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List of Articles for Curacao

Curacao

Gay Curacao

Handelskade, Willemstad harbor, by Mtmelendez

Curaçao

This arid island off the northern coast of Venezuela is best known for casinos and duty-free shopping, but it is also the first place in the Caribbean to heartily market itself to gay travelers. Curaçao is a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage is legal, and prostitution is tolerated and regulated, much as in Amsterdam. There are about a dozen gambling casinos among the resorts of Caraçao, with slot machines, roulette and card tables. Among the Dutch tourists women often go topless on certain beaches, but locals tend to be more modest.

Many local hotels have joined IGLTA, the International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association, to declare their welcome to gay and lesbian visitors - "Biba i laga Biba"  or "Live and let live" is the general sentiment. The annual Gay Pride weekend takes place over 5 days in late September - something that's missing in many Caribbean islands, so people come from all around. There is no huge gay scene here, but easy-going, gay-welcoming smiles are found everywhere. See GayCaracao for an overview, upcoming gay events, and a dozen contacts for planning a gay wedding.

For scuba diving and snorkeling in local coral reefs, the beaches on the south side are particularly popular. The sea floor drops steeply (the "blue edge") near the shoreline, meaning the reef can easily be reached without use of a boat. The north coast is rockier, with more turbulent waters. There are over 35 beaches ranging from rocky coves surrounded by high cliffs to long sandy beaches, secluded or bustling with activities - all alongside clear, turquoise, Caribbean waters.

Besides the many international restaurants to sample, many others serve Kriyoyo local food, not unlike other nearby Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. Among favorites are: Stobá, with papaya and meat; Guiambo, okra and seafood; soups made with cactus, intestines, or funchi (cornmeal polenta); plus lots of fish and other seafood, fried plantain and bread rolls Portuguese-style. Snèks serve local food and alcohol in much the same way as English pubs. Pastechi, fried pastry cheese, tuna, ham, or ground meat turnovers, are popular breakfast fare.

Tourism, never the sole focus of the Curaçao economy, is important nonetheless. US, Canadian and EU citizens with proper travel/ID documents may visit for up to 90 days without special permission. Salt mining, the slave trade and piracy were important to the island's early economy after the arrival of Europeans, shifting more recently to oil refining, transhipment (with good location and a deep natural harbor), and financial services.

Papiamentu, Dutch, and English are the three official languages. The first is the home language for most people, but English-speakers from other islands and Dutch expats and pensioners also make their homes here. In government, commerce and tourism - or in preparation for free university educations in the Netherlands - Dutch and English are necessary. Spanish is also widely spoken, and many people speak all four tongues.

 

Getting here

Curaçao International Airport is painted a sunny yellow that says bon bini (“welcome). During the season, Westjet runs Sunday weekly nonstop flights from Toronto’s Pearson Airport. JetBlue has two weekly flights from JFK New York City to Curaçao, and there are direct flights between Miami and Curaçao with American Airlines. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the main town of Willemstad by taxi. Several major U.S. and European lines put in at either of two cruise terminals in the Otrabanda section of Willemstad.

 

Getting around

Public transportation is limited. Large yellow or blue ‘Konvooi’ busses cover most parts of the island, from Punda and Otrobanda to beaches, shopping areas, and parks. For getting around most urban streets look for collective cars or vans with ‘bus’ on their registration plates.

You can rent a car to explore the island or find that stretch of sand that you’ll have all to yourself. Alternately, Eric's ATV Adventures provides guided tours to some of the most beautiful areas. For dune buggy or scooter rentals, see Scooby Tours at Curacao Buggy Adventures. With bike tours or rentals Wanna Bike in Jan Thiel Beach will get you around town, or to those hard-to-reach no-car places along back-country trails.

 

What to do

Willemstad, the main town, has many interesting museums, some lovely bridges, and the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the western hemisphere.

Don’t miss the Kura Hulanda Museum, for a look at the island’s anthropologic past. The Curacao Sea Aquarium and Curacao Dolphin Academy provide shows and interaction with the marine animals.

Jan Theil Beach, is one of the busiest on the island. By Zanzibar restaurant on this rocky coast there are small sandy spots to stretch out, listen to the music, and watch all the social life going on all around, especially on Sundays.

 

Currency & Money

Curaçao’s currency the Netherlands Antillean guilder, also called the florin is pegged to the US dollar at US$1 = NAFL1.77 for cash transactions. US dollars are widely accepted too, as are credit cards. Old 5 and new 50-cent coins are unusual for being square.

 

Media & Resources

Pink Curacao is a full LGBT guide to this island with events and venue listings, plus resource links to other sites.

The tourism board’s dedicated gay web site Gaycuracao.com even has a bulletin board to facilitate meeting up with other gay tourists and locals.

The Curacao Tourist Board and TurismCaracao are useful websites with restarant and nightclub listings, plus the many ways to get out into and onto local waters, with or without the company of a dolphin.

Gay Pride Week events take place over five days in September.

For map locations and website links to area businesses of interest, see our gay Curaçao listings pages with some hotel/resort and restaurant/cafe suggestions.

 

Going Out

Cabana on the Beach (Seaquarium Beach, Bapor Kibra), beautiful beach, blue waters, palm trees, buffets, drinks, music.

Club 1850 (Scharlooweg 72, Punda, Willemstad), mainstream gay-friendly Saturday open-air discotheque, international look and feel, local bands, DJs; Thursday Student Night.

Gallery Lounge (Keukenplein 8, Wilemstad), lounge bar, dance club, LGBT events, men/women and local/tourist mix, male stripper nights.

Grand Café De Heeren (Zuikertuintjeweg, Willemstad), gay-friendly restaurant and bar, live music entertainment.

Jacob's Bar & Terrace (Langestraat 8, Willemstadt), breakfast, lunch, dinner, early crowd cocktail lounge, tapas with eclectic twists; Sandton Kurá Hulanda Hotel & Spa.

Mambo Beach (Sea Aquarium Beach, Bapor Kibra), seafood restaurant and beach club, pool, DJ dance mix, live music concerts.

Moomba Beach Club (Piscadera Bay), LGBT-welcoming beach resort, breakfast/lunch, cocktails, live music, lounger rentals, apartments.

Omundo (Zuikertuin Mall, Willemstad), lunch/dinner, gay-friendly mix, cocktail lounge, piano entertainment, Salsa dancing.

Rainbow Lounge, & Sjalotte Restaurant at the Floris Suite Hotel (Piscadera Bay, Willemstad), gay and adult-only hotel resort cocktail lounge, restaurant, pool, LGBT special events, Pride celebrations.

St Tropez Ocean Club (Pietermaai 152, Pietermaai/ Punda), private cabanas, sunset cocktails, dinner, infinity pool, jazz and Latino lounge music.

Tutu Tango Grand Cafe & Restaurant (Punda, Willemstad), Tuesday-Saturday lunch/dinner, bar, Wednesday women's night, also piano and Latin nights.

Water Club at the Floris Suite Hotel (Piscadera Bay, Willemstad), pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, massage services; LGBTpool parties.

Wet & Wild Beach Club (Sea Aquarium Beach, Marina Bapor Kibra), Sunday gay/straight beach-party dancing, BBQ snacks.

Zanzibar Beach & Restaurant (Jan Thiel Beach), daily from 8am breakfast, lunch, dinner; all-day juice and cocktails bar, beach lounger rentals, live music.

- staff -- January 2017
Curacao

Gay Curacao

At the Floris Suite Hotel, the island’s first gay, adult-only hotel.

Reinventing Curaçao

The Dutch island finds new life as one of the Caribbean’s most gay-friendly vacation spots

Emlyn Peters leans against the nondescript tree and raises a hand to protect his eyes from the prodigious sunshine elbowing its way through the branches. He points upward at a human figure carved into the variegated trunk. The tree’s splotchy olive-coloured bark resembles an army-issue camouflage pattern, but the relief-like carving inside is a smooth mahogany.

Curaçao artist Mac Alberto has whittled several of these human-like forms into a row of wayaka trees outside the historic Fort Amsterdam in downtown Willemstad, the capital of this tiny Caribbean island. Peters, a local history buff, says Curaçaoans compare the wayaka to a snake because it constantly sheds its bark “so it can stay young forever.” The indigenous tree, also known as lignum vitae — Latin for “tree of life” — is in a perpetual cycle of renewal.

It is not unlike Curaçao, which, despite a dark history as one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean, has managed to continuously reinvent itself while also respecting and preserving its patchwork past.

First “discovered” by the Spanish in 1499, the island later fell into the hands of the Dutch in the mid-17th century. For the next 200 years, the large European powers played a game of colonial badminton with Curaçao. Even a historian like Peters has to pause to get the dates right. The English conquered the island in 1800, but it soon fell to the French under Napoleon in 1803. The French held it until the English wrested back control in 1807 — but they kept the island only until 1816, when it was swatted back to the Dutch in the Treaty of Paris.

Despite this back and forth — and the island’s strong African and South American influences — Curaçao has remained proudly Dutch (it is one of four countries that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands). This is evident in its well-preserved colonial-style Dutch architecture that combines a modernist European aesthetic with a distinct Caribbean colour scheme. While the entire historic Willemstad city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, its oldest and most famous architectural strip is a saltwater-taffy-coloured row of buildings along Handelskade Street, in the Punda neighbourhood. The best vantage point from which to view it is on the Queen Emma Bridge, which locals affectionately call the “Swinging Old Lady.” Built in 1888, it’s supported by 16 pontoon boats that allow the bridge to swing open and give ships access to the city’s port.

Most locals will tell you that Curaçao has maintained its Dutch architectural heritage better than its Leeward Antilles sister islands Aruba and Bonaire. But it’s been at a cost. Unlike in Holland, Caribbean construction materials are basic, mostly plaster made from coral stones and sand. It means the government pays thousands of dollars each year to preserve its historic buildings, plastering and painting over what Peters calls “wall disease” — when salt creeps into the walls, peeling off layers of paint and eating into the loose coral stone. “It’s the greatest challenge for the last 20 years; the government is spending a lot of money renovating buildings,” he says, noting that Curaçao’s well-preserved architectural landmarks, including its landhuizen, former plantation houses dotted around the island, remain a major tourist draw.

That’s another quality Peters says Curaçao has inherited from the Dutch: a progressive and adaptable government that, in stark contrast to many others in the Caribbean — not to mention other parts of the world — recognizes what needs to be done to keep this speck of coral solvent. The island is home to just 150,000 people, and it imports more than 90 percent of its food, including produce from Venezuela that locals purchase at Willemstad’s “floating market” — a fleet of boats that dock on the east side of the harbour along the Sha Caprileskade in Punda. The island also has few natural resources, yet it’s managed to maintain one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. This is mostly due to its knack for reinvention. Over a few hundred years, Curaçao’s economic engine has successively been powered by a variety of commercial activity, beginning with salt mining and slavery and later shifting to shipping, trading, tourism and oil (which continues to represent the lion’s share of the island’s exports, thanks to an ugly refinery built in 1920). Most recently, the Curaçao Tourist Board, with full support from the government, is attempting to reinvent the island as the Caribbean’s most gay-friendly destination.

“Dutch people have always been known for their controversial progressive mentality,” says Peters, noting that this is one reason Curaçaoans are proud of their connection to Holland. To prove his point, he’s led me through Willemstad’s narrow laneways to another Curaçao anomaly: the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue. The bright-yellow synagogue’s congregation can be traced to 1651, when 12 Sephardic Jewish families migrated to Curaçao from Amsterdam, where they had fled following religious persecution in Spain and Portugal. The current building dates back to 1730, and its temple is the oldest in continuous use in the Americas. About 350 Jewish families still live on the island. “We are very proud because we have many things in our culture from the Jewish people,” Peters says.

In the daytime, the synagogue’s azure-stained windows cast a blue light on the rows of pews carved from wayaka wood. The tree of life is resistant to termites and doesn’t burn easily, another reason its wood is so cherished here. The synagogue’s sand floor is also distinctive; it’s one of just five remaining sand-floor synagogues in the world (four can be found in the Caribbean). The custom likely began in the 1600s in Brazil, where Jews were forbidden from operating synagogues. They used sand on prayer-room floors to muffle the sound of worshipers coming and going.

Myrna Moreno, the curator of Curaçao’s Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, tells me Jews have always been welcomed in Curaçao, so the sand floor at Mikvé Israel-Emanuel was simply a way to protect and treasure Jewish history in this part of the world. Moreno’s husband’s family was one of the first to settle in Curaçao in 1651. These early Jewish families brought many of the artifacts on display in the museum today, including a Torah scroll dating back to 1320 and a 200-year-old silver tray that is still used for the smashing of the wine glass at weddings. The museum is also home to a copy of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl that has been translated into Papiamentu, the island’s local Creole language that includes a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, with some African and Arawak Indian influences.

The people of Curaçao embrace this distinct historical potpourri today, but much of it was suppressed for decades, according to Dinah Veeris, a woman known as the island’s plant lady. Veeris has spent years consulting with local spiritual healers in an effort to revive the use of traditional herbal and naturopathic medicine. She first learned about the island’s indigenous plant life from her mother but forgot much of that knowledge when, like many Curaçao youth, she left to study in Holland. She eventually returned to Curaçao, and today runs a botanical garden outside Willemstad, where she cultivates more than 300 species and turns them into everything from soap to constipation remedies.

Veeris excitedly walks me through her public herb garden when I stop by (if you plan to visit, call ahead to book an English-language tour). She opened it in 1991, but it feels like she’s telling her stories for the first time. At one point she pauses in a shady spot and takes a deep breath as if she’s tired. But then she raises her head, lifts her arms into the air and bursts into song — her thunderous singing voice carrying over the entire compound. She grabs my arm and begins dancing, kicking up dust as she drags me in a circle. I smile awkwardly and attempt to shuffle my uncoordinated feet, deferent but also completely unsure of what I’m supposed to do next. She eventually stops, explains the song’s history as a harvest chant, and then quickly moves on to the next exhibit. Veeris snaps off a twig and shoves the end of it in her mouth. It’s what the islanders once used as a toothbrush, she says. A moment later she is lovingly stroking the ossified remains of a cactus, a plant that is ubiquitous on Curaçao and used in many of Veeris’s concoctions. “We also make cactus soup,” she says. “One of our national foods.” Next up is the moringa tree, whose roots were eaten by slaves in order to build strength. She pulls a seed pod from its branches, cracks it open like a pea and offers me a small black pip. “Eat it,” she says. “You’ll have energy and won’t be tired until late tonight.” I’m not sure that’s what I want, but I’m also not sure how to say no to this formidable herbalist. The seed is both astringent and sweet, a natural Red Bull.

Veeris has seen a reawakening of interest in natural remedies since she first began collecting information about herbal traditions from elders on the island. For years the Catholic Church prohibited the use of traditional medicines for healing, so much of this work was carried out in secret and passed down among certain families. “At the beginning they hardly tell anything, but you have to go back and get their confidence,” she says of about 20 elder leaders from whom she learned much of what she knows. “Nowadays it starts again; people want to go back to nature, back to green.”

She pauses as she approaches the next tree, kicks aside a large pile of iguana crap, and looks reverently into the branches. “This is a very old and potent tree,” she says as she leans against the familiar olive-coloured bark. You guessed it — the wayaka, Curaçao’s tree of life and renewal. “If people feel weak, they stand under this tree,” she says.

As I’m in no need of a lean, instead energized from the moringa seed, I thank Veeris and head back to Willemstad to check into Curaçao’s first gay hotel.

In 2011, the Argentine owners of the Floris Suite Hotel decided to take a risk. They asked Frank Holtslag, who was then managing one of their Miami properties, to move to Curaçao and turn Floris into the island’s first gay, adult-only hotel. “We decided to go very slow in the gay market,” Holtslag tells me over dinner at Sjalotte, Floris’s excellent restaurant. “Of course, we still want to make money.”

But over the last two years, Holtslag and Jurandy Regina, Floris’s sales and marketing manager, have worked incrementally to completely change the look and feel of one of the oldest hotel properties in Willemstad. Along the way they lost three staffers who were uncomfortable with the gay thing, but they’ve also gained new employees who help give the hotel a genuine gay boutique vibe. “A lot of people from the community want to be part of it,” Regina says, noting that many of the hotel’s staff and about 30 percent of its clientele are now LGBT.

While Floris is not directly on the water, it has two private beaches that are a five-minute walk from the main lobby. There gay couples kiss and hold hands openly, says Holtslag, who is also overseeing a poolside expansion that will include a new gym, spa and sauna complex.

The Floris transformation is a key element in the island’s latest makeover as a gay destination, says the Curaçao Tourist Board’s North American marketing manager Andre Rojer, who is gay. Like the divers who travel to Curaçao to jump into its clear blue water, the country’s decision makers seem to have leapt feet first into the gay market. “We don’t secretly (promote Curaçao as a gay destination); we openly do it. It’s in every sector, in every market, even in Parliament, even the prime minister,” says Rojer.

And it appears to be working. Floris now plays host to the island’s most happening gay night, the Rainbow Lounge. The Friday-night happy-hour party is a gathering spot for local gays and tourists who often later move on to one of the island’s other gay-friendly nightspots. The hotel is also the main venue for Curaçao’s annual Pride festival, and in May 2014 hosted the first South Caribbean Pride. “The idea is to have a Pride for those islands that can’t celebrate Pride for political reasons,” Holtslag says, noting this includes Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica. “We’re the most tolerant island in the Caribbean.”

Arcusio Arruda Massa agrees. He’s a local journalist I meet at Floris’s Rainbow Lounge party. He tells me about Pink House, the island’s LGBT multipurpose centrer (CLOSED DEC 2014), and says Curaçao has always been gay-friendly — he came out at a young age and says he’s rarely encountered homophobia. “We are ready for everything,” he says when I ask about the tourist board’s push to turn the island pink.

I think he’s right. While Curaçao will never have the population to sustain large gay bars and clubs, it has all the other credentials necessary to become the beloved gay destination its proponents have been pitching it as — not to mention glorious beaches, heaps of natural beauty and compelling historical sites. Perhaps most auspiciously, Curaçao’s gay hotel is home to a healthy stand of wayaka trees, surely a sign that some of the island’s most ancient residents endorse its latest experiment in revitalization.

Where to eat

Go to Willemstad’s Old Market (Plasa Bieu) for a taste of local culture and cuisine. Several chefs specialize in a variety of dishes at individual food stalls. You can try everything from cactus soup to goat stew and fried plantains. For dessert, there’s pumpkin cake. The market is open Monday to Saturday from 11:30am to 3pm. A safe bet is Ivonne’s food stall, where we tried a very tasty fish soup.

Another Curaçao landmark is Jaanchies, in scenic Westpunt, the westernmost point of the island. The busy restaurant has been going strong for more than 60 years, likely because it’s one of the few spots where tourists can sample iguana. Best to try a side dish of the island’s most common — and very boney — lizard (with Jaanchies’ lovely tomato sauce) and order one of the delicious seafood dishes as a main.

Where to stay

The Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resort is a large and lavish spot about 15 minutes outside Willemstad. If you’re looking for a quiet and relaxing beachside hotel, this is your best bet. You’ll need to rent a car if you want to explore beyond the Santa Barbara complex, although the resort has plenty on offer to keep guests busy, including a luxury spa, sunset boat tours, snorkelling and scuba diving, yoga, tennis, biking, meditation, golf, fishing, iguana feeding, bird walks and plenty of poolside lounging opportunities. Santa Barbara has a selection of excellent dining options, as well as a tasty gelato bar that is not to be missed.

For those who want to be in the city and prefer self-catering, Floris Suite Hotel’s 72 rooms each have fully equipped kitchens and dining areas. Another option is the Beach House complex. It’s actually not a hotel, but rather 24 self-catering apartments near Sea Aquarium Beach in Willemstad. The complex has a swimming pool and a full restaurant.

Other IGLTA member hotels and resorts on the island include: Avila Hotel, an elegant luxury beachfront resort in Willemstad;  Coral Estate Villas in St. Willibrordus;  the Curacao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino and the Hilton Hotel Curaçao, both on Piscadera Bay in Willemstad; the Kura Hulanda Hotel, Spa & Casino in Otrobanda, Willemstad; the Lions Dive & Beach Resort in Bapor Kibra, Willemstad; the Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club, on Playa Kalk, in Westpunt; the Papagayo Beach Resort in Willemstad; the Plaza Hotel Curacao at Waterford Forte, Willemstad; and Waterside Apartments on Snake Bay in Boca Sami. See more hotel and resort options at our map & listings pages.

Getting there

In season, Westjet runs weekly nonstop flights from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Curaçao's Curaçao International Airport. Flying every Tuesday and Saturday, JetBlue has two weekly flights from JFK New York City to Curaçao, and there are also several daily flights between Miami and Curaçao. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the main town of Willemstad by taxi. Several major U.S. and European lines put in at either of two cruise terminals in the Otrabanda section of Willemstad.

Getting around

Curaçao is small, safe and easy to navigate by car. While you might not want a vehicle for your entire stay, rent one for a couple days so you can check out some of the sights outside Willemstad, such as Deena Veeris’s botanical garden or the Curaçao liqueur distillery. And no sensible tourist should travel to Curaçao without exploring the western side of the island, especially the island’s magnificent white-sand beaches, including Big Knip, which was featured on an episode of The Bachelorette.
 

- By Danny Glenwright - Dec 2014