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Spotlight on the Caribbean: Local culture & hidden gems in Curacao

This is the third article in my new series on Caribbean destinations. Every Wednesday for the next several weeks, I will be sharing a new facet of this glimmering jewel to our south - Click here for the first article. Despite being a gorgeous Caribbean destination with plenty of attractions for visitors, Curacao never seems over-run by tourists, and offers a wealth of little-known cultural attractions. Some of them are so much off the beaten path that even most locals don't know about them, lending them a feeling of well-kept secrets.

One of the main lures of a Caribbean island is, of course, the sea. The beaches and water of Curacao prove an irresistible lure, with their white sand and such amazingly turquoise water that I'm sure my friends back home will think I Photoshopped the pictures. The shores are gorgeous everywhere, from the busy port town of Willemstad to quiet residential neighborhoods; but when you venture to the far west end of the island, you find yourself in a remote, almost completely undeveloped area surrounded by hundreds of acres of Christoffel National Park. In this area is the secluded Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club, with a spectacular natural reef just off its shore. Lodge Kura Hulanda is a prime diving destination resort, offering an on-site dive shop that provides snorkeling, scuba diving, courses and daily excursions to Curacao’s top dive sites.

On my visit, we took off on a snorkeling adventure with a guide from Germany named Bea, visiting the Mushroom Forest dive spot and the magical Blue Room. This underwater cavern requires you to swim under the overhanging limestone that protects it - but when you do, you are rewarded with the water shimmering its light all around the cavern roof above, while underneath schools of brightly colored tropical fish dart through the coral.

Although Lodge Kura Hulanda offers a variety of guest rooms for rent starting at $135, as well as resort homes for purchase, one special lodging makes an extremely unusual stay for those who can afford it. The Tree House Mansion is a two bedroom, two bathroom luxury treetop getaway, with incongruous crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and an astounding antique Chinese lounging bed on the sunporch.

On the other side of the island is a totally different, but equally enchanting, adventure on land. At Den Paradera, Dinah Veeris lovingly maintains several acres of plants and herb gardens, from which she concocts an amazing array of natural healing herbs and beauty potions. Den Paradera translates to "the place where you feel at home," and on a guided tour ($6 adults), Ms. Veeris certainly makes you feel at home as she explains what each plant is, and its purpose. From curing headaches and stomach problems, to the requisite love potions, this is clearly a labor of love for Ms. Veeris, who is one of the last people who does this type of traditional, organic medicine. When her plants are sick, she puts them in a hammock and rocks them, while singing a lullaby. Well worth the visit, and the on-site store sells most of the potions (of which I walked away with many).

One one of our last nights, we ate dinner at a true insider's secret that you won't find in the guidebooks. Equus is family-owned and located in a quiet residential neighborhood. Most of the time, the home and land operates as a horse stable - but on Friday nights, it turns into a restaurant that the locals frequent. There are only two items on the menu: chicken or beef. Big, long skewers of chicken or beef, to be precise, that is grilled over an open fire and then hung above your picnic table from metal hooks. The meat is served with warm home-baked bread and a tangy dipping sauce; you simply pull it off the skewers with your fingers and enjoy! This is not a place for vegetarians - there are not even any side dishes or salads.

IF YOU GO:

PLAN your trip by visiting the Curacao Tourist Board website at www.curacao.com.

VISIT Den Paradera by setting it up with a local tour company, calling +(5999) 767 5608, or emailing dinahveeris@yahoo.com.

EAT at Equus by simply asking a taxi driver to take you there, or setting it up through your hotel. Most residents know the Equus stables.

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