the world of Mundo Bizarro, an eclectic bar full of cushy used furniture and cosy corners. Pick one of the couches in the alleyway, or set up at a picnic table on the lush balcony to enjoy some cocktails, along with live music and people-watching.
At Mundo Bizarro in Pietermaai, there is plenty of live music, cocktails and people-watching. Picture: Scott Baker / The New York Times
One of the most exciting culinary projects in Curaçao today is the Hofi Cas Cora farm, inland from Willemstad. On weekends the bright red urban farmhouse opens its on-site restaurant, a small, open-air cafe with picnic benches that catch the trade winds.
The cuisine focuses on local, sustainable produce. Take your time exploring the farm, with everything from papaya trees to baby peacocks, before trying the house salad packed with fresh-picked greens or the sweet potato moussaka.
Feel the brutal, wild power of the sea by visiting Shete Boka National Park, where waves funnel into volcanic rock, carving out caves and bokas (inlets), and blasting up into the air in spouts that are both frightening and thrilling.
You can drive around the park, but hiking one of the park’s routes is the best way to really immerse yourself in nature’s glory.
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