Straight from Holland, two Dutch divers discover a Caribbean haven where everything is eerily familiar except that it comes in its opposing form.
Two days before we are to leave for Curaçao, we find ourselves literally crawling through one of our favorite dive sites off Holland. We're crawling because the viz barely extends beyond the reach of our hands, and the frosty water has begun to seep through our bulky drysuits. On the surface our boat is getting drenched by a steady, bone-chilling downpour made colder as it falls through the chilly northern European atmosphere. We often wonder why we dive here, but we fanatics take what we can get. It gives us perspective, after all.
It's still raining as we head to the airport in search of the Dutch opposite of our manmade European country. The sky's so gloomy that high noon resembles dusk in a bad-weather nightmare, and our dive bags and coats get drenched in just the few steps from the car to the curbside check-in. Once we get on the plane, we stuff our raincoats into the overhead bin and try to imagine a world where the sun shines. It's difficult to do while looking out of the airplane window, so we decide simply to sleep our way through, hoping to awaken in a blue-water dream.
When we land at Curaçao's Hato Airport, I reach for our still-damp coats and am reminded of the drizzly Dutch sky that is making one last effort to connect with this Caribbean world. I am quickly reassured that its efforts are in vain as we drive out of the airport through the rolling, arid countryside of Banda Abao in the western part of the island.
Above our heads, a strange thing: blue sky. We pass by more oddities the transparent air is magically dry and swirls around thickets of tall cactus. The signs, in Dutch, we recognize. But the birds perched atop the signs, black and gold trupials, have almost nothing in common with their cousins, the gray pigeons, that abound in our homeland. Along the way to Sunset Waters Beach Resort through this rural part of the island, we pass the Groot Santa Martha, a magnificently restored plantation house with terra-cotta rooftops surrounded by palm trees. The building has a strange tropical flair, yet it somehow reflects Dutch history. It's much more colorful and elegant, though not to mention inviting.
When we finally get to Sunset Waters, the afternoon sun casts a golden hue across the horizon. We spend the evening walking the beach and chatting with fellow divers in the dreamy reverie caused by proximity to the tranquil, endless sea.
Wrapped in a Ribbon of Blue
The next day, the aptly named Day Dreamer takes us to Pelican Beach, a 20-minute boat ride away, for our first dive. The visibility is over 100 feet, and the reef offers an astounding variety of hard corals and fishes. Colorful sponges have grown to enormous size, and soft corals extend their polyps in the gentle current. A white-spotted triggerfish takes a peek at us from behind a coral head, decides that we're not dangerous and allows us to hang around. A spotted drum hovers just above a sandy patch, and schools of snapper and grunts cruise the reef. The water temperature is just over 82°F, allowing us to enjoy a long dive. No bulky drysuits, murky water or torrential downpours. It's heaven.
Our second stop is College Reef. The divemaster, Carlos, promises us at least one frogfish. Exceeding this goal, he guides us to two yellow frogfish within five minutes. We are greeted with the indifference of a big yawn. It's probably not the first time Carlos has brought an avid diver to this spot, and I suppose the little creature has grown bored with the constant lineup of bubble-heads.
A Lovely Evening for a Dive
We are so impressed with our first two dives we can't bear to head back to our hotel room just yet, so we decide to drive to scenic Playa Lagun for a late-afternoon romp. There are many secluded beaches along the west end of the island, and diving is mostly a matter of crossing the beach and swimming out 50 or 100 feet.
It feels like we have discovered our own private haven when we arrive at this romantic little cove adorned with rocky cliffs. A short swim later we discover several small caves and plentiful reef fish that seem happy to have visitors. They swim out to greet us from among elephant ear sponges, which have grown to impressive proportions. Our guidebook warns that it's easy to miss the entrance of the cove when returning to the shore, and alas that's exactly what we do. We surface in the wrong playa. A friendly lady working in her backyard clearly used to divers with confused looks tells us this is not Playa Lagun. Fortunately, she allows us to take a shortcut through her garden back to the car instead of turning us back.
Landhuisen & Caves of Rebellion
We have planned dives for every morning, and every afternoon we pay a visit to one of Curaçao's unique topside attractions, such as the landhuisen. These grand homes were built in the 17th century and were originally owned by Dutch slave traders. Over the past decade, many of the houses have been restored to their original grandeur, and they're now open to visitors. Most houses are still furnished with antiques, and some, like Groot Santa Martha, have expositions and a gift shop.
One of our favorite topside diversions, Hato Caves, was formed below sea level millions of years ago and was originally inhabited by the Caiquetios, an Indian tribe that migrated from Venezuela around 500 B.C. Rebellious slaves later used the caves as a refuge during the Tula Rebellion, a major uprising in 1795. The caves are an underground fairytale world with a multitude of colors infused into the rock as well as limestone formations covered with stalagmites and stalactites. The caves are also home to a large colony of small fruit bats, making it an even more magical experience at dusk.
Between bat caves and the landhuisen, we venture into Curaçao's west end masterpiece. The magical undersea Mushroom Forest, with its impressive coral structures that resemble giant piles of mushrooms, spreads out across the seafloor in knobby, bumpy humps and green hills. At times there are so many Christmas tree worms unfurled over the coral's surface that it looks as if the place should be re-Christened Santa's Secret Caribbean Hideaway. Instead of reindeer, though, you'll find shy red squirrelfish and loads of eels hidden away in the recesses and crevices of this remarkable seascape.
On this day, we go from the forest to the Valley. The Valley, a double reef with a white, sandy valley in between, is home to a wide variety of reef life, including a school of beautiful flounder. After the forest and the valley, there is only one destination left to round out the day: Long Beach, where seahorses live in the black coral bushes that proliferate here. We thoroughly examine bush after bush, until finally one of the elusive critters reveals itself to us.
Movin' on Up to the City
We are reluctant to leave the peace of Curaçao's west end, but at the same time we're looking forward to our stay near Willemstad during the second half of our journey. Before we head to our hotel, we explore the city, which looks like a scene from a Dutch storybook. Along the eastern shore of Santa Anna Bay stand rows of pastel-colored houses overlooking the deep-water harbor.
Willemstad consists of two different areas: Punda (the point) and Otrobanda (the other side), both of which face the waterway to the busy port. They are connected by the world's last pedestrian pontoon bridge, the Emma Brug, named after a Dutch queen mother. Visitors who come to the city by car cross the waterway on the high Queen Juliana Bridge.
The hustle and bustle in this miniature tropical metropolis reflects the fact that people from nearly 50 countries call Curaçao home. There is a floating market with merchant boats laden with fruits, vegetables and spices, and most historic buildings are now shops and restaurants. Punda is the commercial quarter of the town, but Otrobanda is rapidly developing into a second commercial center, with an array of hotels and restaurants. The Antillean inhabitants frequent the small shops, and visitors can enjoy special guided tours to historic buildings such as churches and the ancient synagogue and other points of interest in Punda and Otrobanda.
We decide on an island-style lunch and head for the old market, Plasa Bieu, where genuine Antillean food is served. The menu is scribbled on a piece of cardboard in the local dialect, Papiamentu, and a friendly waiter tells us about the dishes of the day. I enjoy a plate of spicy goat stew, stoba di kabritu, with marrowfat peas; Peter savors the excellent fish soup.
Hunting for Coral Sex
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the Lions Dive & Beach Resort and check in at the PADI 5-star dive center Ocean Encounters. We have a mission: This could be our last chance to witness the coral spawning. The event normally takes place between five and eight days after a full moon in September and October. Today is the seventh day. The dive center is not planning any night dives, but they give us keys to the lockers and tanks.
As we swim out to the reef, we listen to the salsa band playing at the resort, which seems to set the mood. We are eons away from the quiet chilly nights of our homeland and can't help but feel giddy as we glide through the warm, inviting water. We search for over 45 minutes before discovering two small coral heads about to spawn. We wait and wait and wait. Then suddenly, without so much as a shiver, it happens. Within two seconds all the eggs free themselves from the coral and rise to the surface in a small pink cloud. We are thrilled. We surface to the sounds of merengue coming from the resort as if to toast the corals' accomplishment. It's a romantic evening for all.
A Morning Wreck
The next morning, we board the dive boat for a visit to the Tugboat, Curaçao's most famous wreck, which lies in only 20 feet of water. It is probably one of the most photographed wrecks in the world, and with good reason. The rays of sunlight slicing through the water give it a mystical glow, and the shallow depth allows photographers to linger for a long time and take as many pictures as they like. The dive doesn't take long, and as soon as Peter is satisfied with his images, we move on.
Our afternoon dive is a long, laid-back drift dive along one the reefs near Jan Thiel. Sandy's Plateau is a large plateau leading to a drop-off and a wall adorned with healthy brain and star corals, gorgonians and sponges. We are continuously surrounded by schools of snapper and damselfish a true diver's delight.
The waters off Curaçao harbor several interesting wrecks, but the Superior Producer is at the top of the heap. It sank just outside the harbor carrying a cargo of clothes in 1977, and it now rests upright on the bottom at a depth of 110 feet, with the wheelhouse reaching up to 80 feet. This is one of the few sites on the island where there is a current that often brings in barracuda and jacks. We keep an eye on the open water during our slow descent to the impressive wreck, which has turned into a coral garden. Parts of the ship show a prolific growth of beautiful orange cup corals, creating great photo opportunities. Overhead the barracuda swirl within the glow and the slices of sunlight.
After some quality relaxation time on the beach, enjoying a fruit cocktail and basking in the sun, it is time to make our second dive of the day on the double reef in front of the Holiday Beach Hotel. Owner of on-site PADI resort Holiday Beach Dive Center Anton Van Den Keep shows us around this stunningly beautiful reef.
The outer slope (which is the farthest away and therefore least-dived) has piles of orange elephant ear sponges and a thriving community of at least five species of eel (that we saw). Hidden away in the silent shadows are lots of little gems, including a golden seahorse we find snuggled in between dark coral branches.
The next day we plan a dive at Director's Bay, creatively named after the apparently vain director of a large Dutch oil company, who spent many afternoons on his private beach with his lover and other important visitors, like the Dutch queen. The area was originally fenced off to protect people from the sea life, but the barrier has since been taken down only the poles are still standing, surrounded by a macro paradise. The iron pipes are covered with sponges and algae, giving shelter to a multitude of small juvenile fish and invertebrates.
Evenings in the City
In the evenings we venture out for a surprising variety of culinary indulgences. There is a menu for everyone; choices range from Antillean fare to seafood to French cuisine. The Waterfort Arches in Willemstad offers open-air dining on several terraces with a great ocean view.
After dinner, it's party time for many visitors to the island. The hip and trendy frequent places like Mambo Beach, Tu Tu Tango and the Baja Beach Club, which feature regular live music. Fortunately, there are also places where the less rambunctious tourists can listen to smooth jazz and blues artists. (Check out blues night at the Avila Beach Club, a busy restaurant where musicians have to climb a ladder to perform on the small stage above the bar.) Divers who saved a bit of money to throw at Lady Luck can visit one of the nine casinos located in the larger hotels (people say the best pay-outs are from the Holiday Beach Casino).
The Wonderful Routine
Our days pass in a wonderful routine of diving and exploring. We tour the magnificent Christoffel Park with its iguanas and sturdy divi-divi trees, admiring the landscape and the warawara, Curaçao's bird of prey. Hiking along the coast we visit Boca Tabla, a cave that is accessible from the landward side, and listen to the echoes caused by the pounding waves. The cave is part of the newest national park, Sheta Boca, which also includes nesting grounds for protected turtles. Last but certainly not least we pay a visit to Landhuis Chobolobo, where the genuine blue Curaçao liquor is produced.
Our journey is nearly over, and as we wander the colorful streets of Willemstad I can't help but think back to that dreary day when we left Holland. How strange it is to find ourselves in this utterly foreign Caribbean paradise surrounded by quite a few fellow Dutchmen and familiarities we cannot quite place. It's as if someone came to our home and lifted the chill, replacing it with eternal sunshine and a ring of pristine beaches that reach into an impossibly clear blue sea. I try desperately to think of a way to capture this island bliss and smuggle it back to Holland. But just as our damp coats soon lost all hope of unleashing the rainstorms of home on Curaçao, my attempts to bring paradise home are futile. I suppose it's for the best, though how else would we know what we're missing?
Curaçao Tourism Development Bureau
Curaçao Dive Operators Association
Caribbean Sea Sports
Sunset Divers Curaçao
Ocean Encounters/Breezes Curaçao
Curaçao Kids Sea Camp
Holiday Beach Hotel and Dive Center
Lions Dive & Beach Resort Curaçao
Royal Resorts, The Sea Aquarium Resort
Sunset Waters Beach Resort