Curaçao boasts a Caribbean-meets-European vibe.

The heritage of the Caribbean is strongly linked to its colonial ties, with influences of the Spanish, British, French and Dutch spread across the islands. My travels have taken me to many on that list, but one I had long looked forward to exploring was Curaçao.

My family and I took four days to explore this long, skinny stretch of land just 37 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. The island has its own governor and government, but the close European ties are still evident. The official currency is the Netherlands Antillean gilder, though most places accept U.S. dollars. The official languages are English, Dutch and Papiamentu, a Creole blend favored by the residents.

But the most striking remnant of its Dutch history is the architecture of its capital, Willemstad. The vividly bright hues of the tall and narrow buildings along the waterfront are so colorful that at first glance it’s hard to believe they’re not just giant cardboard cut-outs. Egg-yolk yellows, robin egg blues, pale pinks, mint greens and deep oranges cover the fancy facades decorated with ornamental details below red roofs. The oldest date back as far as 1650, and most are now offices, shops, restaurants and hotels. These structures stand on both sides of the Sint Anna Bay, an inlet that leads to the town’s natural harbor and where massive cruise ships dock.

We found two highlights in the downtown district: The first was the almost 600-foot long, floating pedestrian bridge across the bay that swings 90 degrees from the quay to accommodate sea traffic. Anyone determined to get from one side to the other while the bridge is out of commission can hop a free ferry.

The second find was the Kura Hulanda Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site of 18th- and 19thcentury restored shops, inns, bars, galleries and residences clustered around shady courtyards a block from the quayside. It’s also home to the Museum Kura Hulanda. Spread across 15 small buildings, the museum is a showcase of the various cultures that have blended to create present-day Curaçao. Among its exhibits are several rooms adorned with artifacts—some quite disturbing— that detail the Caribbean slave trade and the role the Dutch played in it.

Curaçao's wealth of beaches boast crystal clear waters ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Curaçao’s wealth of beaches boast crystal clear waters ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling.

Beyond Willemstad, Curaçao’s beaches are the main attractions. The impeccably clear water has made the island an international destination for snorkelers and scuba divers who will find an array of places to explore. With a car, it’s easy to hop from one inlet or beach to the next.

Visitors will find accommodations in a range of prices and styles, from the boutique Pietermaai Hotel in the heart of Willemstad to seaside spots like Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort. The streets and courtyards of downtown Willemstad are dotted with cafes and bistros for casual dining, but for something more formal, reserve a table at the Michelin-starred Vista overlooking the bay and where the menus feature French and Japanese influences. Fill up without having to dress up at any of the eateries along the island’s western coast, starting at the Restaurant Playa Forti on the northern edge to Boca 19 on the southern. Not surprisingly, seafood is a staple, but so are bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) and papaya stew.

No matter where visitors stay, they’ll find the crystal-clear experience awaits. Even from the bridge across the bay, the rocks and sea life below the surface are visible for several feet. That sparkling water and the white-sand beaches were what initially attracted us to Curaçao. But unlike other island visits we’ve made, where we’ve stayed firmly rooted under a palm-frond umbrella and attempted to taste every tropical beverage the bartenders concocted, Curaçao proved a different experience. With a thriving, historic city just 10 minutes from our hammocks and a variety of different beaches to explore, it was easy to combine our love of learning about the past and the chance to stand neck-deep in the ocean and say, “Hey, I can still see my feet!”


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