Beyond the Handelskade
by Susan Campbell
Even for those who’ve never visited this colorful little Dutch Southern Caribbean tropical gem, chances are good you’ve heard or tasted its famous neon blue liqueur or seen photos of its candy-colored waterfront of colonial houses called the Handelskade. But there’s so much more to this island than that. However, some of its best attractions and most pleasurable pastimes are not so easy to find, some even hidden in plain sight like the incredible coral and resplendent marine life right beneath its shores! Thankfully there is an organization that helps you to find all the best dive sites and operators – DiveCuracao.info is the one-stop portal for everything under the sea like how to explore the surreal Blue Room sea cave and the island’s fascinating shipwrecks.
Curacao can be a complicated puzzle of stand-alone communities scattered all about the island. But let’s start with downtown Willemstad that’s divided into two by Sint Anna Bay. The two sides- Punda (The Point) and Otrobanda (The Other Side) can be explored on foot- they are connected by the pedestrian floating pontoon bridge called the Queen Emma. But if you really want to get a taste of local color and culture, head to Punda on a Thursday night for “Punda Vibes” – an outdoor festival of local food, dance, and music. The neighborhood shops also stay open late that night and it ends in a fabulous firework display.
Right beside Punda, you’ll find this amazing colorful little neighborhood which has become a trendy, foodie, and entertainment epicentre. It’s a very compact grid of side-by-side venues and I recommend you stay at Pietermaai78 Urban Oasis- a family run three-storey house with unqiue apartments and its own manmade little beach and pool that’s steps away from all the fun. Or, if you’re more luxury inclined, the Avila Beach Hotel on the far edge of Pietermaai is the place. Though this historic Grande Dame landmark celebrated it’s 50th anniversary this year, it’s thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan and they’ve recently dedicated their romantic “Blues” wing to adult-only stays. Their two-cove beach is also a beautiful snorkeling and swimming escape, and their pier bar “Blues” is the most legendary live jazz music venue on the island.
Mambo Beach Blvd.
Another self-contained region with something for everyone is Mambo Beach Blvd., also close to town. This multi-level entertainment/dining/shopping beach stretch is party central almost every night with its scads of dining and bars. It’s also the home to the island’s original dive operator and hotel- Lions’ Dive Resort, and right next door is the famous Curacao Sea Aquarium. This massive complex has all kinds of animal encounters- sea lions, dolphins, sea turtles… and even hand-feeding sharks is an option! And their new underwater observatory allows you to see marine life up close without even getting wet! Families seeking a great affordable all-inclusive should flock to Sunscape Curacao Resort on the other side of Mambo beach. The manmade breakwaters make the beach ultra kid-friendly, and they also have an excellent Kid’s Club. (And adults will appreciate their on-site casino!)
Another stand-alone region begins about nine miles southeast of Willemstad. Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resort is a sprawling estate style chic stay on an ex-plantation on the sea backed by picturesque Table Mountain (Tafelberg).It’s like its own destination with a multitude of first-rate rooms and suites, a luxe spa, a comprehensive water circuit, excellent dining options (all-inclusive also available), pro tennis courts, a beautiful beach, and all surrounded by a word class Pete Dye designed golf course. They also have a dive operator and watersports and offer ATV tours of the wild countryside. But this location is also an excellent base from which to explore many other east end attractions like Serena’s Art Factory where you can make your own Chichi® doll- the island’s most iconic souvenir, the Ostrich Farm and Amazonia – a manmade replica of a rain forest replete with live creatures that would live there.
West End Wonders
Locals often head west on weekends to enjoy some of the island’s best beaches like Cas Abou, and to hike the rugged national parks around Mt. Christoffel. If you’re seeking a super ‘natural’ place to stay, head to Mondi Lodge- an enchanting collection of five thatched-palapa cottages in a lush forest full of blooms with its own pool. Eco-friendly and affordable is the mantra there, and they’re very close to where a wild flamingo colony lives, and not far from Kokomo Beach-famous for its full moon parties. Much further west, you’ll find a very upscale gated community called Coral Estates perched cliffside over stunning aqua seas. Though mostly private residences, there’s a new tourist-focused stay there now called Oasis Coral Estate- a hotel type complex with a luxe spa, pool, wellness centre, beach bar and a dining room on its own little beach. It also has a dive operator. But if you’d prefer to rent your own private fabulous space there, I highly recommend Villa Seashell right next door– a three-storey fully-equipped four-bedroom luxury home with views to die for – ideal for small groups.
As you can see there’s a lot more to this island than pretty colored buildings. See more about what’s new and cool on Curacao in my Tropical Tidbits column page 32.