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Travel: 5 things to love about Curacao

Looking for a vacation with interesting culture, beautiful beaches, bathtub-warm waters and a safe and friendly environment? Curacao fits the bill.

Let’s be honest, any sunny destination is a balm for a cold, Canadian winter. But I wanted to optimize my precious week in the sun with interesting culture, beautiful beaches, bathtub-warm waters and a safe and friendly environment. A tall order, I know.

Thankfully, Curaçao (cure-a-SOW) lived up to and even exceeded my expectations.

The island lies in the Caribbean Sea just 145 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela. Along with Aruba and Bonaire, these three islands comprise the Netherland Antilles. The beaches are stunningly beautiful, the weather is perfect, English is one of the country’s three official languages, and the currency is the Antillean Guilder which is fixed to the US dollar and is accepted everywhere – easy to handle, right? But there are even more reasons why Curaçao ticks all the boxes for a winter escape.

1. The beaches

Choosing which of Curaçao’s 35 public beaches to visit is probably the toughest decision you’ll have to make. While the island’s beaches may not be as expansive as some others in the Caribbean, you can bet on the same turquoise waters and white sand that the region is famous for. Pleasingly, most of these idyllic beaches are a little off the beaten track and far from major hotels. There are, of course, the ultra pricey resorts with private beaches, but all the beaches we visited welcomed the public, sometimes charging a small entrance fee of $3 to $5 US.

We rented a car so that we could travel the west coast of the island and visit as many beaches as possible during our week-long vacation. We started with Blue Bay beach about 30 minutes north of the capital city of Willemstad. Over several days, we made our way up to the tip of the island visiting Playa Kalki, Grote Knip, Playa Porto Mari, St. Michiel Baai and Daaibooi Baai. Without exception, each location was jaw droppingly gorgeous. They all offered swimming and snorkelling in warm and gentle 27 C water – perfect for kids and all levels of swimmers. Most beaches were nestled in small, coved bays, sometimes bookended by high, limestone cliffs. Beach chairs, umbrellas and a variety of water toys were available for rental and free parking, washrooms and snack bars made it easy to while away an entire day at the beach.

The lack of beach vendors plying chiclets, drinks or souvenirs was an added bonus!

It was interesting to note that there are few restaurants along the well-travelled highway heading north. Most hotels and resorts have their own restaurants, but if you want to eat where the locals do, there are surprisingly few options. Booking a hotel with a kitchenette turned out to be a lifesaver, as there are several well-stocked grocery stores in the area and the drinkable tap water made it easy to prepare simple meals.

2. Willemstad

We spent the first few days exploring this enchanting capital city, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. While many Caribbean Islands have a Spanish flavour, Curaçao shows off its Dutch roots, with 16th and 17th century Dutch architecture evident throughout the city. The Punda area of town is the most tourist oriented and home to plenty of shops, restaurants, and bars. Strolling the small streets, you can visit the Floating Vegetable Market (it’s not a true floating market, but the boats dock on the canal and offer up a selection of fruits and vegetables from Venezuela) and the Old Market Food Court which seemed to offer only stew – from goat to mutton! A must-see is the Queen Emma pedestrian bridge that periodically opens like a huge gate to let cruise ships in and out of the harbour. In the evening, the bridge is colourfully lit up providing a beautiful backdrop to the many outdoor restaurants that line the canal.

Note that much of Punda closes on Sundays, so plan accordingly.

Willemstad is also where cruise passengers disembark for the day. They play a massive role in the island’s tourism income, and you can see the town’s population visibly swell and deflate with the arrival and departure of each ship.

If renting a car isn’t your thing, check out nearby Mambo beach — the Waikiki of Curaçao. Only a 15-minute drive from Punda, Mambo beach has an extensive selection of accommodations and restaurants to choose from. The water is as beautiful as anywhere else on the island, but the beach is more densely packed, and parts of it are cordoned off for the larger hotels.

3. It’s not for the one percenters

Curaçao doesn’t appear to be a hub for the ultra rich as I imagine the British Virgin Islands and Mustique are. We didn’t see any large private yachts ostentatiously moored nearby and the chain shops in Punda were in the range of Pandora and Tommy Hilfiger. While restaurants are not cheap ($35 US and up per entrée), the prices are understandable given that most consumer goods and food is imported. By far, the bulk of tourists come from the Netherlands with American, Colombians and Germans frequent visitors as well. It was fun to hear all the different languages spoken and enjoy the diversity of tourists we met.

As middle class as the tourists are, so are Curaçaoans. The island is prosperous, thanks to an economy based on tourism, offshore banking and the refining of Venezuelan crude oil. Curaçaoans enjoy a high per capita income and have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. We found the roads and airport to be super clean and well maintained, and there seemed to be plenty of well-funded schools and hospitals. There is also a huge 100 store shopping mall a short drive from Willemstad in case you forget anything from home.

4. Climate and location

Curaçao is only 12 degrees north of the equator, so the temperature and conditions are steady throughout the year. With loads of sunshine, the highs are usually in the 28-30° C range, dropping down by only a few degrees in the evening. The trade winds bring a constant breeze and provide relief from the humidity (and mosquitoes). Curaçao is also among a handful of Caribbean islands located outside of the hurricane zone, making it a perfect year-round destination.

5. The Dutch influence

The Dutch West Indies Company wrested the island from the Spanish in the 1600s, and have left their mark in the language, food, architecture, and political system of Curaçao. While the island has since become self-governing, they remain a “constituent country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. I confess that it felt slightly odd, but fun, to sample snacks like Dutch broodjes (sandwiches) krokets and bitterballen (crunchy breadcrumbed balls filled with beef ragout and cheese) and frikandel (a minced meat kind of weiner) while enjoying the sultry Caribbean weather.

Getting to the Caribbean is a bit of a journey for Western Canadians, but so worth the extra effort and expense in my opinion. In all our travels, I can’t think of a more hassle-free, relaxing and rewarding vacation. Kudos to Curaçao!


• Electricity is both 110V and 220V depending on the establishment, bring an adapter to be safe.

• During winter, Curaçao is fairly well served by a number of airlines, but WestJet has the best connections from Western Canada