By Tom Dwyer
I can think of nothing better then leaving on a jet plane in the dead of winter and heading out to a warmer climate; especially if the destination is the Caribbean. Having explored many of the Caribbean islands over the past few years, I was surprised and delighted when I recently visited the island of Curacao in the southern Caribbean. Here is an island with charm, island hospitality, and excellent diving.
Curacao is part of the Netherlands Antilles. Just forty miles from Venezuela, and a stone’s throw from Aruba and Bonaire, it’s a desert-like island with cactus, roaming goats, beautiful beaches, and clear turquoise waters.
I stayed at the Hilton Curacao Resort, which has the best hotel beach on the island, a top-notch spa, and a 5 star PADI dive shop right on the premises. The diving on Curacao is very good, and offers a wide range of dive sites and some really spectacular dives like the Mushroom Forest and Cave and the Superior Producer.
The Mushroom Forest is a dive not to be missed for its uniqueness and beauty. 50 feet down on a terrace grows a virtual forest of huge star corals. Swim through these giant mushroom-shaped formations and become enchanted – some coral growing to fifteen feet in height. Nearby, in an underwater cavern, tiger groupers, glassy sweepers, and plenty of other underwater creatures await your arrival. The Mushroom Forest can be reached by a shore or boat dive.
The Superior Producer is one of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean. In 1977, the Dutch tanker, overloaded, made it as far as the mouth of the harbor of Willemstad, before taking on water and then quickly sank in a matter of minutes. All hands made it safely to land. The Superior Producer sits at 100 feet. You can reach the site by boat or shore dive. On a clear day, the dive is a joy to swim around and through.www.curacaohilton.com For those of you who eat, breath and dream diving, the Habitat Curacao Dive Resort, a seven day 24-hour resort dedicated to diving, is the place for you. This is a beautiful dive resort, built in 1996, with top notch dive masters and the latest equipment. They offer numerous dive packages, and the tanks are always filled, no matter what hour of the day. They go to the best dive sites in the area, and draw some serious divers to the resort. There is a sister Habitat Resort on Bonaire.
But Curacao offers a whole lot more besides diving. The main town of Willemstad with its European charm and fascinating history is one of the most truly interesting and beautiful towns in the Caribbean. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Willemstad waterfront is a pastel postcard of old Holland, with its brightly painted buildings. The city is divided in two by St. Anna Bay, the largest harbor in the Caribbean with Punda to the east and Otrobanda to the west, and is connected by a pontoon bridge known as the ‘swinging old lady’ that cocks a leg for cruise ships and rusted tankers.
There are a dozen great museums in Willemstad – two that I highly recommend: the Kura Hulanda Museum, which traces the sad history of the slave trade from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Mikve Emanuel Synagogue built in 1732, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
To walk around the winding colorful streets of Willemstad is to experience a true Caribbean town with its floating market of food vendors and local artists selling their wares. But this is also a city where the future is now with hip shops and world class restaurants.
Outside of town is the Curacao Sea Aquarium where families can swim with eagle rays and other large tropical creatures or hand feed sharks. The Curacao Sea Aquarium is a great family outing and a very hands-on place for the kids.
On the northwestern end of the island is the Christoffel National Park. It offers fun hiking, and stunning views of the ocean and rock formations. And after a morning of hiking or swimming, stop in and have lunch at Jaanchie’s, serving some of the best local food on the island for three generations.
Curacao is not an island where one gets bored quickly. You could spend a week just in the town of Willemstad and find something new to do everyday. Throw in the diving, casinos, great restaurants, and historical plantation houses to visit and you have a getaway second to none.