Kick Back in Curaçao: A Mini Guide to this Artsy Island (Part 1)

WillemstadCuracao__EncounterswithNubia

Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site Credit Christopher J Wilson

Curaçao might not be top on your list for places to go in the Caribbean with kids (or without them), but maybe after reading this it will be. I was determined to take my family abroad this year to experience something different. Traveling with two toddlers is no easy feat and when I learned that Jet Blue flew directly to Curaçao in 4 hours, I was like–cha-ching! No layovers and a personalized TV experience for my two-year-old was a no brainer. Finding the right accommodations took some time and where I stayed, The Strand of Curaçao, ended up being perfect. Here’s my mini guide to Curaçao:

A little about Curacao:  The Dutch colony of Curacao was “discovered” in 1499. It’s 60 miles north of Venezuela. The island is so diverse with influences from Dutch, Spanish, Arawak, French, West Indian, Portuguese, and African influences throughout the island. The local languages are Papamiento and Dutch but everyone just about speaks English. Willemstad, the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is separated into two sides – Punda and the Otrobanda “other side” – by Santa Anna Bay. The Punda is the start of town and where you will see most of the tourists shopping and eating along the water’s edge. You can cross back and forth from Punda and Otrobanda via the Queen Emma Bridge.

Why go now: Culture and art, non-commercial, amazing beaches, and laid-back luxury. Curaçao is still not a major tourist destination for Americans (it is for Canadians, Dutch, and South Americans), but it will become a household name very soon I think–especially since Jet Blue is adding more direct flights. You won’t find corporate American restaurants here like at its sister island Aruba and the most commercialized area is at the Renaissance hotel complex, which is very contained. Gambling is legal and you can do so in most major hotels like at Marriott, Renaissance, and Hilton. There are  30+ beaches all over the island, hotels are reasonably priced (my 3-bedroom luxury condo with a private pool and beach was less than $300 a night during Thanksgiving), and if you love art as I do, you will have a variety of ways to experience it on the island.

TheStrand_Curacao_EncounterswithNubia

View from my balcony at The Strand of Curacao credit: Christopher J Wilson

Where to stay: I chose to stay at The Strand of Curacao, which is a beachfront luxury condominium in southern Willemstad that has 3-bedroom apartments with a full modern kitchen, 2.5 baths, living room, and huge balcony. The Strand will deliver your pre-chosen groceries and wine/liquor upon arrival, they will transfer you from the airport or help you rent a car, and there is free wi-fi. The beach is small but clean and never too crowded since it’s not a large hotel–plus there is a pool! It’s like your own little private paradise. Being able to have diapers and all food delivered was a huge perk for a traveling family. The balcony overlooking the ocean is HUGE (each unit comes with one). We tried to have almost every meal there to soak in the sun and view the sunset every evening. We also met other guests while there and they were all very nice. It is a 10 min walk from downtown, which means the condo is by the historic district called Pietermaii. Here are other suggestions:

  • Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort – This all-inclusive resort is on the southeast part of the island and has a few one-bedroom suites with fridges and dining =, but they get booked fast.
  • La Maya Beach – Another luxury condo with private beach and pool, similar to The Strand but on Spanish Water and more remote. They also deliver your groceries and are very family friendly!
  • Papagayo – There are two different sections to this very modern, luxury resort on beautiful Jan Thiel Bay: Beach Hotel is adults-only and Beach Resort features  2-to 4-bedroom villas. Its Beach Club bar is one of the trendiest hot spots in Curaçao, with a large infinity pool, sleek bar and lounge area, and live DJ sets on weekends.
  • St. Tropez Suites Curacao – Similarly to The Strand, St. Tropez  is great for couples and offers luxury one-bedroom apartments with a living room and a kitchen. A restaurant is connected to the property that is oceanfront and next to the very chic pool area, but there is no private beach. It’s great for those who want to be surrounded by a young, fun scene and then jump in their rental car to explore the island’s best beaches.
  • Baoase Luxury Resort – I have heard that this resort is very nice–it looks super luxe from the site and it is the #1 hotel in Willemstad on Trip Advisor based on reviews. It looks like a good place for couples, but not four families.

Currency: Every establishment accepts (and even prefers) US dollars. All credit cards are accepted (with or without the new chips). Taxis only take cash so be sure to bring some down with you.

Cow statue inside Rif Fort Renaissance Restaurant Area

Cow statue inside Rif Fort Renaissance Restaurant Area credit: Christopher J Wilson

What to do:

  • Rent a car for $40 bucks a day and explore the diverse island on your own or through tours to experience scuba diving, rock climbing, snorkeling, caves, and other water sports.
  • Explore the coast! Two popular beaches (with locals and tourists) include:
    • Playa Kenepa (Knip) is a popular small beach cove 50 min northwest of Willemstad where you can snorkel along the edges of the beach.There is a snack bar that is open on the weekends.
    • Cas Abao is also to the northwest and is very pristine. Rent snorkeling gear or kayaks for water play, enjoy lunch and a drink at the Daiquiri Bar, and rent chairs, as well. Restroom facilities are also available. There is an entrance fee of about $5.00 per car with a max of four per car. Learn more here: www.casabaobeach.com
  • Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site: You must go downtown during the day and at night to see how the ambiance changes. The Dutch architecture, vibrant colors, waterside restaurants, famous swaying floating bridge, and historical Rif Fort on the Renaissance Hotel property are must sees. Some suggestions:
    • When you arrive downtown, have a coffee (or glass of wine) outside at Plein Cafe’s outdoor seating area directly in front of the “Curacao” and “Dushi” art pieces.
    • Walk towards the waterfront and visit some of the quaint boutiques along the way.
    • If the floating bridge on Santa Anna Bay moves aside for an oncoming ship (happens at least once a day), take the free ferry across to the Otra Bonda (other side) of Willemstad.
    • There are numerous stands in Otra Bonda selling souvenirs that are made elsewhere, some of them are cute, but know most aren’t authentic to the island. For authentic gifts, see below about Gallery Alma Blou.
    • Rif Fort is where cruise ships dock for the day and it features  restaurants (from casual burger joints to steak restaurants) and high end shops, which are popular with tourists. I was so excited to have a place to buy ice cream and let me kids run around wild in a contained environment. There’s even a DJ spinning dance music during the day and a casino (yes gambling is legal!).
  • I had the pleasure of meeting many of the key players in the art scene on the island. I highly recommend visiting the following art galleries:
    •  Gallery Alma Blou (Blue Sol) in the historical building Landhuis Habaii – Owner Lusette Verboom started selling Caribbean arts and crafts 25 years ago to cruise ship tourists downtown. Success led her to opening  Kas di Alma Blou (House of the Blue Soul because of color of building) in 1996. In 2006, Gallery Alma Blou opened after a year of renovating Landhuis Habaii. It features a wide range of local art, from sculptures to photography and has a wonderful Folk Art section produced by local elders. Many don’t know that most of the  crafts and souvenirs sold in downtown Curacao are not native to the island. Go here for handcrafted art touched by island tradition. There’s also a cute cafe and courtyard area for relaxing.
    • Mon Art – check online to see where this pop-up gallery is around the island, owned by Daisy Casimiri, the wife of famous Dutch artist Herman van Bergen who is in the process of constructing a building-size work called Cathedral of Thorns. I met Herman and will be writing more about him in an upcoming post! Learn more about his inspirational project here: www.cathedralofthorns.com
    • Landhuis Bloemhof – Set on the sight of an old plantation, this property has a long history that dates back to more than 270 years ago. I was very impressed with the sprawling area, airy gallery, library (the island’s largest), and the preserved studio of sculpture artist and previous owner May Henriquez from the 1950s. This is one of the few art institutions that survives on its own without government support. The expansive land gives space to artists like sculpture artist Hortence Brouwn. Currently, Cathedral of Thorns is being constructed as a Mon Art pop up and will be finished in 2016. Also, they are in the process of building a Children’s Art Museum, which will bring a new experience to both locals and tourists–it will be housed in May’s home behind the main gallery building and behind the Cathedral of Thorns.
    • Project 3 Gallery – The latest addition to the Curacao art scene that offers an art gallery, photography studio, and framing & printing services. This is the owner’s third business venture, hence the name. It’s a large, multi-level space that features about 15 artists currently with plans to include more in the near future. I liked that there was a mini photography exhibit in one area, which I think is a great juxtaposition that photography did not kill art (many thought it would when the camera obscura was invented).
    • In December, Avantia opened up an artist collective called Uniarte in Punda, once a vibrant area for art in downtown Willemstad. Avantia is known for large installations, such as Map of Curaçao, “papergraffiti” that is in the shape of Curaçao at the Curaçao Museum. Made with white pieces of paper with names on it, each piece is in the location on the island where certain surnames came into existence, as well as of those who come from overseas.

There’s so much more to do on the island and I wish I had had the time to do most of them.  If you go, try to check out these other popular island activities: Curaçao Sea Aquarium, Mikve Israel-Emanual Synagogue, Hato Caves, Christoffel National Park, Shete Boka Park, and one of the largest carnivals in the Caribbean The Curaçao Carnival in January and February!

See below for more images of the island. In my next posts, I will share more about my family travel experiences and about the artists I met on the island.

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