What really made this a great holiday for us was the hotel, the Hyatt Regency on the Santa Barbara plantation in Nieuwpoort, on the south-eastern tip of the island. Well, what else would you expect from an island where, bang in the centre, there is a great big oil refinery that spews smoke into the environment 24 hours a day? Amazingly, in spite of that, the rest of the island feels clean and green.
The hotel had a small beach (more of an inlet, so no waves), great restaurants, a fabulous breakfast buffet, and even water sport activities like boating and snorkeling, so there was no real reason to leave – except that we like to have adventures when we travel, so we were off somewhere new every day.
We spent many afternoons in Willemstad, the capital city. It is split almost exactly in half by a canal down the middle, where giant cruise ships manoeuver up the narrow waterway and park right by the pedestrian Queen Emma pontoon bridge. This bridge is in itself lots of fun as periodically it is swung across the two halves of the city, uniting them. Instead of driving out of town to go over the higher Queen Juliana bridge, you can simply walk across this floating walkway. Then, after a whistle and short ten-second wait, its entrances and exits are shut, and it is swung back to the side of the canal. It is very easy to get stuck on the bridge during this process – beware! We saw many a hapless tourist stranded on it for an hour or so until the next swing-over, when the metal gates were lifted once again.
The Queen Juliana Bridge, is the highest in the Caribbean, built in the 1970s and painted bright yellow and blue.
In Willemstad, aside from shopping and wandering the narrow streets in either half of the city (known as Otrobanda (West Side) and Punda, (East Side)), there is a small fort: Fort Riffort. Cannons guard the entrance for the usual fort photo opportunity, giving the impression that there might be something historic inside. Alas no! Just more shopping – although you can climb the old fort walls for nice views of both downtown and, in the other direction, out over the water and to the cruise ships on the ocean. In spite of the lack of history, I would strongly recommend Don’s ice-cream shop inside the fort compound as a refreshing afternoon stop with kids.
The Punda side is usually very crowded, a bit smarter and with more upmarket shopping than in Otrobanda. It is also home to the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere, Mikbe Israel-Emanuel, which is certainly worth a visit. In fact, we gave up on the Ben & Jerry’s in Punda and headed back to the less packed Don’s in Otrobanda as we could not take the lines.
On rainy days, choices are limited. Our hotel provided an unlimited source of card and board games, suitable for ages 3 to 43, but we didn’t want to stay in all day. So we set off on a driving tour round the island. We didn’t quite make it to the far north-est in the two hours we had allotted ourselves, but we did get to see Hofi Pastor, the large yellow Catholic Parish, as well as the flamingo park, where you can walk from the road out onto a boardwalk and watch dozens of these birds at fish and play. We also drove up to Fort Nassau for an, erm, interesting view right over the entire oil refinery – Curacao harbor was once one of the top ten in the world by tonnage, and a great boost for the Allies’ oil supplies during World War II.
Determined to do everything possible on the island, we also went to the Seaquarium ($20 adult, $10 kid). This was in a sorry state of repair, with foggy tanks exhibiting smelly cloudy water and maybe one or two small fish. However, it was redeemed fully by the amazing experiences you could have through the shows. My kids got to feed the sharks themselves. Probably not a good parental decision, but to watch my seven-year-old hold out a bit of fish bait and see one of the hammerhead sharks raise its jaws to snatch it off the metal rod was quite thrilling. And you can bet my son loved it! I checked, and he still had all ten fingers at the end of it, so what’s to worry? They also had a sealion show where, for the first time in my life, I discovered that sealions can do handstands (flipperstands?), shake hands, walk on their flippers forwards and backwards, and lie down to be tickled. The touching tank with starfish, sea cucumbers and spiky white and brown anemone was also a hit with the kids.
We also visited the local ostrich farm (a hefty $45 per adult) and, after a fun open-topped truck tour, got to stand on real live ostrich eggs to prove they do not break under constant pressure (unless you drop them, in which case, the sudden tap of a pointy stone on the ground causes them to explode – well, I would not let a three-year-old hold one myself). We all fed the ostriches and saw the baby ones. My kids’ favourite part was learning that ostriches really do have only pea-sized brains – the proof being that they eat each other’s poop.
Skip the zoo – it’s the saddest one I have ever seen, and I have seen some of the world’s worst in places like Singapore & Moscow. This one had lions and lionesses in tiny cages, turtles and crocodiles in putrid water, and monkeys in filthy cages, to name but a few disaster areas. Most of the signs and maps were washed out and unreadable – and, if they were readable, the pictures bore no relationship whatsoever to the animals within them. Entry is free, but I really wish they charged something and then invested it in improving the facilities. There were practically no visitors and we could see why. The nicest thing about it was the kids’ playground and that was still pretty bad. There were some amazing birds, like a crane with crazy sticking-up hair, but we couldn’t get over how bad we felt for all the animals and birds to be stuck in a place like that. Clearly, the Caribbean is not a wonderful paradise for all.
If you are providing your own food and cooking, watch out in Best Buy supermarket, which has nothing to do with the famous American electronics chain, but is actually a single large provider of food and household items. If you pay them in dollars, they will try and give you change in the local currency as if it was an equivalent – I got ripped off by $15. It would have been more, but I went back inside to complain and so they reluctantly gave me a marginally better exchange rate.
For dining out, I highly recommend El Gaucho on Rooi Santu. The food is excellent, it cost a very reasonable $150 for 2 adults and 3 kids, with a nice salad bar, great steaks and grilled snapper. Our three-year-old ate more food there than she had all day. The staff are also very courteous. There is also Cru, in Otrabanda opposite the Renaissance Hotel, which is more expensive but does a slightly more exotic fare like game hen, and the surely-not-low-fat thick chocolate mousse for dessert. I guess I should be glad that the mousse was tiny. (Avoid Brakkeput Meimei, which although set in a beautiful location in one of the fifty or so old plantation houses on the island, has very average food and below-par desserts.)
For lunches with the best view, Goubernor de Roubeville in Otrobanda is a good choice. It’s the former home of the Governor of the town and has a delicious fish soup as well as a varied kids’ menu, and a yummy tagliatelli with fresh anchovies. We spent most lunchtimes at the Delifrance, a short drive from Willemstad, where the kids could have nice sandwiches and delicious crepes -apple caramel being the winner of our all-time most popular prize.
If you are looking for art, as opposed to mindless souvenirs and t-shirts which you can get all over Willemstad, then Gallery Alma Blou in an old Landhuis outside Otrabanda is the place to go. Local artists are exhibited in three rooms and there are some interesting selections. For museum-quality art, the Museum Kura Hulanda is fabulous. It is a complex with a hotel and gallery, but also an excellent exhibition on the history of Africa and the slave trade in Curacao. The staff are so relaxed that they let our kids touch the exhibits and even play the drums – though they may just not have noticed that last part. They even have a small ladder leading down into the interior of a (model) slave ship so you can experience what it was like to travel the seas to the island. There is also a nice restaurant in the complex with burgers, fries and salads.
The other Landhuis (plantation house) worth a visit is the eighteenth-century Landhuis Savonet which displays the story of slaves at this particular plantation, once the biggest on the island. There is even a guided tour – but it is only in Dutch or the local dialect of papamiento, so I can’t tell you if it is any good. Behind the Landhuis is Mount Christoffel Park and the Zorgvlied Ruins (of a former plantation house that was abandoned), as well as magnificent views over the island and out to the ocean. The drive through the park, with frequent stops at well-marked sites, is great fun – and you can even climb to the top of Mount Christoffel, if you want the best views possible on the island.
Of course, no holiday is complete without bringing home some bling. After spending several hours, wandering through the duty-free shops in Willemstad, such as Freeport Jewelers and the ubiquitous Little Switzerland, we settled for something nearer to home and found exactly what I was looking for in the Colombian Emeralds shop at the Hyatt, where the prices are at least as good as in town. My tri-ring set of yellow, white and pink gold with tiny diamonds looks fabulous. And when a friend later said, “Wow, nice rings, one representing each of your children, with pink for your daughter”, who was I to disagree? A fabulous holiday for all. We would certainly go back – but only to stay in the same hotel!