Curacao: No Fear, No Loathing
Thu, Mar 22 2012 09:08 AM | Travels
“Where?” That was the most common reaction my wife and I got, here in the American heartland, when we told people that we were headed to Curacao for a week at the end of February
(the most common reaction we got a couple of years ago when we went to Egypt was: “Why?”).
Top of our must-go list right now is southern Africa, but we had only seven nights for this trip and needed to hit somewhere fairly close. We picked Curacao because we’re both fanatic snorkelers and I’d heard reports that the snorkeling on the island’s West End was some of the best in the Caribbean. Curacao also seemed – more than some Caribbean islands – like an interesting place away from the surf and sand. The country’s not dominated by tourism, has a diverse cultural mix (Dutch, Latino, Afro-Carib), and the historic city center of Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(Curacao’s neighbor Aruba, by contrast, has a Hooter’s, beaches lined with big American chain hotels, and is not, shockingly, a UNESCO World Heritage site.)
I was thinking too that Curacao might be a good place to set a future novel. It’s only forty miles off the coast of Venezuela and has direct flights to Amsterdam. Drug-trafficking, needless to say, is a wee issue. Even more importantly, in terms of a future novel, the island has a vibrant Dutch-Latino-Afro-Carib food tradition that I knew would be very attractive to a certain ex-con former getaway driver with culinary aspirations.
(In the forthcoming WHIPLASH RIVER – available July 10! Feel free to pre-order multiple copies now! – my main character, Shake Bouchon, doesn’t like the food in a particular country and never shuts up about it.)
So. Anyway. Curacao. The nut graph: we had a phenomenal time. Curacao was everything we thought it would be and more, a great place and great value, much less expensive pound for pound than a lot of other Caribbean islands. Go!
We arrived in Curacao around 8 p.m. local time, which is two hours ahead of CST. I’d rented a car from Prins, a local company, because they had good reviews on TripAdvisor and charged only $5 a day for a GPS. Normally we don’t screw around with GPS, since I am an excellent (if sometimes overbearing and brusque) navigator and my wife is an excellent (if often overly defensive and hotheaded) driver. We didn’t need the GPS on the sparsely-populated West End of Curacao, where the are only two main roads, but it came in big-time handy in Willemstad.
For the record, I would prefer to drive instead of navigate, but my wife suffers from hair-trigger motion sickness and can’t read a map in a moving car; she gets queasy if you walk quickly in a circle around her. That never stops her from having fun, though. She’s a total trooper and once hornked out of a powered hang-glider 1,000 feet above, and into, Waimea Canyon on Kauai.
Back to the driving thing. Here’s a typical exchange that illustrates the excellent teamwork between navigator (me) and driver (her) while tooling around the sparsely populated West End of Curacao:
Navigator: “Straight here.”
Driver: “Not left?”
Navigator: “No! Straight! I would have said left if wanted you to go left. Is that so hard?”
Driver: “Is it hard to be such a jackass? I was just checking.”
Navigator: “Well, you don’t need to check. Just do what I say.”
Driver: “Stop being a jackass and maybe I will.”
Navigator: “Pass this guy up ahead. Don’t hesitate this time.”
Driver: “I didn’t hesitate last time!”
Navigator: “You did and you know it.”
Driver: (No answer and then…)
The friendly and efficient rep from Prins Car Rental was waiting for us outside the terminal with our pocket-sized Kia Itty-Bittio (I’m fairly certain that was the name of the model), and soon we were on our way across the island to the West End – in a rain storm. That worried me (February is the tail end of Curacao’s rainy season), but over the next six days we got mostly sunshine, with only a few late-night or early-morning showers thrown in to freshen things up. Mosquitoes were minimal, thanks to the trade winds, though the occasional gust threatened to knock the big iguanas out of the tree behind our room at Lodge Kura Hulanda. Yes, there were big iguanas sunning themselves in the tree behind our room, yet another excellent reason to visit Curacao.
The West End (Banda Abou)
Lodge Kura Hulanda, where we stayed for the first five nights, was built by a Dutch guy named Jacob Gelt Dekker, who, from what I gather, is kind of like the Richard Branson of Curacao (he’s also got a hotel in Willemstad that includes on the property a fantastic museum about the slave trade in the Caribbean – more on that later).
We loved the LKH. As you may have gathered from my earlier crack about Aruba, the wife and I are not fans of huge, sprawling, American chain resorts that are designed to make you feel like you’ve never left Ft. Lauderdale. LKH is the opposite of that, a small, quiet resort on a limestone bluff right above Playa Kalki, a nice snorkeling beach. The resort is upscale but also pleasantly easygoing. While it’s not maybe as five-star pitch-perfect in every detail as, for example, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we once had the great good fortune to stay, LKH is less formal and lots homier, the kind of place you don’t feel bad about walking through the open-air lobby in sopping-wet swimsuit and water shoes.
The service at LKH, and at a lot places in Curacao in general, was low-key but genuinely friendly, as opposed to the amped-up but fake friendly you often get in the United States. Here’s the best way I can describe the difference. In the United States, your waitress will laugh if you say something you think is funny. In Curacao, your waitress will laugh if you say something she thinks is funny.
Here’s a quick illustration of the kind of low-key, pragmatic service I’m talking about. A few years ago we were staying at Chaa Creek, a great eco-resort in Belize that’s very similar in vibe to LKH. Late one night my wife discovered that she had acquired a tick during the course of a hike we’d taken that day. She sent me up to the front desk to find some tweezers. The front desk was closed and the only staff around was the bartender. I told him what I needed and why. He had no tweezers and seemed kind of perplexed by my request. “Just use your fingers,” he said with a friendly shrug. “That’s what I would do.” So I did. Problem solved.
Driving is easy in Curacao, and if you stay at LKH you should definitely rent a car. The food at the resort was surprisingly excellent for resort food, but our Kia Itty-Bittio allowed us to get out and try some excellent local joints:
JAANCHI’S. No menu, just the owner himself who walks around and tells you what’s good today. Everything we had was very good. The highlight was the cabrito stoba – goat stew.
SOL FOOD. A friendly little place with a spectacular view, walkable from LKH. Sunshine, the American ex-pat owner, has lots of great insider tips about the best beaches, restaurants, and diving/snorkeling on the West End. You can download her written tips at the Sol Food website, I think.
During lunch at Sol Food, we started chatting with the couple at the table next to ours and discovered that the woman was the U.S. vice consul on Curacao. This was a case of art almost intersecting life, since a key character in WHIPLASH RIVER (have you pre-ordered yet? No rush, but when they’re gone, they’re gone) happens to be the U.S. vice consul in Belmopan, Belize.
LANDHUIS DANIEL. Landhuises are the old Dutch plantation houses scattered across the island. Daniel had tons of character and great food. Our favorite was the keshi yena, a local specialty that throws together Edam cheese, ground beef, and prunes, and somehow, improbably, makes it work.
Speaking of delightful cross-cultural mash-ups: the local language on Curacao is Papiamentu, a delightfully weird and musical mash-up of Dutch and Spanish, with Portuguese and African dialects mixed in. For example, “Thank you very much” in Papiamentu is the Dutch-ish “Masha danki,” while “You’re welcome” is almost straight Spanish: “Di nada.” I don’t know why, but I love that.
If you like to read trip reports on sites like Fodor’s and TripAdvisor, as I do, you soon realize that some people take their snorkeling very, very seriously. Discussions about whether or not a certain place has good snorkeling, or even what in fact constitutes good snorkeling, often become contentious as hell. There’s a lot of – pardon the expression – dick-wagging, as in, “Well, I’ve snorkeled the Ningaloo Reef and the Society Islands, so please take your woefully uninformed thoughts about the British Virgin Islands and blow them out your purge valve.”
I love snorkeling so much – it’s probably my number three or four absolute favorite thing in the world to do – that I try not to focus on power rankings and advanced stats (degree of coral bleaching divided by water temperature, minus one point for every pot-bellied German in a Speedo shell-hunting on the beach). Sure, maybe in my experience the coral is more brightly colored in the Red Sea than in Hawaii, and maybe there is a greater variety of marine life in Belize than in the Red Sea, but, dude, it is ALL awesome. In that spirit, I can state without equivocation that the snorkeling in the West End of Curacao was enormously enjoyable, especially since it’s so easily accessible from shore. These are the spots we hit (multiple times):
PLAYA KALKI. Right below Lodge Kura Hulanda, as previously mentioned. A couple of nice coral heads with lots of fish straight off the beach, but our favorite stretch was off to the left, past the pier and out a bit. Water clarity, as with everywhere we went, was fantastic, often 75 feet or more. Playa Kalki probably won’t be your favorite beach in the world if you like wide stretches of powdery white sand – it’s narrow, with a lot of coral rubble – but it’s still a very pretty spot.
Playa Kalki rewards exploration. I think this is probably true in general everywhere, and for me it’s one of the great pleasures of snorkeling. There’s nothing like working your way through a murky stretch of sandy bottom and then discovering, in a hidden corner of a cove, a coral garden that’s going just totally apeshit with iridescent juvenile fish. For example.
Go West Diving has a shop right on Playa Kalki. That’s where we rented open-heel fins to go over our water shoes. You’ll want some cheapo water shoes if you go to Curacao – there’s a lot of coral rubble and getting into and out of the water can be a pain without them.
PLAYA LAGUN. This is a beautiful small cove flanked by cliffs, with water so blue and clear it makes you dizzy. During the week it’s not very crowded – a handful of locals, a handful of Dutch tourists, and fishermen bringing in their catch (there’s a scale on the beach). Nearby is a dive shop and a little restaurant.
Here’s an expert tip from the wife about Playa Lagun: the cement-block building on the beach by the fishermen’s scale is not a public restroom – it’s a guy’s house, and he will be startled and confused if you step inside and ask, “Es este el baño?”
Here’s the full conversation, to give you a taste of just how friendly and agreeable the locals on the West End of Curacao are (and/or how good my wife looks in a bikini):
Wife: “Es este el baño?”
Guy (startled and confused): “Huh?”
Wife: “Is there a restroom here? Baño?”
Guy: “Si. Es mi casa.”
Wife (mortified): “Oh, oh, my God, I am so sorry. Lo siento.”
Guy: It’s okay, come in, no problem. You maybe like to take a shower? It’s no problem, really.”
KLEINE KNIP, aka PLAYA KENEPA CHIKI. Good stuff. We saw an eagle ray here.
CAS ABOU. Tough call, but I think this was our favorite spot of all. A long, white, beer-commercial beach with great and varied snorkeling. Way off to the left, past a band of murk, there was tons of fascinating coral (brain, fan, elkhorn, etc.) at a perfect depth for slow cruising or free-diving. It costs a few bucks to access Cas Abou, and a few more bucks to rent chairs under a thatch umbrella, but it’s worth it. There are showers, restrooms, a dive shop, an open-air massage pavilion, and a decent fast-food shack. For lunch we tried a local specialty called “Bitterballen,” a sort of deep-fried meatball that tastes much better than the name and description would lead you to believe (but then again, I suppose, how could it not?).
By the way, the official currency on Curacao is the Netherlands Antillean guilder, but everyone accepts American dollars.
After five nights on the West End, we tore ourselves away from the Lodge Kura Hulanda and headed back east. After the sleepy West End, the city of Willemstad (population 140,000) seemed like Bangkok.
Willemstad’s old town is split into two parts by St. Anna Bay. Punda, on the east side, is famous for its Dutch gingerbread architecture painted in Caribbean colors. It’s got a lot of charm, and it’s fun to sit by the water, drink a cold Polar beer or two, and watch the pontoon bridge swing open to let pass the giant-ass cargo ships.
We didn’t end up spending a lot of time in this part of Punda, though. Most of the shops and restaurants are geared toward tourists, and there’s a cruise ship port just across the bridge. Don’t get me wrong: I love my country, and I love living here. But when I travel to a foreign country I prefer not to be surrounded by Americans who like to be surrounded by Americans when they travel.
(Bring on the hate mail! Punish me by buying GUTSHOT STRAIGHT and WHIPLASH RIVER and making snide comments about the author photo!)
Being surrounded by Americans was not an issue on the other side of St. Anna Bay, which is called Otrabanda (in Papiamentu that means, literally, “the other side”). A Dutch guy we met at our hotel told us that if we wanted to get a feel for the real Willemstad, we should explore the back alleys and winding streets of Otrabanda, where he said we would probably be the only white people around. So we headed over.
Otrabanda is a little gritty, but in a good, colorful, dynamic way. We had a fun time wandering around and soaking up life just going on, going on – flocks of laughing, chattering school kids in jeans and matching polo shirts; fierce old ladies haggling over the price of shoes with other fierce old ladies; a guy getting his hair cut in a little cart on wheels that somebody had turned into a mobile barber shop.
The Hotel Kura Hulanda, sister property to the place we stayed in Westpunt, is located in Otrabanda. Jacob Gelt Dekker, the Richard Branson of Curacao, restored eight rundown blocks of historic buildings to create a “village” of hotel rooms, restaurants, and shops.
The highlight of HKH – and one of the highlights of Curacao in general – is a museum that focuses on the Caribbean slave trade. The exhibits are harrowing and eye-opening. Did you know, for example, that Pope Pius II decreed that baptized Africans should not be traded – but that they could be enslaved? In the museum, you can descend into a replica of a cramped slave-ship hold, an experience I thought would be cheesy but was instead deeply disturbing.
I think it’s easy to go to a place like Curacao and get drugged by the crystal-clear water and honey-gold sunshine. Believe me, I felt plenty drugged myself. The HKH museum gave me a good hard slap, and a fresh perspective on the island, its people, its past, its present.
More on Willemstad
In Willemstad we stayed about a ten-minute walk from Punda, in a neighborhood called Pietermaai. I loved this area. It’s full of great old buildings that are either (a) Abandoned and falling down; (b) Lovingly and meticulously restored; or (c) Somewhere in between.
Our hotel was the Scuba Lodge and Suites, which has fourteen very nice but simple rooms in a lovingly and meticulously restored historic building right on the water. The vibe was very laid-back. You check in at the open-air bar downstairs (first drink on the house), and the bartender/desk clerk is also the dive instructor is also the waitress at the informal Thursday night community barbecue is also the person who brings a broom to your room when, for example, your wife somehow manages to accidentally break both a drinking glass and a light bulb in the span of like fifteen minutes.
Everyone who works at the Scuba Lodge is, or at least seems to be, young, blonde, Dutch, and friendly. And funny. The woman who brought the broom up to our room kept an impressively straight face when she asked my wife if perhaps she’d had a bit too much to drink at the barbecue.
(The answer to the above question, by the way, is no. My wife is graceful but also a bit of klutz at times, with long arms that sometimes get away from her and lash around like the tentacles of that giant squidopus in Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.)
Anyway, I definitely recommend the Scuba Lodge and Suites. The Avila Hotel, the other place in Willemstad that I’d been eyeing before the trip, is five or so minutes farther east. It’s more plush than the Scuba Lodge, and also has a real beach. But the Avila felt, during our brief check-it-out recon, a little stuffy compared to the Scuba Lodge. I’d ended up going with the Scuba Lodge because it was a lot cheaper than the Avila, and was glad I did.
The staff at the Scuba Lodge gave us some great restaurant recommendations. Our second favorite meal of the entire trip was dinner at a place called Mundo Bizarro. The food was just spectacular (warm goat cheese salad, chicken sate with a rich, dark, almost mole-like peanut sauce), and so was the sidewalk setting on a quiet side street in Pietermaai.
Our favorite meal of the entire trip was at Plasa Bieu, or the Old Market, also recommended by the staff at Scuba Lodge. Plasa Bieu is a big, hot, noisy, metal barn of building, only open for lunch, that serves good, cheap, local food to, mostly, locals. There are five or six different stalls. Each stall is staffed by grumpy older ladies in hair nets and matching aprons who stir big pots of stoba and bring your order out to the shared picnic tables. It’s like being in someone’s house, and I cannot recommend the experience, or food, more highly.
Before we knew it, the bell had rung and our time on the island was up. It was hard to leave. I tend to want it all when I travel. I want, for example, great snorkeling and fascinating history. I want towns and cities, culture and iguanas, charm and grit. I want a warm goat cheese salad as sophisticated and well-executed as anything I’ve ever had in Los Angeles or New York, and I want goat stew dished out of a big steaming pot in a hot, loud, metal barn of a building.
Curacao, I was beyond happy to discover, has it all. I don’t know for sure yet if I’ll set part of a new novel there, but I know I’ll be back one way or another.