When I thought about travelling to the Caribbean, I pictured myself on a white sandy beach, with a coconut cocktail in one hand and a good book in the other. At least that was the predominant image in my head when I recently followed the invitation of the Curacao tourism board to explore the biggest of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) for a week. Adventurer at heart though, I was happy to find that lazy beaching and committed cocktail drinking was not the only thing to do on this island. Instead, I ventured out into its capital Willemstad, digging for the coolest bars, restaurants and things to do.

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For Orientation

Willemstad is Curacao’s capital and at the same time its only city. Almost the entire population of the island lives in this area, around 150,000 people. Roughly, Willemstad can be divided into two parts – Punda and Otrobanda – which are separated by the entrance of St Anna Bay. Officially there are many different districts, but when it’s about quickly describing where a place is located, people tend to say “in Punda” or “in Otrobanda”, depending on which side of the bay they talk about.

Punda, east of St Anna Bay, is the touristy centre with the famous waterfront, old and new markets, a maze of colourful alleyways and troops of cruise tourists moseying about. Here the density of souvenir shops, ocean-view restaurants and market stalls is at its highest.

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On the other side of the water lies Otrobanda which, except for the promenade right by the water, is widely untouched by tourist hordes. Here the mosaic of busy streets, shops and people seems a lot more authentic than on the Punda side. This is where you meet the locals. Walk up Breedestraat, turn left after you passed under Arubastraat and get lost in the beautiful clutter of colourful houses and backyards. You will find children escaping the heat of the streets, tiny bars which are frequented by locals only and fantastic murals tucked away in narrow alleys.

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There are two bridges crossing the St Anna Bay: the Juliana Bridge for cars, and the Queen Emma Bridge for pedestrians. The former is towering above the centre, high enough for big cruise ships and oil tankers to pass beneath; the latter is a pontoon bridge, also referred to as Old Swinging Lady because it swings open for ships to pass. At night its illuminated in colourful light and is a great spot to get a good perspective on the waterfront facades of Punda.

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The obvious black spot of Willemstad (and Curacao in general) is the Isla Oil Refinery, which is located in the bay behind the city. It was constructed almost 100 years ago to refine oil from Venezuela (which is only about 40 miles away) and still makes a significant contribution to the island’s economy. Although it has no direct influence on the natural beauty of most of Curacao’s beaches and bays, and I was admittedly fascinated by the aesthetics of the compound (particularly the lights at night), I find it sad that the island has to rely on an economy that has/had negative impacts on its culture and of course our planet. That said, except for when crossing the big bridge, the refinery was not impacting my experience in the city.

Where to Stay

From low-budget hostels to top-notch luxury resorts with private beaches – the range of accommodation in the city is great. The centre is very walkable, with many streets and alleys closed down for traffic entirely, so finding a place to stay close-by is advisable. As generally a rental car will be necessary to explore the rest of the island, consider finding a hotel with or close to a parking lot.

If you want to be surrounded by fellow globe-trotters and expats book a room in the area of Pietermaai on the Punda side of the city. This is where to dance the night away in one of the vibrant bars and lounges, discover art and graffiti on the streets and walls and get glimpses of the ocean in between the historic buildings of Willemstad. This is where you will find the local Bohemians!

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In case you are here on a honeymoon, or feel like treating yourself to some pampering, book a weekend at the Avila Beach Hotel.  The luxury resort lies about 10 minutes walk from central Pietermaai, but I can hardly imagine why anyone would leave this place. Although I can’t give you a first-hand report of the hotel itself (although I can vouch for the restaurant!), the looks of the beachfront rooms and suites make me recommend this to you anyways. This is where the Dutch queen resides on her Curacao holidays – and what’s good enough for the queen, should be good enough for us!

What to See

At first glance Willemstad seems to be doable in one day; and indeed many of the city’s visitors arrive here on a cruise ship in the morning and leave to sail into the sunset. To get a real feeling for the town however, more time is required. Give yourself a couple of days to explore the different parts of town and immerse in the local culture.

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The City Centre

There is absolutely no way around the city’s famous “skyline”, the colourful waterfront facades along Handelskade which could make you think that you are in Amsterdam or Copenhagen rather than the Caribbean. For much of the area east of the waterfront it is all about wandering around and getting lost in the maze of traffic-free alleys between Breedestraat and Sha Caprileskade. In Queen Wilhelmina Park you will once again be reminded of an Amsterdam landmark, as similar to  the “iamsterdam” structure in the Dutch capital, Curacao is sporting its own emblematic name in massive letters. Better than the “Curacao” construction however, is the second letter sculpture spelling out the country’s all-rounder word “Dushi”, which literally means sweet but is also used as a form of address to anybody (like sweetheart).

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Markets

A fantastic place to sort out your 5-a-day is the floating market at Sha Caprileskade. Here, merchants from Venezuela sell fresh fruit and veg which is shipped into Curacao every morning. The men working on the market don’t get full entry visas for the island, which is why they have to sleep on their boats and are only allowed to leave them to work their stalls and to wash at local facilities. Most of them stay in the harbour for 3 months before returning to Venezuela. Their boats are parked right behind their stalls which makes for an interesting dynamic between the men on duty and those on breaks. Pack out your best Spanish skills and haggle for massive avocados and sweet mangoes!

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A little further on you’ll find Marche Nobo, the new market, in a round turquoise construction. Here you can get anything from souvenirs over hair and skin care products to delicious coconut drinks.

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Museums

If you want to learn a little bit about the colonial history of the island there are two museums worth checking out. The Curacao Museum is located in an old monumental building from the 1850s in which you get an idea of how the Dutch colonialists used to furnish their Caribbean homes and what kind of household tools were used traditionally. There is also a nice collection of contemporary local art and a nice garden surrounding the building. The Kura Hulanda Museum at the Kura Hulanda Lodge on the other hand focuses on the history of slavery and black empowerment – with exhibits from around Africa, North America and the Caribbean. If possible ditch the guided tour, as the guides’ English is hardly comprehensible and they rush you through the extensive collection without telling much about how it was curated.

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What and Where to Eat

The typical Curacao diet contains a lot of meat and carbs – and by a lot, I mean you really need to take care of your vitamins at the floating market, as salad and veg is a rare side dish in many restaurants. However, there is of course also a lot of fish, particularly the local dradu fish, which you might also know as Mahi Mahi.

If you are a vegetarian and want to taste local food, make sure you articulate clearly that you don’t eat meat, as it is used to prepare many of the supposedly veggie dishes, such as bean soup or tutu, a mashed corn and beans side dish. A vegetarian, yet unfamiliar speciality is kadushi, a slimy cactus soup. Once you get over the weird consistency it tastes a lot like miso soup. I preferred the similar okra soup – just as slimy, but less fishy.

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If you are more interested the local food, book a culinary walking tour with Ms. Clarita! She will take you to the markets, explain loads about local specialities and give you some lectures about typical cooking. She doesn’t have a website, but is affiliated with the tourism board – so address your enquiry to them!

Now, let’s start with breakfast. Typically, Willemstaders will frequent one of the juice stalls all around town. These are usually open in the morning only and serve batidos, sweetened fruit-milk shakes that fill your tummy in an instance. For a slimmer version you can ask for a non-sugary version of it as well!

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Willemstad has great eateries of all price ranges – from local institutions like Marshe Bieu, the old market, where you eat traditional food among the city’s locals (leave some space for yummy pumpkin pancakes!), to fine dining experiences like at Belle Terrace at the Avila Hotel. If you need a break from all the meat and fish, head to either Restaurant Gouverneur or Omundo which offer both absolutely fantastic main salads, with caramelized peaches, avocado or goat cheese.

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Being surrounded by the sea it is no surprise that some of the city’s coolest restaurants are located just next to it. Two of my favourites were in Pietermaai – first, the intimate al fresco restaurant Bijblauw where you can watch waves crash into the rocks beneath you over fantastic sushi; and second, the very stylish lounge bar Saint Tropez which even has an infinity pool. This place gets quite busy at nights, but the food is definitely worth waiting for a little longer!

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Where to Drink

As you should know by now: much is happening in Pietermaai, and this is also where you will find bars and live music. To stay right by the water head to Rock Beach – a beach bar where you are encouraged to take off your shoes and pay your bill before going for a swim – the sea is a little rough here and the bar’s name derives from the actual rocky shore.

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Many of the bars with live music are along Nieuwestraat, for example Mundo Bizarro where a Cuban band plays Salsa tunes every Saturday, or Miles where it’s usually all about jazz. The bars itself are tiny and heat up quite quickly, that’s why most party people (and also the musicians) prefer to stay outside on the street. The atmosphere is quite relaxed, people hang out peacefully and dance to the live tunes of local and international artists.

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There are also a few dancy places in town, like Sopranos Piano Bar by the old fort on the Otrobanda side.

Good to know

Language

As Curacao is officially part of the Netherlands Dutch is one of the official languages on the island and all locals will be able to speak it, either because they learnt it at school or because they went to the Netherlands to study. There is also a local official language called Papiamentu, which is a blend of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English and various African languages. Although most people also speak English or Spanish, they are happy when you can say a couple of things in Papiamentu, such as masha danki (thanks a lot), di nada (you’re welcome), bon dia (good day/good morning), bon nochi (good evening/good night), ayo (goodbye).

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WiFi

Most restaurants and bars have free WiFi, but what is even cooler is that the city has open WiFi hotspots in public places, so you can make your friends at home insta-jealous.

Money

Prices are relatively high for Caribbean standards and quite similar to US-American or European prizing. The local currency is Netherlands Antilles Florin (NAF), also called gilder, but many places will also happily accept US dollars or even Euro.

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You see, Willemstad a vibrant city – the perfect balance to any beach holiday. If you come to Curacao don’t give this place a miss, but soak up the energy for a couple of days before you retreat to one of the island’s beach resorts!

 

All photos by Kathi, unless stated otherwise.
Kathi travelled to Curacao on courtesy of Curacao Tourism Board and Zucker Kommunikation. All opinions expressed are her own!