Curacao: East Side, West Side
One island, two distinct topside experiences and some of the best diving in the Caribbean
Short of traveling into space, there is no better way to approximate flight than on a lazy drift dive. Here at the east end of Curacao at a site called Newport, I soar 300 yards across the star and brain corals that grow among the gorgonians, which undulate here like trees in a light breeze. Fluttering among it all are French angelfish, striped sergeant majors, fairy basslets and innumerable other small fish that are as graceful as birds.
Lions Dive & Beach Resort is on the island's southeast coast, just a few minutes from Willemstad. The dive operator here is Ocean Encounters, a family-run place overseen by its patriarch, Nolo Ambrosi, who aims to please. "When people come to me, I say: 'Tell me what you want to do.'" Then he counts off the possibilities: reef dives, wall dives, shore dives and wrecks.
This wealth of underwater opportunity competes for attention with the topside attractions so many that even the most ardent diver will want to see them all. I learn that there are two well-defined experiences in Curaçao: The east end is dense with cultural attractions; the west end lets nature do the heavy lifting.
On the east end, where I am now, the world revolves around the achingly charming Willemstad, part of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of restored 18th-century, Dutch-colonial buildings with pastel postcard gables and pitched, tiled roofs.
Today, travelers cluster about the restaurants, cafés and shops near the town center, but it's easy to wander off to the more-authentic places that fill this capital city. I lunch in the relatively peaceful Gomez Plein, a shady square where locals pause in the midday heat. The square is lined with various emporia, including a cigar shop, where, were I so inclined, I could purchase genuine Cubans. The proprietor might even helpfully conceal the contraband in Dominican packaging.
At the centerpiece of Willemstad's historic Otrobanda, you'll find the Museum Kurá Hulanda not only the world's largest slavery museum, but also a comprehensive exhibition on human origins, pre-Colombian gold and Antillean art.
Just next to Kurá Hulanda is Café Gouverneur de Rouville, one of the best places to have a cocktail not just on Curaçao, but anywhere. Its Caribbean Bar, overlooking the harbor, provides an excellent vantage point of the Queen Emma Bridge, the Floating Market on Sha Caprileskade and the bustling harbor.
After my cultural indulgence, I join a dive group heading to Jan Thiel, a dive site just off the southeast coast. Here, a sandy bottom slopes downward along a small wall. We're told to watch for a school of squid toward the end of the dive, but most of us miss them. No matter; a chain moray, juvenile spotted drums and a few dusky balloonfish keep me well-entertained.
We headed to the west end for the day to dive at Hell's Corner. There's a seahorse sighting, a pair of turtles and mostly healthy corals along this wall. These dives are within 20 minutes or so of the dock, which makes it easy to get in two or three in a day and still have time to explore topside.
The biggest challenge at night is deciding where to eat. More than 50 nationalities melt in Curaçao's pot options address every gustatory yen, but I'm hankering for something Caribbean. I end up at Air Curaçao Restaurant, a roadside attraction built inside an airplane I think a DC-9. I order a giant bowl of giambo, an okra-based ménage featuring fresh wahoo. Built around the cabin is a lounge with a blues guitarist who has just enough soulful enthusiasm to make up for some off-key crooning. All told, the atmosphere is exactly right.
I take an early morning dive out at Sandy's Plateau, with its big barrel sponges and brilliant purple stovepipe sponges. At my safety stop, I watch a peacock flounder glide along the bottom until it stops and vanishes, executing expert camouflage.
I love that this end of the island is so convenient. You needn't burn half a day getting somewhere, because you're usually within a few minutes of something worth exploring.
Just next to the Lions Dive & Beach Resort, for example, is the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. Popular but not overrun, it's a good spot to bring the kids or the nondiving travel mates who want a peek at underwater faunae.
I watch a small crowd feed the nurse sharks and hang with Pélé, a rescued, flightless brown pelican living large. A sign reassures that "Pélé is expected to live a long life, eating fish here in Curaçao Pool." And you'll not likely ever get any closer to flamingoes than here. They pose undisturbed, while southern stingrays glide around in the shallows of this aquatic oasis.
There's something so liberating about a culture that parties on Sunday night. When a week is launched with the joie de vivre as it is here, it's going to be a good one. On this night, the traffic in town stands still on De Rouvilleweg, where a celebration has erupted in drums, costumed dancers and other, roughly synchronized exuberances. Over the water, a sally of fireworks bursts in the colors of the Curaçao flag. A Dutch expat passerby explains that Carnival season has begun. But Carnival is literally months away, I say.
"Right," he laughs, "but this is Carnival season." He adds, "That's Catholicism for you!"
The usual Sunday protocol: Start at Mambo Beach for the happy-hour barbecue, then move over to the adjacent Wet & Wild Beach Club for the scene. A couple other divers gamely join me, so we follow the music to where DJ Boogieman spins '80s, house and salsa, with no discernible segues in between. A small group of dancers dominates the floor which is to say, the sand with bumps, grinds and other salacious acrobatics that are probably illegal in some states. I'd say the median age here is 24, but there are a few older patrons, me among them. I stick safely to the perimeter. Even so, with good music under the stars and a half-moon right next to the sea, it's a nice, festive groove. Perhaps in deference to my advanced age, we return well before dawn.
I've barely scratched the surface in investigating greater Willemstad, but I want to see the west end of the island as well, so I saddle up the rental car and head out.
Flanking Willemstad is the sprawling Isla Oil Refinery, where thin smokestacks flare towering flames into the atmosphere 24/7. As industrial areas go, it does have a certain post-apocalyptic landscape that I can appreciate. But for me, the refinery marks an appropriate divide on the island. Isla was, for most of the 20th century, the primary engine of the island's economy. Now, tourism is king, accounting for 85 percent of the GDP; so as I watch the refinery shrink in my rearview mirror, it's like watching a paradigm shift.
The change is palpable as I continue west of Ring Road, where a much more pastoral landscape opens up semitropical greenery, generously punctuated by kadushi and yatu cacti, interrupted rarely and briefly by little towns. It takes about 45 minutes to reach my destination: Sunset Waters Beach Resort.
The resort has a fascinating history. According to General Manager Jim Hunter, the place originally lodged Central Intelligence Agency agents, who may or may not have been meddling on the South American mainland about 35 miles away. (When I checked this factoid with the CIA, a spokesperson declined comment.)
Tucked into the cliffs around Santa Martha Bay, the resort is now rebranding itself as an eco-friendly resort, with it's own reef-restoration project, water-reclamation plant and nifty environmental-education program for local kids.
Today, a group arrives from Harry's Dive, the oldest and biggest dive shop in New Orleans. It's fitting that on their first day here they dive Generation Reef, since the two dozen or so divers are much like family, except these people seem happy. One 18-year-old is completing her certification; two younger boys are donning gear for the first time.
I ask Cindy Caldwell, who took over the operation from her father, Harry, why she keeps coming back to Curaçao this is her sixth visit. "There's just more to do here," she says.
You don't go to Curaçao's west end without diving Mushroom Forest, a site named for its star-coral formations, tree-sized and fungoid-shaped, dispersed like a great arboreal copse over a plateau in 40 feet of water. Sponges and boring clams have gnawed at the coral heads for decades, leaving clusters resembling gigantic lepiota mushrooms, their dusky brown and green "caps" overlapping in mounds, like disorganized beach umbrellas.
The savvy diver will carry a compass here, as the coral heads look much alike and regularly disorient divers. Green morays are out today, as well as a few spotted scorpionfish. It's a nice showing by the mobile critters, but they play second billing to corals, because this site is all about grooving on the 'shrooms.
Like on the east side, it's easy to balance outstanding dives and above-water activity. However, on this end, it's nature that's the draw. I drive up to the north coast to see Shete Boka National Park, a shoreline where volcanic rocks have been carved into caves that absorb the blows of incoming waves. The wilder north coast is battered by a restless sea, and it's too rough to dive. I amble along the Boka Pistol trail, so-called because on one part of the walk the thwap! of the pounding surf hitting hollowed rock approximates a firearm's report.
I'm back in time to catch an afternoon dive at Duane's Release, a site about 15 minutes north of the bay, and I take it slow. I spend much of my air simply hovering over the brain corals. In these waters they grow 3 to 4 millimeters per year, so these massive brains are at least 50 years old. Others are tremendous spheroid orbs and much older. One gargantuan boulder, even with half its body crumbled, still looks majestic and imposing, like a colossal ruin on some sacred ossuary. The grooved patterns on the coral surface look uncannily like a Keith Haring print, and it would not surprise me to learn that the late artist had been inspired by Diploria strigosa.
The next day, between dives, we stop at Mushroom Cave, also called Blue Cave, aka Blue Room. We tie up about 100 yards from the coral and limestone cliffs and snorkel over to the cave.
At the entrance there's little clearance between the water and a ceiling of rock; it's possible to snorkel through without bonking your head, but it's easier to just dive under and swim the 8 or 10 feet. Once inside, there's a weird play of light almost all of it is filtered through the crystalline sea, with dancing reflections glinting off the stone ceiling and walls.
A lone jack patrols the crannies and holes below, but the attraction here is neither critters nor corals. It's the light blue and soft and as animated as a living creature.
It takes some doing, but the next day I convince three from Harry's to join me for a hike in Christoffel National Park and up its 1,240-foot peak, Curaçao's highest point. We plan to arrive when the park opens at 8 a.m., so we can get up the summit and back before the late-morning sun starts baking us. There's a cloud cover to keep us mostly cool, but with the incline it's a bit of workout. Near the peak, tough casuarina trees hold loose boulders in place the thinner limbs conveniently placed for handholds. It seems perfectly quiet here until you stop and listen chirping birds, the susurrus of leaves and a whispering breeze through the volcanic rocks all compete with the drone of bees. At the top, we're rewarded with an eye-popping panorama, one well-worth the climb.
With one day left to dive, I'm hoping to end it with something big, something memorable. Lynn Bean, Sunset Divers' shop manager, suggests Watamula, a lesser-known site off the northwest point of the island.
"It's Mushroom Forest on steroids," Bean says.
The comparison is apt. The same star-coral columns prevail, but here they are bigger and more steeply stacked. We drift a lazy half-mile or so, all of it through some of the healthiest reef I've ever seen. It seems as if every coral specimen in existence has found a perch here, and every Caribbean critter has a crag to call home.
A turtle swims with us for a while and seems as curious as we are at the spectacular explosion of life and colors at every turn.
With all this submarine pulchritude and the many wondrous above-water attractions in Curaçao both in the fairly pristine west and in the more high-energy, cultural east there's more than enough to ensure I'll return again. I hope it's soon.
After you've seen Willemstad's Floating Market but before you've had drinks at Restaurant & Café Gouverneur de Rouville check out the Museum Kurá Hulanda in Otrobanda. Take the Jewish History Tour in Punda; the Snoa Synagogue is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Outside Willemstad, visit the 17th-century Landhuis Chobolobo, home of the Curaçao Liqueur Distillery. Feed the nurse sharks and kiss the dolphins at the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. Touch, feed or even ride the residents of the Curaçao Ostrich Farm. Just outside the airport, explore the Hato Caves. Climb Christoffel National Park's eponymous peak. Hike the shoreline trails in Shete Boka National Park and listen for the "gunshot" on Boka Pistol. Take a dip at Grote Knip and Klein Knip beaches on the west end.
THE GUIDE TO CURAÇAO
Average water temperature: 81-84°F
What to wear: 3/2 mm shorty or fullsuit
Average visibility: 100+ feet
When to go: Year-round
If you have a car, check out the Kodela wind farm on the north coast, west of the airport. The area is a tad wilder than the island's more beaten paths.
You'll have to be a good diver and personally ask for this west-end dive. It's so special, they don't put it on all the site maps.
This west-end dive put Curaçao on the map. Explore among acres of bioeroded star corals.
This site is a macro-diver's haven. Look for frogfish, seahorses and juvenile spotted drums.
Near Caracas Bay, this wall and reefscape on either side of the bay can be accessed from shore or boat.
Easily Curaçao's most photographed site, the Tugboat makes an easy dive in 25 feet of water.
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