Willemstad, Curacao--It simply doesn't look like a Caribbean island.
Caribbean islands are supposed to be lush and green from tropical rains. This one's dry and has more cactuses than palm trees.
Caribbean islands are supposed to be lined with gorgeous beaches. Curacao has a few lovely sandy coves, but much of its shore is rocky.
Caribbean islands are supposed to have quaint little huts fringing backwater harbors where native scows drop anchor. This one has pretty pastel-painted Dutch town houses and the harbor sees a lot more 1,000-passenger ocean liners than "Old Man and the Sea" fishing boats.
All of which makes Curacao one of the Caribbean's most intriguing islands. Its Dutch heritage gives it a European look, but its natural areas remind one more of Arizona. The shops and shopkeepers in the warren of pedestrian streets downtown are as sophisticated as any in the world, but some of the birds and flowers in Christoffel National Park are found nowhere else.
Town and country in Curacao could hardly make more of a contrast.
Most tourists, however, see little of Curacao beyond its bauble-filled shops. This is particularly true of cruise-ship passengers, who dock within walking distance of the photogenic downtown.
There's a good reason for this. Curacao's free port shops offer some of the best bargains in the Caribbean. Watches, china, perfume, jewelry, clothing, linens and liquor -- all the usual array of goods that put a gleam in a tourist's eye -- are available in profusion here.
On this trip, as on previous ones, I cased the shops for linens, and came home with a Madeira linen cutwork tablecloth for $60, a price that would make a stateside shopkeeper pale.
But having visited Curacao before, I spent most of my time on this trip exploring its unusual countryside. It was a revelation.
Pleasant little beaches at the foot of stony cliffs are found along the south coast. From the cliff-top restaurant at Playa Forti, near Westpunt, one looks across a small crescent bay dotted with sailboats and bordered by rocky cliffs and thumbnail beaches. Dominating the scene is the striking orange roof of a Dutch-style church.
Along Boca Tabla, a flat, rocky moor on the north coast, waves pound against the sharp-edged coral cliffs, sending geysers of spray high into the air. A step inside Thunder Cave, one of several open to the sea, drives home the power of the hammering waves.
Another cave on the north coast, this one more extensive and not connected to the sea, is expected to draw hundreds of visitors when it reopens this summer. Hato Cave, described by Curacao officials as equal to Barbados' beautiful Harrison Cave, had been desecrated by witch ceremonies and graffiti writers for some years. It is being cleaned and restored, and colored lights are being installed to enhance its features.
Here and there one comes across an old "landhuis" (plantation house) of the Dutch aristocracy of bygone days. Some are now simply ruins; others, like the Jan Kock house, have been restored and can be visited.
But one gets closest to the land at Christoffel National Park, a 4,000-acre preserve that encircles Curacao's tallest peak, the 1,500-foot St. Christoffelberg in the hilly western end of this semi-arid island.
Here the cactus plants grow up to 20 feet in height, and orioles flutter in the much-photographed divi-divi trees, whose branches, shaped by the constant trade winds, stick out straight to one side of the trunk like windblown hair.
Wild white orchids -- reportedly found only on Curacao in the Caribbean -- make their home among the cactuses. Hummingbirds, parakeets and flycatchers busy themselves in the scrub bushes.
It was the wrong time of day to see the endangered Curacao deer, but I did spot wild donkeys and goats on a jeep tour over the park's spine-jarring dirt road. Goats, by the way, are everywhere on Curacao, including restaurant menus.
"We want to propagate the deer," said W. L. Bakhuis, director of all of Curacao's parks. "Curacao is the only island in the Caribbean where deer existed before Columbus' time. There are only 300 or 400 of them left."
Offshore, Curacao has another fascinating natural attraction, its Underwater Park, established eight years ago. A coral reef completely encircles the island (which is of volcanic origin).
"A special thing about our reefs is that [divers] have accessibility to various depths very quickly," Mr. Bakhuis said. On a glass-bottom boat tour, I spotted a sea canyon close to shore where depths dropped precipitously from 10 feet to 400. Also visible from the boat, unfortunately, were acres of dead and broken coral, damaged during a bad storm two years ago.
A more controlled look at coral reefs and their denizens is available at the Curacao Seaquarium, which opened 4 1/2 years ago. Unlike most such facilities, this one cycles fresh sea water through its display tanks.
"That's why those corals you see are so brightly colored," said Adrian Schrier, owner and director of the Seaquarium. "They're real, living corals, not painted Fiberglas." The Seaquarium's unusual design -- it consists of more than two dozen interconnected hexagonal buildings -- allows sunlight to enter its 65 tanks, which house more than 400 marine specimens.
Back in town, one shouldn't miss visiting the historic 259-year-old Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest continually used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The yellow structure, which has a sand floor and occupies most of a block, was closed during the gulf war for fear of an incident, but reopened at the close of hostilities.
The synagogue sits close to little Gomezplein square, where one can pause for rejuvenation at a sidewalk cafe. Or one can stroll on the waterfront, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and admiring the Dutch architecture.
At least once, the visitor should stroll across the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, a Curacao original. How many harbors, after all, have a floating bridge that must swing open to admit huge ocean liners and oil tankers?
Built in 1888, the 700-foot-long bridge formerly was the major artery linking Punda, the main downtown section of Willemstad, with Otrabanda, the blossoming opposite bank. This led to major tie-ups when all traffic was halted to let seagoing vessels pass through the narrow entrance channel that opens up into Curacao's large harbor.
Today, the soaring Queen Juliana Bridge, erected in the 1970s, takes vehicular traffic 193 feet above the water, leaving the beloved Queen Emma bridge for use by pedestrians.
It's a charming feature of Willemstad, particularly lovely at night, with its string of lights.