Curaçao diary | Destination

An unexpected flock of flamingos, traditional architecture, a hike with incredible views, and beach after glorious beach — Philip Sander samples the delights of Caribbean Airlines’ newest destination

  • At Daaibooi Bay near the village of Sint Willibrordus, limestone cliffs shelter a pristine turquiose bay. Photo by Naturepixfilms/Shutterstock.com
  • Wild flamingos at Saliña Sint Marie. Photo by Gail Johnson/Shutterstock.com
  • The ornate façade of a historic building in Willemstad’s Pietermaai district. Photo by Robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo
  • The façade of the ornate Penha Building, one of Curaçao’s historic landmarks. Photo by Carol J. Saunders/Alamy Stock Photo
  • At the centre of Willemstad, giant letters spell out the Papiamentu word “Dushi”— a perfect selfie location. Photo by Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock.com
  • The literal high point of Christoffelpark is Curaçao’s tallest peak, Christoffelberg. Photo by Gail Johnson/Shutterstock.com
  • A sunset swim at Daaibooi Bay. Photo by Gail Johnson/Shutterstock.com
  • Curaçao map

The landmark we were looking out for, the imposing nineteenth-century church of Sint Willibrordus, appeared as we drove over a crest in the road. Perched atop its small hill, the church seemed to be the tallest structure for miles around, looming higher as we approached.

Then an unexpected flash of colour turned my head. The tide was out in the lagoon of Saliña Sint Marie, exposing an expanse of mudflat dotted with mangrove clumps. And further out, near the edge of the shallow water, was a flock of flamingos, placidly foraging, their bright pink plumage contrasting with the chocolate-brown mud.

We pulled over, of course, and climbed up the viewing platform helpfully provided by the citizens of Sint Willibrordus. A quarter mile away, the flamingos were mere specks of pink, but we gazed with delight. Somehow, I’d assumed spotting them would require a special expedition, maybe an organised tour — I didn’t expect they’d casually appear in the landscape on our very first day in Curaçao.

Nor did I expect the thing that next caught my eye, just at the edge of the lagoon, beside a football field below the church: WILLIWOOD spelled out in tall white letters, a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the famous Hollywood sign, here in an otherwise sleepy-seeming village twelve miles out of Curaçao’s capital, Willemstad.

Past the church — built in the 1880s, I’d later find out — our route veered to the left, and soon we were driving through dry thorny forest, low hills rising on either side. A sandy parking lot announced our destination: Daaibooi Bay, a beach with a name almost unpronounceable for English-speakers, and known for its unspoiled seclusion, we’d been told. It sounded like just the spot for our first swim in Curaçao.

The small bay had a broad, sandy beach, sheltered on either side by limestone cliffs, topped with thorn trees and cacti. A handful of thatched huts offered shade, and a ramshackle beach bar brought up the rear. As we strode out onto the sand, a nearby tree seemed to explode with birdsong: scores of bananaquits hopped and chirruped in its branches, joined by a dozen larger troupials, their bright orange plumage offset by their black heads and white-streaked wings.

But the true amazement of colour was the sea before us, an intense shimmering and utterly transparent turquoise. Within mere seconds I’d plunged in, and I couldn’t help laughing with sheer delight. The sky above was untouched by cloud. As I floated out to the middle of the bay, I thought there was surely something in the world worth worrying about, but for the moment I couldn’t remember what that might be.

Immediately west of Punda, the historic (and formerly walled) centre of Willemstad, is Pietermaii, named for the Dutch captain who settled here in 1674. Once a suburb of the town, with simple cottages along narrow alleys and larger, more ornate nineteenth-century villas along the seafront, Pietermaii went through decades of genteel decline, many of its colonial buildings falling into disrepair. But an absence of new construction meant that when entrepreneurs turned their attention to the neighbourhood a decade and a half ago, there were numerous historic structures ready for restoration, many of them now converted to trendy boutique hotels and restaurants, their façades painted in the brilliant colours Willemstad is famous for.

From our hotel in the heart of Pietermaii — in a former warehouse building, a big loading door still visible on one side of the upper floor — it was an easy ten-minute stroll to Wilheminaplein, the square at the centre of Punda next to Fort Amsterdam, the city’s oldest surviving structure. You can’t come to Curaçao and not explore Willemstad’s historic streetscape, a UNESCO World Heritage site — but first we needed to find the giant Dushi.

“Dushi,” you see, is a key word in Papiamentu, Curaçao’s national language. It’s a multipurpose expression of approval or pleasure, like “OK” or “nice” or “irie” — or even (context is everything) “darling” or “sexy.” And in the middle of Wilheminaplein are five giant letters forming a selfie-ready backdrop, an almost obligatory shot for Instagram.

Except I found myself distracted by another odd monument erected in the square by the city authorities: a pair of giant iguanas, sculpted in concrete, and large enough for even adults to clamber up on their backs and pose for a photo. (Mine got sent directly to a Jamaican friend with a special interest in lizards.)

Selfies out of the way, we began our tour of Willemstad’s architecture. The characteristic merchant’s house, dating to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, has a steep-pitched Dutch gable roof and arched arcades open to the street. Many of the surviving examples have been adapted over time, the ground floors in particular converted to modern shopfronts, but preserved architectural details and the grid of narrow streets give Punda a distinctive historic atmosphere.

The most famous view in the city, of course, is of the line of buildings facing the waterfront along Handelskade — the most celebrated of all being the baroque Penha Building, now a high-end perfume emporium, on the corner with Breedestraat. And to properly take in the view, we headed across the equally celebrated Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon across Sint Anna Bay, connecting Punda to its “other side,” Otrobanda.

Built in 1888, the bridge was designed with a hinge and a series of propellers so it can be periodically swung open to allow boat traffic into the harbour. (If you happen to wish to cross while the bridge is open, a free passenger ferry leaps into action a stone’s throw away.) In the early twentieth century, it operated as a toll bridge, even for pedestrians, though those without shoes were exempt from the charge. In 1974, it was closed to motor vehicles, and today the bridge with its illuminated arches is another obligatory selfie spot.

Just on the other side is one of Willemstad’s most architecturally fascinating neighbourhoods, along a gentle slope above the bay, once known as “the hill” of Otrobanda. Beautifully restored nineteenth-century villas, some with shady gardens, rise in tiers, with information plaques along the streets for self-guided tours. And here you’ll also find Kura Hulanda, a unique district of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century buildings now converted to a hotel, with accommodation spread across dozens of cottages and historic townhouses, cobbled alleys as “corridors,” and a fascinating historical museum at its core.

The walk back to Pietermaii took us past the small Waaigat lagoon, an offshoot of Sint Anna Bay, and the location of another longtime Willemstad landmark, the Floating Market. Traditionally, small boats bearing produce from nearby Venezuela would line the wharf here, selling fruit, vegetables, and other provisions to the householders of the city. But as we approached, we saw the wharf was almost deserted: the importation of food from Venezuela has all but stopped due to the political situation there, and the Floating Market awaits a change in continental politics to return to its former picturesque bustle.

From Willemstad to Westpunt, Curaçao’s remotest point, is an easy morning drive, a leisurely hour on uncrowded roads. Still, we should have risen and started earlier: it was nearing 11 am when we pulled up at the headquarters for Christoffelpark, a protected reserve around Curaçao’s highest peak, Christoffelberg (all of 1,239 feet tall). Founded on the site of one of the island’s oldest plantations, and in the dampest part of a usually rather dry island, the park is Curaçao’s bioversity hotspot, with a forest of divi-divi trees and cacti, rare wild orchids, and a small herd of native white-tailed deer. Well-tended trails criss-cross the forest, the most popular leading to the top of Christoffelberg — but the best time to tackle the steepish ascent is not when the sun is at its most intense.

Still, we gave it a try. The trail began deceptively with a short descent, the thorny trees offering sporadic shade. Many, many lizards slithered through the dry undergrowth, and brown-throated parakeets screeched overhead.

Very soon we were climbing uphill, over a dry streambed and over a scramble of rocks. As we ascended, an occasional breeze kept us refreshed, and then the view of the surrounding hills and the further sea opened up. The distant blue competed with the pounding heat.

Reader, I wish I could describe to you the spectacular view from the summit itself, but instead I’ll confess that an hour into the climb, we halted — perhaps not so much because of the intense heat as because we’d begun to think of the sea. Specifically, of the extraordinary beaches we’d heard of around Westpunt, and the notion of submerging our sunstruck selves in that cool, clear water.

I always say it’s good to leave something for the next trip, and in the case of Curaçao, that includes finishing the Christoffelberg hike. And as we arrived at our next stop — the beach at Grote Knip, also known in Papiamentu as Kenepa Grandi — I couldn’t truthfully say I felt regretful.

Often, leafing through a travel magazine or brochure, I see a photo of a beach with water so incredibly blue, I turn the page with a sniff, convinced the hue owes something to the photographer’s retouching skills. Here on the cliff above Kenepa Grandi, my mind boggled, and not just because I’d hiked too long in the blazing sun. This expanse of turquoise gleaming below — surely this was not a colour that could actually occur in nature? It was like having a Photoshop filter installed in my retinas.

Not even when I was immersed in the water, surrounded by other bathers, all apparently unfazed, could I quite believe it.

Over lunch — and a bottle of Amstel beer — my companion and I decided, in the interest of scientific rigour, that the rest of the day must be devoted to field research. We took out a map, planned a route. In the absence of instruments, hue would have to be measured with our eyes, water temperature with our skin, the fineness of sand particles with our feet. We set out to sample as many of Curaçao’s leeward coast beaches as we could stomach. There was Playa Kalki in the north, with a boardwalk at the foot of the cliff and shingle sloping down to the waves. There was Playa Grandi, known for the friendly sea turtles which congregate around the fishermen’s dock. Then Kenepa Chiki, smaller sibling to Kenepa Grandi, less crowded and fringed with manchineel trees. Playa Jeremi was perhaps the most modest of all, with a parking lot but no “facilities” other than the sheltering cliffs and shady trees. And on and on down the coast towards Willemstad, one azure oasis after another to be waded into, with a sigh.

The things we do, reader, for the sake of science . . .

A beach for each

There’s no shortage of beaches on Curaçao’s sheltered leeward coast, and options for every preference, whether you’re looking for someplace wild and untouched, or with all the amenities of the poshest resort. Many of the most popular beaches, like Jan Thiel, Blue Bay, and Cas Abao, are run by official operators who charge an admission fee in return for access to changing facilities, restaurants, and bars. Others are free to enter, but individual entrepreneurs rent beach umbrellas and deck chairs. And if your ideal is merely a towel spread on the sand, there are small coves off the beaten track where you can bask and swim untroubled by commerce.

One colourful character

The colours of Willemstad are one of the first impressions to strike any visitor. With the exception of one or two modern glass and steel structures, every house, shop, church, and government building in the city is painted in a vivid hue, from pastel pinks and greens to intense reds and yellows, usually accentuated with white trim.

For this charming rainbow effect you can thank one man: Albert Kikkert, a military officer appointed governor of Curaçao in 1816 by King William I. As the story goes, when Kikkert arrived to take up his post, the buildings of Willemstad were washed a uniform white — which in the tropical noon created a glare that troubled the new governor’s eyes. To spare himself the literal headaches, he decreed that all buildings in the city were to be painted over — that he was a shareholder in the island’s only paint factory may or may not have been a coincidence. So every tourist who pauses to take yet another snapshot of the pastel-painted skyline should pause for a moment to thank the governor with the tired eyes.

Bon bini

The average person in Curaçao is fluent in three if not four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish, and, of course, Papiamentu: the national language (shared, with minor differences, with Aruba and Bonaire), with roots in various West African tongues, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. Linguists still debate its exact origins and historical development, but it is definitively the most widely spoken language in Curaçao, taught in schools and used in parliamentary debates, and a smattering of its vocabulary is useful even on short visit.

bon bini — welcome
bondia — good morning
bontardi — good afternoon
ayo — goodbye
por fabor — please
danki — thank you
di nada — you’re welcome

Caribbean Airlines operates two flights each week to Hato International Airport in Curaçao from Trinidad, with connections to other destinations in the Caribbean and North and South America