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Curacao Cruises

Willemstad, Curaçao

About Curaçao

The largest among the ABC chain of Dutch Caribbean islands (along with Aruba and Bonaire), Curaçao lies about 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Its colorful and culturally diverse capital, Willemstad, is a vibrant and bustling port—and home to one of the most vibrant UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Caribbean.

The modern history of Curaçao begins in 1499, when Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda—who previously sailed with Columbus—and Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci discovered the island and claimed it for Spain. A settlement followed, but Curaçao’s hot, arid climate and lack of fresh water made the island unsuitable for agriculture. Deeming it an economic impossibility, the Spanish largely abandoned their discovery.

More than a century later, in 1634, the Dutch West India Company arrived. Buoyed by their successful settlements on other Caribbean islands, the enterprising Dutch sought to make Curaçao another profitable venture. That they were able to do so owes largely to the geography of Willemstad, the dynamic capital they built around a wide, deep and virtually impregnable natural harbor—an ideal spot for shipping and commerce. Under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant, who would later become governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York), the Dutch began mining the island’s natural salt deposits for export.

Curaçao’s early economy, much like that of other Caribbean colonies, depended upon the labor of African slaves. When the Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, the island experienced a financial freefall. The economy didn’t recover until 1920, when the Royal Dutch Shell Company responded to the discovery of oil in nearby Venezuela by opening a refinery in Willemstad. The oil industry, and later, tourism, brought great wealth to the island, and Curaçao today enjoys one of the highest standards of living of any Caribbean nation.

Curaçao Lifestyle and Culture

Like many of its neighbors, Curaçao’s colonial past has left an indelible mark on its modern identity. Perhaps the best example of this is the island’s language: Papiamento, a lilting blend of Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and African languages that developed as a way for slaves and masters to communicate with each other.

Dutch influence can be seen best in the island’s arresting architecture, particularly the candy-colored, intricately gabled merchant buildings lining Willemstad’s harbor and the airy, ornate landhuizen (plantation houses) farther inland. Africa’s legacy is most apparent in the island’s music, most notably the tambú. Also known as “Curaçao blues,” this rhythmic, drum- and percussion-based music was created by slaves to express the hardships of plantation life.

Curaçao has also been shaped by a cultural force unique to the island. In the mid-17th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews looking to escape the Inquisition were welcomed to the island by the sympathetic Dutch, who had recently won their own independence from Spain. In 1732, these émigrés established Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western hemisphere.

Curaçao Sights and Landmarks

Willemstad’s natural inland harbor, the Schottegat, connects with the Caribbean Sea via St. Anna Bay, a long, deep and narrow channel that divides the capital into two distinct sections: Punda (“the Point”) to the east and Otrobanda (“the Other Side”) to the west. These districts are linked by one of Willemstad’s most famous landmarks, the Queen Emma Bridge, a floating pedestrian pathway affectionately referred to by locals as the “Swinging Old Lady.” Constructed in 1888, it consists of 16 pontoons and is particularly scenic at night, when the structure is awash with colored lights.

The natural protection afforded by the Schottegat, coupled with Curaçao’s location on the southern edge of the hurricane belt, ensured that Willemstad remained remarkably well preserved, and in 1997 the city’s historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the highlights in this area are Fort Amsterdam, an elegant ochre military garrison dating to 1635, and the iconic Handelskade, a picturesque waterfront area famous for the vivid rainbow hues of its tall and narrow 18th-century buildings.

Curaçao Entertainment and Activities

Opened in 1999, the Kurá Hulanda Museum offers a fascinating, in-depth look at Curaçaoan history and culture. Built around a public square where slaves were once bought and sold, the sobering yet illuminating exhibits here chiefly document the island’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Landhuis Chobolobo, a sunshine-hued former 19th-century country manor, sits in the Willemstad suburb of Saliña. Home to the Senior & Co. Curaçao Liqueur Distillery since 1947, it’s where the island’s eponymous liqueur, made from the peel of the bitter laraha orange, is produced. Visitors can enjoy free tours and tastings, as well as lunch, cocktails and house-made gelato in the on-site café.

While Curaçao boasts plenty of sunny white-sand beaches, it’s also celebrated for its underwater offerings. Opportunities for snorkeling and diving abound—and there’s even an option for those who prefer not to get their hair wet: the Seaworld Explorer, a semi-submersible with a glass-walled hull ideal for observing coral reefs teeming with marine life.

Curaçao Restaurants and Shopping

Located on the Otrobanda waterfront, Gouverneur de Rouville Restaurant & Café features an outside terrace where guests can enjoy sweeping views of the Punda skyline while they dine. The menu offers a fresh take on traditional Curaçaoan dishes, including sòpi di piska, a hearty fish stew, and keshi yena, stuffed cheese filled with chicken, raisins and vegetables.

On the Punda side of Willemstad, Kome restaurant’s name means “eat” in Papiamento, which you will surely do as you choose from pretzel-dusted calamari, smoked brisket with maque choux (Creole-spiced corn, peppers and onions), and shrimp with funchi, a polenta-like local staple.

Near Punda’s celebrated Floating Market, where boats from Venezuela dock daily to sell fresh fish and produce, is Marsche Bieuw (Old Market), a no-frills, warehouse-like food court popular with locals. Here, you’ll find authentic—and affordable—island favorites like cactus soup, pumpkin arepas (cornmeal pancakes), curried goat and yuana (stewed iguana).

For shopping, boutiques and galleries showcasing works by local artists can be found throughout Willemstad. Among the best known is Otrobanda’s Gallery Alma Blou, where visitors can observe artists in their studios and purchase paintings, ceramics, jewelry and more in the gift shop. One signature souvenir is the ChiChi, a female figure hand-painted by female artists. ChiChis—“big sisters” in Papiamento—celebrate the warmth and vitality of Caribbean women.