The other face of Curacao

Associate editor Kimberly Scholz sampled Curacao's capital and countryside on a recent visit. Her report follows:

uracao, the C in the ABC group that includes Aruba and Bonaire, is the largest but probably least known of the three islands. Aruba has its nightlife and beaches and Bonaire has diving and snorkeling. But what makes Curacao special? On a recent visit, I set out to find out.

I began in the capital of Willemstad, noted for shopping, the swinging Queen Emma pontoon bridge and Dutch-style architecture in a kaleidoscope of pastels.

Buildings of all shapes and colors line the harbor where vendors hawk their wares.

The Floating Market intrigued me. Items as diverse as fresh fish, island fruits and colorful batik fabrics were sold from the decks of boats.

I received an impromptu lesson in the fine art of haggling from tourists who scoured the boats for unusual items and vied with vendors for discounted prices.

The best bargains and selections are found early in the day when the boats arrive.

I did not limit my visit to the Punda side of Willemstad, which has many shops, government buildings and the impressive Mikve Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue.

Across the Queen Emma Bridge is Otrabanda, which literally means "the other side."

Otrabanda is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, which I heard about from Freddy Berends, owner of Bistro le Clockard, a French restaurant in the old Riffort, an abandoned fort on the waterfront.

New buildings and hotels are planned, older properties are expanding and shopping promenades are in the works.

Opening in the next five years, according to tourism officials, are an entertainment center with a movie theater and shops, a Howard Johnson hotel and a shopping promenade in Riffort.

An $8 million, 60-shop promenade will be completed in the fort's courtyard by year's end.

Since Riffort is a historical monument, the new buildings will be temporary wooden structures, painted in myriad colors.

Architecture will be modern rather than traditional Dutch, according to Berends, who also is a managing partner in the expansion project.

The shopping promenade is modeled after San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, with individual vendors' carts, a fast-food court, some chain restaurants and several shops featuring high-end retailers, name brands and local goods.

A 300-room resort next to the fort will open at the end of 2002.

The renaissance plan includes a new cruise pier for megaliners. A walkway through the Riffort promenade will connect with Otrabanda.

Museum Kura Hulanda, which opened two years ago on the site of a former shipyard and slave quarters, is Otrobanda's pride and joy.

The focus of the museum is the history and heritage of Curacao, particularly the African slave trade.

One of the current exhibits, called "Middle Passage", is a particularly moving and somewhat unsettling account of the transatlantic slave trade.

Artifacts, such as torture mechanisms and historic prints, tell a disturbing tale of slavery in the Caribbean.

Even more powerful was the display of a reconstructed hold of a slave ship.

Kura Hulanda also features a museum shop and a cafe.

A 260-room hotel is set to open this summer next to the museum on the site of the former Porto Paseo Hotel & Casino.

Also nearby is Porto Paseo, a restored area with several bars, restaurants and the Arawak Craft Products shop, also called Arawak Tourist Trap on an outdoor sign.

The shop stocks a variety of ceramic gifts and gadgets in all price ranges, and artists demonstrate local crafts in an indoor showroom.

Beyond Willemstad is the other face of Curacao -- the rural countryside, green and lush during winter, dry and barren during the summer.

Close to 40 small beaches hug the coast, especially on Curacao's south end.

Knip Beach is popular with locals and tourists, who gather to watch young boys perform acrobatic cliff dives.

The structures of more than 90 plantation houses, known as landhuizen, dot the countryside.

Most date from the 17th and 18th centuries; several have been restored and are open to visitors.

A fun and unusual tourist attraction is the 8,200-acre Curacao Ostrich & Game Farm, home to about 600 birds.

On a 45-minute guided Jeep tour through the bush, I learned that the female ostrich is gray while the male is a more striking black and white, and that a baby ostrich grows one centimeter a day until it is full grown by its first birthday.

Some in my Jeep tour fed the birds, who are messy eaters, ventured into their pens and sat on the 8-foot-tall birds' backs.

A safari park will open later this year on land not now occupied by the farm, whose current inhabitants also include a handful of potbelly pigs and four Nile crocodiles.

After the tour, I headed to the farm's Zambezi Restaurant, where the menu specialties did not surprise me.

I sampled ostrich sausage along with scrambled ostrich eggs.

Not bad, but I might have enjoyed my meal if I had not seen its origins out there in the bush.

Maybe next time.

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