Curaçao is one of the best islands in the Caribbean for people who want to mix a resort stay with sightseeing and experiential travel. Divers, who are nothing if not experiential travelers, know this well, so here are 10 sightseeing tips for everyone else:
1. Historic Willemstad (1634), the capital, is so well preserved that UNESCO has declared downtown a World Heritage site. The canal houses that hug the waterfront, in particular, are famous for the way they combine Rembrandt-era Dutch architecture with tropical pastels. The best camera angle: from the ferry or pedestrian bridge that connect the Punda (east) and Otrobanda (west) shores of the harbor.
2. Fort Amsterdam, in the Punda district, contains a courtyard with an ochre church (beautiful woodwork side) and the governor’s house. This been-there, done-that guy is fascinated by the hole a British cannonball left in the church facade, because it’s one of those perfect circles a cannonball would make only in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
3. Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (1732) is home to the oldest continually running Jewish congregation in the Western Hemisphere. The large building has a sunny yellow facade and, on the inside, polished wood pews resting not on a wooden floor, as you might expect, but on a bed of clean sand. The adjacent Jewish Cultural Museum displays ritual candlesticks, texts, garments, photos, and antique tools for circumcisions.
4. The Floating Market, a place on the waterfront where produce sellers dock their small craft, unload their produce, and sell fruits and vegetables in the capital of this semi-arid isle. The vendors, all from rain-rich but cash-poor Venezuela, risk their lives every day to cross 40 miles of open water. The Floating Market is an opportunity to taste fruits you might never see anywhere else; of course, visitors should wash them with soap and water, if possible, before tasting them.
5. The Queen Emma Bridge, which connects the east and west sides of the harbor, is unlike any other bridge. Because this pedestrian crossing rests upon water-level pontoons, it would, in theory, block ships from entering and leaving the harbor. The solution dates back to 1888: It’s hinged at the Punda side and can detach from the Otrobanda end so it can swing open for watercraft and then, thanks to a couple of engines hitched to the free side, close up again to resume its function.
6. The Rif Fort guarding the west (Otrobanda) side of the harbor now houses friendly bars and restaurants, but during World War II it still served a military purpose. Knowing that German ships were in the area, the Dutch stretched a chain from this fort across the harbor to block the Nazi ships. Journalist Riesa Pascal imagines the invaders sailing all this way from Europe, then saying, “We’ll have to turn back. They have a chain!”
7. The Kura Hulanda Museum occupies a historic neighborhood with a hotel, restaurants, and little plazas on its cobblestone streets. This museum portrays the horrors of the slave trade via an extraordinary collection of restraining implements, model ships, and documents, etc., but in displaying the African masks, tools, textiles, and other artifacts from cultures that the slave traders decimated, Kura Hulanda also becomes, inadvertently, a splendid West African art museum.
8. L’Aldea is a Brazilian churrascaria with its own Mayan temple on a Caribbean island. Cultural chaos, I know, but it’s heaven for incurable carnivores. Best in show: the lamb.
9. Christoffel Park‘s trails, wildlife, horseback riding and dramatic highlands get plenty of attention from the press, and deservedly so. However, less-known Shete Boka National Park, at the northeast end of Curacao, is also a must. Featuring lookouts above fierce, crashing waves that seem to belong in some computer-generated movie, this is a land’s-end spot where visitors and locals are transfixed as they watch walls of water collide with rocks and blast skyward. There’s even a cave you can safely enter and watch the angry surf charge in through a break in the rock.
10. Substation Submarine, a research vehicle that (barely) fits a pilot and four passengers, can descend 1,000 ft. to”the twilight zone,” as owner Adriaan “Dutch” Schrier puts it. At a slim 5’11,” I found the tight space manageable, although bigger people may feel otherwise. Still, this experience is so unique and eye-opening that it’s worth a little discomfort and the $500+ tab. The fish thin out as you descend, but that only makes each fish spotted down there even more remarkable, as is the quality of light that pierces Curacao’s ridiculously clear water. I came away haunted by the sight of lionfish living below 500 ft. This invasive species is astonishingly graceful and beautiful, but it’s threatening to devour whole populations of native reef fish, so finding it so far beneath the surface was a wake-up call: If lionfish can adapt to such depths, those who would preserve marine environments have their work cut out for them.
Don’t miss our coverage in our February 2015 issue, Curacao’s Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort.