Venture out into the countryside and explore the towering cacti and rolling hills topped by landhuizen (plantation houses) built more than 3 centuries ago. For those who prefer a guide, contact Island Tours (tel. 599/9-465-2703 or 561-5368; www.petertrips.com). Half- and full-day tours of the island range from $25 to $50, including water, lunch, and admission fees. Fiesta Tours (tel. 559/9-512-0643; http://fiestatourscuracao.com) also takes individuals or groups on custom excursions anywhere on the island.
Originally founded as Santa Ana by the Spanish in the 1500s, Willemstad was renamed in the 17th century by Dutch traders, who found the natural harbor a perfect hideaway along the Spanish Main. Willemstad's historic pastel-colored, red-roofed town houses and natural harbor are on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Hemmed in by the sea, a tiny canal, and an inlet, the narrow streets are crosshatched by still narrower alleyways.
Saint Anna Bay runs through the heart of Willemstad. This narrow span belies its natural depth, which is sufficient to allow even cruise ships to berth directly in town. Two bridges span the bay: the pedestrian-only Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon bridge that floats on the water and opens about every half-hour to allow boats to pass by, and the more modern 50m-high (164-ft.) Queen Juliana Bridge, which has a four-lane modern highway and is high enough to allow even the most ostentatious mega-cruise ships to sail below.
Orientation -- Downtown Willemstad has two central districts on either bank of the bay. Punda ("the Point" in Papiamentu) is the name given to the eastern side, noted for its Dutch colonial architecture that lines the front street, Handelskade. This is the oldest part of town and was the original Dutch settlement where ship merchants built structures that served a dual purpose, with shop and warehouse on the ground floor and residence above. Shaded porches and galleries offered protection from the sun, and ample windows on all stories cooled interiors with cross breezes from the trade winds. Tile floors were also designed to cool rooms off.
The western side of town is called Otrobanda ("the Other Bank" in Papiamentu) and is marked by the historic Rif Fort. Built to protect the mouth of the bay, the fort was run by the U.S. Army during World War II. Nazi submarines were kept out by a large chain-link net that was drawn across the harbor. Now the thick stonewalls of the fort create a unique architectural ambience for a complex that houses a variety of high-end retail shops, art galleries, and restaurants. It's a lovely walk through the complex, beginning at the fort's historic entrance, and ending at the posh Renaissance Curaçao Resort and Casino.
Guided Tours -- Take the 75-minute trolley tour, which visits the city's highlights. The open-sided cars, pulled by a tiny pink "locomotive," make several trips each week. The tours begin at Fort Amsterdam near the Queen Emma Bridge. The cost is $25 for adults, $20 for children 2 to 12. Call ahead (tel. 599/9-461-0011) for availability.
Walking tours of the city can be arranged as well, and are a nice alternative if the trolley is not operating on the day you are visiting. Contact Eveline van Arkel (tel. 599/9-747-4349) in Punda for a historic walk. For a walking tour of the town's architecture, call Anko van der Woude (tel. 599/9-461-3554). Gigi Scheper (tel. 599/9-697-0290) offers 3-hour tours focusing on the Jewish heritage of Willemstad for $55 per person, which includes tours of the Jewish cemetery, the liquor distillery, and more.
What to See -- On Otrobanda the architecture is more reflective of a later stage of development and has a stronger Spanish influence. As it was a repository for all types not desirable in Punda, it is more of a jumbled mix of architectural and cultural styles, with narrow streets and winding alleys. The low profile of many buildings was intended to afford a view of the harbor in the event of an attack. Some of this architectural "nonstyle" can be observed in the labyrinth that makes up the historic Hotel Kurá Hulanda (which translates to "Holland Yard" in Papiamentu) complex. After the Queen Emma Bridge was built in 1888, wealthy merchants bought up cheap land on the Otrobanda side and built up lavish mansions. Once in disrepair, many of these historic homes have been preserved and restored in recent years.
The statue of Pedro Luis Brion dominates the square known as Brionplein, at the Otrobanda end of the pontoon bridge. Born in Curaçao in 1782, Brion became the island's favorite son and best-known war hero. Under Simón Bolívar, he was an admiral and fought for the independence of Venezuela and Colombia.
Fort Amsterdam, site of the Governor's Palace and the 1769 Dutch Reformed Church, guards the waterfront. The church still has a British cannonball embedded in it, and the arches leading to the fort were tunneled under the official residence of the governor.
A few minutes' walk from the pontoon bridge, at the north end of Handelskade, the Floating Market features scores of schooners tied up alongside the canal. Boats arrive here from Venezuela and Colombia, and from other West Indian islands, to sell tropical fruits and vegetables, as well as handicrafts. Repeat visitors will note that the faded wooden tarps that once provided shade have been replaced by modern rainbow-hued sun shades.
Near Fort Amsterdam, at the corner of Columbusstraat and Hanchi di Snoa, the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (tel. 599/9-461-1067) dates from 1732 and is the New World's oldest Jewish congregation. Joaño d'Illan led the first Jewish settlers to the island in 1651, almost half a century after their expulsion from Portugal by the Inquisition. Following a Portuguese Sephardic custom, sand covers the sanctuary floor, representing the desert where Israelites camped when the Jews passed from slavery to freedom. It also serves as a reminder of the custom of quieting footsteps with sand while hiding from Germans during World War II. The highlight of the east wall is the Holy Ark, rising 5m (16 ft.); a raised banca (balustraded dais), canopied in mahogany, is on the north wall.
Next door, the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, Kuiperstraat 26-28 (tel. 599/9-461-1633; www.snoa.com), occupies two buildings dating from 1728. On display are ritual and cultural objects, many dating from the 17th and 18th centuries but still used by the congregation. The synagogue and museum are open Monday through Friday from 9am to 4:30pm. They are closed on High Holidays. Services are Friday at 6:30pm and Saturday at 10am. Admission to both the museum and synagogue is $10, children 13 and under enter free.
Museum Kurá Hulanda, Klipstraat 9 (tel. 599/9-434-7765), is one of the most unusual and largest museums in the Caribbean. Housed in once-dilapidated 19th-century buildings, the exhibits here reflect the passion of Jacob Gelt Dekker. After making his fortune when he was young, Dekker quickly built up an astounding collection of prehistoric, historic, and cultural artifacts from the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. His collection includes a life-size reconstruction of the interior of a slave ship that once sailed from the Ivory Coast, fossils, wood masks, fertility dolls, stone sculptures, and musical instruments. The guided tour may seem to start out slow, but quickly becomes engrossing as the dismal history of slave trading on the island comes into focus. Curaçao served as a notorious port for the Dutch slave trade, and slaves were trained for up to 2 years there before being sold at a profit. Actual and re-created slave quarters house scores of rusted shackles, chains, and other forms of restraint, and the white KKK hoods and cloaks are easily as disturbing as the specters they resemble. Hours are daily 10am to 5pm, and the entrance fee is $9 for adults, $7 for students, and $6 for children (4-12) and seniors.
West Of Willemstad
You can walk the distance inland or take a short cab ride from the Queen Emma Bridge to the sleepy Curaçao Museum, Van Leeuwenhoekstraat (tel. 599/9-462-3873; www.curacaomuseum.an). Built in 1853 by the Royal Dutch Army Corps of Engineers as a military quarantine hospital, the building has been restored and now houses paintings, art objects, and antique furniture. There's also a large collection of indigenous Amerindian artifacts. It's open Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for children 11 and under.
The Maritime Museum, Van De Brandhof Straat 7 (tel. 599/9-465-2327; www.curacaomaritime.com), in the historic Scharloo district, just off the old harbor of Saint Anna Bay, boasts 40 permanent displays that trace Curaçao's history. Admission is $6 for adults and free for children 6 and under. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm.
On Schottegatweg West, northwest of Willemstad, Beth Haim Cemetery is the oldest European burial site still in use in the Western Hemisphere. Consecrated before 1659, the 1.2-hectare (3-acre) site has 2,500 graves, some with exceptional tombstones.
Toward the western tip of Curaçao, a 45-minute drive from Willemstad, 4,500-acre Christoffel National Park in Savonet (tel. 599/9-864-0363) features cacti, bromeliads, and orchids, as well as the Dutch Leewards' highest point, Saint Christoffelberg (369m/1,211 ft.). Donkeys, wild goats, iguanas, Curaçao deer, and many species of birds thrive in the arid countryside, and Arawak paintings adorn a coral cliff near two caves. The 32km (20 miles) of one-way trail-like roads pass the highlights, but the rough terrain makes even the shortest trail (8km/5 miles) a 40-minute drive. Hiking trails include a 2-hour climb to the summit of Saint Christoffelberg. The park is open Monday to Saturday from 7:30am to 4pm and Sunday from 6am to 3pm, but go early, before it gets too hot. The $8 entrance fee includes admission to the museum. Located in the old plantation buildings, the recently renovated museum displays tools and artifacts from the time of the Dutch plantation that occupied this landscape from the 17th to 19th centuries. Step into the museum and look up at an illustrated timeline of Curaçao painted on the wall of the first room. Stunning larger-than-life black-and-white photographs of the island and its people hang on the back walls of the museum.
Next door, the park has opened the National Park Shete Boka (Seven Inlets National Park; tel. 599/9-864-0444). This turtle sanctuary contains a cave with pounding waves off the choppy north coast. Admission to this park is $2 per person.
To learn more about nature, conservation, and history in Curaçao, and to participate in exciting nature exploration for the whole family, such as deer spotting, a pickup truck safari, or a day hike up the mountain, log on to the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation's website, www.carmabi.org.
North & East Of Willemstad
Just northeast of the capital, Fort Nassau was completed in 1797 and christened Fort Republic. Built high on a hill overlooking the harbor entrance to the south and Saint Anna Bay to the north, it was fortified as a second line of defense in case the waterfront gave way.
The Curaçao Liqueur Distillery, Landhuis Chobolobo, Saliña Arriba (tel. 599/9-461-3526; www.curacaoliqueur.com), operates in a 17th-century landhuis (villa) where Curaçao's famous liqueur is made. Distilled from dried Curaçaoan orange peel, the cordial is spiced with several herbs. The tour, offered Monday to Friday from 8am to noon and 1 to 5pm, ends with a free snifter of the liqueur. Some recently introduced flavors are chocolate, coffee, and rum raisin, but the original orange flavor (regardless of the color) remains a favorite. Another interesting product made from the orange oil is a cooling spray called Alcolodo Glacial, which is great to soothe hot skin and ward off insects; it is reputed to have many curative properties.
The Curaçao Ostrich Farm (tel. 599/9-747-2777; www.ostrichfarm.net) is one of the largest breeding facilities for these enormous birds outside of Africa. An open-sided safari-style tour bus leaves every hour on the hour to give visitors an up-close and personal introduction to ostriches that range in age from newly hatched chicks to fully plumed adult males. Feeding, petting, and even riding an ostrich may make visitors decide not to sample the ostrich meat served in the adjacent restaurant. The farm is open daily from 9am to 4pm.
For those who swear by the curative properties of aloe, a visit to the Aloe Vera Plantation (tel. 599/9-767-5577; www.aloecuracao.com) may be just what the doctor ordered. Not surprisingly, all guided tours, which describe the production process from plantation to shelf, conveniently end in the factory gift shop. The plantation is open Monday through Saturday 9am to 4pm. Admission is free, but you may be inclined to purchase an aloe product even though there is no sales pressure from the friendly staff.
Curaçao Seaquarium, off Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard at Bapor Kibrá (tel. 599/9-465-6666; www.curacao-sea-aquarium.com), displays more than 400 species of local marine invertebrates as well as nurse sharks, sea lions, dolphins, and sea turtles. Created in 1984, it is the largest aquarium in the Caribbean and takes advantage of an on-site natural lagoon and coral reef. Located a few minutes' walk along the rocky coast from the Breezes resort, and marked by a looming wooden minesweeper from World War II (wooden so it would not attract the magnetic mines that destroyed steel vessels), the Seaquarium is open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is $19 for adults and $9.50 for children 5 to 12. Special features of the aquarium are sea lion and dolphin encounters, costing $99 to $300 for divers or $39 to $149 for snorkelers. Divers, snorkelers, and experienced swimmers can feed, film, and photograph sharks through a large window with feeding holes, and swim with stingrays, tarpons, and parrotfish in a separate controlled environment, or even do an open-water encounter with dolphins outside their enclosures. The less adventurous can watch a dolphin show and pet marine invertebrates in a kid-friendly touch tank. The Seaquarium also presides over access to Curaçao's nicest full-facility, palm-shaded, white-sand beach.
The latest adventure added to the Seaquarium complex is a substation that houses a four-person submarine able to descend 305m (1,000 ft.) under the sea. The mini-sub enables you to see spectacular views of corals and fish, as well as allowing marine scientists to study deep-water creatures in their natural habitats. The vessel uses pure oxygen, so no need to decompress. You are fully briefed before your 1 1/2-hour trip to the ocean depths, and the steep $650 charge helps pay for marine research.
Note: While swimming with dolphins can be an amazing experience, there are real downsides that you may not learn while at the Seaquarium. One of them is that the dolphins used in Seaquarium's programs were captured from the wild as a result of loopholes in protection of wild species from international trade. Dolphins are often captured through inhumane methods and transported great distances to marine parks and aquariums throughout the world. Furthermore, as a result of national policy, the Seaquarium has been allowed to display wild-caught dolphins on the promise that it is conducting legitimate research on dolphin ecology that will ultimately contribute to their conservation. The problem is that little actual research has been carried out to date. Concerns from the scientific community have also been raised about the damage to wild dolphin populations that are often robbed of key members of their social group through capture proceedings that can leave entire groups vulnerable and disoriented, and relegate once high-ranking wild individuals to a life of servitude and tricks. Log on to www.wdcs.org to learn more about threats to wild dolphins.
Guides at the Hato Caves, F.D. Rooseveltweg (tel. 599/9-868-0379), take visitors through the stalagmites and stalactites of Curaçao's highest limestone terrace. Featuring an underground lake, large rooms, and ancient Indian petroglyphs, the caves are open daily from 9am to 4pm; admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 4 to 11.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.