Part of the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao is the"C" of the"ABC" Dutch Caribbean islands (the other two are Aruba and Bonaire). Located 35 miles north of Venezuela in the Southern Caribbean, it is the largest (37 miles long and almost seven miles wide) and also the most populous of the Dutch islands with more than 170,000 inhabitants.
Originally in Spanish hands, Spain founded Willemstad as Santa Ana in the 16th century, but lost the island to the Dutch in the 17th century, and the Dutch, which turned the island into a tropical Holland, in turn, had to fight off the French and British --hence, the hilltop forts and fortifications that protect the harbor of Willemstad.
The entrance to the harbor of Willemstad, the island's capital, is narrow and arguably one of the most exciting and picturesque cruise ship entrances in the Caribbean. Being on deck as the ship enters and leaves Willemstad is a cruising"must" to enjoy the sight of rows of Dutch buildings in ice cream colors and red tile roofs lining the canal --Willemstad's natural harbor, Schottegat, and the city's historic downtown are on UNESCO World Heritage list. Among the top attractions for many cruise passengers are Willemstad's high-end shops and restaurants. Developed on both sides of the canal, the city has two sections: Punda (with an old-world feel, Dutch-style gabled architecture, and the best shopping), and Otrabanda (which means the other side and which is more contemporary). A pedestrian walkway, the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, connects both sides of the city. Another span, the Queen Juliana Bridge, opened to vehicular traffic in 1973, is at 194 feet, the highest in the Caribbean.
Attractions include Fort Amsterdam, a corner of which is at the intersections of Handelskade and Breederstraat, houses the Governors Palace and the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church. The church has a British cannonball embedded in it. The Floating Market is a colorful must-see near the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge. Fishing boats from Venezuela and other point of the Caribbean tie up there and offer fruits, vegetables and fish.
The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue at Hanechi di Snoa 29, consecrated in 1732 is reportedly the oldest extant in the Western Hemisphere. Adjacent to it is the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum exhibiting ceremonial and cultural objects from the 17th and 18th centuries.
To shop for that special souvenir, try the Waterfort Arches, built of 17th century barrel stone set against the sea. There you will find a number of boutiques.
Two popular excursions for active visitors include a visit to the Curacao Underwater Marine Park stretching for 12 miles and noted for its soft and hard corals and millions of fish --an ideal spot for snorkelers; and hikers may wish to check out Christoffel National Park on the western tip of the island, a showcase of Curacao's fauna including iguanas and deer, and the island's flora, including orchids.
Curacao's beaches are not considered among the best in the Caribbean, but nonetheless, the island has 40 beaches --generally, the west coast's beaches have quiet inlets and bays that are better for swimming and snorkeling. Among the most popular beaches are Blaubaai, northwest of Willemstad, and Seaquarium Beach (also called Mambo Beach) to the east of Willemstad's downtown.
For a taste of exceptional flavors try the rifsttafel, a feast served with 16 or more courses that you can wash down with a local Amstel beer. You can try the rifsttafel at Rijsttafel Indonesia, Mercuriusstraat 13, Salinja.
Cruise lines that visit Willemstad include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean, Silversea and Windstar.
IF YOU GO: For information on Curacao, visit www.curacao.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun