Beyond the Beach in Curaçao

Sitting 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast, the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao stretches close to 40 miles itself, from north to south. And though most of the action happens at beachfront resorts and sandy expanses crowded with cruise ship passengers, the isle offers myriad (and less-traveled) historical, creative, and natural spaces that will satisfy gourmands, nature lovers, and art and architecture aficionados alike.

Here’s the thoughtful traveler’s guide to getting beyond the beach in Curaçao:

> Nature:

Curaçao’s green—and not-so-green—landscapes were a bit of a mystery to me until my guide, Terence, pointed out wonders that were right under my nose. To ensure that locals and visitors don’t miss these treasures, he works with Uniek Curaçao (Unique Curaçao), a volunteer organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the island’s natural assets.

Rooi Rincon Park is littered with massive limestone boulders, forming grottoes that once sheltered island natives in prehistoric times. The early dwellers left behind evidence of their presence in the form of rocky shelves used to store items of value, such as the ocher they used to paint symbols on cave walls.

Dominated by mesquite and prickly pear, the wind-sculpted Hato Plains are ideal for mountain biking. Beyond a tangle of shrubbery, Kueba di Pachi (Old Man’s Cave) is inhabited by bats that flit above the cave’s most curious feature: zombie eggs, small globes formed from calcium-laden water runoff.

The sprawling Jan Thiel Lagoon is set in a landscape dominated by massive man-made salt flats and columnar cacti. Though the soil’s high saline content prevents most anything else from growing in the area, there is another sign of life: flamingos alighting on the waters to catch shrimp, the crustacean that lends the trademark pink hue to the birds’ naturally gray feathers.

And a cliff top fronting Ascension Bay provides an ideal platform for spotting another kind of wildlife, imperiled Hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, which swim into the cove to feed on seaweed.

> Architecture:

For 30 years, architect Anko van der Woude has been leading walking tours of Otrobanda, a pastel-hued neighborhood in Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital city.The colorful historic district is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site designated in the colonial town, along with neighboring Punda, the oldest part of Willemstad.

Van der Woude explained that the twisty lanes and alleys of Otrabanda resulted from residents widening their properties, sacrificing backyard gardens to add quarters for maids or growing families. Small craftsmen made their shops in the smaller houses along the alleys, creating the idiosyncratic mix of mansions and humble stores and dwellings that typifies the neighborhood.

On my tour, van der Woude stopped in front of the 18th-century Sebastopol House to point out how the mansion illustrates the evolution of local architecture. Rather than expensive brick, the facade was constructed of coral and mud, plastered over and painted ocher. (This building and most others in the city were once whitewashed, until the 1800s when Governor Kikkert declared the glare off the white visually unappealing, making colorful exteriors the new norm.)

Instead of relying on the sash windows brought over from Holland—hardly appropriate for the Caribbean’s bright sunlight and wind-blown rain—a gallery porch with louver-like shutters was added later, providing access to the cool trade winds plus better shade and protection from the elements.

> Cuisine:

Cristal is located in a renovated house built circa 1850. (Photograph courtesy Cristal)
Cristal is located in a renovated house built circa 1850. (Photograph courtesy Cristal)

Stefan Onrust and Talitha Maria co-own Cristal, a bright, welcoming restaurant, with walls hung with vibrant silkscreen prints depicting fishermen bringing in their catch and other scenes of life in Curaçao and an impressive wine list.

Onrust has created a stellar French-Mediterranean menu that changes weekly, with multi-course dinner options available. Signature dishes include the scallops with truffle risotto and a variation on a classic croque-madame made with duck liver and homemade brioche.

The mansion may be historic—the gable date reads 1742—but the food concept at Restaurant No5 couldn’t be more novel: Chef Aram Van de Water prepares French cuisine with international influences, forgoing a menu in favor of cooking individual small dishes based on the taste preferences of each table.

As I’m a pescatarian, Van de Water whipped up mahi mahi ceviche with pineapple juice; salmon marinated in vodka, and red-beet mousse topped with smoked mackerel salad. Meat lovers will find plenty to satisfy their appetites: Noteworthy dishes include grilled rack of lamb with eggplant, and slow-cooked duck breast accompanied by a curry-mango chutney.

> Art:

Artist Herman van Bergen has a favorite medium: the twisted branches of Vachellia tortuosa. The thorny tree, which began to thrive in Curaçao after European colonists wiped out vast swaths of hardwoods, plays a vital part in his evolving creation, “The Cathedral of Thorns.”

The monumental outdoor sculpture serves as a commentary on the painful history of the enslavement of the island’s original inhabitants—the Arawak people—at the hands of conquering Europeans as well as a celebration of life-sustaining nature. Visitors can navigate van Bergen’s labyrinthine work—which is still in progress—hemmed in by towering walls of thorns at Landhuis Bloemhof, an old plantation house that has been converted into a cultural center.

And on a wild, two-acre parcel of land, jewelry designer and ceramicist Evelien Sipkes has fashioned a comfortable and multi-functional space, serving as her home, atelier, gallery, and classroom. Her art greets visitors just inside the gate: whimsical bird sculptures fashioned from gourds perch on the pavement and ceramic flower petals huddle among live blossoms.

Working primarily in porcelain and natural materials (such as seeds and branches), Sipkes creates wearable, avant-garde art (necklaces, rings and earrings) that reflect and transform the many-faceted forms and colors of the island’s plants and sea creatures. She also offers art workshops that include lunch or high tea; everything is handmade, from the bread to the dishware.

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