An island rich with colorful history

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Curacao’s distinctive blue liqueur is made at the Landhuis Choboloba distillery.
Curacao’s distinctive blue liqueur is made at the Landhuis Choboloba distillery. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

The white polka dots painted on the ochre-colored wall in the kitchen of the gallery/studio of Curacaoan artist Nena Sanchez aren't merely an aesthetic choice.

"The color white confuses flies. In the old days before air conditioning and even ceiling fans, flies would congregate in the kitchen, buzzing and hovering over food simmering on the stove," the guide at the Willemstad gallery explained.

"If the wall above the stove was painted with white circles, flies would buzz elsewhere. Something about the color white spooked them," the guide said.

I spent a lot of time one morning in that studio, admiring the vibrant splashes of Caribbean colors and patterns that spilled onto chairs, tables, bookcases, cooking utensils, walls and even floors.

They're my kind of colors. I wish I had met the artist herself, but she was at her home in another part of Curacao that day.

I bought one of her prints, a small, colorful depiction of the colonial merchant houses on the Otrobanda side of Willemstad. Legend has it that the architect who built the Dutch colonial houses long ago in the style of the narrow houses along Amsterdam's canals initially had them painted white. However, the combination of the sun reflecting off the white buildings and the sparkling waters of the St. Anna Bay gave the architect a headache.

"Paint the houses in colors," he was reported to have ordered his workers.

Today, those sherbet-colored buildings are Willemstad's most photographed attraction and make Curacao's capital city the most recognizable in the Caribbean. 

There is nothing monochromatic about Curacao. Colors are everywhere, from the fishing boats at the Floating Market and the fish themselves, glistening in ice-filled trays, to the vegetables and fruits in vendors' stalls, murals on the sides of buildings and signage at the beach bars, illustrating fruit and rum concoctions.

Perhaps nothing says Curacao more than its distinctive blue liqueur that has been distilled in a copper still that dates from 1886. It's still in operation at the Landhuis (Landhouse) Chobolobo in Salinja, 15 minutes from Willemstad. It's a potent drink, very sweet, 31% alcohol and made from Valencia oranges from Spain. The orange-flavored liqueur comes in five different colors, but the blue is the most famous. The Landhuis tour is free, but the gift shop will set you back a few guilders.

Boca Tabla at Sheta Boka National Park.
Boca Tabla at Sheta Boka National Park. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

Curacao is not world famous for its beaches, as Andre Rojer, marketing director, North America for the Curacao Tourist Board, pointed out. Those it does have are hidden along the calm southwest coast, and they suited me just fine.

I had lunch at Cas Abao Beach, sitting on a coral outcropping while gazing at the cerulean sea, munching on a fish sandwich accompanied by an Amstel Bright (think Amstel but made with desalinated water because Curacao is arid and dry with little rainfall; the beer tasted great). There were plenty of tourists doing just what I was. Most were Dutch and had plenty of kids tagging along.

Later, I hiked along the cliffs of Sheta Boka National Park and stood on Boca Tabla, a dramatic spot where the surf crashes into the cliff walls.

To get the full picture of Curacao's seafaring history, I dropped into the Maritime Museum in Willemstad. It's got maps from 1666, plotted by the Spanish and Dutch explorers and lots of old items like rusted anchors salvaged from shipwrecks and rudimentary compasses.

Mounted very high on one wall was the porcelain bust of a woman that once graced the prow of a sailing ship.

"It's been stolen three times by Dutch sailors and three times returned," said guide Margriet Kistemaker.

"This time we put it up very high and secured it quite well to the wall. They won't get it again," she said.

Another step back in time was at the Plasa Bieu (Old Market) in Willemstad.

Nothing fancy about that place; it is a cavernous space, set with long wooden picnic tables and large pots bubbling over coals in the kitchen area.

It's open daily for lunch, and it's packed with businessmen, vendors from the Floating Market, tourists, government officials and locals. A platter of stewed goat, fried plantains, okra, brown rice and beans, mashed yams and fish is about $8.

Here's the thing about Curacao: I had only scratched the surface of all there was to see, do, eat, experience.

Curacao has a motto: "We have it all, it is just a matter of finding what you are looking for."

How much fun is that?

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