The cruise my husband and I are still recouping from ran an 8 day circuit of Aruba, Curaçao, and Grand Turk. Naturally, we were the most jazzed about Aruba- I mean, hello? The Beach Boys rave over it and travel magazines swoon over the turquoise waters and flamboyant flamingos on every shore. But the hidden jewel of this cruise loop was undoubtedly Willemstad, Curaçao.
(Note: The list of all my finds and recommendations is at the end of the post with links.)
We pulled into the port somewhere around 7:30 am, out out our small window we immediately saw a small, but vibrant city. The buildings were so tightly knit you couldn’t fit a sheet of paper between them. Nestled off the coast of South America,Curaçao sits just outside of the hurricane belt- so it’s shores and historic architecture are unmolested by the rage of nature.
Not knowing too much about this small island, I had expected a very distinct Latin aesthetic and culture, but I was entirely wrong. Curaçao was colonized by the Dutch and the Hollandic influences are still prevalent today. In fact, the waves breaking tall against the rocky coast felt more like Europe than South America.
Now that I’ve drooled over their culture and history a little bit, back to getting the most out of Willemstad in one day. During breakfast on the ship we met a couple from Canada who often vacationed in Curacao and knew the island well. After picking their brains, we can away with the most important bit of information for our day in Willemstad: “Once you get off the ship everything you will ever want from Curaçao is to your right.”
The cruise center is your typical circus of tax and duty free items. But once you leave the entrance point, you are greeted by a plethora of open air artisan shops and the usual excursion vendors. I love anything handmade- anything that is a little different- so I took my time at these tables but we were still eager to get into downtown Willemstad.
Once we were finished browsing, we noticed the winding walkway that seemed to run right into the city. Knowing we wanted to explore on our own, we turned down the enthusiastic excursion sellers and stayed the path towards the heart of Willemstad. To the right of the sidewalk is the ocean, and to the left is lush vegetation until it opens up to the city, so it’s almost impossible to get lost (which is wonderful because my internal compass is severely broken).
(Tip: Renting a car or getting a taxi in Curacao is really a waste of money unless you have trouble walking. Wear a comfy pair of walking shoes and you can be anywhere you want in about 10 minutes.)
After about a 10 minute walk from the cruise ship, we strolled up on a centuries old, stone military fort- now re-purposed into an open air mall of sorts- Old Rif Fort.
While the colonial fort is now filled with shops and small restaurants, it doesn’t lose its old world originality. As we walked along the renovated shopfronts, scanning for an interesting window, we spotted a narrow, stone staircase in between a little restaurant and a jewelry shop. Once we ascended the stairs, the alleyway opened up into the fort-top, overlooking the expanse of the island. With the sea salt wind brushing your hair, the city to your left and the ocean to your right, this is a view you don’t want to miss.
After thoroughly wandering through every shop in the Rif Fort, we made our way out towards the center of the city just across the bridge. But before you arrive at the massive floating bridge, you will walk past a half mile string of open air booths lined up flea market style. Handmade bracelets and signs are in no short supply, and if you love to barter, this place is for you. You will probably even find the same old man with the longest dreads I’ve ever seen signing to every pretty lady that walks past. (p.s. tell him where you live and your name and he will work you into what ever song he is singing.)
We stopped at every booth examining the goods and chatting up their vendors until we crossed the floating bridge into the heart of Willemstad. In the downtown, colorful, Dutch buildings tower above the cobblestone streets. While tourism is a major industry in Curacao, Willemstad doesn’t reek of cliche or tacky at all. As we weaved through the streets, I noticed that, unlike so many other cruise ports, Willemstad is filled with locals going about their daily lives. This hub of Willemstad is where the local people do their shopping, pay their bills, bank, work, and live. The charm and utter authenticity of this city is a gem among the sea of the usual tourist traps.
By the time we shopped our way through the center of Willemstad, the sun was high in the sky, and we were starving (as if we hadn’t eaten enough on the ship already). We knew we wanted some of the local food, but we weren’t sure of what to eat. So naturally- we wondered around aimlessly. While I normally recommend scoping out the restaurants online ahead of time, our wanderings played out to our favor.
Down an alley way and through another colonial fort, we found the pearl of the ocean- quite literally. Perla Del Mar is a tiny seaside restaurant that serves a variety of seafood and pasta. When I say oceanfront, I really mean ON the ocean, the majority of the restaurant is open air on a covered dock.
As we rested our tired feet from hours of on foot exploring, the waves crashed against the rocks only 5 or 6 feet away from where we were sitting. When the sea breeze blew, I could feel the spray glance my shoulders. Our day in Curacao actually marked our 2nd wedding anniversary and I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate.
Curacao is an island of art, eclectic variety, old world charm, and undeniable beauty. If you are fortunate enough to travel here, even if just for a day, make sure to explore. Keep your eyes open for the little staircases that lead to incredible views, the street markets with unique finds, and the hole in the wall restaurants that will steal your breath away.
Sweet Dreams and Happy Travels Lovelies!
My List of Finds: