Curacao offers great diving, beautiful beaches and also one of the prettiest cities in the Caribbean - Willemstad. The architecture and ambience are Dutch with a lovely Caribbean tint. The city is divided by St. Anna Bay into Punda on the east, and Otrabanda (literally "the other side") on the west. Punda is the oldest part of Willemstad, with many old buildings now shops offering duty-free goods. La Casa Amarilla, a local landmark since 1887, now sells cosmetics and perfumes. Punda's Drijvende Markt or "Floating Market" is made up of Venezuelan schooners tied to the docks selling produce, meats and fish, plus fabrics and handicrafts. Don't hesitate to bargain-it's expected! Across the water is the Maritime Museum housed in a colonial mansion. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue dates to 1732. It houses its original pipe organ and chandeliers, said to pre-date the Synagogue by 300 years, having been brought from Spain or Portugal. In the courtyard is the Jewish Cultural Museum.
Fort Amsterdam, once the center of Willemstad, is now government offices. Behind the fort is Fortkerk, an 18th century Protestant Church, with displays of the original church silver and old maps of the island. Guided tours are available. Call 461-1139 for information.
To get to Otrabanda, cross Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon bridge which swings open to allow access to the harbour. Wander through the streets to see 17th century townhouses and mansions. St. Anna Basilica (Otrabanda Map D-3) is one of the many historic buildings. On the west side of Otrabanda is the Curacao Museum (Willemstad Map F-4), with local Indian exhibits, colonial items including locally made furniture and 19th & 20th century paintings. The spacious grounds are often the site of music concerts. Call 462-3873. The Kura Hulanda Museum (Otrabanda Map D-3), opened in 1999, is housed in restored 19th century buildings. Its exhibits relate to the slave trade and include a replica of a slave ship's hold plus fossils and artifacts from Africa. It is the largest of its kind in the Caribbean. Breedestraat is the shopping street, but along the water beside the cruisedock is Arawak Craft Products (Otrabanda Map C-4), both a store and workshop, where you can watch the artisans. They make ceramic items and sell South American decorative artifacts and some defltware.
Christoffel Park, on the west end of the island, covers over 4,000 acres, formerly three plantations. At the Westpunt Road entrance is Savonet Plantation House, the oldest on the island. It's now closed to the public but outbuildings house a museum with archeological exhibits. In the park, you can hike the trails and see flora and fauna, including orchids and the small Curacao deer, and also Amerindian petroglyphs. The hike up Mt. Christoffel, 1,240 feet, takes a few hours. Bikes and horses are available for the less energetic. Call 864-0535.
At the Hato Caves, guided tours are offered through some of the most interesting caves in the Caribbean, full of stalagmites and stalactites, as well as bats. Formerly used as shelter by the Arawaks, who left cave drawings, they were also used as hiding places for escaped slaves. The surrounding grounds are nice for a walk and a picnic.
Southeast of Willemstad is the Seaquarium, an environmentally sensitive attraction built so as not to disturb the coastline and offshore reefs. The plants and sea creatures, including turtles, stingrays and sharks, can be seen in a natural setting. You can swim with the stingrays, dive and snorkel here and have your picture taken feeding the sharks! There's also a snack bar, restaurant and gift shop.
Whether you're exploring charming Willemstad, shopping for Dutch treats to bring home, or enjoying an underwater adventure, Curacao is sure to delight you!