Tourists flock to Curacao for its premier diving sites--some of the best in the Caribbean, if not the world. But this tiny Dutch island, ideally located below the hurricane belt and only 35 miles from Venezuela, offers a great opportunity to dive into Caribbean history and cuisine, too.
Willemstad, Curacao's capital, looks just like old Dutch towns in the motherland, except that these charming bell-topped facades from the 1600s are dressed in island pastels (and the catch of the day in the outdoor cafes is sea bass, not herring). To get to know the town, pick up a map for a self-guided walking tour at the tourist information booth, which you'll find anchoring the landmark pontoon bridge. First off you can't help but notice those historic rooftops, and the modern duty-free shops they now shelter. Nor can you miss Willemstad's burly stone fortresses, constructed to repel marauding pirates. Today the cannons are fired only to celebrate Queen Juliana's birthday.
On your walk you'll see churches with white interiors lit by shiny brass chandeliers, like something straight out of an Old Master's painting. The Mikva Israel Emanuel Synagogue, erected in 1682 by those who fled the Spanish Inquisition, is the oldest synagogue in the New World still in use. It's modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, right down to the sand on the floor to muffle footsteps, and is open to visitors, as is the small museum by its side.
The new Kura Hulanda Hotel is composed of a series of historic houses (remodeled with tasteful 21st-century amenities within), grouped around an original brick courtyard. Its Dutch owner has established another museum across the street, dedicated to detailing the history--ignominious and shabby to say the least--of slavery on the island, which served as a distribution center for the Caribbean in centuries past. It also showcases precious artifacts of peoples from those African nations that now contribute to the island's rich cultural mix.
You'll also come across slaves' cabins from succeeding eras, including the latter-day tin shanties located in the botanical garden at Den Paradera, provided by Standard Oil, the island's biggest industry before the Dutch started returning as tourists. The garden's owner has interviewed the island's old-timers to learn their herbal remedies, which she now grows and offers to the public while spinning stories and singing songs passed down through the generations in a palapa she's built to educate her visitors.
The small seaside Avila Hotel (where the Dutch royal family stays on its visits) hosts yet another museum, the Octagon House, detailing the life of Simon Bolivar, housed in his original dwelling.
For an introduction to local cuisine, visit Angelica Schoop in her renovated, 100-year-old family home, where she offers cooking classes-cum-dinner sessions featuring local African-inspired dishes. On our visit we had plantain soup, a beef Creole stew with island vegetables, funchi (a particular local favorite that resembles polenta), and pumpkin pancakes sauced with Curacao from the island's factory. Instruction, recipes, dinner, and wine was $70 per person. Contact Angelica's Kitchen through the website: www.angelicas-kitchen.com.
For a more informal taste of local cuisine, head to the harbor-side Old Market. Inside, a dozen or so vendors stand over their charcoal-fired stew pots producing savory meals of beef, goat, cod, chicken, or okra, along with that savory plantain soup and funchi and a finale of pumpkin pancakes. Meals here are enjoyed at picnic tables, along with a local Amstel beer if you choose, and will set you back around $10.
To explore further afield on the island, a new company called Wannabike, run by Dutch emigres, gathers groups of up to eight for mountain bike tours that start early in the morning before the heat becomes torrid. Choose among itineraries that "only the locals know," they insist, which disclose hidden blue lagoons, abandoned historic country houses, and a trip to the mountain pinnacle of the national park along trails shared by goats and white-tail deer. From the top, you can spy Venezuela on a sunny day, or nearby Aruba and Bonaire. For more information, see www.wannabike.net.
For further information on Curacao, visit: www.curacao-tourism.com.