PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL GEORGE
About 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, in the southern pocket of the Caribbean Sea, there’s a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands that’s shaped like an asymmetrical mustache. A hair north of the equator, and tucked mercifully away from the hurricane zone, Curaçao feels like a secret paradise, where sunset-pink flamingos feed year-round in salt pans, where dozens of coral beaches beckon with ferociously bright blue water, and where locals shoot off a rainbow of fireworks every Thursday night, simply because it’s almost the weekend. Enjoying a massive rejuvenation led by artists and community groups, the historic UNESCO-listed capital city of Willemstad—filled with candy-colored townhouses and epic murals—pulsates with a mishmash of 50 different cultures and three official languages, including the island’s very own Creole tongue, Papiamento. In Curaçao, you’ll quickly realize there’s something to celebrate every day—starting with the simple fact that you’re here.
Day 1: Glo mansions, local art, and the ultimate street party
I’m 12 degrees north of the equator, on a flat stretch of an island in the Caribbean Sea, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised how hot the sun feels. It’s fall, and the trade winds have been so constant they’ve caused the divi-divis—stubby trees with dry, mangled trunks and flamboyant green tufts on top—to lean so cartoonishly you can practically see Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, holding on by a thread before a train flattens him. But the winds are on siesta today, so I splash on more sunscreen and prepare to explore Willemstad.
Traveling to a tropical island for a “city day” may seem like an odd choice, but Curaçao’s capital, founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, has always been, by some measure, a cosmopolitan trading port. After going through hard times and neglect, the once crumbling city is enjoying a revival fueled by its people, with artists and entrepreneurs helping to create a new spirit of civic pride.
I check out of my bright room at Boho Bohemian Boutique Hotel, in Pietermaai, a residential district where wealthy merchants, bankers, and ship captains built ornate mansions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these have been restored into trendy hotels and restaurants with airy courtyards. Their playfully painted exteriors feel like flavors—lemon, lime, blueberry—and the fancy white trim like icing. Inside the raspberry one is Beans, a pretty coffee shop with original ceiling frescoes and mosaic floors. On the seaside terrace, I have coffee and a warm codfish pastechi (kind of like a flaky empanada) before meeting my friend Damaris, who was born on the island and works at Kas di Pal’i Maishi, a museum that focuses on how the Afro-Curaçaoans adapted post-slavery.
Our first destination is Scharloo, a quiet neighborhood that still feels like a village thanks to Street Art Skalo, a community-led organization that has enlisted local artists to paint building facades and walls. Driving along the main drag, Scharlooweg, Damaris calls out to a guy in paint-splattered shorts and a pink polo shirt, “Bon dia! We’re hunting you down!”
“Ha ha!” he replies. “I’m going for a coffee, and then boom.” He is Francis Sling, one of the island’s biggest art stars. Several of his paintings hang at Curaçao House in The Hague, and his Three O’Clock Romance—a massive mural of two birds having a chance meeting on a branch—is just around the corner from here.
When we join Sling in his studio, he’s slicing into a colorful work on the floor. Jazz is playing. “Everybody is asking for postcards,” he says, “but you know what? These are like pieces of a puzzle, just like us! Maybe we are just pieces of a big artwork—which is the world! Ha!” I buy a pair of earrings featuring mismatched, tangled pieces of paint he scraped from his floor, and we let him get back to work.
For lunch, we stop at Fleur de Marie Eatery for some beef stew and lemongrass lemonade, served under a tamarind tree in the backyard garden. I ask Damaris if she knows of a place I can get some good burn relief, since I have a feeling I’m going to need it. She takes me around the corner to a family-run shop, Integra Natural, that’s filled with handmade organic body scrubs, lotions, and soaps. The co-owner, Jose, tells us how his then-10-year-old daughter started making and selling her own all-natural lip balms seven years ago, after he wouldn’t raise her allowance. “She opened my mind,” he said. He and his wife, Ana, quit their well-paying jobs, did their research, and now they’re happy as can be making potions and offering classes in the lab next door.
With a soothing balm in hand, we drive over the Queen Juliana Bridge—which, at 185 feet, is the Caribbean’s tallest—to Otrobanda, the Dutch colony’s first working-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood, where many freed slaves settled in the mid-1800s. We head to the Kurá Hulanda Village & Spa. Despite being so magnificently preserved it could be in Disneyland, the village is a stark reminder of the island’s dark past, when Willemstad was a major stop on the trans-Atlantic slave-trade route. On the site of a former slave merchant’s home is the Museum Kurá Hulanda, which holds the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean. I walk through the courtyard, where people were once sold to the highest bidder; two pillars support a bell used to summon slaves to work and a crossbeam to tie them for beatings. It’s a stark but moving time capsule.
As the sun starts to set, we cross St. Anna Bay on the pedestrian-only wooden pontoon Queen Emma Bridge, the world’s only swinging floating bridge. Ahead of us is Curaçao’s most iconic vista: the candy-colored townhouses along Handelskade, in the district of Punda. As the story goes, the buildings were originally white, but a Dutch general in the 1800s complained that the sun reflecting off them gave him migraines, so he demanded they be painted in bright colors. “Years after he died, it came out that he owned the factory that made the paint,” Damaris tells me with a laugh.
It’s my luck it’s Thursday, the night when everyone comes out for Punda Vibes. I don’t know what Punda is like on any other night, but it seems as if the entire island is here. On every corner, there are artists and craftspeople displaying their work or bands playing everything from salsa and zouk to reggaeton and EDM. In between the narrow alleys, different tempos mingle with multiple languages as people wander and stop to talk.
We pass the imposing Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue; built in 1732, it’s the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Upon turning the corner, we see a group of folkloric dancers in orange costumes. A crowd has formed, so we take a seat at La Bohème for a better view and some chicken curry arepas. Just when the music and dancing stop, another group starts singing. It’s someone’s birthday, and they’re belting out the verses in different languages: Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish, English. “Here, we go really long with the birthday song,” says Damaris. When the singing is over, the clapping is overpowered by the sound of fireworks shooting multicolored sparkles into the harbor, and we toast to good vibes.
Want to watch the sunset with a frosty drink while swaying in a hammock? Look no further than Chill Beach Bar & Grill, located at Lions Dive & Beach Resort on serene Mambo Beach.
Day 2: A desert adventure, herbal healing, and a late-night swim
A sheep clickity-clacks along the waxed wood floor of Landhuis Jan Thiel, a salt plantation turned boutique hotel on the island’s east side. Her name is Olivia, and her barrel body follows Loeki, the manager, step for step, just like a shadow, just like a sheep. Meanwhile, Dingo, a small brindle hound, is clocking two clucking hens passing through the open kitchen, but his ears are pointed toward the squawking parrots flying overhead, their flapping wings leaving vermilion tracers against the blue sky.
I could stay here all day, but it’s time to make my way to Eric’s ATV Adventures for an off-road escapade into the desert along the north coast. When I arrive, I see a familiar face: Tom Cruise. A newspaper clipping on the wall says he loved his ride! Coming from a manly man of means who performs his own stunts, it’s a solid endorsement. I notice that many of my fellow riders are tricked out in pro-looking biker outfits and tattoos, which makes me wonder if I need to learn how to do this. Leo, our guide, doesn’t calm my nerves: “There are 18 of you,” he says, “and I want 18 to come back.”
Along the craggy paths I learn how to turn, allowing me to focus on the windswept cacti and acacia bushes—and on the dust all over my arms that I hope will serve as the sunscreen I forgot to apply. We roll past an ostrich farm and into an aloe vera plantation. Rows of spiny plants are harvested for CurAloe, which turns the nutrient-rich gel into wellness elixirs and skin-care ointments. In Papiamento, they’re called sentebibu, meaning “100 alive,” meaning that if you sip some every day you’ll live to be 100. People also plant aloe outside their homes to dispel bad energy. Hedging bets, I buy a bunch.
When we reach the coast, rolling waves are crashing against slabs of lava rock. As the spray cools my toasted arms, Leo offers a history lesson. “Why is Curaçao called Curaçao?” he asks. Turns out there are a few possibilities, with both Portuguese and Spanish origins. Leo’s favorite? “When soldiers and slaves came here after being out to sea for a long time, they were sick with scurvy, and by some miracle they were healed by eating the laraha oranges, which were very bitter but filled with vitamin C. So from the Spanish word for healing, cura, we have ‘Curaçao.’” Sounds legit to me.
I say goodbye to the convoy and drive down the coast to Purunchi, a restaurant in a wooden fisherman’s house run by the family that lives upstairs. Anthony, the son, leads me through the kitchen to a dock–cum–dining room that sways gently over the water. Sparks of blue light from the sea peek through the floorboards, and the breeze clinks the shells on a wind chime overhead. Mom Gina tends to the tables, hugging guests and laughing as if this were a family reunion. Dad Calvin leans over the side of the dock to grab a wahoo from a fisherman in a skiff. We ooh and ahh—this is a catch—and within seconds, Calvin is cleaning and filleting the blue fish, handing leftover bits to grateful pelicans. The pelicans and I agree: It’s delicious (though I do have my portion fried). When I ask Anthony what’s in the creamy red sauce that comes with the homemade funchi (a kind of polenta that is a house specialty), he smiles. “That’s Grandma’s sauce.” When I press him, he demurs. “Oh, that’s a little bit of a secret.”
After lunch, I drive about 30 minutes east, away from the coast and into the scrubby countryside, to Den Paradera, where I’m meeting Dinah Veeris, a healer who cultivates hundreds of species of medicinal herbs and spices. She’s known for resuscitating sick trees by singing to them and potted plants by rocking them in hammocks. In her lab, she concocts remedies for everything from eczema to heartbreak. I’m never without an ailment, so I enlist her help. She listens to my symptoms and prescribes liquid magnesium, stinging nettle, and milk thistle, all of which she says I can get back in New York. But this is surely a magic place, so I want whatever she’s growing, whatever has kept her so youthful and vibrant. As I leave her Xanadu, she laughs at the sight of a cat belly-flopped under a tree. “She just appeared one day and never left.”
Back at the Landhuis Jan Thiel, Loeki invites me on a hike. As the sun begins to set, we see a flock of flamingos, deep orange-pink, preening in a lagoon. While salt production stopped in the 1970s, there’s still plenty about. Loeki grabs some to take back to the hotel, where she’ll mix it with herbs and spices. Maybe that’s what made my scrambled eggs so tasty this morning.
With food on my mind, I drive a few minutes to Zest Beach Café, a stylish spot with picnic tables on Jan Thiel Beach. Burying my feet in the sand, I have a glass of red wine and a plate of tiger shrimp that have been grilled on a charcoal hibachi and doused with yet another delicious sauce. The waiter tells me it’s a mix of minced onions, an Indonesian spice called sambal, and “lots of butter—the chef is French.” I sponge up every drop with grilled toast, and then walk over to the shore for a swim, this time under the stars.
INTO THE BLUE
Curaçao’s world-famous eponymous liqueur began as a pipe dream. Hoping for a sweet-tasting reminder of home, settlers from Spain brought over Valencia orange seeds, but the island’s dry, volcanic soil caused the oranges to remain green and grow very bitter–not even goats would eat them. In 1896, Edgar Senior and Haim Mendes Chumaceiro began experimenting with the orange peels in their tiny Willemstad pharmacy. They created an aperitif using peels that had been dried under the sun for five days, and the drink has endured ever since.
Descendants of their families still make the liqueur with Curaçao oranges, which now boast their very own Latin name (citrus aurantium Currassuviensis, or “golden orange of Curaçao”). So secret is the location of the orange groves that the plantation’s owners insist on delivering the sun-dried peels to the distillery themselves. Each step of the distillation process is performed by hand, from adding ingredients (half of which are secret) to pouring the liqueur into its trademark orange-shped bottles. Counterfeits can be found everywhere, but Senior & Co. is the only brand in the world that can claim true authenticity.
Day 3: Road-tripping to Westpunt, sunbathing with pigs, and exploring the Blue Room
Today I’m going on a road trip, driving to Westpunt, the island’s scenic western side, which is home to its prettiest, most undeveloped beaches. Before picking up Damaris, I stop into Hofi Cas Cora, a charming farm-to-table eatery, to fill up on waffles made with fresh pumpkins from their garden. Tossing back a mango-papaya smoothie, I’m on my way.
Getting to the west side is easy: One dusty two-lane road runs down the center of the island, through sun-baked flats and over gentle hills. After about 30 minutes, we stop to admire a colony of flamingos feeding and honking at each other in a small lagoon. “All chicks are born white,” Damaris says, “so it’s an act of love when they get their color. As their mothers feed them, the babies gradually turn pink, and the mothers less pink.” In front of us, against a mound of mud, stands a sign that spells out williwood, perfectly mimicking the Hollywood sign. What started as a cheeky joke became an accidental boom for the small town of St. Willibrordus—so much so that it was officially re-christened Williwood, spurring a cottage industry of schwag branded with the town’s new logo (a jaunty goat).
Another 10 minutes down the road, we reach Playa Porto Mari. Parking the car, we spot the beach’s celebrity residents—a pair of wild pigs named Willy and Woody—in repose under gum trees. Enormously porky, with luxurious long strands of wheat-colored hair, they are notorious for rooting through beach bags and drinking beer. After a swim, we continue beach-hopping. At each one—Lagun, Kleine Knip, Grote Knip—we notice the water getting cooler, and at each cove there are palm-thatch umbrellas, snack trucks, and men at card tables playing dominoes.
A bit farther up the coast, we reach Playa Piskado, where I’ve set up an unusual snorkeling adventure on something called a Seabob with someone or something called Bearded Butlers. It all makes sense when I spot a man with
a bale of a beard coming toward me in a shirt bearing a life-size cartoon of his
impressively hirsute head. He introduces himself as Andy, helps me put on my mask, and shows me around the controls of the James Bond–style gizmo. It looks like a miniature Jet Ski, although all I have to do is hold on; its top speed is 8.7 mph, and if you point its nose down, you can reach a depth of 24 feet. “Have you ever seen grass eels?” Andy asks. “They are amazing! Follow me!” We zip across the cove, and when he points down, I dive to see hundreds of long, green, worm-like strands poking out of the sand, like some kind of aquatic Chia Pet. The moment we get too close for comfort, they vanish. After that, we pull up alongside sea turtles and then take turns swimming through a dense cloud of hundreds of fish. Watching Andy maneuver so effortlessly, I call out, “Merman! Merman!” (a tribute any Zoolander fan would be moved to make).
Back on land, Damaris and I appease our growling stomachs with a visit to Jaanchie’s, off Westpunt’s main drag. Two generations of the namesake owner’s family have been serving local dishes here since 1936, inside a bright orange ranch-style home wrapped in red bougainvillea. On the porch, a pair of sunburnt tourists in rocking chairs are hypnotized by a flurry of yellow-bellied bananaquits darting between feeders. A distinguished man in a crisp white guayabera pulls up a chair. It’s Jaanchie, and with the bemused air of a retired theater actor, he recites the menu. “Everything is possible—also goat or beef stew—and why not try the iguana? It tastes like chicken, but you have to be careful. You never know when the iguana starts to work.” Damaris whispers, “People say it’s natural Viagra,” at which Jaanchie pretends to blush. “We also have chicken, but it doesn’t taste like iguana.” A plate of curried “iguana bites” appear among the dishes we order. I try a sliver to show Jaanchie I’m game. He answers with a wink. As we leave, he hands me a souvenir money pouch, telling us, “Save up, but remember: Life is but a dream.”
After lunch, I part with Damaris and hit the road to Playa Santa Cruz to see the legendary Captain Goodlife about a boat ride. The salty captain, aka Henry “Juni” Obersi, greets me wearing groovy 1970s eyeglasses and a floral shirt, tells me I’m late, and offers me a hug and a beer. With that, we scurry off to the boat, with three of his kids. His life story, which he offers in gregarious spurts, deserves its own book or movie, which would definitely come with warnings of racy language. “My dad’s life is a telenovela,” his daughter Erica says.
We stop a handful of times, once to snorkel over a freighter the captain sank more than 20 years ago; the shipwreck is now a bustling metropolis for hungry fish. Worth the price of admission alone is the famous Blue Room. Following Erica’s lead, I hold my breath and dive under an extended rock shelf to reach the underwater cave. Inside, the sunlight passes through the clear seawater, illuminating the cavern with a surreal blue light that seems phosphorescent.
It’s late by the time I make it back to the other side of the island, so I stop at a trùk di pan along the turquoise water of Caracasbaai. Roadside sandwich trucks like these are an essential component of the Curaçao lifestyle, which typically includes late-night partying and eating. I go all in with the BBQ ribs and fries. Sitting there among the jovial revelers and the truck’s flashing LEDs, I remember something Damaris told me about her compatriots: “We celebrate the most random things so we have an excuse to get together and barbecue. But as soon as the food is done, we leave—party over.” At that, I wipe my hands off on my beach towel and head for one last swim.
Winter’s cure: Slip away to Curaçao, one of United’s newest seasonal destinations. Flights began operating in December from New York City/Newark; visit united.com or download the United mobile app for schedule and details.
Next Up: Three Perfect Days in Oahu