Curacao while currently part of the Netherlands Antilles is set to become an independent country in 2008. It is the largest island in the Netherlands Antilles and is known more for its shopping and cultural-historic appeal than its beach resorts. While rocky coves, sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, dramatic cliffs, and warm yet breezy weather do draw tourists and water-sports leisurers, much of the island’s interior landscape is desert-like and arid, featuring nothing but cacti, spiny aloe, divi-divi trees, and other windblown foliage.
Curacao was first spotted by Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards brought diseases such as measles and smallpox to the island, and the Caiquetios and Arawak Indian population were all but wiped out; these native tribes were natural seafarers at the time and had established basic trade links with Venezuela. The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle the island in 1634. Realizing the island was not ideal for farming, they transformed it into a trading port. By 1643, there were enough people living on the island for a governor to be appointed. Peter Stuyvesant, nicknamed “Old Silver Nails” for his wooden leg was the first governor of Curacao.
In the latter half of the 17th century, Curacao became a slave trading center. Slaves were brought to Asiento and then sold and shipped off to other parts of the Caribbean. During this period, Willemstad blossomed into a thriving capital. Its Dutch and Spanish style architecture built during this era is still evident today. The governor allegedly complained about getting headaches from the tropical sunlight reflecting off the white houses and so the residents painted their residences in different colored hues as a remedy. This has given Willemstad its famous bright skyline seen in postcards around the world.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Curacao was fought over by the Dutch, British, and French, and changed hands several times. By 1815, the Dutch had gotten rid of the French and English. The abolishment of slavery in 1863 ended Curacao’s slave trade. But when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 20th century, Curacao became a center of oil refineries. Today, Curacao still depends heavily on oil refinery, but has been growing its tourism and financial services industries.
Curacao’s main draw is its heritage and cultural appeal, nowhere more evident than in its capital, Willemstad, which has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. The best way to explore Willemstad is by taking a guided tour, which leads visitors through the 18th and 19th century mansions and the pastel hue Amsterdam-style buildings with their curly gables and bright colors of blue, pink, orange, and yellow. Some of the mansions were once the home of governors and dignitaries such as the Governor’s Residence. The mustard-colored Fort Amsterdam in central historic Willemsted is the site of walls and embedded cannonballs. The sheltered harbor of Willemstad is also guarded by old fortifications and highlighted by the pontoon pedestrian bridge which was completed in 1888 and swings open 30 times a day to let ocean ships use the harbor canal. Vehicular traffic, on the other hand, can cross by taking the Queen Juliana Bridge, which arches high over the harbor.
Historic buildings include the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue built in 1732. It is the oldest continuously-used temple in the Western Hemisphere and features 24-candle chandeliers that are more than 250 years old hanging from the original mahogany ceilings. Adjacent to the temple is the Synagogue Museum, a 200-year-old building that features a 300-year-old communal bath that was once used for ritual purifications. The museum traces the history of the Sephardic Jews when they fled to the island in 1651 to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
Nature lovers will enjoy visiting Christoffel Park, which is centered around Mount Christoffel. The park features tropical plants and wildlife such as exotic birds, iguanas, deer, and rabbits. The caves and unusual rock formations at the park are decorated with Arawak petroglyphs.
Shopping is another attraction of Curacao; it is actually considered the best in the Caribbean. Central Willemstad offers a variety of treasures and trinkets. Everything can also be bought at Bredestraat in the heart of Punda. There are also outlets and emporiums, including the Spritzer & Fuhrman, which sells jewelry, watches, crystals, china, and gold. For market goods, visit St. Anna Baai, a floating market where you’ll find all sorts of tropical fruits, vegetables, meats, and other produce sailed in from South America. This port is actually the fifth largest in the world.
The island’s beaches may not compare to, say, Aruba, but some spots like Westpunt Baai and Westpunt are still more than suitable for swimming, sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing. Rental facilities and equipment centers can be found at the hotels and beaches.