Tourists have flocked to the azure waters of the ever-popular island of Aruba for decades. But, to dodge the tourist strips and flocks of cruise ship passengers, we suggest you head to the under-the-radar destination of Curacao. The Dutch island holds all the promises of a sun-laden island vacation featuring white sand beaches, tropical drinks, and perpetual sunshine, but with fewer crowds and a cool European mentality.
Curacao makes up one of the three ABC islands –the other being Aruba and Bonaire –in the lesser Antilles, just north of Venezuela. While the island falls under Dutch rule, Curacao is home to a vibrant, unique culture and art scene: spend days strolling the multi-colored streets through floating markets, picking up home goods made by Dutch artisans and homemade arepas as you go. Snorkeling is a must here–the island’s sharp drop off means rainbows of coral reefs can be reached without a boat. Nights are best spent cutting loose to local bands or more notable ones: the annual jazz festival (late August) brings in artists like Maroon 5, Grace Jones, Pitbull, Sam Cooke, and Enrique Iglesias.
Renting a car on the island is recommended to catch as many of the must-see sights as possible. If that’s not in the books, base yourself in Willemstad: there are always sights to see sans-car in the bustling capital. Wherever you lay your head, below is a treasure trail to spending the perfect long weekend in Curacao.
Where to Stay:
The West and the East sides of the island offer travelers very different experiences. Head west to find a quieter way of life: while this area isn’t a far drive from the Willemstad party scene, folks head here to immerse themselves in nature. Oasis Coral Estates is the perfect haven for honeymooners and people looking to unplug. There are stellar restaurants and beach bars that heat up at night, but the real draw at this secluded beachside property is the incredible diving and snorkeling. An on-site restaurant and beach bar means you don’t have to stray from the property for a good time.
Those with a quicker pulse should stay in Willemstad. There are white sand beaches aplenty in the island’s capital, so you won’t sleep on snorkeling and scuba-ing and the LionsDive Beach Resort is the epicenter of the action. Stroll down the beach and you’ll hit the Aquarium, a slew of beachside bars and restaurants, and streetside smoothie stands. The resort’s restaurant overlooks a shimmering blue river that is so bright you can see every grain of sand on the ocean floor, and an Olympic-sized lap pool to help you burn off the blue curaçao.
For those looking for a little more luxury, all-inclusive five-star Baoase resort (favored by Gabrielle Union and Dwayne Wade) down the road offers idyllic private beaches, waterfalls, and a bookable private island.
What to Do:
Start a sunny day with a trip to Playa Piskado. The petite, white sand beach is almost entirely devoid of tourists so wildlife, from swirling schools of fishes to sea turtles, swim freely. Rent a transparent kayak or SeaBob–a handheld swimming motor–from Bearded Butlers and explore the coral reefs and underwater statues that lie just off the beach. After drying off, hit Blue View, a local-loved restaurant and bar perched on a clifftop above the beach. It’s one of the island’s best spots for cliff diving, so jump in if you’re daring enough, or enjoy a cold beer and local delicacies like barbecued iguana (tastes like chicken!) and whole-grilled red snapper.
You can spend an entire day exploring Klein Curacao, an uninhabited island (there is only a deserted lighthouse, a small restaurant, and a smattering of palapas) a short boat ride off the coast. Locally-run Bluefin Charters decks out the perfect party boat for the trip. Charter a catamaran or a baby yacht and drop anchor just off the shore of the island. Spend the morning snorkeling or swimming in the bright blue waters off the beach, or suntanning in one of the public palapas. The captain will churn out a bbq feast for lunch, complete with open bar bubbly or mixed drinks. Finish the day cruising homeward basking in the glow of late afternoon sun.
After unwinding from the day’s adventures, stroll through downtown Willemstad. The city’s rainbow-hued facades erupt in color as the sun sets, so leave plenty of time for picture taking and peering in the artisan shops.
When in Willemstad, be sure to hit the Sea Aquarium. Watch dolphins jump through the sky or observe growing coral–the aquarium works to rehabilitate local coral and educate visitors on the threats of the coral reefs. After touring the aquarium, head down the Ocean Lens: an underground observatory that gives visitors a close-up look at the coral reefs.
Where to Eat & Drink:
In the morning, power up for the day with a fresh fruit smoothie from a streetside Batido truck. A personal favorite is one made with papaya, mango, passion fruit, lychee, and sweetened condensed milk. Savor brunch at Bijblauw, a Scandi-style restaurant situated right on the water. The hip spot serves up sharing platters of European breakfast staples, like pastries cheeses and smoothie bowls.
Come for dinner at Mood Beach, but stay late into the night. The beach club offers elevated Asian-inspired fare at meal hours, but when stars erupt in the sky, the spot brings chic locals and guests alike to dance in the sand under a canopy of disco balls. On less-energized weeknights, the place plays movies on a pop-up screen, so grab a beach chair and a snack and snuggle in. Over on Jan Thiel Beach (your charter from Klein Curacao will leave you here) stick around post-cruise and watch the sun drop into the ocean from a table at Zest Mediterranean. The toes-in-the-sand spot serves up Mediterranean-meets-Curacao food best accompanied by one of their dozen G&T riffs.
Wherever you head, blue curaçao (a blue-hued orange-flavored liqueur) is the drink of choice. The aptly named blue-hued spirit is made with the peel of the Laraha citrus fruit, a fruit grown only on the island of Curacao. While you’ll find the liqueur all over the world, Curacao bars will offer up a locally-made version in a full host of cocktails.