The island of Curaçao is one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean, even though it’s actually the biggest of the ABC islands (that’s Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao). So if you want to look like you’re truly in the know, skip that Bahamas vacation and book your next trip here.
Not only does this lesser-known island sit outside the hurricane belt—meaning the majority of its calendar year is filled with nothing but sunshine and cool trade winds—but it’s also a melting pot of more than 50 nationalities (most locals can speak four languages) and a haven for thrill-seekers. So if heart-pounding adventure is what you’re after, here’s how to spend four days on island time.
How to Get There
Over the last three years, North American visitation has increased by 8 percent. To match demand, airlines are offering more flights than ever from the northeast—including a third daily flight from Miami on American Airlines starting December 2018.
Speaking of Miami, this Dutch-owned island is only a 2.5-hour flight from Magic City, and New Yorkers can expect a 4.5-hour trip to Willemstad, the country’s capital. If you’re piggy-backing off a trip to Aruba (which I highly recommend), you’re looking at a quick 20-minute flight in between islands. But the short flight time isn’t the most attractive part of Curaçao.
Where to Stay
People booking an adventurous Caribbean vacation tend to go in one of two directions when it comes to accommodations: They either go all-out to have somewhere luxurious to recoup, or opt for a more affordable option that saves cash for activities.
If you’re in the first group, then you’ll want to stay at Avila Beach Hotel located in the Pietermaai district, especially if you can nab one of the Ocean Front Blues rooms facing the Caribbean Sea for about $249 a night. It’s the oldest hotel on the island and it’s where the Queen stays when she’s in town. Another 4-star option is Marriott’s Renaissance Curacao Hotel & Casino in the Otrabanda region, which has ocean-view rooms for about $245 a night and ideally sits a five-minute walk away from the iconic Queen Emma Bridge.
Those looking to save some dough can snag a room at Scuba Lodge Boutique Hotel & Ocean Suites in the Pietermaai district, whose standard rooms average $167 a night. They’re ideal for those who don’t need a ton of frills but still want easy access to restaurants and nightlife. There’s also Floris Suite Hotel & Spa in Piscadera Bay. The Loft Suite Millennial Special averages $139 a night and gives off a very inclusive, Ibiza-style vibe.
Wednesday: Good Food and Live Tunes
Evening: Depending on how long you spent traveling, you may want to make your first night relaxing—but that doesn’t mean you should skip going out. Grab a happy hour drink at Zanzibar on Jan Thiel Beach, where you can dig your toes in the sand and nod along as local musicians unplug and play popular songs with an acoustic Caribbean flair. Stay until the show is over, or head next door for an al-fresco meal at Tinto, where you’ll still be close enough to hear the live music in the background as you feast on authentic Argentinian cuisine prepared on a charcoal fire. One of the restaurant’s specialties: asado di tinto, or rib eye, chicken chorizo, and lamb chop served with Argentinean sauces and chipotle salad.
Thursday: National Parks and Street Art
Morning: Set your alarm, rent a Jeep, and drive to Christoffelpark, the largest national park in Curacao that’s located on the northeast side of the island. It’s home to Mount Christoffel, the highest point of the country, which at 1,220 feet of elevation gets the blood pumping to kickstart the day. Don’t try to put this off until later in the day, and be sure to bring water—the trail is only open until 10 a.m. thanks to rising heat and humidity.
Afternoon: Now that you’re awake, make your way to Shete Boka National Park for more hiking. The Boka Wandomi Trail is one of the best, and it’ll take you across jagged lava terrain to see the Boka Wandomi Natural Bridge, the Boka Tabla natural sea cave, two bokas (that’s Papiamentu, the local language, for “bays”), and awesome views of waves crashing into limestone cliffs. Stop for a snack—iguana soup is a local delicacy—at any of the food stands near the park before driving back to Willemstad.
Evening: Get to know the city through its colorful street art. You can book a breezy tuk tuk tour through One Curacao and zip through both the western Otrabanda side and eastern Punda side of Willemstad which, if you didn’t know, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two sides of the city are connected by that famous Queen Emma pontoon bridge, which opens for boats to pass through and only allows foot traffic. (Your tuk tuk guide has a special section of the bridge to go over.) Grab a recovery beer at Mijn Broodje Pietermaai. The menu features an array of traditional Dutch dishes. (We recommend the kapsalon, which has shawarma meat, melted Gouda cheese, dressed salad greens, and french fries.) For a more upscale dinner, visit Blessing, a former cathedral monastery, for artisanal cuisine—and don’t forget to order the wolfish.
Friday: Scuba, Snorkel, Stingrays, and Sharks
Morning: Stop for a fresh-fruit smoothie, or betido, at one of the many stands around the island (though arguably the best one is located right outside the Renaissance) before visiting Ocean Encounters Curacao. An animal encounter package lets you choose between snorkeling or diving with sea turtles, stingrays, and nurse and lemon sharks in a natural lagoon. You’ll also get to feed the sea creatures, and your ticket grants additional access to the Sea Aquarium Park.
If you want more of a deep-sea adventure, diving at Superior Producer may be more your speed. Ranked as one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean (and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019), this 240-foot freighter ship was overloaded with Christmas supplies when it sank in 1977. Today it sits upright and is home to barracudas and some of Curaçao’s most colorful fish. Just note that you can’t explore when cruise ships are in port, as doing so could mean a most unpleasant death by propeller.
Afternoon: Head to SeaBob Curacao next, where you’ll use the personal underwater propellers to swim alongside sea turtles and schools of fish off of Playa Piskado. There’s also Substation Curacao’s shark deep dive excursion, which takes you 1,000 feet below sea level—a.k.a. lower than divers are able to go—in a Curasub, or mini submarine. Keep an eye out for a variety of shark species you don’t typically see, including Cuban Dog sharks, Seven Gill sharks, and Green Murray sharks.
Evening: Curaçao has more than 35 white-sand beaches, many of which can get crowded during high season, but Playa Porto Mari is a hidden gem on the western coast. (Though it was just featured as a backdrop in the 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.) Claim a chair and relax—preferably with Brion, a local beer, in hand—or get in the water for more snorkeling. Just don’t leave without saying hi to (and maybe feeding) Willy & Woody, two piglets who’ve recently made the beach their home.
As the sun sets, make your way to Kokomo Beach. (No, you won’t be able to resist singing the famous Beach Boys song.) There you’ll find some pretty unforgettable views, stellar cocktails, and plenty of seafood. There’s even a swing sitting in the middle of the water, so don’t be surprised when your partner asks you to take a romantic seat and enjoy the view.
Saturday: City or Beach
Morning: You’ve had two action-packed days thus far, so give your body some restorative attention and mozy over to Hofi Cas Cora, the island’s first farm-to-table restaurant that’s quite literally on a farm. They host a Hatha-style outdoor yoga class every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. under a big ole’ Tamarind tree. (Sign-ups required, but mats are provided.) Refuel with the restaurant’s ever-changing brunch spread, then explore the property to see exactly where and how the seasonal ingredients are grown. Or just go and say hello to one of the goats, donkeys, or pigs roaming around—they’re always looking for new friends.
Afternoon: Today you have two options—stay in the city for a cultural infusion, or hit up more beaches. City-folk should visit the Floating Market first. It hosts vendors from the neighboring country who sell just-caught fish, tropical fruits, and vegetables. (Note: While the market is usually located on the Punda side of Willemstad, it’s currently on the Scharloo side, just over the waterway, while the government updates the market structures.) When you’re done, make your way to Wandu Café before visiting Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas.
If beach-hopping sounds more fun, then try Irie Tours’ beach hopping and snorkeling excursion; your guides will provide beer and fun facts about the area along the way. Want to venture on your own time? Playa Forti and Playa Kenapa (also called Playa Knip) have the most electric turquoise-blue water, and both spots are known for cliff jumping. Food stands populate both areas, though you could also make the drive to Toko Williwood for a goat burger you won’t soon forget.
Evening: Your last night can be a chill one with dinner at Ginger, a fusion of Caribbean-Asian dishes that keep your palate popping while local musicians entertain. Wrap it up with drinks and more live music at Miles Jazz Cafe; sip on a Tokyo Millionaire at Luke’s Cocktail Bar; or see what’s happening at 27, a blues and rock ‘n roll bar that honors iconic celebrities, like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, who passed away at the young age of 27.