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Destination: Curaçao
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Curaçao Culture Shock

curacao.jpg Doll-house architecture, nimble dialect, and iguana stew

By Chelle Koster Walton

For purchase only; updated 4/30/03.

The French fries came with small cups filled half with ketchup, half with mayonnaise: an inkling in the simplest denominator of Curaçao's cultural synergy.

But it goes beyond red and white, American and Dutch. Curaçao is a tropical World's Fair, a United Nations on the beach. A trip to the Dutch Caribbean island is like visiting Europe, South America, and the West Indies in one sandy swoop, without shots, long flights, or even a phrase book.

Although the island belongs to the Netherlands politically and Dutch is the official tongue, most everyone speaks English and Spanish at the least -- often within the same sentence. Lines between cultures blur in Curaçao, like the pink streak in the plastic Solo cup where ketchup dissolved into mayo. And very much like the "unofficial official language" of the land. Called Papiamentu, it blurs boundaries between Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and African languages. Youre told bon biní! (welcome) and called dushi (sweetie) by faces reflecting decades, centuries of cultural harmony.

The Dutchness came first, after the islands decimated native population, that is. The Dutchness persists, giving Curaçao a character distinct and singular in the Caribbean context. That character is often reduced to the famous waterfront image along the Punda shopping district in downtown Willemstad, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dollhouse-colored Dutch-style shops historical as whimsical, it's only a façade, for so much more lies beyond this cruise-ship passengers perspective. Downtown gives a first impression of typical Caribbean duty-free spreeing, but in truth, Willemstad's shopping is more tailored to the locals, both on the Punda side of St. Anna Bay and the redeveloping Otrobanda side, once downtrodden, now becoming more of a mirror image.

You will find an intermingling of tourist shops, booths, and practical necessity marts. They sell gold bracelets, sturdy shoes, wooden shoes, blue-and-white porcelain windmills, Levis, thick wheels of Edam cheese, and Haitian sculptures.

Away from the storefronts, treasures of a quirky sort create interest for curious visitors downtown. The floating pedestrian bridge, for instance, swings open for ship traffic in a marvelous refusal to acknowledge modern technology. Also afloat, an on-the-water market congregates daily (except Sunday) harborside, made up of boats from Venezuela, 35 miles away, selling the freshest the cheapest. And if you don't find the blazing mustard, blood, and sky shades unusual enough (the buildings so painted, it's said, to prevent the headaches the original white buildings caused -- Curaçao's answer to aspirin), look closely at the curious, quasi-erotic carvings in the trees around the entrance to the Governors House.

The most visited spot downtown, 270-year-old Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, ranks as the oldest Jewish congregation in the New World. Its history and traditions make it unusual even to Jews. From its carpet of sand (imported so it's salt-free) to its thronely circumcision table in the adjacent museum, it has kept alive old, forgotten traditions while creating new ones through the power of isolation and survival instinct.

There's a certain delicious oddness, like that, about Curaçao. Take its namesake liqueur, made possible because Valencia oranges refused to grow normally in this sandy, cactus environment. Instead they shriveled and grew bitter, a species unto themselves. Learn more about the laraha orange at the Curaçao liqueur factory, housed in one of the island's Dutchy landhuizen -- plantation manors from pre-emancipation days.

Which brings us to one of Curaçao's newest and most impressive attractions, Kurá Hulanda. Contained within a boutique Otrobanda hotel built by an eccentric 54-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, the eclectic collection features a Caribbean slave exhibition that promises to shake preconceptions in a seismic way. It results from owner Jacob Gelt Dekker's round-the-world travels and on-site Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies.

There's more peculiarity at attractions such as an ostrich farm, a cultural herb garden where the herbalist chants ancient rituals, and the local Amstel brewery, the only to use sea water (desalinated) in its product. Then there's the food: ostrich capriccio, pumpkin pancakes, keshi yena, kari-kari, and iguana stew. That's right, iguana stew. You may want to close your eyes as you're dished up various iguana parts (foot, tail pieces), skin-on, in a chicken-like broth. It tastes, of course, like chicken.

The best time and place to sample local food and character is Sundays at Christoffel National Park, when a family of islanders gets together to cook food in grill pots fashioned from tire hubs. Other restaurants serve local specialties such as the wonderful stuffed baked gouda cheese (keshi yena), goat stew, and spicy marinated sword fish (kari-kari).

The quirky food and cultural experience ends up as a bonus for those who come for the superlative diving, beaches, casinos, cosmopolitan dining, and safety of a calm, rather expensive destination virtually free of the crime and mood swings of other Caribbean islands.

Short on natural beauty of the lush ilk one expects from a tropical island, Curaçao's tourism attractions focus on the sea and the man-made. Hotels and resorts concentrate around Willemstad and the southern coast of the 38-mile-long island's east end. There's some Americanization going on in this part, but nothing compared to Aruba, which along with Curaçao and Bonaire, make up the trio Dutch ABC islands. (Aruba is the only of the three to have gained independence from Holland.) Holland sends the majority of tourists to Curaçao, followed by Venezuela.

Ironically, the best beaches situate along the other end of the island, and it's worth renting a car or jeep to explore westward toward Christoffel National Park, a 4,500-acre land of karst, caves, sea, kadushi cactus, and the highest peak at 1,239 feet. See it by foot or rental bike or jeep. The drive to the far end passes through Curaçao's cunucu -- its countryside where traditional homes, manor houses, goats, aloe fields, and surprises of the most unexpected sort provide a contrast to Willemstad's low-lying urbanism, with its oil refinery smokestacks licking menacing flames into the Dutch-porcelain-blue sky.

In the country, the Stichting Monument Museum occupies the circa 1868 home of a freed slave with household tools and clothing from past eras, including a sizer for stretching the Panama hats once made on the island, and a donkey's skull, which kept away bad spirits. The various landhuizen show the other end of the slavery era's housing scale. You can visit a few of them, such as Landhuis Knip, which contains a museum partially devoted to the tambù drumming traditions of old Curaçao. Here, says a local man visiting for the day, began a massive slave rebellion in 1795. On the manor's steps, young Curaçaons were reliving the drama with pageantry and drumming. A special commemoration takes place the first Sunday of September.

Should hunger strike while in this part of the island, Jaanchi's in Westpunt is famous for its local specialties -- conch, iguana, goat stew, and the likes. Nearby, stop at Playa Kenepa, named as is the landhuis for an unusual fleshy fruit which locals pop in their mouths to suck like candy. Curaçao's beaches collect in pockets between rocky outcroppings to form intimate coves. Kenepa is one of the most dramatically beautiful, popular with islanders and visitors alike. Close to 30 in all, Curaçao's beaches dot the south coast, accessible by squiggly back roads off the main central highway. Near Willemstad, the side-by-side long stretch of Mambo (a.k.a. Seaquarium Beach) and Kon-Tiki beaches are the island's party headquarters, especially come Sunday night.

Tumba is the signature music of Curaçao, a localized version of Venezuelas rumba. The islands proximity to the Spanish country makes salsa popular enough for an annual two-day festival. In the night clubs, which politely, Dutchly take turns being the hot spot for one night each week, you'll hear everything from reggae to samba.

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TRIP PLANNER

  • Best for: Divers and culture travelers.
  • Also good for: Gamblers, families, couples, party animals, beach-lovers.
  • Cost for a two-night visit in resort accommodations. $90 at the low end, to the $500 range for more typical lodging.
  • Highlights:
    • Diving
    • Architecture
    • Dining
    • History/museums
    • Christoffel National Park
    • Jewish synagogue and museum
    • Downtown walking and tram tours
    • Botanic & Historic Garden
  • Special events:
    • Curaçao Carnival Tumba Festival, January
    • Curaçao International Sailing Regatta, January
    • Carnival, the six weeks preceding Mardi Gras
    • Salsa Festival, August
  • Getting there: American Airlines and ALM fly direct from Miami. About three hours travel time.
  • Information: Contact the Curacao Tourist Board, located in Plantation, FL, at 800-328-7222 or 954-723-7949. Web site: www.curacao-tourism.com.

 

LODGING

(Rates reflect high season range and double occupancy.)

  • Avila Beach Hotel, (5999) 461-4377, www.avilahotel.com. Historic and hip, its 100 rooms occupy the old governors mansion and the new Blues wing over the water. No pool, but a lagoon beach, renowned restaurants, and blues club. $242-$500.
  • Breezes Curaçao, (5999) 736-7888, www.breezescuracao.com. Curacaos only all-inclusive, it boasts a lovely beach, 339 rooms and suites, restaurants, land and water sports, a casino, and kids program. $359-$754 per person.
  • Hotel Kurá Hulanda, (5999) 434-7700, www.kurahulanda.com. Sparking a renaissance in Otrobanda, this boutique luxury hotel oozes personality. Four restaurants, three bars, one café, and an intriguing museum for 100 rooms. $275-$1,000.
  • Landhuis Daniel, (5999) 864-8400, www.landhuisdaniel.com. Experience history in this cunucu landhuis with organic native-cuisine restaurant, swimming pool, and diving. $45-$70.
  • Lions Dive & Beach Resort, (5999) 434-8888, www.lionsdive.com. For scuba fanatics, this is the place: complete dive shop with PADI training, shore diving, pool, and environmentally friendly. Dive and non-dive packages available. $180, includes breakfast buffet.
  • Sheraton Curaçao Resort, 800-325-3535, www.curacaosheraton.com. Complete resort with dining, spa, fitness center, pool, kiddy pool, casino, and small, protected beach. $210-$230.

DINING

  • Belle Terrace, Avila Beach Hotel, (5999) 461-4377, www.avilahotel.com. The best keshi yena on the island! Theres also ostrich, pigeon, rabbit, and turbot on the menu. $14-$27.
  • Bistro Le Clochard, (5999) 462-5666, www.bistroleclochard.com. Well-crafted Swiss-French cuisine overlooking the barracudas in St. Anna Bay between Punda and Otrobanda; open lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees $26-$30.
  • Hooks Hut, (5999) 462-6575. Casual and on the beach for lunch and dinner, specializing in Caribbean and international seafood dishes. Dinner entrees $12- $21.
  • Jaanchi's, Westpunt, (5999) 864-0126. Authentic Curaçaoan chow in the countryside. Full meals and combination dinners range $13-$20.
  • Rysttafel Restaurant Indonesian, (5999) 461-2606. Dont miss this authentic Indonesian "rice table" exotic lazy-susan buffet experience. A 16-dish rijsttafel for two costs about $23 each.
  • TuTu Tango, (5999) 465-4633. It serves tapas-style goodies, priced $4-$10.

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To purchase this article for publication, contact ChelleTrav@aol.com. Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.