Curacao is not your quintessential Caribbean island. Sure, it has curvaceous white beaches, cerulean seas, and a coral reef brimming with exotically hued marine life. But Curacao offers even more, with one of the region's most cosmopolitan cultures and a standout capital in Willemstad, a child's paintbox of giddy Caribbean colors and gabled colonial architecture.

Celebrating its first year of independence after the dismantling of the Netherland Antilles in 2010, Curacao still has the feel of "Holland in the Tropics," with the flavors of both Europe and the West Indies on bold display. Take a trolley train tour along the pastel-hued streets of Willemstad. The city's restored historic center reflects the island's past as a global trading powerhouse, and its World Heritage Site architecture is a melting pot of European colonial styles. The Jewish congregation in the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest in the New World, dating from 1651. A beloved city landmark, the pedestrian Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge straddles St. Anna Bay and is motorized to open and allow boats to pass through the channel. Colorful lights dotting the bridge's elegant metal hoops brighten the Willemstad cityscape at night.

But Curacao is more than just gabled architecture and colonial history. Grab snorkel and mask and dip into the Curacao Underwater Marine Park, one of the region's richest coral gardens. Or head north into the semi-arid terrain of Christoffel National Park, where wild donkeys and iguanas inhabit a landscape straight out of the American Southwest.

Alexis Lipsitz Flippin is the author of multiple Caribbean guidebooks and the forthcoming New York City Day by Day.