Thursday, February 20, 2020

Willemstad, Curacao

Usually when we go on a beach vacation, it's to an all-inclusive resort that we hardly ever leave for the duration of the trip. Now that the kids are older, we decided we wanted a different kind of beach vacation  one where we get a feel for the local culture and sights in addition to plenty of time at the beach and pool. Curacao is the perfect place for this exact type of trip. The island is small yet offers plenty to do and see, the people are lovely and friendly, and the beaches are the absolute best that the Caribbean has to offer.

Curacao is a Dutch colony, and the locals speak everything from English to Dutch to Spanish to Papiamentu (a Portuguese Creole). We didn't have any problems communicating with anyone in English. We were also able to use our U.S. dollars just fine, even though the official currency is the Netherlands guilder. Interestingly, most of the other tourists we encountered were from the Netherlands, along with a smattering of Americans. For now, Curacao remains kind of under the radar, and the laid-back vibe across the island totally reflects this.

Where to Stay

We spent four nights at the Avila Beach Hotel, which is the oldest operating resort in Curacao  but it looks completely updated. It was a great base, right near Willemstad's downtown and plenty of cute little restaurants, but also right on the beach. We liked the free shuttle into town, which ran twice a day. We also had the option of just walking for about 15 minutes to reach the downtown area, but the narrow roads along the way are filled with cars, and temperatures can get unbearably hot.

The best part about Avila, though, is the two private beaches, which are shielded from the huge waves of the ocean (Curacao can get very windy) by rocky barriers. We were able to relax on our shaded beach chairs while the kids snorkeled in the calm, turquoise waters right in front of us. This is what we did for two entire days, only breaking for meals at the beachfront restaurant and the occasional dip in the pool.

What to Do

Curacao's got more than 30 beautiful public beaches, each with its own personality. Even though our hotel had a private beach that my family loved, I'm so glad we decided to rent a car and venture out one day to check out a couple of them: Playa Grandi and Playa Porto Mari. Most beaches are free (or nearly free) to visit, and you can pay a pretty reasonable amount to rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella.

I chose Playa Grandi, at the western tip of the island, because I'd heard that you might be able to see turtles when you snorkel there. The beach itself isn't very grand (despite its name)  there aren't any facilities and the sand is rocky  but as it turns out, seeing turtles is an absolute sure thing. We swam out just a few feet and started seeing turtles all over the place. It was the most amazing snorkeling experience ever! Sometimes they even swam right past us to reach the surface.

And even if you don't snorkel, there's a small pier where the local fisherman will throw fish in the water to attract the turtles so you can see view them from above; all you have to do is provide a tip. There were throngs of tourists standing on that pier all afternoon, taking photos.

In contrast to Playa Grandi, Playa Porto Mari is much more commercial and populated, and it boasts a group of wild pigs that roam the premises. I wasn't sure how Playa Porto Mari could top our experience at Playa Grandi, but it turned out to be wonderful in its own way. Playa Porto Mari is an absolute postcard, a wide stretch of beach with buttery golden sand under your feet, shallow, cerulean blue waters to wade out and snorkel in, and a fun restaurant and bar to get drinks, snacks, and ice cream from.

And of course, there was also the aforementioned wild pigs (plus a couple of cats), which my son loved.

On our beach day, we also visited one of Curacao's national parks, Shete Boka, out on the western end of the island (very close to Playa Grandi). My family's been to several U.S. national parks, all of which have been spectacular, so I'll admit that I wasn't expecting much from Shete Boka. As it turns out, this little park has just about everything  interesting wildlife, fun attractions, and the most exciting water show we've ever seen. Plan to spend about two hours driving around and checking out the four main attractions: Boka Pistol, Boka Kalki, Boka Tabla, and Boka Wandomi (boka means "inlet" in Papiamentu). Also plan to visit as early as possible in the day, as there's no shade and it can get brutally hot after 11:00 a.m.

We started at Boka Pistol, which is the most spectacular attraction of the four. Here all you do is watch the waves roll into the inlet and go shooting up in the sky. The more forceful the wave, the higher the splash! We watched this happen over and over again for 15 minutes or so. It's absolutely mesmerizing, and sometimes a rainbow appears after the water recedes.

Next, we visited Boka Kalki, which was a more traditional hike that cuts through the foliage and ends at the beach (the whole walk took about five minutes). What made this hike different was that there were lizards and hermit crabs everywhere  I think my kids counted more than 20 of each! We also saw two enormous iguanas.

At Boka Tabla, there's a cave that you can descend into and watch the waves pound at an entrance over and over again, filling the area with water that rises just above the platform you're standing on. The thunderous sounds are thrilling, but it seemed a bit unsafe to be standing in a small hole that keeps filling up with water! Still, I don't think anyone has ever died in there, so I guess it ultimately is safe.

And finally, Boka Wandomi features a natural bridge that you can get up close and personal with. This part of the park was undeniably beautiful, but by this point, I'd already experienced three awesome bokas and this one just seemed like more of the same. To me, the hike to the water was the most interesting part.

To see more local creatures, I highly recommend the Curacao Sea Aquarium. As aquariums go, it's on the smaller side, but many of the exhibits are of unusual and interesting animals, like this monstrous Goliath grouper named Herbie; he was literally the size of my 8-year-old son!

There are also several hands-on activities and shows included with admission, such as feeding the flamingos and the sea lion demonstration. The best part about this aquarium, though, is how connected it is with the outside world. It's located right next to the ocean, and the dolphins and sea lions are allowed to swim out into the open water if they want to. (We were told that some of them would rather stay put, and those that do venture out always return.) And the animals in the tanks live in an open water system that draws directly from the ocean.

We also chose to do an add-on experience, Animal Encounters, in which you got to snorkel in a tank with the stingrays, tarpon, and other fish, and feed them. You can also feed various sharks that reside beyond a barrier, through a tube. My kids weren't so into the feeding part, but we all loved being with the stingrays, which are like the teddy bears of the sea. They're super friendly, to the point where they sometimes don't understand the concept of personal space. One of them kept swimming right along the length of my body and enveloping me with its wings in an effort to get the food out of my hands. It was kind of terrifying at first, but then I got used to it and started to love these "hugs"!

And finally, when in Curacao, you must visit the adorable and distinctly European town of Willemstad. Here, you can wander up and down the colorful streets, shopping and eating to your heart's content. At the center of it all is the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, which floats on the water  you can feel it bobbing up and down as you walk across it  and even swings open to let boats through. We didn't witness this happening, but I'm told that you could be standing on the bridge when it does, which sounds awfully fun.

Where to Eat

There were so many great places to eat in Curacao, both on the beach and downtown. Our favorite place downtown was La Boheme, a small cafe serving up sandwiches and smoothies. The arepa sandwiches are so tasty that we ate there twice.

For great beachfront dining, we loved eating at Blues, the restaurant on the premises of our hotel, and Karacter, the restaurant at the Coral Estate, where you can literally dine at a table on the sand. Also cute was the Cactus Cafe, a roadside cafe near Shete Boka, while Rozendaels and Kome near our hotel really hit the spot for dinner.

We tried a lot of the local dishes, like stoba, a meal of slow-braised beef, and keshi yena, a pulled chicken and cheese dish (pictured below). So much of the local cuisine consists of homey, slow-cooked stews and casseroles, but there's also a Dutch influence that brings items like bitterballen to the menus.

What's Nearby

One thing we didn't do but is a popular activity in Curacao is to take a high-speed ferry to Klein Curacao, a small, uninhabited island about 15 miles away. People go there for a day trip to enjoy the perfect beach, water, and peace and quiet. We didn't go because everyone in my family gets seasick easily, and the ride over is notoriously bumpy. Still, Klein Curacao looks like pure paradise.