At first, this island isn’t easy on the eyes.
Hedges of brilliant magenta and orange bougainvillea give way to manmade hues colliding with the ferocity of a bar brawl. Torrents of fruits, vegetables and crafts make waterside markets look like Dutch master paintings come to life. Tight rows of storybook buildings resemble Amsterdam magically recast in high pastel.
Still adjusting to the kaleidoscopic radiance of Curaçao, I’m engulfed by another optical tsunami at the hotel.
A yellow-bellied Barika Hèl (bananaquit) trills on a branch inches from the open-air lobby. A voluptuous ebony figure overflows her cherry-red, lime-green, sky-blue and marigold frock. This island folk-art character is named Chichi — “wise big sister” in Papiamentu, an African-European Creole dialect indigenous to the Dutch Antilles. Diaphanous white drapes float on breezes across the veranda studded with greenery and plump settees.
The sun still blazes as mood lighting flickers on behind the reception desk, which now sports a colorful parade of glasses, condiments and liquor bottles. Floris Suite Hotel’s lobby is blooming into the Rainbow Lounge, a locals’ hotspot boasting a discothèque-quality sound and light system.
At check-in, I feel underdressed in shorts.
No worries, assures desk clerk-turned-bartender Jarett: Anyone can come as they are to Curaçao (pronounced kewr-ə-sow). This southern Caribbean oasis, a favorite among residents of higher-profile islands, overflows with natural and manmade dazzle.
It’s also appealing for what it lacks: floods of tourists, steamy, sticky air and hurricanes. Located 40 miles north of Venezuela, it’s refreshed by trade winds, has pleasant temperatures year-round and lies below the hurricane belt. No high-season/off-season budget worries either.
The hotel/disco sits on the west fringe of Willemstad, capital of this Dutch Antilles isle. Though an autonomous nation since 2010, it remains part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
STROLLING THROUGH HISTORY
I walk downtown in the morning, crossing Willemstad’s westside Otrobanda district to eastside Punda over the Queen Emma pedestrian bridge. Built 1888 on a chain of pontoons, this engineering marvel spans St. Anna Bay close to its union with the Caribbean Sea.
When the bridge swings open to admit ships, a bell alerts walkers to hurry; some stay on the span for the breeze and views. Stragglers jump the gap. “Do people ever fall in?” I ask a bicycle patrolman. “Yes.” What happens? “They spend six hours in jail.” There’s no excuse; free ferries cross the bay.
In the Punda district’s canalside floating market, I use U.S. dollars to buy a wood bowl painted with iguanas and bright orange papaya, eaten in a city park where children play in giant sculpted letters spelling “DUSHI” — Papiamentu for “sweet.”
Steps away is Waterfort. Built by the Dutch in 1634 to guard the harbor after wresting it from Spanish forces, the citadel now holds a shopping mall; a scuba dive center occupies the former jail. Up the fort’s stone steps, the past is honored when cannons fire at noon. Military officials loan bystanders headphones to mute the explosive sound. Long ago, the island’s prime location and natural harbor incited tug-o-wars in which natives lost the most.
Afterwards, I wander blocks of fanciful 17th and 18th century Dutch colonial architecture. Sun-deflecting pastel walls are topped with pert gables and red terracotta tile roofs. A side street leads to grapefruit-colored Mikvé Israel-Emanuel. Founded in 1651 and rebuilt in 1732, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere draws destination weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Sand covers the floor; the ceiling vaults above a mahogany pipe organ, balconies and gleaming chandeliers. Fleeing the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews began coming in the 1650s, many via religiously tolerant Netherlands.
An adjacent museum displays artifacts; courtyard walls bear replica tombstones from Curaçao’s Beit Chaim Blenheim cemetery. Stone engravings depict ships, skulls and horses drawing a cart across clouds.
East of Punda in the Pietermaai district, historic buildings have been revived as cafes and clubs. White louvered doors and windows reveal breakfasters in Sparkle’s stucco quarters. Next door, picnic tables in Ginger’s courtyard attract locals craving spicy bargain-priced Carib-Asian fare.
Shards glittering through a shadowy passage draw me into Mundo Bizarro’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling optical orgy. This gay/straight party palace’s furnishings run royal to surreal; painted vignettes include a cigar-puffing headscarfed mama. Mosaics of color tiles cascade over the bar.
Odd statues flank doorways and portals. knicknicks and mirrors shimmy two stories up the walls. Second-floor tables oversee street action. On the narrow outdoor terrace you can sit by a mural of Che Guevara.
“It’s more amazing after dark,” says an early afternoon regular, noting the crowd outshines the decor. Other urbanites lounge all day or by night at Saint Tropez Oceanclub’s infinity pool, Dutch-style cabanas and waterside sofas, where cooling’s provided by sea spray, Latin beat and cotton-candy-tinted cocktails.
ARTISTRY AT EVERY TURN
Tides of color fill my afternoon ramble. Urban artists have splashed images and messages on Willemstad’s seasalt-corroded walls. Freedom’s a key theme; references span enslavement — Curaçao was a major slave-trade center — to self-expression. Some speak to Curaçao’s gay-friendly reputation.
Notices herald extravaganzas that include two annual Pride Festivals, citywide parties like Exotica and Paradise World, and from Dec. 28 to Feb. 17, Carnival!, which aspires to be the best in the Caribbean.
I stop in a shady square presided over by a huge concrete woman wrapped in a robe, hair in curlers — one of Hortence Brouwn’s newer “Big Mama” statues. Across the bay in Otrobanda, I encounter a bronze Big Mama overlooking the courtyard of Museum Kurá Hulanda. Based in a former slave-holding yard, this immense collection, founded by a Dutch entrepreneur, reveals abhorrent chapters in world and local history. Artifacts range from shackles to art to musical instruments; one stairway plunges into a cellar recreating a slave-ship’s bowels.
As I walk back into the present, late-day sun rays, trailed by street lamps, illuminate Otrobanda’s buildings, accentuating their angles and curves. People hustle to balconies and sidewalks to catch the free waterside show. At Gouverneur de Rouville, a pub in a historic manse, I take my plum-colored drink to the deck rail. Buildings reflect on the glassy bay and strands of lights glow to life along the Queen Emma Bridge.
Curaçao’s radiant palette extends underwater, and no boat’s needed to reach it. The next day, I wade in from a free-access beach suggested by a diving instructor named Aaron, lured here from St. Croix by countless submerged coral gardens.
With snorkel and mask, I spot translucent sapphire, yellow and red-striped fish while swimming past jetties, hotel seafronts and Pirate Bay. There you can rent and ride super-cool-looking self-propelled submersible Aquafari scooters around reefs or kick back at a palm-shaded beach-club bar. Clubs aren’t the only place to party; when I return, the public beach has filled with music, dancing and baskets of food.
I’m welcome to join in, but there’s edible color to check out at Sjalotte, a dining terrace beneath the Rainbow Lounge. In the open kitchen, Chef Stephen slices vegetables lightning-quick into miniature baskets, towers and shells. The dessert, lemon sorbet drizzled with aqua Curaçao liqueur (yes, it also comes in blue) and circled by melon rosettes, is too pretty to eat. Well, almost.
Prettiest of all is my dining companion: a yellow-belly perched on table’s edge. Craving something sweet, something dushi, the songbird has come to the right place.
Going to Willemstad
Getting there: America Airlines and InselAir fly nonstop from Miami to Curaçao, a three-hour flight. Round-tri airfare starts around $420 in January.
WHERE TO STAY
Scuba Lodge & Suites: Pietermaai 104, 011-599-9-465-2575, www.scubalodge.com. Beautifully restored oceanfront quarters a short walk to the city center; PADI dive courses and shop onsite. Rooms, suites and villas $139-$575.
Baoase Luxury Resort: Winterwijkstraat 2, 888-409-3506, www.baoase.com. Fantasy tropical setting between Pietermaai and Seaquarium Beach; new suites to open early spring. Rooms, suites and villas $450-$1,600.
Floris Suite Hotel: Piscadera Bay, 800-411-0170, www.florissuitehotel.com. Hideaway with freshly renovated luxe-trendy suites, popular lounge and Sjalotte restaurant. Suites $119-$259.
Curacao Marriott Beach Resort: Piscadera Bay, 011-599-9-736-8800, www.curacaomarriott.com. Luxury lodging with a coral reef right off its private beach, PADI dive/watersports center and Emerald Casino. Rooms $139-$229.
WHERE TO EAT
Ginger: Nieuwestraat 32, Pietermaai, 011-599-9-465-1666, www.facebook.com/GingerCuracao, or http://gingercuracao.com/pietermaai-district/. Caribbean-Asian cuisine in a festive building and courtyard; try the lemongrass soup and curries. Dinner $7-$25.
Gouverneur de Rouville: Otrobanda waterfront, 011-599-9-462-5999, www.de-gouverneur.com. International and local dishes in a splendid 18th-century manor; popular for sunset and late-night cocktails overlooking Queen Emma Bridge. Lunch and dinner $10-$25.
Mundo Bizarro: Nieuwestraat 12, Pietermaai, 011-599-9-461-6767, www.mundobizarrocuracao.com. Caribbean soul food in a funky colonial-quarter outpost with alcoves, terrace seating and a wild bar serving coffee, cocktails and groovin’ Latin beats. Late breakfast to late night. $7-$25.
WHAT TO DO
Floating Market: Punda. Merchants, most from Venezuela, sell produce, crafts and art daily from boats docked harborside. Free.
Kura Hulanda Museum: Klipstraat 9, Otrobanda, 011-599-9-434-7700, www.kurahulanda.com/en/museumx. Exhibits span West African empires, the slave trade, abolition, Mesopotamian relics and Antillean art. In a village with an excellent lodge and spa. Open Monday-Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. $10, seniors and ages 12 and under $7, students $8.
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue: Hanchi di Snoa 29, Punda, 011-599-9-461-1067, www.snoa.com. Historic synagogue founded 1651 and adjacent Jewish Historical Cultural Museum open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. $10, ages 13 and under free.
Diving, snorkeling, watersports: www.curacao.com/en/discover/experiences/watersports.
Rainbow Lounge: Locals’ open-air favorite in Piscadera Bay. www.facebook.com/rainbowloungecuracao.
Bermuda Caribbean Discotheque: Music and dancing at a huge historic property in the Waaigat, Punda. www.bermudacuracao.com.
Wet & Wild Beach Club: Legendary happy hours and parties at Seaquarium Beach/Bapor Kibra. www.facebook.com/wetandwildbeachclub.
Vegas360: Magic shows, big band, craft cocktails at popular Mambo Beach near Otrobanda. www.facebook.com/Vegas360.
Curaçao Carnival! Dec. 28 through Feb. 17; details at www.curacaocarnival.info.