published Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Kickin’ it in Curaçao: Caribbean island is awash in different cultures

Rental units at Piscadera Harbour Village include a number of two-bedroom bungalows, each with balconies overlooking the sea or mountains.
Rental units at Piscadera Harbour Village include a number of two-bedroom bungalows, each with balconies overlooking the sea or mountains.
Staff Photo by Anne Braly

FAST FACTS

• Standard electricity on the island is 127 volts, not the 110 voltage we have in America, so your hair dryer and other appliances won’t work unless you pack a converter or buy one after your arrival.

• On the east end of the island is the colonial-style capital and major port of Willemstad. Most of Curaçao’s 130,000 residents live in the vicinity of the city.

• More than 45 different cultures live together in Willemstad, creating a rich and colorful cuisine that reflects the cultural heritage of the island. Dutch specialties are the main element in the city’s cuisine.

• Curaçao has Dutch, Papiamentu and English as official languages.

I left home in the darkness of morning as winter’s grip tightened across the Tennessee Valley, sending a chill through my bones. But my thoughts warmed things nicely, knowing that by mid-afternoon I’d be leaving the cold behind and swap it for the trade winds of the Caribbean. Destination: Curaçao.

From the crystal-blue waters that have made the island a mecca for divers to incredible beaches to the year-round temperate climate and friendly people, the island — located just off the coast of Venezuela — draws tourists from around the globe, but primarily Holland and South America. Still, Americans are discovering the island in growing numbers.

Part of the ABC islands — Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao — Curaçao is a place of contrasts, from mountains to beaches, from laidback hotels to glitzy casinos. Its average temperature is a balmy 82 degrees, so anytime of year is a good time to go, although rates are much cheaper during the off season from April through November.

But the beaches are always open, and the ocean beckons divers, snorkelers and swimmers to waters that become quite deep just yards from shore in many places. Beaches are found nestled in coves all along the coastline and are more natural than others in the Caribbean.

At just 38 miles long, it takes about five hours to tour the island. Roads are in good condition, and there are several rental car agencies. Mopeds are available for rent, too. If you’re not adventurous enough to drive yourself, there are taxis that will ferry you to most every point on Curaçao.

A visit to Willemstad, a quaint harbor town with colorful Dutch architecture, will convince you that you’ve traveled back in time to Old Amsterdam. Take a stroll across the Queen Emma floating bridge, built in 1888 atop pontoons. History tells that, at one point, those traversing the bridge barefoot could cross for free, while those in shoes would have to pay. Now it’s a free journey for all.

Dining

The island is also is a culinary adventure. Diners can choose from a variety of cuisines: Dutch, Spanish, Creole, Indonesian and more.

“Curaçao is an island attractive to foodies, as it boasts a mix of more than 50 cultures of influence,” says Lindsey Norris, public relations senior account executive on behalf of the Curaçao Tourist Board.

Since the majority of the island’s food is imported, visitors can experience international cuisines blended with local flavors influenced by cultures that have stirred the culinary pot since its discovery by the Spanish in 1499.

Kome, located in the heart of Willemstad’s historic district, offers a choice of dishes best described as fusion cuisine, marrying American and Caribbean flavors. On the menu is fresh, locally caught fish served alongside a roasted beet puree, risotto with goat cheese, smoked beef brisket and desserts such as flourless chocolate cake with mango puree. And take a look at your receipt at the end of the meal. I couldn’t help but chuckle when reading “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” on it.

Fort Nassau, a restaurant serving international cuisine, is located in a fort of the same name. Built in the late 1700s high atop a hill overlooking the city, it offers after-dark drama with views of the city lights expanding to the sea.

For a taste of the island’s history, visit Brakkeput Mei Mei Landhuis, built in the 1800s and one of many former country homes still standing, though this one has been converted into one of the more popular eateries. Once a plantation filled with slaves working the lands and salt mines, this landhuis (land house) now serves, among other things, delicious tapas.

Kicking back

If your idea of an island vacation is one of peace and quiet, the best time to visit Curaçao is off-season. Not only is it less crowded, it’s also less expensive. Air travel and accommodation costs drop as much as 50 percent during the slow season. Shops and restaurants may also slash prices slightly, and travelers may find it easier to secure reservations at these establishments when the crowds are not so large.

During high season, hoteliers and restaurateurs pull out all the stops. The pulse of the country runs to the fast beat of clubs and crowds, activities on water and land, and all the extra amenities that high-season demands. Zanzibar at Jan Thiel Beach is one of the most popular clubs in Curaçao, and echoes with the sound of crowds and live music every evening.

Or, if you’d like to experience the island’s bohemian side, visit St. Willibrordus, about a 20-minute drive outside Willemstad. It’s a small community of artists, island natives and sports enthusiasts who call the place Williwood. You’ll notice a poke at Hollywood, with a Williwood sign on the hillside across from the local hangout, Toco Williwood. It’s a bar/gift shop that’s marinated in funk, with music from a local DJ and dancing on Friday and Sunday evenings.

Nearby Porto Marie Beach is a good place for sunning and diving and has a pretty decent restaurant/bar with an adjacent building where snorkeling and scuba gear may be rented.

Annual events such as Carnival draw thousands of tourists to the island every year. It starts in January with numerous festivities until its conclusion to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.

Though Curaçao is the largest of the ABC islands, there is just one U.S. airline, American, that flies into the main airport at Willemstad. If you’ve racked up a lot of Delta miles, there’s a simple solution: Fly direct from Atlanta into Aruba, then board InselAir, a small commuter airline that makes frequent flights daily between Aruba and Curaçao. Flights leave every couple of hours and cost around $150 round trip. If you choose this, consider staying overnight in Aruba before proceeding to Curaçao or plan to spend a couple of days in Aruba on your way home. You won’t be sorry.

Where to stay

The hotels in Curacao are as varied as its people and cuisine. From bed-and-breakfasts to full-service hotels, you won't be lacking for a place to relax, play, eat and sleep.

Upon my arrival at Piscadera Harbour Village, to say I was taken aback at its beauty is an understatement.

Built on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the resort is a mixture of apartment-style condos, some with lofts and roof-top balconies, as well as two-bedroom bungalows. All have two baths and sleep six people if the sofa beds are used. The architecture is modern with sleek lines. The buildings' white concrete exteriors and red-tiled roofs offer Mediterranean ambiance that fits nicely into surroundings covered with palm trees and bushes in flower year-round.

Interior decor has a modern understated elegance with gleaming white marble floors, white leather furniture, new stainless-steel kitchen appliances and contemporary fixtures. Standard electricity on the island is 127 volts, not the 110 voltage we have in America, so your hair dryer and other appliances won't work unless you pack a converter or buy one after your arrival.

There's a two-night requirement to stay at the resort, but that's OK. Few people travel from the States to any Caribbean country for less than that.

Nightly rates depend on the time of year you plan your visit, but range from $159 for a garden-view apartment during the summer season (May 1-December 21) to $369 for an ocean-view bungalow during the Christmas season (December 21-January 1).

All apartments have fully stocked kitchens. And if you plan on eating in a night or two, there's a grocery store just minutes away. By late 2014, a mini mall adjacent to the property will be completed, featuring a small market, restaurant and shops. There will also be a new beach added along with boat docks.

But this is a vacation, so you don't want to spend all your time in the kitchen.

Other hotel suggestions include:

• Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resort (Very remote, but very elegant with wonderful outdoor bar and restaurant space. Lovely beach, the country's only championship golf course, spa, and luxurious rooms.)

• Hilton Curacao Resort (Many rooms have been renovated with others in progress. Nice beach, open-air dining and nice casino.

• Curacao Marriott Beach Resort and Casino (private beach, numerous restaurants, dive center, casino with live tables and slot play).

For hotel websites and more information, log onto www.curacao.com

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