Curacao, once again, back in fashion

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WILLEMSTAD, Curacao -- At the turn of the century, great ocean liners began flocking to this southern Caribbean island, with passengers lured by fabulous bargains on perfumes, liquors, batik fabrics, brocades and jewelry. During the 1950s, prestigious shops like Spritzer & Fuhrmann saw passengers lined up and down the street.

Today, Curacao again is blossoming as a port for modern cruise ships.

A $9 million megapier opens next year, joining new museums, a rich cultural calendar, more adventure-oriented tours and a spiffed-up downtown area.

Willemstad, CuracaoLocated 44 miles off the Venezuelan coast, safely outside the hurricane belt, Curacao is piquing the interest of cruise lines looking for more unusual destinations.

Celebrity Cruises president Rick Sasso singles out Curacao as among a handful of islands ripe for development. In addition to building the megaterminal, Curacao has poured almost $10 million into upgrading existing piers. The investments are paying off.

This year, a record 225,000 passengers sailed in on ships, including Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream, Seabourn's Seabourn Pride, Premier's Seawind Crown, Princess' Sun Princess, Holland America's Veendam, Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas, Windstar's Wind Song and Celebrity's Zenith.

Starting in November 1999, Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas will make Curacao a winter-season stop on seven-day itineraries from San Juan.

Cruise arrivals here are on an upswing, even though the number of stayover tourists has been declining in recent years. The island reveres cruisers, and it shows. A recent survey of passengers from various ships ranked friendliness, safety, walking in the historic downtown and water sports as major pluses.

A dramatic scene awaits ships sailing into the harbor at Willemstad. When Queen Emma pontoon bridge swings open to admit vessels, cruisers are afforded stunning views of a toy town of red-roofed Dutch colonial buildings decked out in a rainbow of pastels.

Up to five vessels can dock at the existing cruise berths in the Otrobanda quarter, a short walk from the downtown shopping area of Punda. The megapier, which is being built just outside the harbor entrance, will put passengers even closer to the heart of the city. The new terminal will feature local artisans' workshops, a tourist information booth, rental car offices and ample space for taxis and tour buses. A landscaped walkway will lead toward Queen Emma bridge and downtown.

A development with small boutiques featuring international stores, a food court and entertainment venues is slated for the area around the nearby 17th century Rif Fortress. Construction on Riffort Village starts in 1999.

Meanwhile, the surrounding Otrobanda quarter is reviving, homes in the formerly derelict Klein Kwartier neighborhood sport coats of fresh paint and, while the famed Spritzer & Fuhrmann no longer exists, stores in the Punda district burst with fine lace, delftware, crystal and leather goods, replacing T-shirt outlets that popped up in the early 1990s.

Along Handelskade, the widely photographed street boasting the landmark yellow and white Penha building, new waterfront cafes are drawing cards for music after dark.

A new Maritime Museum is celebrating the island's seafaring heritage. The museum is the anchor of what will be a major urban renewal project in the old Jewish residential district of Scharloo.

Cruise passengers can book shore excursions that combine, via wooden boat, a visit to the museum with a historic harbor tour. When the $6 million Museum Kura Hulanda, a cultural center, auditoria and cultural studies center dedicated to African history, opens in April 1999, on the site of a former slave yard and prison across the harbor, it too will be accessible via small boats.

Outside of town, the Sea Aquarium, with its tanks of coral and fish, continues to be the island's top attraction. Animal Encounters brings visitors, after a course with a PADI instructor, face to face with sharks and stingrays in the aquarium's tidal pools.

Like nearby Bonaire, Curacao is gaining fame as a dive destination. Cruise ships increasingly feature diving and other soft-adventure tours such as canoe safaris, mountain biking treks and snorkeling.

Also popular are cultural tours that trace the island's Jewish community, established centuries ago by European refugees, and focus on its African heritage, which dates to the days when the island was a major slave depot.

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