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One of the first things I noticed after arriving in colourful Curacao was the water.
No, not the drinking water Curacaoans talk glowingly about, their pride over the quality and taste clearly evident.
Actually, it was the warm, blue waters of the Caribbean Sea that caught my attention.
Specifically, the many shades of blue — the same colour as the liqueur made famous by the tiny island nation, Blue Curacao — that fill the paint palette, seemingly from midnight blue, to turquoise to an almost a crystal clear shade with just a hint of colour. To me, the stunning variations of blue that make up Curacao’s waters rival the greens of Ireland in its nuances.
But eye-catching colour stands out in another way in Curacao’s capital, Willemstad, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site more than 25 years ago.
The pastel paints that adorn the buildings along both sides of the St. Anna Bay channel that bisects the city bring to mind a combination of Amsterdam — not surprising, given the country’s Dutch colonial history — and Miami’s South Beach. Willemstad has a very European feel to it but it is pure Caribbean.
Curacao, a 450-square-kilometre island nation located just 60 kilometres north of Venezuela and part of the ABC islands (Aruba and Bonaire are the other two), is very different than many of the Caribbean’s popular tourist destinations. It is very arid and areas outside of Willemstad are filled with cacti, not the typical island greenery, and rust-coloured sand atop the jagged lava, limestone and coral shoreline.
There is plenty to do on the island — from power shopping to spending the sunny hours lazing by the pool or the beach and everything in between — but our itinerary was a bit more adventurous and involved motorized vehicles of all sorts.
Scooters, ATVs, Sea-Doos and open-topped safari Jeeps were our mode of transportation during our visit. Some in our group even rappelled off the 56-metre high Queen Juliana Bridge for the ultimate adrenaline rush.
After a day to get a feel for Willemstad, our group really got our bearings in the city with a tour — accompanied by our guide Clefford’s favourite music, no less — aboard the Curacao Green Wheels electric scooters.
We slowly meandered through the small streets and alleys of the Punda district, checking out the colourful shops and restaurants that dominate the formerly walled part of Willemstad, before crossing the floating Queen Emma Bridge, which opens 30-45 times per day to let boats and ships pass, to Otrobanda, a former suburb of the city that dates back to the early 1700s.
Our group stopped at Rif Fort, a former walled military installation at the entrance to St. Anna Bay that has been converted to shops and restaurants, for a snack and drink at Doo-Shee Bar (dushi is a Papiamentu word that loosely translates to sweetheart or sweetie) before moving on to the quiet but colourful (again!) residential streets that are dotted with murals. Stopping to try a local specialty, the green-tinged Rom Berde (a rum blended with herbs and spices that originated in Curacao), in Netto Bar capped a fantastic evening ride through Willemstad.
A simple but delicious dinner at one of the many food trucks (truk’i pan is the local phrase) that are spread around the island, BBQ Express in the Korporaal neighbourhood, ended our night.
HELPFUL HINT: If you want to visit a food truck in Curacao, something I’d highly recommend, keep in mind they only open in the late evening. BBQ Express, for example, opens at 9 p.m. and closes around 4 a.m.
OFF-ROADING TO THE COAST
The tandem line of red ATVs stood ready outside Eric’s ATV Adventures in the vicinity of Mambo Beach, silently waiting to take us to the far reaches of Curacao, or in this case the spectacularly rugged east coast.
After a safety briefing by our guide, Captain, and a short ride to get us feeling comfortable with the four-wheeled machines, we headed out for our three-hour tour, most of which was off-roading. Feeling the wind in my face and dust in my teeth, the journey to the eastern part of the island was exhilarating and, for me, a must-do activity.
Before riding through the cactus-covered hills to the coast, we stopped at the Curacao Ostrich Farm for a refreshment break and to check out some of the wildlife. But the highlight was stopping in the Boka Grandi area to see the waves crash against the lava and coral cliffs, and cautiously stepping down into what Captain called the Cave of Doom. The rugged beauty of the eastern coast, along with the massive modern windmills that provide Curacao with much of its electricity, will leave you breathless.
HELPFUL HUNT: If you go on the ATV tour, be aware you will be covered in red dust. Wearing a bandana on your face, or another type of mask, is a wise choice, and white is not your friend on this tour.
BY LAND AND BY SEA
My group started the day with a Jeep safari with Curacao Activities, exploring the west and north sides of the island, and ended it with a thrilling Sea-Doo ride along the western side of the island.
The Jeep tour included driving across the dusty (again!) red plains of San Pedro, a walk through Kueba Boz di San Antonio, which translates to the Voice of St. Anthony Cave, a stop at Savonet Plantation, now a museum that pulls the curtain back on Curacao’s slave era and is located on Christoffelpark, a national park. The tour came to an end at Playa Grandi, where we could have gone snorkelling with sea turtles.
After lunch, we headed to Playa Santa Cruz and boarded Sea-Doo personal watercraft (they called them jet skis) rented from Tourrific Curacao to explore the coast from the water. Zipping over the waves was a cool way to spend a hot day, with stops at a number of beaches, including Playa Grandi, where we DID snorkel with sea turtles. We also stopped at the Blue Room, an underwater cave accessible only from the sea, and checked out a shipwreck clearly visible through the crystal clear water.
HELPFUL HINT: Make sure you take a camera on your tour — it’s an incredible opportunity for some keeper pics — but ensure it is in a watertight bag because you and everything on the Sea-Doo will get wet. Oh, and bring a change of clothes (you can change at the beach) unless you want to ride back to Willemstad with a wet bum.
WHERE TO EAT
The short walk from the parking lot to Olas y Copas, sandwiched between two resorts in the same area as Eric’s ATV Adventures, is almost as enjoyable as the food. The shallow powder blue waters around the resto are among the most stunning on the island.
Fish and Joy Bistro and Wine Bar, on Penstraat just southeast of Pietermaai district, offers a menu of small meals that are meant to be combined, allowing customers to try a number of different dishes.
Lunch at Bahia Beach Bar and Restaurant offers incredible views of the nearby Playa Lagun beach and gives you a chance to feed iguanas that call the area home. A specialty of the restaurant is pumpkin pancakes, a recipe native to Curacao and mouth-wateringly delicious.
If you get an outdoor table at Gouverneur de Rouville on a Thursday night, you’ll be able to enjoy the weekly fireworks display that lights up the Punda district. The food is fantastic but be sure to try the Cuban banana soup. You won’t regret it.
For a purely local experience, try Kas di Piskado Purunchi, a simple waterside seafood eatery that offers some of the freshest fish you will ever get — fisherman sell their catch to the restaurant right from their boat. The barracuda is excellent.
Other options are Mi Familia Restaurant, which in addition to offering lunch and dinner serves as the Pietermaai hotel’s breakfast eatery, or the Cascada Rooftop Bar and Kitchen atop the Elements Hotel in the Punda district. Plasa Bieu, a collection of food stands locals flock to religiously, is also an outstanding option. Try the stewed iguana, which locals will tell you has healing qualities.
WHERE TO STAY
I was lodged in the Pietermaai Boutique Hotel, located a short walk from attractions, shopping, bars and restaurants in the historic Pietermaai District (in the eastern Punda quarter), as well as the floating Queen Emma Bridge that leads to Otrobanda on the west side of the channel.
The hotel offers rooms that fuse the historic feel of the district with modern amenities but guests with mobility issues should check that their room doesn’t have a narrow staircase to the upstairs sleeping area, which can be difficult to navigate. But the rooms are spacious and lead to a pool area surrounded by lush plants that make it seem incredibly private.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Toronto: Air Canada flies weekly direct to Hato International Airport in Curacao while WestJet offers direct seasonal service. American Airlines has connecting flights though Miami (twice daily), Charlotte (weekly) and Newark (seasonal).
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