1. See The Other Side: Otrabanda
Downtown Willemstad is divided in half by the canal and the floating bridge that spans it. On one side you have Punda with its renovated Dutch colonial buildings featuring one designer boutique after the other, and the other side (literally) is Otrabanda. While Punda is what most tourists see of Willemstad, Otrabanda is where the locals live. Winding cobblestone alleys curve through the remnants of a great colonial city, with dilapidated mansions now housing lively corner bodegas. Colorful murals cover the sherbet-hued walls and cacti pop up in the most unlikely of places. By law the historical buildings cannot be demolished and, if renovated, must be done to their original state – a task that proves to be too costly for most local Curacaoans. In recent years there have been more and more restorations by foreign investors – thankfully saving much of these gorgeous structures from ruin – but I suggest visiting now, for with this beautification will come the inevitable loss of the je ne sais quoi that keeps Otrabanda the heartbeat of the capital.
2. The Beaches
Why else would one go to a desert island but for the beach? Dutch students and American sailors will recommend Mambo Beach, a man-made entertainment area with restaurants and bars (and one swinging happy hour party – more on that later) a short drive from Willemstad. I was appalled at having to pay an entrance fee (unheard of in Hawai’i) for a mediocre beach consistently packed with tourists, so I recommend hopping in the car and getting the hell out of the capital. The irony is that the best beaches in Curacao are rarely visited by tourists, making them both stunning and frequently empty. You will find the best beaches on the drive out to Westpunt – one small inlet after the other, each featuring thatched umbrellas and white coral beaches and the calmest, most pristine aquamarine water. Bring your cooler and snorkel gear and make like a local in an itty bitty thong bikini! My faves: Playa Lagun, Groote and Kleine Knip, and Playa Kalki.
3. The Floating Market
On the Punda side of St.Anna Bay (the canal that runs through the heart of Willemstad) you will find the floating market. Colorful boats filled with hammocks house the Venezuelan sailors that travel the 40 miles from their home country to sell tropical fruit to arid Curacao. Come early in the day for the best pick of fresh mango, grape-like kenipas, tamarind, and papayas the size of watermelons. Brush up on your Spanish and the friendly vendors will give you the best prices on the island.
4. The Landhuizen
I fell in love with these Dutch planation homes and still fantasize about calling one my own! Most were built in the 1800s and housed wealthy landowners, but today they can be found all over the island in various conditions and many are open for viewing. Stop in for Dutch pancakes at hotel/restaurant Landhuis Daniel or visit the gallery of local artist Nena Sanchez at Landhuis Jan Kok.
5. The North Shore
Curacao is a long, skinny island that runs almost horizontally from West to East. Most of the population is concentrated on the southern shore as the water is much calmer than the choppy surf found up north. This is not the destination for lounging by the beach – think of it instead as the Outback of Curacao: a long strech of flat, barren earth home to tangles of ancient cacti and bordered by a dramatic coastline. The rugged but stunning scenery is perfect for a day hike – just follow any number of painted driftwood signs pointing out the way near the town of Barber.
The hiker looking for higher elevations should head to the one mountain in Curacao: Mount Christoffel in a national park on the most north-western tip of the island. Curacao is a dry, desert island but in the park you’ll find an oasis of greenery along with a short but steep hike to the peak .