TVH Traveler Trip: Holiday in Curacao!!
We sent our beautiful traveler and her lovely mom on a Thanksgiving trip to Curacao! They were so kind to share their pictures and write a really thorough review of the island for us since it's one of the few places we haven't been yet (it's on our list!!). Here is her review and after you're done reading it, let us know when we can plan your next trip!
Our Curacao Trip!
The island of Curacao is off the hurricane and tourist path but as easy to get to as any of the other Caribbean islands from the east coast. It is part of the Dutch Netherland Antilles islands, using the Netherlands Antilliean guilder for its currency and enjoying Dutch military protection. The island has a European feel to its city centers and sturdier construction to its buildings which provides a more inviting, safer feeling than many of the Caribbean islands I have been to. The downtown area is safe to walk around in and milling with international tourists from the cruise ships. The beaches are quiet and beautiful getaways and easily accessible. The food is international and you can find just about anything you could want to eat. The US dollar and credit cards are readily accepted and the locals speak English, Spanish, Dutch, and their own blend of Portuguese and
Renaissance Resort & Casino
After an easy $25 taxi from the airport, the Renaissance Hotel’s staff were welcoming and friendly. While I have been in lobbies that make more of an impression, the lobby was tidy and opened onto the casino and restaurant. Surrounding the entrance to the hotel is an upscale shopping and restaurant area that houses Tiffany’s, BCBG, several other jewelry stores, a movie theater, cigar lounge and a busy Starbucks.
The casino is small but provides cards, roulette, and slot machines. The restaurant off the lobby celebrates most American and Dutch holidays and has themed nights, such as an international buffet featuring Indian dishes, jambalaya, seafood soups, fried rice, and desserts. When we were there they had a cute little set up with a carving station for Thanksgiving. The hotel also provides room service, which I found affordable, but fairly bland. There also did not seem to be a shop or vending area where you could purchase snacks such as candy bars and chips easily. This was the only downside I found.
The hotel is home to its own Starbucks, that allows room charges, a poolside lounge with very good food and drinks, and an infinity pool with sand bottom that gives the illusion of being on the beach. A second infinity pool with cement bottom is also available for those who don’t want to get sandy. While hanging over the edges of the pools you can witness iguanas munching on the bushes and sunning themselves on a rock wall, as well as crabs playing in the water outlets. Occasionally these creatures will get friendly and venture onto the walls of the pool or even the beach! Don’t worry, they don’t bite though and mostly keep to themselves.
You can also watch cruise ships and huge shipping freighters as they dock or travel up the channel to unload cargo and passengers. There is also a Dutch navy vessel that patrols the mouth of the harbor and it is entertaining to watch the navy shore vessels and pilot boats race out to guide their captains safely into port.
While lounging on the beach, the poolside lounge servers will bring you food and drinks. I found the chicken wings particularly delicious, with a crispy skin and delightful dipping sauces. Other things on the menu included Dutch Bitterballen, which are a fried ball of mashed potatoes and beef, a pineapple and prosciutto salad, chicken quesadilla, and flatbread. All of which were delicious.
The hotel also provides a wonderful concierge service to help you book excursions and a Budget stand at which you can rent a standard-transmission (automatic) car for an affordable $45-$65 per day. As the island traffic drives on the right, and the app Waze works decently well on the island, it is very easy to get out to the west side beaches for a little snorkeling. Mind the speed bumps and traffic circles however, as they come up suddenly.
The rooms are clean but relatively unexciting (but you don't go on vacation to stay in your room!). The interior rooms face onto the lobby and the conference room so I would suggest paying the extra money for a resort/island or ocean view. We had a resort view which looked out over the main street and onto a parking garage, but in retrospect, had we been on the ocean side, it would have been much noisier. For 4 of our 7 nights at the hotel, there were events at the pool, in Rift Fort, or downtown that the music could be heard until midnight from our rooms on the opposite side of the hotel. I can’t imagine how loud it would be right over the events!
Next to the hotel was the shopping district known as Rift Fort. This area is home to many restaurants, including steak and ribs, Italian, sandwiches, ice cream, sports bar, and its very own, cheese shop and restaurant. There are also several stores that sell Dutch and Curacao souvenirs, and a corner store to restock on suntan lotion and candy bars. Beware though, the sunscreen costs a pretty penny! The Fort provides a nice buffer between the shopping district attached to the Renaissance Resort and the town.
Queen Anne Bridge and Downtown Punda
An easy walking distance from the hotel is the Queen Anne bridge and Punda. The bridge is hinged on the Otrobanda side, closest to the hotel, and opens from the Punda bridge for waterway traffic. For smaller boats, it may open just a little bit, and for a short amount of time for the boat to pass through, but for shipping containers or cruise ships it may remain open for 30-60 mins. During this time the ferries kick into motion to shuttle passengers back and forth who don’t have the leisure of watching the mechanics of this process. When the bridge is closed, Punda is an easy 12-15 minute stroll from the Renaissance hotel. You can also rent a tuktuk to take you from the hotel, across the bridge, as the tuktuks are allowed to drive across the bridge.
Once in downtown Punda, you can find just about any type of bar or restaurant you would like. Local, small, bbq joints are interspersed with more touristy restaurants including Chinese, American, and Italian cuisine. The Iguana Lounge serves traditional Dutch and American fare and is a nice place to stop and watch the channel traffic and enjoy the breeze from the water. Here you can sample traditional Karni (beef) and chicken Stoba and enjoy frozen drinks or a cold beer. I had the pleasure of watching the bridge Christmas lights get turned on, while enjoying the Stoba and a lemon frappe.
There are historical sites to see as well, while our busy itinerary only allowed for the Mikve Isreal-Emanual Synagogue, there are several things to see, while you enjoy the brightly colored European old town. The town also boasts cute statuary made by local artists of some of the natural wildlife, and a large heart statue near the base of the bridge, that allows for couples to lock a padlock with their initials to it to the statue, instead of the bridge; thus saving the integrity of the pontoon bridge.
The Mikve Isreal-Emanual Synagogue is an easy stop that will take 1 hour or less. The temple features a sand floor and ornately carved furniture and a pipe organ. Lacking central air, it is a very warm building during the middle of the day. It is open Monday-Fridays. The Synagogue charges a modest $10 fee for entrance to the museum and temple. The air conditioned, four-room museum features the histories, articles, and personal effects from the synagogue’s members, and it is a nice cool reprieve after the warm tour of the temple.
Also downtown is the colorful floating market. Vendors, mostly from Venezuela and other islands, come to sell produce and fish in an outdoor market. Contrary to the name, the market does not actually float but is alongside one of the walkways, which the vendors boats are docked behind. $3 will buy you 3-6 pieces of fruit depending on how much you are willing to haggle. To provide some nibbles for our exploration of the Westside beaches, I was able to purchase 6 mangos, 3 plums, 2 oranges, 1 bunch of grapes, and half a watermelon for $9. The vendors know limited English and generally are native Spanish speakers. They will accept the Dutch Guilder or USD. My limited Spanish, which mainly consists of “Hola”, “Quanta Costa?”, and “Quiero” + Spanish numbers was enough to let me haggle for what I needed. In fact, I had asked one vendor for mangos and he said no one had any but they would come later, by the time I purchased the rest of my fruit, he had scrounged up 3 bags of mangos from other vendors for me to pick from. Finding bread and cheese was harder than I anticipated, but the market provided a good start for our beach picnic and I was able to pick up a ham and cheese baguette from the sandwich shop in Rift Fort on the way back to the hotel while my mom rented the car from Budget.
Curacao provides plenty for the ocean lover to do. With more than 20 beaches, the island features great scuba diving, easily accessible snorkeling, and many watersports including windsurfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and sailing. There are man-made beaches, natural beaches, and lagoons, to offer a little something for everyone. While different excursions offered by the hotel provide access to different beaches, it’s very easy to rent a car and go exploring as a nearly straight shot up the coast provides easy access to many of them. Our exploration started with Playa PortoMari as we heard it was an easy stop to snorkel and see sea turtles.
PortoMari is a public beach and has a $3 entrance fee with beach chairs for rent for $3.50. We rented flippers for $3.50 from a shop where you can rent dive and snorkel gear. There also is an open air beach bar where you can order food to enjoy under the shade of its canopy or to go to eat at your beach chair. The snorkeling is moderate and even on a Monday chairs are scarce because the beach is busy, so make sure to get here early! The beach has sand but there is a layer of coral to climb over before getting into the water so if you have tender feet make sure to bring water shoes.
On the way to PortoMari you will find Salina di Jan Kok. This is the natural flamingo habitat. A boardwalk allows tourists to walk out into the marsh for closer viewing and reward of the pictures of the hillside. There is no fee and parking is roadside, but it’s a must stop on your way to or from PortoMari.
At the farthest west tip of the island, Playa Kalki is heralded as being one of the most picturesque of the beaches. It was worth the drive, and the confusion of trying to find the little inlet that provides parking and a staircase down to the beach. Once down the stairs, the beach is free and open to the public. It is a beautiful inlet with clear blue water, a dive shop, small white sandy beach with chairs for free (if you can find them), and a seaside restaurant. Public restrooms are available near the restaurant and the dive shop provides snorkel equipment for rent. Visitors to the beach have created cute coral sculptures and snorkeling is worth the rental fees. The inlet is home to a variety of fish in all shapes and sizes and quite a bit of coral. Definitely worth a stop if you have the time.
Down the road a bit is Playa Piscado. The local concierge told us it’s a great place to view sea turtles. However, once to the beach, you have to really want to see sea turtles, as the reason for their presence is easily distinguished by the scent in the air as soon as you park your car. Playa Piscado is so named because it is the fisherman’s beach. Definitely a local spot, the fishermen bring in their catches of the day and clean the fish right on the beach, tossing their scraps back into the ocean. While this no doubt provides a tasty snack for the turtles, it does not provide a particularly pleasant snorkeling environment, as by the afternoon, the water is littered with fish heads and bones and the reek of decaying flesh permeates the air. If you are brave enough to try this beach, I would suggest going early in the morning before the fishermen have cleaned their daily catches. We did not snorkel here so I cannot vouch for the presence of sea turtles.
Shortly down the road from Piscado, we came across Playa Forti. With a colorful view of Piscado in the distance, it’s picturesque and comes with a surprise. Behind the restaurant is a 40 foot cliff jump! While we came late in the day and were not up for the heart stopping adventure, it would be a great stop for the adventurous traveler. From our restful vantage point looking down, we were able to watch stingrays drift in and out of the waves on a deserted beach.
Finally, our last stop of the day was Playa Jeremi, This beach is a pretty, private inlet that is a perfect hideaway for couples wishing to watch the sunset and do some canoodling. Since I was visiting with my mom, we combed the beach for the readily available green, white, and brown sea glass and enjoyed the view. Bonus, this beach is free and includes picnic tables for those who might want to enjoy the view with a bottle of wine or some grub. There are no chairs on this beach for rent so bring a towel!
Kayaking through the Mangroves
After reading some "interesting" reviews of Captain Goodlife’s tours to the natural Blue Room cave, my mother and I decided to press our luck and do an ocean kayaking tour to the Blue Room with Ryan de Jongh tours instead. Neither of us having much experience with kayaking, we were not sure what to expect of our physical abilities, the distance, and the trek but we were rewarded for our efforts. Ryan is a local of the island, whose family dates back to the 1700s. He has made it one of his life’s goals to help preserve the gorgeous habitat of the island and has replanted more than 100,000 mangrove trees that were destroyed in the construction of the island. As part of the tour, he takes you back through one of the fully preserved mangrove forests and explains the importance of the trees as
hurricane breaks and wildlife refuges.
You then go on to your ocean kayak to the Blue Room. If the tide is low enough, you are rewarded with the unique experience of being in a cave that is illuminated from the reflection of the sunlight off the white sand, which is how the cave gets is name. However, on the day we were there, the water was up over the entrance of the cave, which made for a more difficult, but not impossible entry into the cave where you had to dive under the water for several seconds to gain access.
Once in, the water was still bright enough to see down 20+ feet and watch fish (sorry, no pictures, my phone isn't waterproof!). If you had snorkel gear, the cave is a nice snorkeling experience, and along the mouth of the cave is an abundant array of coral, sea fans and sponges, and fish. Ryan will point out features of the island and show participants where they can do cliff jumps from, while they explore the area around the cave.
Once rested, participants kayak back to Play Santa Cruz beach. Santa Cruz is a more local beach, nestled back against the national park. Picnic tables allow for lunches but there are no chairs for lounging or rent so bring some towels. There is a restroom/changing area and a company where you could rent paddle boards as well. The bay is home to at least 7 sea turtles, (we got to see several surface) and occasionally you can see whales and dolphins in your adventure out to the blue room. It’s an approximately 2 mile kayak round trip, if you and your partner can row in sync, the hardest part is getting back in the 2 person kayak after the Blue Room. Overall, a wonderful tour and guide, who donates some of the fee back to the habitat conservation and CARMAMBI research station. I would highly recommend it!
Dolphin Academy and Sea Aquarium
So approximately 15 years ago, I did a “swim” with the dolphins in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, this “swim” was really a wade into the waist high water on a platform and pet the dolphin. However, in Curacao, they have a sea aquarium featuring all sorts of demonstrations and animal excursions, one of which you can actually SWIM with the dolphins. Novel concept! You can also book a snorkeling and diving experience as well, but unfortunately, that wasn’t available on the day we could go. However, the swim experience was more than fantastic!
Groups are split into 6 people and fins/masks are provided for swimming. On our day, there were only 8 people for the swim so we were split into two groups of 4. Each group got to swim and interact with two dolphins in a saltwater lagoon, under the guidance of trainers. The trainer worked with the participants to do tricks with the dolphins, swim, pet, dive, and get pictures. I even got a kiss from the dolphins!
After 30 mins of straight play and swimming you are pretty tired, but it is truly a remarkable experience with these incredible creatures. As part of the dolphin swim, you also gain access to the aquarium where they have demonstrations with sea lions, sharks, fish, sharks, and flamingos. Also, as you walk around the aquarium you can view the different dolphin lagoons, some of which allow the dolphins access to open waters. These lagoons also provide safe breeding environments, and when we were visiting,
one pool had a mother and a 2 week old dolphin that was tiny and precious beyond words. Though I would HIGHLY recommend this for kids, it was an amazing stop for two well traveled adults who have visited most of the major aquariums and zoos in the United States.
Next to the aquarium is Mombo beach, a man-made beach which features snorkeling and two restaurants on either side of the canal. We ate at the Italian one closest to the aquarium and enjoyed watching the sugar birds steal sugar packets from the tables, and fantastic homemade pastas. This area was approximately 20 mins from the hotel by taxi which cost $25.
Sounds like our traveler and her mom had a great time in Curacao! Let us plan your next amazing vacation - get started by filling out the trip survey!