|Size||171 square miles (444 square kilometers)|
|Population||160,000 (85% mixed black, 15% other)|
|Status||Autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands|
|Official language(s)||English, Dutch, Papiamento|
|GDP per capita (2012)||$36,165|
|Currency||Antillean florin pegged to the US dollar|
|Electricity||US standard two-prong|
|Driving||on the right|
The C in the ABC islands of Leeward Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) is located in the southern part of the Caribbean Sea and only 40 miles away from the coast of Venezuela. Like Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is an autonomous state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the island has a rich history of colonial conquers, and changes of control between the old powers of Spain, France and the Netherlands. Like most other islands in the Caribbean, Curaçao has also an extensive history of slave trade and slave labour. Much of this history can be explored and learnt by visiting local museums and plantation houses.
As opposed to many islands in the region, tourism is not the primary industry of Curaçao. Instead, the island has a diverse and stable economy with major industries being financial services, oil extraction and refinery as well as shipping. This means the island’s citizens are relatively well-off and the island’s amenities, hotels and restaurants are all world class! In addition to this or actually, because of it, Curaçao’s population is a melting pot of cultures and languages and it is impossible to feel like a stranger here. The three official languages are English, Dutch and Papiamento and you are sure to be able to communicate with every local in at least two of these. You also won’t have any problems getting and spending money here as Curaçao is full of international banks and ATMs. In fact, you may be able to find more financial services here than back home!
When it comes to tourism, Curaçao has something to offer for everyone. The island is a fantastic family destination as it offers a huge number of activities kids love, but it is also a great spot to visit for an adult only trip. Casinos, dance clubs and a colourful bar scene attract visitors from all over the world and of all tastes… In addition, the island an important cruise destination with Willemstad hosting tens of large cruises every week in high season. Although the town can get pretty busy during these times, it also means your choices of shopping, food and drinks get as good as in a major American or European city like New York, London or Paris. Curaçao is truly where you can find it all in the Caribbean and only one of few places in the whole world where you can feel like a local the first minute you land here.
There are three US cities that offer non-stop flights to Curaçao’s Hato International Airport all year round: New York, Atlanta and Miami. In addition, you will find several flights per week to Curaçao from San Juan in Puerto Rico. You can also find direct flights from Toronto, but these are seasonal. Keep in mind though that the low season in Curaçao is actually still a great opportunity to visit the island since it is located outside the hurricane belt so you can expect very good weather throughout July to October. If you are travelling from Europe, your best bet is a direct flight from Amsterdam, which operates daily flights to the island (you will need a connecting flight from pretty much anywhere else in Europe).
Well paved and marked roads mean that driving around Curaçao is relatively easy. You will also have plenty of opportunities to rent a car as there is an extensive number of car rental companies operating from the Hato airport as well as in the capital of Willemstad and throughout the island. Taxi service is also reliable and not excessively expensive (rates are fixed between key island destinations). You may, however, wait quite a while to get a cab outside the capital so advanced bookings are highly recommended. Similarly, although you can get to all major towns on Curaçao using the local bus service, the buses themselves do not come too often and their schedule is not super reliable.
Things to explore
Curaçao is an island of diversity: historically, culturally and economically. This means it is hard to feel bored here as there is a huge variety of things to do and explore throughout the island. The first and a vital point of interest to mention is the capital of Willemstad. The city and its many neighborhoods is spread across as much as 20% of the whole island. Willemstad was first settled in 1630s and you will still find many beautiful buildings from that time in the city center. The Dutch architecture of 3 and 4 level houses with colorful walls and rooftops is prevalent and many of the historic buildings have been renovated to their old glory. Many of them are located right on the water as Willemstad is situated within several bays that provide space for the city harbors and fishing decks. One of the key ones is St. Anna Bay, which separated popular districts of Punda and Ortobanda.
It is in Punda where you will find some of the most prestigious shops and restaurants on the island, but you will also find here the beautiful Fort Amsterdam built in 1634, which served for a long time as headquarters of Dutch West India Company. Punda is also the location of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (constructed in early 17th century) and its museum. Finally, in Punda is where you will find Plasa Bieuw, an old, picturesque market as well as Ronde Markt (new market) and a floating market where you can find lots of fresh local produce and snacks. One of the coolest sights along Punda harbour are big sailing ships parked there, some of which you may even get on board of. From a boardwalk along the Santa Anna Bay, it is a quick walk across 19th century Queen Emma Bridge to get to Ortobabanda where you can find two museums telling the history of Curaçao and its people – Kura Hulanda Museum, which costs $10 to get in and the Curaçao Museum, which is free to explore and open on all days except Sunday and Monday.
If you intend to travel to or from Willemstad to the airport, you cannot miss out on visit the Hato caves! They located right off the main road from the airport, are open daily and offer some stunning views of hundreds of thousands year old caves. You can explore the main cave system in about an hour as first thing you do after landing in Curaçao or couple hours before your departure. However, if instead of caves you rather explore the local beaches and waters, you will want to head North West of the island first. If you are very anxious for a swim right after you land on the island, check out Kokomo beach, which is just a couple miles away from the airport and has well known restaunt on-site, a dive center and free parking. Further up north you will find Cas Abao and PortoMari, two small, but beautiful beaches surrounded by palm trees and calm waters (parking is paid here). Even further north and still on the west coast you will find another gem of a beach called Playa Jeremi, although it has no amenities it does offer natural beauty and peacefulness. Importantly, all the mentioned beaches require driving and, hence, it is worth mentioning that there are few hotels in Curaçao that offer access to the beach and those that do, are located on busy stretches of a beach that are often shared with other hotels and restaurants.
One you are tired of being a beach bum, consider visiting the following:
- Christoffel National Park – location of the island’s highest peak and a wildlife reserve the park has over 20 miles of trails, which you can tour with a guide or on your own. From the top of Mt. Christoffel you can see much of Curaçao and even some the coast of Venezuela!
- Shete Boka National Park – located right past Dorp Soto village, this is where you can truly get away from people and enjoy some spectacular natural sights. There are many miles of trails here that take you along the coast and several small inlets with rocky beaches and structures
- Curaçao Sea Aquarium and Dolphin Academy – here you can observe and interact with hundreds of sea animals as well as swim with dolphins or watch their performances with exert trainers. Dolphin Academy in Curaçao is actually considered one of the best in all of Caribbean with raving reviews and reasonable prices
- Ostrich Farm – an usual attraction for the Caribbean, this farm offers guided safaris as well as interactions with the animals for kids and adults alike. There is an aloe farm and a tasty restaurant on site as well.
- CurAloe Plantation – important aloe farm and factory where you can try out hundreds of cosmetics and lean about their production process. Its free to explore and you have an opportunity to buy tons of high quality and locally made aloe products
Curaçao offers accommodations of every kind – find from small adult only boutique hotels to large resorts for whole families, you will find inexpensive and luxurious options throughout the island. Nevertheless, expect to have most choices of hotels in and around Willemstad. Punda and Otrobanda host especially large number of hotels with as many as 20 spread across five square miles or so. If you have a very tight budget, but are keen to experience as much of the local vibe as possible, have a look at Bed & Bike Curaçao, a modern and colourful hostel where you can get shared accommodation for as little as $40 per night. And, if you are on the complete opposite of the scale and budget is not an issue, check out the 4-star Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino, which is a couple minutes’ walk away from key city attractions and boasts large number of amenities as well as a stunning natural pool.
Many Curaçao hotels bolster unique designs and offer an experience that cannot be easily matched by hotels anywhere else. For example, in Hotel ‘t Klooster you will experience what a life or a monk used to look like (the whole hotel is a former monastery), while at Baoase Hotel you will actually feel like you are in Asia, as the hotel boasts Bali architecture and is filled with Buddha statues and ornaments. Finally, if you come to Curaçao to get away from city noises and noises in general, you will love Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club, which offers beautiful ocean and island views, private beach and all-inclusive options all at a reasonable price.
Couple things to remember: there are pretty much no hotels on the western and southern parts of the island (though the rugged west coast of the island is still great to explore!) Also, a great way to save money is to rent an apartment or stay at a Bed & Breakfast/cottage. This is also a superb way to meet friendly locals, who will be more than willing to give you many useful tips about what to see and where to eat. You can expect majority of them to speak fluent English just like 90% of hotel staff across Curaçao.
Food & restaurants
There is arguably no better place in the Caribbean for the variety food choices than Curaçao. Diversity of population translates directly into a large number of restaurants serving food from all corners of the world. Prices can range wildly as well and can accommodate every budget. Dining is also a casual experience with no need for fancy dresses except in very few restaurants and in season. Like with hotels, expect to find most choices in Willemstad and especially in Punda and Otrobanda. Some of the most famous and definitely very tasty venues here (though pricey) are: Gouverneur de Rouville Restaurant & Café with beautiful terrace tables and late night bar, Bistro Le Clochard that also boasts a superb terrace and a delicious European menu as well as Fort Nassau Restaurant, which has stunning views all around Willemstad and offers a mix of Caribbean and European menu.
Since you are visiting a Dutch dependent territory, it would be a shame not try some of the local Dutch specialties. For that, check out Royal Dutch Cheesery in the heart of Otrobanda as well as Café Old Dutch Curaçao in Pietermaai, both of which offer tasty casual Dutch dishes at low prices. And, for a truly amazing local food experience, you may want commit some time and travel all the way to Westpunt in the north west of Curaçao to check out Jaanchies – run by the owner himself this is where you will find expertly made some of the most famous local dishes like Sate, Keshi yena and iguana soup.
Willemstad stays awake 24/7! The capital of Curaçao may have as many as 30 bars and clubs within all its neighbourhoods with most of them located in Punda, Otrobanda and Pietermaai. Just one example of a bar you should definitely visit is Mundo Bizarro – you will find amazing cocktails here and a very unique décor. If you are after a proper night out with a live DJ and dancing until early morning, check out District 1850 and Wet & Wild Beach Club, the first located in Scharloo, Willemstad and the second right by Mambo Beach Boulevard. In fact, Mambo Beach Boulevard, which is located about three miles to the south of Willemstad downtown is the Curaçao’s version of Miami’s South Beach. It is home to a lovely beach surrounded by busy bars and clubs lining up a boulevard and staying busy all days of the week into late night hours. Some of the other cool venues here besides Wet & Wild are Madero Ocean Club, Cafe 40 B and Chill Beach Bar & Grill. Finally, Curaçao is definitely an island of gambling. There are at least six large casinos throughout the island with pretty much all of them open until 1 or 2am and located within large hotel resorts like the Marriott Beach Resort, Hilton and Papagayo Beach Hotel.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xNTARyjYg4 [/embedyt]
Sports & adventure
The very first thing to describe when talking about Curaçao’s sport and adventures is the Curaçao Underwater Marine Park located in the south of the island and stretching almost 13 miles along its coast. This spot is by many considered to be best (and definitely in the top three as far as size) place for scuba divers and snorkelers in all of Caribbean. The waters are generally calm and have a visibility of up 150 feet. You will find two shipwrecks here, caves as well as a site called Mushroom Forest where star corals grow vertically creating an illusion of a large number of mushroom tops. If you are keen to explore it or other parts of the marine park, check out Ocean Encounters, which is the most well-known and highly rated diving company on Curaçao. They organize diving and snorkelling excursions as well as training all year round. For a more kids friendly diving experience, you can visit the Dolphin Academy, where no matter your age, you can have a swim or snorkelling session with dolphins in the natural lagoon or take a whole course on dolphins’ life and how best to interact with them.
If you do not want to get wet, there is always the Seaworld Explorer, a submarine adventure exploring Curaçao’s marine life and deploying daily from Piscadera Bay. In fact, boat trips are somewhat of a local specialty. There are tens of companies offering diving, party and fishing excursions. One type of a trip you definitely want to consider is a day excursion to Klein Curaçao, a completely flat and uninhabited island with stunning shallow water beaches and a haunting lighthouse. It takes about two hours to get there, but its totally worth it as you will pretty much have the whole place to yourself.
As far as more inland adventures, you have lots to choose from. You can do a buggy or a bike tour, both of which you can start from Jan Thiel Beach in Willemstad, or you can take a colourful trolley around the capital city’s most important sights. Or, you can do a photo walking tour around Willemstad accompanied by a professional photographer Caroline Castendijk. If none of this is enough, you can take a helicopter tour of Curaçao with a company called Blue Skies. They actually fly between all three of the ABC islands so may be able to do have a day visit on Aruba or Bonaire! Finally, if all you really want to do is play golf (believe it or not, there some fanatics out there), Curaçao has two 18 holes courses, Blue Bay and Old Quarry, both of which are open to non-members.
Safety and security
Curaçao gets five out of five in the category of safety and security. The diverse and well-off population of the island is very welcoming to visitors and eager to assist whenever needed. Crime rate of Curaçao is one of the lowest in all of Caribbean and its police force is top notch. As far as medical emergencies, the island’s key services such as, hospitals and pharmacies are well prepared for serious medical emergencies and the medical professionals are highly qualified. Of course, it is important to consider that pretty much all key facilities are located in Willemstad so in case of any sudden need, travel to the capital from other parts of the island will be required.