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No.101 A Dutch Holiday Close to Home in Curaçao

The island of Curaçao is located in the Caribbean Sea just 37 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. Today it’s a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but the Spanish first colonized it in 1499, occupying it until the Dutch took over, establishing it as a trade hub for the Dutch East India Company.

Curaçao, like most Caribbean islands, has a dark past of slavery and the generational abuse and misery which accompanies it. That history often seems uncomfortably ignored as visitors come to enjoy the sunshine and sparkling blue beaches.

The Arawak people settled here first, coming from nearby South America. When the Spaniards arrived, they deported the indigenous population as slaves to Hispaniola. With the arrival of the Dutch, the situation worsened. The island became a stop on the slave trade between Africa and the Americas, between 1662 and 1669 reaching an all-time high of around 24,000 men and women moving through the port of Willemstad.

One of the remnants of that time in Curaçao’s is the local language Papiamento, a creole language spoken on the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) and now the official language next to Dutch. There are different theories about its origins. It has similarities with Spanish and Portuguese, but linguists think it is more likely to have originated in West Africa. But so many cultures transited through the island over the centuries it is naturally a mixed bag.

Because if its diversity Curaçao is a fascinating destination. Its diverse population, sound government, dark history, and strong agricultural base provide plenty of options to explore. One problem though, travelling around Curaçao is only possible by car. Taxis are expensive, buses are impracticable, but rental cars are quite reasonable. So count on including car rental in your travel budget.

Finding the real gems to visit in Curaçao is not easy. After failing to gain a footing with our research, we sought out some local assistance to find out what’s really going on.

Helmi Smeulders is the owner of Caribbean Spice Girl, a local cooking school and catering company, as well as the author of a popular cookbook by the same name.

Moving to the island from Holland after university, Helmi started working as a lawyer. The work did not suit her, and soon she decided to change course starting a company based on her passion for cooking and local cuisine.

Her intimate knowledge of the island’s unique culinary traditions makes her a great interpreter of local culture. After all, the history of a place is also told in its food. Scotch Bonnet, Sea Purslane, Soursop or West Indian Gherkin are just some of the Caribbeans exotic ingredients that make Curaçaoian cuisine distinct. Helmie can tell you all about each of these ingredients and more, as well as inventing new “local” dishes based on the local produce.

Helmi’s interest in the local food scene puts her in the know for where to find the best traditional food and the latest ventures. And with several cookbooks under her belt, her cooking classes and recently started culinary trips around the island are great ways to organize your itinerary.

After attending a class at Caribbean Spice Girl we asked Helmi to share her advice for Curaçao visitors, here are some of her recommendations for the best of Curaçao excursions.

Landhuis Jan Kok

One of the oldest houses on the island, its foundation dates back to the 18th century. Up to 100 slaves were imprisoned here by the house’s namesake Jan Kok who was infamous for his cruelty. It is said that his evil spirit still haunts the house!

Since the 1960s, local artist and former beauty queen Nena Sanchez lived and worked here until her passing in 2017. Her colourful large sculptures are scattered around the property.

A piece of dark Caribbean history with an eccentric contemporary end.

Shete Boka Park

If you enjoy going off the beaten track you will love Shete Boka National Park, a series of desolate volcanic ocean viewpoints where the crashing waves have worn away caverns and blow holes making for some dramatic seaside natural events.

The park begins at Boka Tabla, where huge waves thunder into an underground cavern. You can then hike or take a short drive about two and a half miles to Boka Pistol, an inlet that gets its name from the sound of the enormous waves bursting into the sky with gunshot-like explosions.

Playa Piskado

This tiny fishermen’s beach on the western side of the island is famous for its snorkeling and diving and has some good photo ops with colorful boats and fishing nets in the background.

On the weekends a small snack bar is open serving simple local fare.
Getting to the beach you have to navigate a somewhat rocky path, but beautiful turquoise water is your reward. Playa Piskado is popular with the locals so it’s a good place to mingle in with the Curaçao crowd.

Marshe Barber in Punda

Every Sunday morning in the small town of Punda, a market called Marshe Barber offers amazing home cooked food. You buy your food from one of the many market vendors, take a seat at a picnic table and enjoy your meal with the locals.

Williwood

Erected in 2011 as a tribute to the late Adriann Hollander, a teacher in the Willibrodus district who died in 2009, his former students created the installation referencing the famous Hollywood sign and the “city of dreams” ethos. The sign attracted a lot of media attention, so locals renamed the area Williwood.

With the neighborhood’s newfound fame, the restaurant Toko Williwood was launched, featuring goat meat burgers prepared in a goat-shaped grill. On Friday nights live bands perform for an enthusiastic crowd of local youths. Wanna meet locals that is the place to be.

Kokomo Beach

Since its renovation, Kokomo Beach on the west side of the island has become one of the most popular beaches on Curaçao. Offering a restaurant, snack bar, beach chair rental, and showers, it’s one of the few beaches on the island with disability access. A great beach for snorkeling and scuba.

Pietermaai District

Pietermaai is a district in the island’s main town of Willemstad. Named after Pieter de Meij, who founded Curaçao in 1674, Pieterman was the first neighborhood created outside the old fort walls. Known for its distinct Dutch architecture and colorful houses, in the last few years, a lot of the old buildings have been restored as boutique hotels, restaurants, private residences, and bars.

Kura Hulanda Slavery Museum

Kura Hulanda, meaning “dutch courtyard” in the local language of Papiamento, is a privately owned museum in the former house of a Dutch Trader. Located adjacent to the harbor at Willemstad, it is where enslaved Africans were once traded and prepared for transit along with other “commercial goods.”

The museum reveals in haunting detail the trans-Atlantic slave trade in all its brutality. The story is told of the forced relocation of Africans to the Americas by Europeans between the 17th and 19th centuries that changed the face of the world forever.

Daaibooi Beach

Daaibooi Beach is a genuinely “local” beach. It’s quiet, has shallow water, and is perfect for snorkeling. This beach served as a harbor for small boats collecting salt for the nearby plantations. All the labor was performed by slaves who moved the salt along the coast to Willemstad where it was loaded onto larger ships bound for Europe.

Miles Jazz Cafe

Named after jazz legend Miles Davis, Miles Jazz Cafe is a cosy Cafe in the popular Pietermaai district.

Frutonica

This roadside Fruit and Garden Centre is a great find. We stopped by often for cold fresh coconut water, frozen fruit pulp, mangoes, and other local fruits. They also have a good selection of local herbs and tonics. Frutonica runs a great Instagram feed with daily updates on what’s fresh.

Zest Jan Thiel Beach

Jan Thiel Beach is the most popular and developed beach in Curaçao with plenty of restaurants, beach chairs for hire, and leisure activities. It is perfect if you’re travelling with kids and want easy access to restaurants and facilities. The best restaurant we found was Zest, offering Mediterranean food for good value and price.

Tula Monument

This Monument commemorates the slave uprising in 1795, by a slave named Tula. Following Tula’s lead, an estimated 4000 to 5000 slaves rose up and fought to end slavery and gain their freedom before being brutally defeated. Betrayed by other slaves, Tula was captured and executed.

This monument is oddly hard to find and based on the pivotal event it memorializes, not well maintained. But be sure to make the pilgrimage. It represents a great moment of heroism in Curacao’s long troubled history.

Pop’s Place

Built from a shipping container this former makeshift eatery has morphed into a local hangout with amazing views and is the perfect setting for a sunset drink.

Landhuis Bloemhof

Landhuis Bloemhof is located on one of the smaller former plantations of the island. The main building, erected in 1735, is now a vibrant meeting place for art lovers. Exhibitions, lectures, and creative workshops are ongoing in this inspiring compound surrounded by contemporary sculpture.

The former stables and barns have been remodeled and now contains an archive, library and reading room dedicated to the arts.

Maritime Museum

Curaçao owes much of its history to the sea. Its strategic location and natural harbor made it an important seafaring and commercial center from early in its history.

Located in a mansion built in 1729 on the Waaigat inlet overlooking the floating market, the building is spectacularly restored to its former glory.

The museum’s exhibition spans the island’s maritime story. Exhibits include antique miniatures, 17th-century ship models and maps, some even dating back to the 1500s.

Kas di Pescado Purunchi

A small local fish restaurant along John F. Kennedy Boulevard was a great find. Freshly caught fish is delivered by boat throughout the day by fishermen. The fish is fried and served with plantains, polenta, and homemade pickles. One of our best meals in Curaçao, we loved the simple menu, ad hoc furniture, and views over the open sea.

Hofi Cas Costra pop-ups

This farm restaurant runs occasional events and markets where locals sell their handcrafted goods. We met the two founders of Flea Finds who sell beautiful hand made postcards, pottery, and fabrics. A great place to find and buy interesting local crafts. If you are planning a trip make sure to check their Instagram feed (@fleafindscuracao) for upcoming events.

Curacao Liqueur Distillery

Senior & Co, is the only company that produces its liqueur from the peels of the Laraha, a citrus fruit common in Curaçao. Senior and Chumacairo, started selling their liqueur concoction in small quantities out of their pharmacy in 1896. In 1947 they expanded production and moved to the Landhuis Chobolobo in Willemstad, where the distillery operates today. Daily tours of the distillery show how this local liquor is made. Or just stop by for a sorbet topped with the distilleries famous Blue Curacao liqueur.

A big thank you to Helmi for sharing her favorite spots and making our exploration of Curaçao a success.

Details

For opening hours and directions follow the links below:

Landhuis Jan Kok
Shete Boka Park
Playa Piskado
Williwood
Kokomo Beach
Pietermaai District
Kura Hulanda Slavery Museum
Daaibooi Beach
Miles Jazz Cafe
Frutonica
Zest Jan Thiel Beach
Pop’s Place
Landhuis Bloemhof
Maritime Museum
Hofi Cas Costra pop-ups
Curacao Liqueur Distillery


Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

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