Under the peel in Curacao: The sweet parts of an island that’s not just beaches and banks
Toni Salama discovers an unspoilt Caribbean paradise
WILLEMSTAD, Curacao – The fruit of the laraha orange tastes so bad even the island’s wild goats don’t bother it. I really don’t blame them. But the peel – ah, that’s a different matter.
First, you use a wooden knife to cut the peel away and slice it into sections. It has to be wood; a metal knife would ruin things. You dry the peels in jute bags. Then, in a small copper still, you cook them until a clear liquid condenses. Color it, bottle it, seal it – everything’s done by hand – and you’ve got the real thing, a liqueur that can only be made on Curacao, the original “Curacao of Curacao,” so named to shame all pretenders.
Its old-fashioned bottles look better suited to sailors’ grog: a long neck tapering up from a canteen-shaped bowl. They’ve gone around the world, these bottles have, each one an ambassador of this small Caribbean island, every sip an invitation: “Come and see us. Come and see us.”
Curacao (kur-a-SOW) is an odd cobble of contrasts where bright Caribbean colors splash across stalwart Dutch row houses, and Venezuelan farmers hawk the fruit of their labors in a floating market next to a plaza where Afro-Caribe artists sell their wares. It’s a place of stray goats and oil refineries, cactus forests and synagogues, secluded beaches and international banks. It’s crawling with lizards, croaking with frogs, brimming with smiles, dripping with history and comes to a standstill during Saturday night traffic jams.
You wouldn’t think so, but you can learn some lifelong lessons from a place like this. The distillery is as good a spot as any to start.
LESSON 1: If life hands you larahas, make a liqueur
The Spaniards arrived on Curacao in 1499, and their plans for the island soon included planting groves of oranges, sweet Valencias, in fact. But Curacao’s desert climate and stubborn soil transformed the foreign fruit into a bitter mess. It took a Frenchman to unlock the potential of what had come to be called the laraha orange. Later, the Senor family, now Senor & Co., entered the picture with a closely guarded liqueur recipe and an 1896 copper still, both of which the company uses to this day.
The entire distillation process takes only five or six days and is carried out in a space no bigger than a two-stall garage, at the back of what once was the manor house Chobolobo. I happened to drop by on my own just as a shore excursion of Americans from the Princess Star arrived. We watched a laraha-cutting demonstration and were then given free reign to sample the 31-proof end product from little plastic cups. You can taste for yourself that there’s no flavor variation among the shocking red, electric green, hypnotic gold or crystal clear permutations of this drink. Close your eyes, and they all taste just like the original, spicy orange with a satin finish, colored an irresistible Caribbean blue.
Even so, it’s hard to spend more than half an hour here, no matter how many samples you try.
LESSON 2: Any day you don’t have to eat an iguana is a good day
Manor houses, a.k.a. plantation houses or landhuizen in the island’s official Dutch, are from another of Curacao’s passing eras. Like the Spaniards’ orange trees, they’ve survived, but not as originally intended. I counted 27 of them scattered around the island, though there are bound to be more. The easiest to find, as long as you’re doing the driving, are between the capital city of Willemstad and Westpunt, the westernmost tip of the island.
I wish I could give you a highway number. But Curacao is only 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. The locals, population 135,000, don’t need numbers; and foreigners can just follow the signs. The best I can tell you is that the two-lane pavement rides the island’s spine.
The back story on Landhuis Daniel is that it was built by a shipwrecked Englishman in 1650 or so. Things didn’t work out – the things being farming and ranching – so the place was abandoned to the cactus and the trade winds. Its current owner, a Dutch biologist-turned-innkeeper/chef, restored the place in 1997. He transformed the plantation house and slave quarters into a complex of yellow ochre facades, white trim and terra cotta roof tiles.
There’s lodging in the main building or in the former slave quarters, swimming in the pool and dining on the terrace, all in a setting very much the-middle-of-nowhere.
Farther along the road to Westpunt, the former plantation house of Dokterstuin, restored in 1996, is now a restaurant that serves authentic Curacao cuisine. Like most of its kind, the plantation house was built on a hilltop to catch the breeze and keep an eye on its neighbors and on the plantation itself, meaning its slaves. After emancipation in 1863, the former slaves leased the farm plots – long since overgrown – from the government.
Most people you’ll encounter on Curacao will speak English, but the open-air restaurant on a shaded back porch is an inconspicuous spot to eavesdrop as the servers talk among themselves in Papiamentu, a rhythmic “stew” of a language derived from the melding of several African and European tongues.
Dokterstuin’s menu is truly Curacaoan: cabbage, squash, cucumbers, papaya, spinach and plantain, served alone or in concert, vegetarian style or with pork tail, or as a side to stewed goat meat. These stick-to-your-ribs dishes come accompanied by a sizable mound of funchi, a cornmeal staple. They were out of yuana stoba, stewed iguana, when I was there.
Keep following the road to Westpunt and you’ll discover that the route works out to be a scenic loop that eventually reconnects to itself near Landhuis Daniel. You can head back to Willemstad from the intersection. But before that, you should spend some time in nature exploring the western end of the island.
LESSON 3: You don’t have to climb every mountain …
Driving on Curacao is an adventure. You can count on dodging a herd or two of stray goats, perhaps half a dozen iguanas and innumerable whiptail lizards of varying sizes. But at least you don’t have to worry about hurricanes. Curacao is so far south and west, so close to South America (on a clear day you can see the mountains of Venezuela) that most tropical storms figure it’s not worth the bother. Consequently, the weather here is the active traveler’s best friend.
Rugged outdoorsmen can tackle Christoffel National Park. Several companies run jeep tours or you can drive it yourself and stop at any of eight trails for hikes and nature walks. Those who get an early start can make the estimated two- to three-hour climb to the island’s highest point, 1,230-foot Mt. Christoffel, before the day gets too hot.
The park was once a group of several plantations, and ruins from those days remain. Along the hikes you also might see petroglyphs, mahogany trees, sabal palms and wild orchids – rare things all. There’s even a place from which you can spy on the Curacao white-tailed deer (some 250 of them), believed to have been brought here from South America centuries ago by the Arawaks, the same pre-Western-contact Indian tribe that left the petroglyphs.
Travelers saving their best efforts for the beach will be satisfied with a couple of low-impact land treks: the Hato Caves, which have formed natural pools and waterfalls, and/or Shete Boka Park. A short walk at Shete Boka leads to a damp and slippery sea cave where runaway slaves once hid. There’s also an area where you can feed the iguanas.
The bottom part of that scenic loop I mentioned includes the short drive between Westpunt and Soto. It runs through a landscape worthy of “The X Files,” a bizarre forest of multi-branched cactus, whose gray-tinted limbs rise eerily above a deep green tangle of tropical-looking vegetation. This drive also puts you on the southern coast of the island, the entire length of which is set with small beaches, some of which have facilities and rent palapas, beach furniture, floats and snorkel gear.
All this stuff is west of Willemstad. That means there is also a part of Curacao that is east of Willemstad. But with the exception of the area round Jan Sofat, the eastern end of the island is best left to those who live there.
You’re better off spending the rest of your time in Willemstad.
LESSON 4: If your building gives you a migraine, paint it blue
Willemstad is a city divided. The local population probably wouldn’t make this comparison, but, like Paris, Willemstad has a Left and a Right Bank. They’ve just given them Dutch names: Otrobanda on the left, Punda on the right and the long channel of St. Annabaai between them.
It’s Punda’s St. Annabaai waterfront that you see on all the postcards: a chorus line of respectable Dutch row houses flaunting a fruit-cocktail of colors. The buildings got their paint jobs, so the story goes, after the sun glaring off the once-white surfaces gave his lordship the governor a headache. Turns out the old dude held stock in a paint company.
By day, there’s shopping: duty-free and local crafts and tacky souvenirs and Venezuelan produce right at the boat. By night, when the buildings are outlined with lights, there’s music, a world beat of styles that flow from the open-air bars and karaoke cafes.
The whole area is a historic treasure – officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site – compact and easily explored on foot. In no time, you’ll find Mikve Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. Founded in 1732, its interior is flush with mahogany furnishings, appearing all the richer in the wonderful golden light that streams through renovated windows. The Jewish Historical & Cultural Museum is right next door in another historic building, where a mikvah, or ritual bath, was uncovered after years of disuse. Who knew that at one time half the white population here was Jewish? Some of the items displayed in the museum are even older than the synagogue itself: a Torah scroll that may have left Spain in 1492, a silver spice box from 1704. You can buy locally made mezuzas in the gift shop.
Compared to Mikve Israel, nearby Fort Church is a Johnny-come-lately, having been built only in 1769, though its Dutch Protestant congregation began meeting more than 100 years earlier. This, the oldest church on Curacao, is no slouch in the mahogany and silver-vessel departments, either, and has the further recommendation of being part of a real fort, Ft. Amsterdam.
This town has fortifications all over the place. Also in Punda, a structure called the Waterfront Arches, part of Water Fort, built in 1634 and replaced in 1827, now houses bars and eateries. Following St. Annabaai inland, you’ll find Ft. Nassau, built in 1797 on a peninsula in Schottegat Bay. Except for the restaurant and bar, which afford grand views in all directions, this coral stone fort hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. It even has its original toilets – square holes cut in an overhang. Don’t worry. Nobody is expecting you to use them.
When you are ready to cross over to Otrobanda, you can drive across the modern Ring Road bridge, board a free passenger ferry or hoof it across the 700-foot-long Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, reputedly the largest floating pedestrian bridge in the world.
Otrobanda’s 1828 Riffort, yet another fort, rises at the foot of the pontoon bridge. Far from intimidating people, Riffort now is home to shops, a radio station and a small French/Swiss restaurant, Bistro Le Clochard, with barrel vaulted ceilings, rustic chandeliers and a waiter who sheepishly apologized to me that the catch of the day was “only” red snapper steamed in a banana leaf.
LESSON 5: If you ever get locked in a museum at closing time, enjoy the sculpture garden till help arrives
It’s hard to imagine any place upstaging a bunch of old forts. But you never imagined any place like Hotel Kura Hulanda. This is a restored neighborhood, in fact another of Curacao’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s also a hotel, one that takes the form of a village where you can walk the original lanes and alleys, relax in open courtyards and stay in rooms or suites that would have been shops and homes a couple of hundred years ago. It’s also a complex of some of the island’s finest and most expensive restaurants. And it’s home to the largest African history museum in the Caribbean.
I spent four nights at Kura Hulanda. The room was spacious and air-conditioned, the bed comfortable, the bath large, the television already tuned to “Law & Order.” And I scarcely slept a wink because of the frogs. I never actually saw the frogs. They made their presence known by their infernal, diabolical, incessant croaking through the night.
You’d have thought the frogs were problem enough. But then I got locked in the African History Museum because I underestimated the time it would take to see all the exhibits. The woman there tried to tell me that I should come back in the morning, but I wouldn’t hear of it. All she could do was shake her head as I paid the admission. How was I to know that this tiny island, and this neighborhood within a neighborhood, could fill 15 buildings and 16,000 square feet with artifacts and displays? It turned out to be one of the finest small museums I’ve ever visited.
Exhibits trace African history beginning with ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia and Egypt all the way through 19th century wood and bronze sculptures from a rainbow of West African nations. I especially remember a bust from Benin. Special displays follow the trans-Atlantic slave trade from captures in Africa to sales in the New World, and the museum doesn’t gloss over Curacao’s grim role as one of the Caribbean’s largest, if not the largest, slave markets.
In fact, the museum sits on the site of a former slave yard, and one of its most wrenching exhibits is a reconstruction of two pillars where slaves newly arrived from Africa would have been sold, and where any who objected to their lot would have been whipped.
I think the place must have closed for the day while I was either going down inside the re-created hold of a Middle Passage slave ship or when I was fitting my wrists into rusty slave manacles in another display.
The irony of my situation grew even stronger as I peered through sturdy iron fencing asking passersby to send for help. As I waited, I was just glad that the admissions woman couldn’t see me. She’s probably still shaking her head.
IF YOU GO:
High season rates generally prevail mid-December through mid-April.
GETTING AROUND: Curacao is well suited to exploring on your own, so rent a car. Road signs are in English, and Curacao drivers are extremely patient and courteous. But stray goat herds may take over the roads at any time, even in populated areas.
A four-day Alamo compact on Curacao cost me US$132 last November. You may pay more in high season. When you are ready for a rugged outing, you can join one of several four-wheel-drive tours that operate here. Most cost less than US$50/person.
CURRENCY: U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
STAYING THERE: Travelers who enjoy “collecting” hotels will find great variety here. Hotel Kura Hulanda (www.kurahulanda.com), in Willemstad’s Otrobanda district, is a member of Leading Small Hotels of the World and offers unique lodging in the buildings of a restored historic district, from US$240 in high season (I got a standard room for nearly half that in low season). It’s within walking distance of all the historic sites of Willemstad. There’s a sister property, Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club (same contact info), on the far western tip of the island at Westpunt. Set apart from the rest of Westpunt, it’s a rather new, breezy resort with a small beach and rates from $225 in high season.
You can have your history and a picture-perfect secluded beach at Avila Beach Hotel (www .avilahotel.com), on the less pedestrian end of Willemstad. Rooms in the historic main building start at US$120 in high season (there’s a catch: modern plumbing but no hot water). Completely modern rooms in other parts of the resort start at $260 in high season.
Landhuis Daniel Country Inn & Restaurant (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.landhuisdaniel.com) is one of the island’s oldest plantation houses. Its eight rooms have private baths and start at $35 with fan and $45 with air conditioning. Add $6/person for breakfast or $25/person for half-board (breakfast and dinner).
Larger chain hotels include Hilton, Howard Johnson and Marriott. Other small – to midsize properties cater to scuba divers. And there are several B&Bs and vacation rentals.
Expect to pay 19 percent in lodging taxes at most places.
MORE INFORMATION: Curacao Tourism Corporation, www.curacao.com