Curaçao: Culture and Adventure in the Tropics

Thoughts of a Caribbean vacation may stir up visions of typical island getaways to places like Jamaica or the Bahamas, but if you’re willing to travel just a little farther south, you’ll soon discover the island of Curaçao, which has somehow managed to go undetected in the world of tropical seaside retreats. The largest of the “ABC” trio which includes Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao, pronounced “cure-a-sow,” is a Netherland Antilles island just 40 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. Home to over 35 beaches, European-inspired architecture and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese influences, the island doesn’t have to rely on commercialized tourism as a means of income, which means visitors can enjoy an authentic and refreshing Caribbean experience. Absent of cliché umbrella cocktails and overplayed reggae music, my recent trip to Curaçao was one rich in both culture and adventure.

CuraçaoPracticing proper pronunciation is just half the battle in bringing this island to the forefront, with the eponymous blue-colored liqueur serving as a familiar point of reference for the majority of people. The island’s name was once believed to be derived from the Spanish word “corazón” or “heart,” but actually comes from the Caquetios, the Curaçao Indians, who were the first people the Spanish settlers came into contact with in the early 1500s. Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Curaçao’s capital city located on the eastern side of the island, is the culmination of Curaçao’s abundant history, art, culture and beauty. And if you can picture any one of Amsterdam’s famous canals with pastel, gabled buildings along the waterfront, then you already have a pretty good idea of what the downtown area looks like. Home to the floating Queen Emma Bridge, the only “floating, swinging” bridge in the world and the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, the “Punda” district of Curaçao is one literally built on tradition.

The first half of my trip was spent on the eastern side of the island at Lion’s Dive, a sporty and eco-friendly oceanfront resort. Set on its own private beach, Lions Dive was designed to fit the Dutch Caribbean feel as well as accommodate those looking for a more active retreat. Complete with a 50-meter swimming pool and on-site dive shop, guests are encouraged to engage in as much or as little activity as they see fit. Nearby attractions include visiting Den Paradera Herb Garden, which translates to mean “the place where you feel at home” in Curaçao’s native language, and touring the world-famous CurAloe plantation. Notable east-side dining options include Fuoco, an Italian-style steakhouse and Fort Nassau, a renovated 18th-century fort perched hillside that overlooks Willemstad and in the evening, boasts stunning sunset views.

CuraçaoOn the western side of the island, however, is where you’ll find—and the natives agree—the best beaches that Curaçao has to offer. Unlike the heavily populated strips of sand which seem to have become a Caribbean vacation staple, Curaçao’s beaches are best described as off-the-beaten path inlets. Playa Knip, also known as Playa Abou or “beach in a valley,” is hands down a must-see when visiting the island. The glowing, azure water is what makes this the most popular beach in Curaçao, coupled with its scenic, verdant landscape, glistening sand and nearby reef. On the west end is also where visitors will find the best dive sites and some of the world’s finest dive operators. And if you’re looking for a unique underwater experience that puts your average snorkeling excursion to shame, Curaçao is one of the few countries that offers Sea TREK, a guided walking tour 30 feet deep on the ocean floor. With the exception of balancing a weighted, oxygen-pumping helmet, there was little to no effort required on my part other than strolling along and admiring the active aquatic surroundings.

The transition, however, from east to west is most evident from above ground, as the island’s terrain changes from a historical downtown district to colossal, cactus-studded mountains. Aside from its beaches, western Curaçao is also known for its picturesque countryside and protected national parks. Shete Boka or “seven mouths” National Park is made up of volcanic rock that has been continuously beaten down by crashing waves and carved into coves. It is also one of the only places that I’ve visited where the true ferocity of nature is on display. Mount Christoffel, located inside of Christoffel Park, is where you can hike to Curaçao’s highest point, 1,200 feet above sea level, and is a must-do for visitors and natives alike. A one-hour up and one-hour down hike will leave you with unparalleled views of the island and on a clear day, even of Venezuela. And while you might have to take a few breaks along the way (and I did), the payoff in the end will be well worth it.

CuraçaoMy trip concluded at the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, a 350-room luxury hotel located on a 2,000-acre plantation. Known for housing stars such as Bruno Mars and Enrique Iglesias, Santa Barbara offers a first-class spa, an 18-hole golf course, four tennis courts, three pools and four restaurants, making it an ideal spot for a romantic or family-friendly getaway. While dining options range from gourmet dinner to buffet brunch, their upscale on-site restaurant, Shore, is a mix of local dishes with an elevated twist. Run by Curaçao-native Chef Heinrich Hortencia, whose culinary repertoire includes working at La Provence, a Netherlands Michelin Star restaurant, both the food and beverage program at Shore are raising the standards for quality cuisine in Curaçao. Favorites included the crab salad with pickled watermelon, the open-faced wagyu beef burger with foie gras and the herb crusted cod with sweet potato cream and chimichurri.

While in some ways it can seem like Curaçao is an under-the-radar destination, there is a certain level of comfort I found in the lack of exposure the island has seen. And although popular Caribbean destinations are known for their acclimation attempts and perceptions of paradise, in Curaçao, the true beauty and uniqueness of the island has managed to remain the same from the 17th century until now.