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Behind the Scenes in Curacao

Get to Know this Dutch Island’s Local Culture and History

Travel to Curacao's Capital
Curacao’s capital, Willemstad, looks much like Amsterdam in Caribbean pastels.

Tourists flock to Curacao for some of the very best diving sites in the Caribbean, if not the world. But the tiny Dutch island offers visitors a unique opportunity to dive into local lore and history as well.

Willemstad, its capital and only town of any size, looks just like old Dutch towns in the motherland except here the charming step-and bell-topped facades from the 1600s are dressed in island pastels, and the catch of the day in the outdoor cafes is sea bass, and not herring.

Pick up a map for a self-guided walking tour at the tourist information booth at the town’s landmark pontoon bridge. Poke around the many stone fortresses constructed to repel marauding pirates, past the cannons that today are fired only to celebrate Queen Juliana’s birthday, and the churches with their white interiors lit by shiny brass chandeliers, straight out of an Old Master’s painting. The Mikva Israel Emanuel Synagogue, erected in 1682 by those who fled the Spanish Inquisition, is modeled after the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, right down to the sand on the floor to muffle footsteps.

The new Kura Hulanda Hotel is a series of historic houses grouped around an original brick courtyard. Its Dutch owner has established another museum across the street, detailing the dark history of slavery on the island, which served as a distribution center for the Caribbean in centuries past. It also showcases artifacts of peoples from those African nations that now contribute to the island’s rich cultural mix.

You can see slaves’ cabins from succeeding eras, including the latter-day tin shanties provided by Standard Oil, the island’s biggest industry before the Dutch started returning as tourists, in the botanical garden at Den Paradera. The owner has learned their herbal remedies, which she now offers to the public while spinning stories of times past and singing songs passed on through the generations in a palapa she’s built to educate her visitors. The small seaside Avila Hotel (where the Dutch royal family stays on its visits) hosts yet another museum, the Octagon House, detailing the life of Simon Bolivar in his original dwelling

Angelica Schoop educates locals and tourists alike in her hundred-year-old family home with cooking classes featuring local Africa-inspired dishes such as plantain soup, a beef Creole stew with island vegetables, funchi (a particular local favorite that resembles polenta), and pumpkin pancakes sauced with Curacao from the island’s factory. Instruction, recipes, dinner, and wine at Angelica’s Kitchen cost $70 per person. Contact: 011-5999-562-3699, www.angelicas-kitchen.com.

For a meal of local food head to the harborside Old Market. A dozen or so vendors stand over charcoal-fired stew pots producing savory meals of beef, goat, cod, chicken, or okra, along with plantain soup and funchi and a finale of pumpkin pancakes (meals, about $10, are enjoyed at picnic tables, along with a local Amstel beer if you choose).

To explore the inland, a new company called Wannabike, www.wannabike.com, run by Dutch emigres, gathers groups of up to eight for mountain-bike tours. Choose among itineraries that “only the locals know”: hidden lagoons, abandoned historic country houses, and the mountain pinnacle of the national park (where you can spy Venezuela on a sunny day, or nearby Aruba and Bonaire) along trails shared by goats and whitetail deer. For more information on Curacao, see: www.curacao.com.

 
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