Curaçao, The Heart of the Caribbean: Part I

Little did I know that my whirlwind, 5-day tour of this small Caribbean island would leave me smitten with Curaçao.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know what I was in for as I peered at Curaçao from the airplane window a couple thousand feet up. The land seemed barren as we descended and I wondered momentarily if they had flown us to the wrong place. That concern vanished as I walked out of the airport, felt the rush of warm air, and saw the amazing island up close. Little did I know that my whirlwind, 5-day tour of this small Caribbean island would leave me smitten with Curaçao.

The history of Curaçao is as colorful as the island itself — after all, what’s a Caribbean island without a little piracy? I couldn’t help but imagine the island a couple of centuries ago, awash with sea dogs singing shanties and flirting with wenches before burying their treasures. My personal romanticizing notwithstanding, pirates, war and years of the slave trade have left indelible marks on the island in various ways — cannonballs in the walls, anyone? The most obvious remnant is the mixture of cultures. Spanish, Portuguese, African, British, American and, of course, the Dutch have influenced the island in different ways, and in some cases have caused confusion. For instance, the name of the island itself could be derived from the Portuguese word for heart (coracao), or it could be the name that the original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, used to identify themselves. I’m partial to the “heart” theory myself.

Even the abundant, famous floating market in Willemstad is imported from another region. The story goes that a Venezuelan fisherman was forced to stop in Willemstad for extensive repairs. While he was stuck there, he sold everything he had on his boat to passersby. When he went back to Venezuela, he told all his buddies about how quickly and easily he sold his entire stock, so they returned with fully stocked boats and thusly Willemstad’s Floating Market was born.

Nowadays, the stock still comes from the boats but the stalls are on terra firma, so it’s not exactly a floating market any longer. Still, the market is something to see, full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and freshly caught seafood, with the boats that hauled the goods tied up right behind the stalls. The seafood vendors even offer a full-service fish cleaning, right there on or next to their boats. The boats tie up, the captains sit in hammocks or play cards while listening to music and the conversations never cease.

Willemstad’s most famous attractions, though, are the lively painted buildings along the harbor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even these have a story. Most of the buildings are made from the only resource they had at the time: coral. Since dead coral is white, all of the buildings were white and the salt leeching from the coral bases only made them whiter. A former governor thought all of that white was an eyesore (not to mention a source of headaches) and declared that everyone had to pick a color — whatever color they wanted — and paint their homes and businesses something other than white.  The idea seemed innocent enough, but the reality was that said governor had stock in the local paint shop. While the endeavor may have had a somewhat shady base, the beautiful and unique results have endured.

Even if you’re here to dive, dive, dive, at some point you’re going to have to eat, which is lucky for you because the food was amazing and everywhere offered generous portions. While the cuisine is very stew-heavy, the style seemed to touch on all the island’s cultural influences. You can try something new, such as cactus or iguana, or stick with familiar dishes with a Caribbean twist. Be ready for lots of fried plantains and polenta, two side dishes I couldn’t get enough of. One note: If you’re used to super-fast service, you’ll be better off leaving those expectations at home. Curaçao is laid back and things move on island time, so it’s best to just sip that sundowner and relax.

Here’s where we chowed down:

Viola Delicatessen – At this central, diner-style spot in Willemstad you’ll find a small menu, but everything is cooked in front of you. It’s about the most down-to-earth, local food you can get.

Pirate Bay – The name really says it all. Traditional Caribbean fare with a great atmosphere, highlighted by the sounds of the waves on the beach. Expect huge portions and great food.

Scuba Lodge – Another spot right on the water, this boutique hotel offers a catch of the day and other traditional fare in a laid-back atmosphere.

De Gouverneur – This spot was amazing. It’s a great place to see all of the colors of Willemstad while chowing down on specialties like the banana soup. I’m still dreaming about it.

Jaanchie’s – You want iguana, they’ve got iguana. This well known spot also has some other interesting island fare served in a setting that will make you feel like you’re in a jungle. The owner himself is the walking menu (no seriously, he is the menu) and will take your order, offer you some jokes and pleasant conversation, and then help serve your order too. Take the time to check out the curiosities in the restaurant’s entryway.

Landhuis Daniel – A former plantation house, this place has a large menu with a mix of French-Mediterranean and creole dishes in a lush setting.

While I wouldn’t normally talk about the drinking water, I do think it’s worth mentioning here. Curaçao’s desalination plants have won awards for their efficiency and quality, so yes, that tap water is perfectly safe to drink. For an island lacking a freshwater source of its own, Curaçao’s successful endeavor into desalination is something to be admired.  That said, while you can and should drink plenty of water, you must try one of the island’s various lemonades at least once. You’ll thank me later.

But Shelley, what about the diving? Yes, we’ll talk all about that in Part II, so come back for more dushi Curaçao (and I’ll also tell you what that means). Stay tuned!