Top 9 Most Unique Experiences You Can Have In Curacao – C of Caribbean’s ABC Islands
Port of Willemstad, Curacao
Offering a safe, fast and reliable handling of ships and cargo due to its favorable spot outside the hurricane route in the Caribbeans is the Port of Willemstad. This is a modern infrastructure with a hint of Dutch expertise while it guarantees the best possible operation for all types of sea vessels. It consists of different cruise terminals, a dry dock, oil refinery, container terminal and cargo wharves.
Strategically located in southern Caribbean Sea with entry points to the US, Europe and South America, Port of Willemstad is a hub of goods passage and passenger transit by the Panama Canal. Nestled in the crystal-blue waters of Sint Annabaai (Saint Anna Bay), it serves as the gateway to tiny Curacao which is just off the coast of Venezuela. Willemstad is one of the largest ports in the world in terms of total tonnage it handles especially cruise ships and bunkering (ship repair).
An Overview on Curacao:
The largest of the three ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), Curacao (pronounced “koor-uh-souw”) got its name from the Portuguese word “coracao” meaning “heart” as it was the center of slave business in the 17th century. Though it is located adjacent to Aruba and Bonaire, it is not alphabetically but geographically from left to right thus its: Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire in that order. This island was already inhabited by Arawak Indians when the Spaniards came in 1499, they would be enslaved (by the Spanish) and sold to Hispaniola in 1515.
At that same time in the 1500s, a throng of Sephardic Jews reached Curacao to escape religious persecution from Portugal before this island will be captured by the Dutch from Spain and establish the Dutch West India Company in 1634. It will remain continuously in Dutch hands as a colony beginning 1816, with Willemstad (state of Willhelm) as the capital. Curacao suffered an economic slump when slavery was abolished in 1863 but it began to bounce back in the early 20th century when Isla Refineria was built to accommodate ships carrying oil from the newly discovered Lake Maracaibo fields in Venezuela. By 1954 together with other Dutch Caribbean islands, it became as Netherlands-Antilles then a self-governing country but still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands like Aruba in 2010.
Unless you’re a Dutch, Curacao is not as famous as nearby Aruba. But aboard the tanker M/T Fronthunter, I was enchanted by the sights, sound and culinary delights of this small island off Venezuela‘s coast in September 2008. A little bit off the beaten path from established Caribbean destinations, the tiny details that I never took time to notice were actually the interesting ones. So to give you more insight about this young nation, here are top 9 most unique experiences you can have when you go to Curacao.
1. Stroll around historic Otrobanda.
A city of two parts and divided by Sint Anna Bay, in colonial times Willemstad it was bursting with residents at its Punda (the Point) area. Some dockworkers crossed to the other side and named their new settlement, Otrobanda (Other Side) which became the less popular one with the unwanted living in this part of the bay. In later years, rich merchants moved over and built grand mansions for their families. A stroll around historic Otrobanda is indeed a top, most unique experience in Curacao and you’ll find out why it’s dubbed as the cultural navel of Willemstad with the fascinating mix of colonial mansions and run down alleys.
2. Watch The Swinging Old Lady as it splits into two.
Passing over Sint Anna Bay is Queen Emma a.k.a. The Swinging Old Lady which is a floating pedestrian bridge that links Willemstad’s Punda and Otrobanda neighborhoods. Built in 1888 and supported by at least 16 pontoon boats (flat bottomed boats or barge) that swings or splits up into two to let large ships and cruise vessels enter or leave the bay. Absolutely a top, most unique experience when you’re in Curacao watching the ships glide through the open arms of this Swinging Old Lady especially during the night when it glows with fascinating lights.
3. Walk along colorful Handelskade for the best Instagrammable selfie.
The most breathtaking part of Punda district, this is a waterfront strip of candy-colored Dutch style houses of Handelskade like those found along the canals in Amsterdam. Legend says that at some point a Dutch governor was suffering from a horrifying headache and he blamed it on the glaring white painting of the houses so he passed a law in 1817 that only pastel colors be used on Willemstad buildings. Today these rainbow-colored structures provide a picturesque stretch at Handelskade waterfront and featured in Curacao postcards. A top, most unique experience you can have is snap for that best Instagrammable selfie when you walk along this colorful waterfront of Handelskade.
4. Enjoy duty-free shopping at Penha, Willemstad’s most photographed building.
Arguably the most photographed building in Willemstad, Penha is the mustard-yellow structure at the end of Handelskade. Another one of the top, most unique experience in Curacao is to enjoy your duty-free shopping in this distinctive oversized fantasy doll’s house-styled Penha building which is adorned by curved Dutch gables. Built in 1708 for the widow of a Dutch governor, it became a flagship store of Penha & Sons in 1865, a pioneer in retail store business in the Caribbeans.
5. Traverse abandoned mansions at the Pietermaai neighborhood of Willemstad.
An area full of mystery and fun, Pietermaai was once the center of wealthy traders, bankers and ship captains of the Dutch West India Company. In addition to their mansions, its wide boulevards were also lined with theatres and fine-dining restaurants. When slavery was abolished in 1863, the fortunes of Pietermaai area plummeted and the houses were abandoned. A walk through this quarter filled with beautifully abandoned villas is a top, most unique experience in Curacao which are completely restored and decorated with amazing street art.
6. Discover Klein Curacao.
Translated to “little Curacao” in English, this is a tiny, unspoiled and uninhabited island off the tip of Curacao which features a lighthouse and a few beach huts for day trippers. It was used as a quarantine point for sick slaves from Africa in the 17th-18th centuries before they were sent off to work at plantations in other Caribbean islands. A good spot for a day trip, this is a very popular snorkeling site and home to many sea turtles, a top most unique experience in Klein Curacao. In the heart of the island stands the abandoned pink lighthouse, a quarantine building nearby and several graves of the slaves who died while being isolated with some shipwrecks on the coast for you to explore.
8. Visit Mikve Israel Emanuel, oldest Jewish synagogue in the Americas for its sand floors.
Serving a congregation that dates back to the 1650s, Mikve Israel Emanuel is the oldest Jewish synagogue that bears witness to the long history of Judaism in the Americas. It’s most remarkable feature is its sand floors and a top, most unique experience to walk on it when you visit this place of worship. The building was constructed in 1730 and its sand floor, imported from the Dead Sea was a reminder to the Sephardic Jews of the persecution they’d suffered in Portugal when they were prohibited to practice their faith thus the purpose of it is to mute the sounds of their feet while worshiping in private homes. Mikve Israel Emanuel or simply “Snoa” in Papiamentu (synagogue) is a must-see in Curacao bucket list and you don’t have to be Jewish to admire the colorful history of one of Punda‘s attraction.
9. Enjoy a drink of the Blue Curacao Liqueur at Landhuis Chobolobo.
This is a striking fully restored plantation villa and a top, most unique experience you can have in Curacao because Landhuis Chobolobo is the home of the Blue Curacao Liqueur which has put the island on the world map. The spirit is made from bitter locally grown laraha oranges and while the Blue Curacao is the most famous shade, it comes with other alluring colors as well. A free tour on the property awaits you, however a little fee will be paid if you want to sample a drink at the house’s lovely garden.
A cultural melting pot, Curacao has about 50 nationalities interacting together as one, all with their own distinctive culture and traditions. The locals speak 4 languages just like in Aruba – Papiamentu, Dutch, English, Spanish/Portuguese. It may be an overlooked gem in the Caribbeans but it is an eclectic destination waiting for you to be discovered, in fact Curacao has been mentioned in a blog at Facebook as one of the “40 places to visit before you kick the bucket”.