The largest of the Netherlands Antilles' ABC islands, Curaçao has traditionally taken a back seat to little sister Aruba in the area of tourism (Bonaire is the "B"). Part of that is by design—Curaçao has been careful not to place all its eggs in one basket, and the island is home to a number of diverse industries. Among these are banking and finance and oil (a throwback to when Curaçao was a virtual outpost of the Royal Dutch Shell company).
But tourism is a big part of the country's economy and continues to grow. For years, the island—with its combination of a cosmopolitan European feel and beautiful beaches—has been a vacation hot spot for Europeans and many South Americans (it lies just 35 miles off the northwestern coast of Venezuela), but an increasing number of Americans are also discovering this Caribbean gem. (While Dutch is the official language, English is spoken everywhere, and U.S. dollars are accepted.)
Among resort properties, Marriott and Hilton have been in place for years, and Hyatt will be bringing the island its first five-star property next year. In addition, there are any number of lesser-known but no-less-luxurious resorts on the island, notably the Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino (www.kurahulanda.com) smack dab in the middle of Willemstad, where we were fortunate enough to stay during our recent visit.
Along with casinos, eclectic fine dining and active nightlife, Curaçao offers first-rate beaches and excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities. While Aruba may have the honeymooners and spring breakers, Curaçao offers a more exotic, cultural destination that more and more travelers are beginning to discover.
Beyond the Beaches
Tourists and visitors can enjoy quite a few guided heritage tours, either by trolley-train, by minibus, by boat or on foot. Day excursions are also popular with cruise ship passengers calling on Willemstad.
Notable about Curaçao is its distinct architecture, dating back to the 1600s. Tourists can stroll historic Willemstad, which is divided into two sections: Punda, the eastern side, and Otrobanda on the western side. They are divided by the St. Anna Bay and connected by the famed Queen Emma pontoon bridge. When the bridge opens up for ships and tankers, a ferry carries passengers back and forth across the bay. Built in 1888, the "swinging old lady" is a major attraction itself. Crowds will gather to watch it rotate around a turning point on the Otrobanda side.
Equally impressive is the Queen Juliana Bridge, built in 1974, which spans the bay at a height of 165 feet, offering drivers crossing over a stunning view of Willemstad.
The trolley-train rides through the historic district of Punda and of Scharloo with its stately 19th-century mansions. For information and reservations, contact [email protected]
The Maritime Museum organizes a guided museum tour followed by a boat trip through the waters of Saint Anna Bay and Schottegat. For information and reservations, contact [email protected]
Peter Trips offers cultural and historical trips to the inner city, Bandabou and Bandariba, the western and eastern part of the island. For information and reservations, contact [email protected]
A good time to visit Curaçao is from January through early March, when its annual Carnival is in full swing. Curaçao features one of the largest and longest-lasting Carnival spectacles of the Caribbean, with hordes of fantastic floats, costumes and characters, plus Carnival royalty elected during full-scale beauty contests.
For schedules and information, visit www.curacaocarnival.info.