This Colorful Caribbean Island Is Full of Hidden Beach Coves
European architecture meets turquoise seas.
Whether or not this is the “post" pandemic era or just more… era, like most of us, you’re probably itching to escape the homeland in search of some much-needed waves and sunshine. But despite the ocean calling your name, you don’t have to go to Moana-like lengths for a tropical vacation. The Caribbean sits like a cluster of sparkling jewels that are oh-so-close to the US and accessible through convenient, direct flights from major airports.
On the island of Curaçao in particular, life is nothing less than “dushi.” The Papiamento word officially means “sweet,” but a closer English translation just might be “lit.” After all, the Dutch province is known for its beach coves, rainbow-splashed colonial architecture, plethora of seafood, and laidback locals.
If you're ready for a trip to the C of the ABC islands, go past the neighboring Aruba and Bonaire till you get to the cure-a-frown island of Curaçao. There you can feel like a dolphin on an underwater seabob ride, eat iguana soup and an invasive species, and find hidden beach coves. Here are all the spots not to miss.
Go from quiet coves to under the sea
Rather than the stereotypically-Caribbean swaths of dreamy white sand, Curaçao’s beaches are mostly hidden coves. Driving the long highway through Westpunt (the less-populated western section of the island), signs direct visitors towards these somewhat-hidden paradises. A quick trip to remote Shete Boka National Park will have you seeing giant waves crash against cliffs in dramatic symphony, while the popular Kenepa Grandi beach lulls its visitors with the gentle hum of a more inviting tide and just a small strip of sand separating the sea’s teal waters from the land’s emerald hillsides.
Just off Santa Cruz Beach sits the Blue Room Cave, a small space usually only reachable via a short underwater swim. While the shifting air pressure can make your ears a little uneasy, the exquisite view inside—the water glows an otherworldly iridescent blue inside the chamber—is worth the momentary discomfort. Arguably, the best way to experience all these beaches is via a jet ski tour; Touriffic Curaçao runs a fantastic one that may or may not also include champagne and Amstel Brights.
But an even more unique adventure takes the jet ski concept further—or should we say deeper. To get a better glimpse of what lies beneath without having to scuba dive or even snorkel, book a Seabob tour through Bearded Butlers at Playa Kalki. The device you ride—i.e. your water chariot, valued at $13,000(!)—is like a mini jetski that can dive underwater. The seabob will propel you multiple feet below the surface to get up close and personal with side-eyeing eels, camouflaged octopuses, and sea turtles the size of a standard oven. Guide Andy, who is practically the Curaçaoan King Triton, is also a sight to behold (and not just because of his six-pack). He knows exactly where to find the most fish activity and dives to even greater depths to point them out and snap pictures for future memories.
Once you’ve shaken the water out of your ears, cap your day with a sunset cruise through Irie Tours. There are no guarantees that the sun will work its magic (you never know when Mother Nature will be temperamental and summon dark clouds). But you can bank on partying with travelers from around the world (and the boathands!) while noshing on meatballs and chicken skewers with a sweet, orange-flavored Blue Curaçao cocktail in hand.
Try iguana soup—or spicy meats and fish
A peculiar speciality on Curaçao is the deceptively beautiful lionfish—an invasive species with no native predators that wreaks havoc on the area’s sensitive reefs. Best thing to do for the planet? Rid this particular region of the unnatural intruder, and get lunch while you're at it. Chefs at restaurants like trendy Bario Urban Street Food have found clever ways to not only prepare the coral murderer for consumption (through fresh ceviche, crispy tacos, or folded into wasabi mayo-dolloped Asian pizza), but also for jewelry and home decor, utilizing every part of the fish down to its bones.
For a welcomed departure from the sea, newcomer BKYLN offers New York-inspired bites like sauerkraut-doused hot dogs and a rib-eye smothered in chimichurri butter and crushed hazelnuts. The gastropub gives off a serious borough vibe and serves what is, perhaps, the best cocktail I’ve sipped on this year: Hanging Grapes—an herbaceous blend of lemongrass gin, lime, passionfruit, ginger beer, and angostura that went down with all too great of ease.
Meanwhile, Ochenta puts twists on tropical drinks in a narrow space just steps from the water. The menu is displayed on a chalkboard behind the bar, so no need to squint in the bar’s low light. If you’re into whiskey and bacon, try the Serio, made with beeswax and bacon fat-infused bourbon and honey bitters. The food is limited, but the flavored popcorns and charcuterie get the job done.
The island’s quintessential restaurant is Jaanchies, a family-run seafood shack in Westpunt. The breezy, topical dining room is filled with the sound of sugar-addled birds buzzing to the feeders outside. This is the spot to try iguana soup, a rumored aphrodisiac that’s an only-in-Curaçao experience.
Other culinary highlights include a coleslaw fried chicken sandwich at De Broeders, sampler platter at Tabooshh! (which features local dishes like hearty beef stew, coconut mango rum chicken, and pillowy polenta fries), and sesame-crusted duck spring rolls at Bambu by Just. You’d also be remiss to not stop at Restaurant Gouverneur de Rouville for the most authentic keshi yena (cheese stuffed with spiced meat, raisins or plums, and root vegetables) on the island.
Seeking breakfast? My favorite meal of the trip comes from The Eatery at Hofi Cas Cora, which sources the bulk of its ingredients from their farm property. Open only from Friday to Sunday, the rustic abode offers a selection of baked goods, lattes, and much-hyped pumpkin pancakes dusted in cinnamon-sugar.
For the real-real island stuff, peruse the stalls at the Plasa Bieu indoor market. Aromas of spice and frying seafood fill the air as locals line the white wood benches indulging in whole fried snapper, beef curry, and stewed chicken. Nearly every stall serves similar stuff, though Yvonne’s is a favorite. It’s also the ideal place to cool off with some batidos, an icy drink made with tropical fruit, milk, and sugar.
Hike past crashing waves to the top of a mountain
Because of its relatively arid climate, Curaçao takes on an almost Mediterranean summertime appearance, with dry forests that intersect with palm trees and brown hills that turn green whenever the rain falls.
In Shete Boka National Park, you can get to know the shoreline more intimately along the Boka Pistol trail. The coastal walk got its name because the waves that crash against the limestone cliffs sound like gunshot explosions, and shoot skyward with similar force. You can also roll through lava hills and across a natural bridge on the Boka Wandomi trail, an hour’s walk atop limestone bluffs. The park is about 50 minutes from Willemstad by car. If you don’t have wheels, plenty of Willemstad tour operators can take you out there, though Private Curacao Tours can customize it for you.
Alternatively, head a little south of Shete Boka to Mt. Christoffel. The highest point on the island is only about an hour’s hike from the base, and the journey will take you through the boulders, canyons, and hillside vistas that make Curaçao’s natural landscape stand out.
Drink the colors of Curaçao
In Curaçao, having drinks on the beach doesn’t mean living on Spring Break. Mood Beach has an idyllic seaside setting with a classy-but-relaxed vibe, the kind of place where you can enjoy a glass of rose or a gin and tonic with soft house music on the speakers. You can even reserve a private daybed cabana on the sand, or join the mingling masses under the stick roof and canvas tent of the main restaurant.
The cocktail scene is abuzz in the bustling courtyard of Cana. (Its attached restaurant, Mosa, has ceviches and tacos to soak up the booze.) You’ll wait for a minute to be served, but once you do try the Calle: a tequila, mezcal, mango, chile concoction, where the spice makes you order more than you’d planned.
Another notable libation is the spicy hibiscus and ginger daiquiri from Mosa/Caña Bar & Kitchen, which is a perfect prerequisite to Wet & Wild Beach Club, host of *the* most popping oceanside party on Sunday evenings, with the sand as your dancefloor.
Take in art with some flora and fun-a
If the relentless sun has you saying an early ciao to tan time, you’ll find refuge with a variety of indoor (or canopied) activities.
Take a painting class with esteemed artist and self-proclaimed “God’s flowers agent” Francis Sling, whose oversized murals of nature adorn many local buildings. Or up your baking game with a bread-making course at Kas di Pal’i Maishi, which doubles as a museum and outdoor workshop area. And lastly, immerse yourself among the indigenous botanicals found at Den Paradera Herb Garden and Curaloe’s Aloe Vera Plantation. The latter boasts thousands of the spiky plants that are harvested on-site to create high-end beauty products.
But perhaps the easiest way to escape the heat and saunter under the retractable awnings of shops and cafes is with a simple stroll through Curaçao’s capital, Willemstad. Head over the Queen Emma Bridge to Otrobanda, the art-heavy district where murals and pastels lead you up winding hills and through narrow streets. Here is where you’ll find the row of famous rainbow buildings, as well as a barrage of bright and vibrant artwork lining the cobblestone streets and sold by the artists themselves.
Just right of the bridge you’ll find one of the most photographed spots on the island, the colorful stairs at Van Lennepstraat. Stop for a photo op, then continue up. There, you’ll find residential enclaves where nearly every home is covered in mural work, creating a collection of homes that looks more like one giant photo collage than a neighborhood.
Where to stay in Curaçao
Those searching for an oceanside oasis will find solace at the Marriott Beach Resort. After undergoing a recent multi-million dollar renovation, the property now boasts a private ocean, two pools, eight on-site restaurants, and modernized suites with modern wood built-ins and oversized bathrooms.
If you’d rather immerse yourself in the island’s culture downtown, opt for the historic Pietermaai Boutique Hotel. The quirky, wood-beamed lined rooms with kitchenettes and full living areas stand out as a unique and irreplaceable source of heritage and inspiration. As a result, the space has been recognized by the United Nations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re looking to stay downtown in the heart of the historic district, the downtown Renaissance. It’s built around the historic Rif Fort, so you’ll get a heavy dose of history. But the hotel also boasts a casino and a beachside infinity pool, giving it equal parts tropical vacation.
For a more-complete resort, hit the Corendon Mangrove Beach, right next to the cruise port. You’ll still be about 10 minutes from the action, but what you lack in proximity you’ll make up for in a full-scale waterpark, a private beach, and a swim-up bar.