Exploring Curacao's colorful past and present

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Playa Knip, among Curacao’s many standout beaches.
Playa Knip, among Curacao’s many standout beaches.

The latest Curacao promotion is all about the "blues" — everything from the island's azure waters to the lively late-night music scene. The beaches, in particular, are a standout, ranging from secluded coves to broad sweeps of sugar-white sand. But there are plenty of other lures to send vacationers heading for the South Caribbean.

The capital, Willemstad, is a great place to explore, its designation as a Unesco World Heritage site owed to its wealth of historical buildings; at last count, 765 were listed. Colorful painted houses in the Dutch tradition are everywhere, and the narrow streets are busy with shops and restaurants.

There is a fort, the impressive Governor's House and the famous Queen Emma Bridge (most fun is to watch it swing open from the many cafes that line the harbor). Of particular interest is the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere (don't miss the fascinating attached museum and its wealth of memorabilia).

Schedule a stroll in the bustling Pietermaai district with its many oceanview eateries, cozy cafes and boutique hotels; slot in a lunch break at the boisterous "floating market," where merchants from Venezuela (it's only 40 miles away) bring fresh fish and vegetables daily. For dinner I particularly liked the upscale Mosa, which serves inventive tapas-style dishes in a lovely garden.

A guestroom at the Papagayo Beach Resort, comprising a half-dozen buildings.
A guestroom at the Papagayo Beach Resort, comprising a half-dozen buildings.

The island, with a population of 150,000, is part of the "A-B-C" Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), and the overwhelming majority of tourists come from the Netherlands. During a recent five-day stay, I didn't meet a single visitor from the U.S. mainland — which doesn't mean Americans are not warmly welcome. People in Curacao are especially friendly, crime is virtually nonexistent and almost everyone is fluent in English, Dutch and Spanish.

Curacao is not the place to visit for those whose tastes run to high-rise, all-inclusive beach hotels (there are almost none), but there is a variety of top accommodations with terrific locations.

I spent my first two nights on the island's east end at the Papagayo Beach Resort, a modern, sharply designed hotel with a half-dozen buildings set in lush, landscaped gardens; all rooms boast terraces with views of the sea and beach where cafes and restaurants offer options for drinking and dining.

In Willemstad I switched to the Avila Beach Hotel, a one-time Dutch governor's mansion that fronts a prime stretch of beachfront and offers every amenity. In addition to a pool and spa, the hotel also hosts a great night of blues from a raised stage above its lively bar and restaurant.

The Avila Beach Hotel, formerly a Dutch governor’s mansion.
The Avila Beach Hotel, formerly a Dutch governor’s mansion.

Lots of venues in town have specific live music nights; I caught a Thursday show at Bar27, whose name references the age at which so many rock legends died.

It is, of course, the beaches that draw visitors to Curacao, and with good reason. Everyone has their favorite, and you could spend days exploring the number and variety of picturesque coves, none of them especially crowded.

Of the ones that I visited I absolutely loved Playa Knip, a hidden white crescent at the foot of a rocky outcrop. Make it a perfect outing with lunch at Karakter, a nearby beach restaurant that serves upscale sandwiches and entrees.

For a daylong excursion, take the 90-minute boat trip to Klein Curacao (literally "little" Curacao), an abandoned island to the south with an extraordinary stretch of sand for swimming or snorkeling or scuba diving at nearby shipwrecks.

Curacao has an intriguing mix of topography, ranging from rolling, green hills to "high desert," and it's worth a drive to the west end of the island and the Shete Boka National Park, a stark but compelling lava landscape with stupendous waves that batter the cliffs.

Oh, yes: Wherever you go expect welcome drinks to be blue, thanks to the local and justly famous liqueur, Curacao.

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