Time slows when you reach the laid–back, lesser–known corner of the Caribbean where Curaçao sits, just off the coast of Venezuela. The former Dutch colony lies outside the hurricane belt, where near–daily sunshine adds a golden glow to an already saturated colour palette. It’s reflected in the work of the island’s artists, and on the elaborate murals that cover the walls of its 18th–century buildings (already in every shade imaginable). It’s also reflected in the people who graciously share the best of their beautiful island, occasionally over a cocktail mixed with blue curaçao – a liqueur with an electric hue that mimics the intoxicating shade of the surrounding sea.
This laid–back, lesser–known corner of the Caribbean is renowned for its turquoise waters, rainbow–coloured buildings and flocks of pink flamingoes.
“Curaçao is full of surprises, with its colourful architecture, fields of cacti, flamingos – and the brightest blue water I have ever seen.” – photographer Michael George.
Local artist Francis Sling (above) draws inspiration from the colours of Curaçao, from the picture–book hues of the colonial buildings in the capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage City), to the plumage of the birds on the island’s nature trails. Sling is responsible for 20–ish (he doesn’t keep track) magical murals on the island. “I’m committed to creating art – it’s like flowers for the soul.”
Each of the island’s roughly 38 beaches offers a different experience: There are giant sandbars where you can walk out into an endless blue horizon, as well as hidden bays, vibrant reefs and underwater caves. Locals – and in–the–know visitors – seek out the crystalline waters of Playa Kenepa Grandi on the island’s west side for swimming, snorkelling and cliff jumping.
Take a break from the beach and go off–roading on the eastern, more arid side of the island, where you’ll pass by aloe vera plantations, sculptural cacti and secret inlets until you arrive at the wild north shore, with its crashing waves and limestone cliffs. Some of the bumpier trails are best experienced with 4WD, and there are several ATV tours to choose from on the island.
The Caribbean flamingo is one of the largest and brightest of the flamingo family, and its habitat is protected on Curaçao. (Fossil records show the birds could be found sifting algae and invertebrates from remote watering holes around the planet up to 50 million years ago.) On the island, they’re most often spotted on the saliñanan (salt flats), where seawater was once diverted so that it would evaporate, leaving the valuable salt behind. The flamingo (from the Portuguese for “flame–coloured”) can live for 44 years in the wild and typically lays only one very large egg every breeding year.
The catch of the day dictates the menu at De Visserij (Dutch for the Fishery), where fishing boats pull right up to the restaurant, located in Piscadera. Step up to the counter to order dishes like fried funchi (cubes of cornmeal mush), deep–fried shrimp and seared tuna, then select one of the sheltered seaside tables overlooking Piscadera Bay while you wait for your fish to sizzle.
Herbal healer Dinah Veeris welcomes visitors from all over to her garden, Den Paradera, which translates to “where you want to stay” and features a botanical healing corner and an apothecary. Veeris inherited her love of herbs from her mother – her favourite is Moringa oleifera. “It was discovered in Curaçao in 1836,” she says. “If I wake up with a lack of energy, I eat some of its leaves.”
Like many born on the island, artist Francis Sling and herbal healer Dinah Veeris left Curaçao to attend school overseas. Then, they came home to stay. “It’s a small island, but it’s so unique, with a profound history and our language, Papiamento,” Veeris says. “So many cultures are living here together – and we welcome everyone.”
The lively cobblestone streets of Willemstad’s Pietermaai District (founded in the 1700s) are lined with candy–coloured shops, cafés and outdoor bars and restaurants like Mundo Bizarro, where you’ll find Cuban–inspired flavours from breakfast to closing time. As the sun sets, local musicians begin tuning their instruments – and you just know there’ll be dancing in the streets.
When You Go
BijBlauw Boutique Hotel
Named for the colour of the sea and sky, this family–run hotel, restaurant and shop occupies three historic 19th–century buildings in the Pietermaai District. The 13 rooms range from “cozy” to more spacious two–bedroom suites. Enjoy a regularly changing menu on the seaside terrace, from almond pancakes and tropical smoothie bowls in the a.m. to grilled tuna with lime risotto under the stars.
It doesn’t get more locally authentic than the iguana stew and cactus soup at Jaanchie’s in Westpunt (the less adventurous might inquire about fried fish, although there is no set menu). Jaanchie may even take your order himself, carefully explaining each dish to the accompaniment of the tropical songbirds that flit from feeder to feeder in the front garden.
Fish & Joy Bistro & Wine Bar
The owners from Urk, a fishing village in the Netherlands, bring a mastery of seafood to their small–plate menu at Fish & Joy Bistro & Wine Bar (formerly known as Fishalicious). Whether you’re tucked into the cozy wine bar or out on the patio, international flavour shines through in dishes like ceviche wahoo soft–shell tacos, takoyaki crab beignets and duck confit with lentil dal cream.
Christoffel National Park
Discover more than 450 species of indigenous plants (and maybe spot a rare Curaçao white– tailed deer) on one of Christoffel National Park’s seven scenic hiking trails. The park is the site of three former plantations, including one of the island’s oldest, Savonet, built in 1662. Visit the Savonet Museum for a glimpse of Curaçao’s history from the perspective of some of the 242 slaves who worked there.
More than 300,000 years old, Hato Cave is well worth exploring, with its network of chambers, intricate stalactite and stalagmite formations, rare bat colony and rich history – on a nearby trail you can still see petroglyphs left behind by the Arawaks, the island’s Indigenous peoples, more than 1,500 years ago.
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Aeroplan YYZ > CUR: Economy seats from 20,800 points. Points displayed are estimated ranges for one–way travel and are for informational purposes only.