A friend said recently, “Once you’ve been to one island in the Caribbean, you’ve been to them all.” Stunned, I replied, “Then you definitely haven’t been to Curaçao.” I don’t know when my fascination began, but I’ve always had an instinctual feeling that I should visit the island—historically influenced by its African, Dutch, Spanish and Arawak roots—one day. I recently got the chance, and it’s one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made.
The first thing I noticed stepping out of the airport was the island’s semi-arid climate, cactus and aloe plants growing in tandem with palm trees, and a breeze that never seemed to stop blowing no matter where I was.
My first stop was the Floris Suite Hotel, an adults-only hideaway located in Willemstad, the island’s capital. I saw a Curaçaoan flag (along with American and LGBT flags) waving, beckoning my impending adventure. Friendly staff greeted me in the lobby, which was sleek and modern, peppered with South Caribbean Pride advertisements. Loud salsa music encouraged me to two-step, even though I can’t salsa very well.
My pool-viewed room looked spacious and relaxing. But I couldn’t get too settled, because my next stop was dinner at Tempo Doeloe, an Indonesian restaurant. I sampled a smorgasbord of delicious sweet and spicy meat and vegetables while learning more about the island, and watching the sunset from the restaurant’s perfect hilltop location. I was told that Curaçao’s polyglot natives can switch between Dutch (the national language), English, Spanish and Papiamentu (a language also spoken in Aruba and Bonaire) with ease.
The next afternoon, my group was transferred to the west side of the island, where we explored its trademark caves and rocks at Shete Boka, a beautiful national park ideal for marveling at nature or even meditation. For lunch, I got my first taste of homestyle Curaçaon food at the family-owned eponymous restaurant, Jaanchie’s.
I walked into what looked like someone’s grandparents’ living room and realized that this was not the place for control freaks, since there was no menu. It was time to leave the Type A city neuroses back home and give in to the selection of food Uncle Jaanchie had available, which is how he does it on a daily basis.
He greeted us, explaining that today’s options included various types of fish and shrimp platters; we could also try stewed iguana if our hearts desired. I noshed on grouper, shrimp, rice and peas, salad, and French fries—a lot of starch, but when in Curaçao… I ate a lot of potatoes, rice and yucca on my trip, but sucked it up when I realized I’d be obsessively working it off back in the concrete jungle.
Post-lunch, we explored local favorite Playa Knip, where we watched people picnicking and diving into pristine turquoise waters—a typical way to spend Sundays on the island. For dinner, we ended up at the trendy St. Tropez Ocean Club in Willemstad for food inspired by the French Riviera.
The next day, we headed back to Willemstad, where we took a walking tour of the city and explored Punda (a main shopping area) and the floating market, where Venezuelan vendors sell fish and pesticide-free produce. Our guide educated us about the city’s famous pastel Dutch-inspired architecture, and we all goofed off at the signature CURAÇAO block letter sign. I also convinced our guide to give me a crash course in Papiamentu. He was patient as I butchered the language, which incorporates a mashup of Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.
We had lunch at Plasa Bieuw (Old Market), the best place to taste Krioyo (local food), as well as to meet locals and get a sense of where they like to hang out. This cafeteria-style eatery houses several stalls where family-owned businesses serve island fair like pumpkin pancakes, iguana soup, fish and more.
Our educational experience took a somber but informative turn at the Kura Hulanda Museum, where we got a lesson in the Dutch’s role in the slave trade, and how Curaçao was one of the largest slave ports in the Caribbean. We saw graphic photos, including a lifelike replica of slave ship quarters.
My favorite part was that the museum chronicled Black history from the ugliness of slavery to pivotal moments like Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions, the impact of the Black Panther Party, the Civil Rights Era and the nomination of Barack Obama as president. The dance nerd in me almost fainted from excitement at the site of the museum’s djembe collection and general artifacts from various tribes and ethnicities of different African countries.
After the museum, I wandered alone to an area where I discovered a stand selling batidos, a refreshing smoothie-like drink made with fruit, coconut milk and condensed milk. Unsure of what flavor to try, I engaged in conversation with a local who suggested watermelon. That was a good decision.
Thirty minutes later, we checked into the Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resort and settled into our rooms. I sat on my balcony, entranced by a gorgeous oceanfront view and enjoying the infinite breeze for a couple of hours. We later headed to Shore for a delicious seafood dinner.
My final day in Curaçao ended with me almost conquering my fear of stingrays at the Sea Aquarium. I fed sharks and a sea turtle, and screamed like a child as three stingrays swam over my legs and hands while I tried to feed them sardines. (They feel like wet portabella mushrooms.)
Our education took a boozy turn at the Curaçao Liquer Factory, where we learned how the laraha (the bitter orange native to the island) has played a major role in the liquor’s production for over 115 years. We also took the opportunity to check out flavors like cocoa, orange, the classic blue, green and more.
I left Curaçao with a vow to return. What I loved about the island aside from the obvious—beaches and perfect, daily 85 degree temperature—is that it’s hard to find bad food, people are friendly, and it’s a good place to mingle with locals.
Curaçao is comfortable enough for tourists who want to get into some of everything, from parties to romance to strengthening friendships, but not super commercial and overdeveloped. I missed out on scuba diving at one of the island’s reef sites, ranked among the best in the world, because I’m not certified. But I plan to return, and when I do, I’ll be ready for much more.