After spending 4 days on Bonaire and 5 days on Aruba we ended our 2 week holiday on the Dutch Antilles with 6 days on Curaçao (which turned into 7 days after our flight home got cancelled). We’d booked accommodation in the center of the island, rented a car and took our time exploring Curaçao and enjoying some of its stunning beaches.
Time was not enough. We skipped well-known tourist sites like Christoffel Park, Hato Caves, the Dolphin Aacademy, Ostrich Farm and CurAloe Plantation. This is what did keep us busy (or lazy) during our stay on Curaçao.
Curaçao is blessed by a multitude a beautiful small beaches, some of them very crowded, especially around the capital Willemstad, others more quiet and secluded. Compared to Aruba and especially Bonaire we found the snorkeling poor, but the beaches on the northwest coast of Curaçao were the most scenic we saw. Entering the gorgeous turquoise waters, however, can be a bit of challenge sometimes because of rocks and dead coral on the bottom of most beaches.
We visited the following beaches
Knip (Kenepa) Beach – There are actually two Knip Beaches: Grote (Big) Knip and Kleine (Little) Knip. Because Grote Knip Beach seemed a little busy we spent an agreeable afternoon on relaxed Kleine Knip Beach. Sun beds were available, a small shack sold snacks and drinks. Entry and parking is free.
Cas Abou – This is regarded as one of the most attractive beaches of Curaçao. No discussion there. This popular beach has a beach bar and restaurant, facilities for diving and snorkeling, showers and toilets. Palm leaf parasols and palm trees offer some shade and sun beds can be rented. Parking is paid.
Porto Marie – You have to pay a small entrance fee to gain access to this picture-pretty beach. It has a small restaurant for food and drinks, showers and toilets, a diving school and a small wooden pier. There’s a lot of shade thanks to ubiquitous tents and parasols. Sun beds can be rented.
Daaibooi Beach – We only spent a little time here to admire the sunset. This also was a lovely secluded beach with several shaded spots and we got the impression it was one of the more quiet beaches on Curaçao.
Jan Thiel Beach – We only spent a little time at this beach in Willemstad. Backed by many restaurants, the beach here is mostly artificial and sun beds cover most of the sand. It’s popular and busy, with dj’s providing some extra entertainment. It reminded us too much of the mass tourism we dislike, so we decided to split and refrain from visiting that other popular Willemstad beach, Mambo Beach, as well.
Remote Klein Curaçao
Not many people get here, but we thought our trip to Klein (Little) Curaçao was one of the best things we did during our stay on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Klein Curaçao is a small uninhabited island, about 1,5-2 hours by boat from Curaçao.
We sailed with the Mermaid, which takes up to 60 people to the island four times a week. We had to get up early as the boat was leaving at 7 AM from Caracasbaai, on the other side of the island from where we were staying. The sea was pretty rough, so a lot of people ended up feeding their stomach contents to the fishes. We ate no breakfast and used travel sickness medication, however, and experienced no problems whatsoever.
Klein Curaçao is less than 2 kilometers in length and just a few hundred meters wide and is mostly covered with low ground vegetation. It offers a nice stretch of white beach, incredible turquoise waters, an old abandoned lighthouse, a rusted hull of a shipwreck, dozens of cheeky iguanas around the Mermaids own beach house where a simple breakfast and barbecue lunch were served and the possibility to get close to sea turtles.
This doesn’t seem like much, but despite spending almost eight hours on the island both of us hardly spent any time on our sun beds. Snorkeling in itself is very poor, unless you have the luck to spot sea turtles that come to feed on sea grass here. We were lucky and it was truly amazing how close we could get to the turtles.
Landhuizen (country houses)
Scattered across Curaçao plantations and so-called landhuizen (manors or country houses) are an essential part of the island’s history and culture. A landhuis was the main building of a plantation, the home of the plantation owner and his family.
The two-storied houses date back to the 18th and 19th century and were built using coral stone, plastering the outside with sand and lime in soft color tones. Some of them are open to tourists as a gallery restaurant or museum. We visited three of them.
Landhuis Knip on the Kenepa or Knip Plantation was the backdrop for the movie ‘Tula, the Revolt’ telling the story of the slave Tula who led a Slave Revolt in 1795 and is a kind of a hero on the island. The museum of Landhuis Knip is mostly dedicated to the slavery heritage of Curaçao. Guided tours are available. We found the Cunucu House Museum more informative.
Landhuis Dokterstuin can be visited by having dinner at the Restaurant Komedor Krioyo, that is located in de covered garden at the back of the house. As most of the rooms are office space you don’t see much of the inside. The restaurant serves local Creole dishes, like goat stew and cactus soup. Our food was served with tutu, former slave food served as a very filling side dish much like polenta, consisting of cornmeal mixed with black-eyed peas, coconut milk and sugar.
Landhuis Jan Kok is one of the oldest on Curaçao. The house has a panoramic view over the salt pans where flamingos feed and now houses the gallery of local artist Nena Sanchez, a celebrity on the island. In addition to Nena Sanchez’s colorful creations the house displays artefacts and furniture from the plantation days. Entry is free.
Driving over the island you’ll spot small rectangular houses with slanting roofs. These are cunucu houses, former slave houses, many of which are still used today. On the main road from Willemstad to Westpunt one of these houses, a fully furnished cunucu house surrounded by a traditional cactus fence, has been converted into a small museum. Guides will take you around the small enclosure explaining about the building of a cunucu house, the lives of the slaves and the utensils they used. We liked it very much.
We dedicated an entire day to visiting the incredibly colorful and picturesque old center of Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao. The neighborhoods of Punda, Otrabanda, Pietermaai and Scharloo are chock full of national monuments and together they are listed as Unesco World Heritage. Most people will recognize the row of tall Old-Dutch style warehouses along the Handelskade. An iconic Willemstad and Curaçao sight.
We explored Willemstad after parking our car in one of the few free parking garages near the city center, at the Riffort shopping center. From there we followed the walking routes in the free Willemstad and Curaçao guide we’d picked up on arrival at the airport. Both the Otrabanda and the Punda/Scharloo/Pietermaai walking tours take 1,5-2 hours.
Otrabanda, the neighborhood on the west side of St Anna Bay, is a working class neighborhood with a maze of twisting little streets alleyways and passageways and was incredibly fun to walk around and with surprisingly few other tourists about. With small shops, bars and sneks (small cafeteria like eateries) it has a more distinct local feel to it than more touristy Punda on the other side of the Queen Emma Bridge.
Our self-guided walking tour ended at Kura Hulanda, an anthropological museum that explains about the African roots of the black population of Curaçao and their way into slavery on the island. It’s a sometimes sobering experience. We were surprised by the many pieces of (symbolic) art from the African continent.
We then crossed the 168 meter long Koningin Emmabrug (Queen Emma Bridge), the only wooden pontoon bridge in the world that opens. The bridge was built in 1888 and opens regularly to let oceangoing vessels pass. It’s great fun to stand on the bridge as it opens. Most people make sure however they get off the bridge before it opens as it will stay opened for longer periods of time (ferries take you to the other side then).
After having a cheap lunch at the Plasa Bieu (Old Market), where several small restaurants serve mainly local dishes, we took a more lax approach to the walking tour through Punda, Scharloo and Pietermaai, taking a few shortcuts here and there. Punda is the most touristic part of Willemstad, with many (tourist) shops and restaurants, the famous Handelskade, the ‘floating’ market (market vendors from Venezuela live on boats behind their stalls), 17th century Fort Amsterdam and the synagogue which has been in use since 1732 without interruption.
Scharloo and Pietermaai are far less frequented by tourists. Scharloo is a mostly residential neighborhood boasting colorful rows of workers houses, some classicist mansions and art deco buildings. The waterfront Pietermaai district begins near the cathedral and is being redeveloped as an upcoming travelers hub. We saw some very nice restored buildings, but it looked a bit deserted when we visited.
We visited Curaçao in March 2016
Curaçao travel tips
Sleep – We stayed six nights at the reasonably priced Jan Kok Lodges, a very nice accommodation 20 minutes by car north of Willemstad in the center of the island. We had a spacious bungalow apartment with a separate bedroom, fully equipped kitchen and a huge patio detached from the main building, so very private. Because Jan Kok Lodges is built on a hill – with great views towards Curaçao’s salt pans – there was always a cool breeze at night, so no need to use the air-conditioning in the bedroom (we hate air-con).
The accommodation has a small swimming pool and in the trees next to the main building loads of iguanas can be spotted sunning in the top branches. Because of the somewhat isolated location you need you own wheels for grocery shopping and to see a bit more of the island (but that goes for most accommodation on Curaçao). For us it was the perfect base to explore, with the best beaches of Curaçao just a short drive away. Jan Kok Lodges rents cars at very affordable rates.
After our flight back home got delayed 32 hours because of a technical problem KLM put us in the Hilton Curaçao for one night in a room with seaview. Rooms were what might be expected from a chain hotel like the Hilton, but the outside of this early 60’s hotel and the hotel grounds could use a bit of tlc. The hotel has several pools and a small beach, Caribbean BBQ dinner was disorganized, buffet breakfast offered lots of choice.
Eat – In addition to the eating options mentioned before we had lunch or dinner at the following restaurants.
Jaanchies (Westpunt) – Probably the best known restaurant of Curaçao because it serves iguana as a specialty (it’s mostly nibbling on small bones). The host – who calls himself a talking menu – of this 80 year old institution is very nice, but we got the impression that he just made up the prices at the end. We found it quite expensive for the dishes we had (goat stew, fish, iguana), which were mediocre. It’s a nice place to sit down though and spot troupials and yellow orioles (nicknamed sugar thieves) that are attracted by the bowls of sugar in the trees surrounding the restaurant.
E Lanternu/De Lantaarn (Cas Abou) – Located on the road near Cas Abou E Lanternu is a low-key and affordable small Dutch run restaurant with quick service and serving very tasty international cuisine. Outside dining is at sturdy wooden picnic tables.
De Buurvrouw (Grote Berg) – This restaurant is hugely popular among Dutch tourists. It’s a very sociable place with an international menu featuring some Dutch favorites. Prices are good and the restaurant, though semi open-air, has a smoking and non-smoking section.
Plein Café Wilhelmina (Willemstad) – Dutch inspired restaurant/café serving dishes with names referring to the Dutch royal family. Outside seating is at small tables on a terrace on the square. Service was quick, but the food tasted precooked as if served from buffet trays. Prices were low though.
Transport – Although it is possible to get to many locations on Curaçao by bus, public transportation is not the best way to explore the island or get to many of the beaches. Renting a car is the best way to go. All the big rental agencies are present on Curaçao. We rented at our accommodation, Jan Kok Lodges. To get to/from Hato International Airport it’s best to take a taxi or arrange for a pickup by your accommodation.