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Spend a Day in Port

by Linda Coffman

Sometimes a port of call visited on a cruise just grabs you and you have to go back for more. The moment I saw Curaçao for the first time, I knew it was one of those magical places that I hoped to revisit.

And so, a word in Papiamento, the local vernacular... Bon bini or welcome to Curaçao.

Why Curaçao?
The Dutch architecture along the waterfront could be oddly misplaced were it not for the whimsical colors and warmth of the residents. The vivid pastels set a cheerful tone one encounters throughout the island. Plus, and this is a BIG plus, Curaçao sits below the Caribbean "hurricane belt" and Mother Nature's vicious storms seldom come calling. In fact, while I was there in late-August 2006, Hurricane Ernesto was threatening islands to the north and nearly all of Florida. We had scattered clouds in Curaçao, but not even a sprinkle of rain. Passengers from Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas came ashore to enjoy a perfect sunny day while I was there.

Sun-dappled courtyard
Kura Hulanda

You weren't on a cruise? Why not?
While I've spent port days in Curacao on several occasions, I wanted to explore the entire island. Cruise passengers are limited in their amount of time ashore yet, even with that constraint, they can choose among the many adventures available for a satisfying day in port. And they just might want to return as I did.

Where did you stay?
Across the water from Willemstad in Otrobanda, Hotel Kura Hulanda, is just steps from the St. Anna Bay waterfront and the Queen Emma floating bridge. Rescued from decline by entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker, Hotel Kura Hulanda covers eight blocks of lovingly restored 18th century buildings. The 80 rooms that comprise the boutique hotel are individually furnished in antiques and reproductions, but with all the modern comforts--cable television, broadband Internet connectivity, small refrigerators, air conditioning, and marble bathrooms. The property blends in so seamlessly that it's a sort of village within the city with cobbled walkways, a spa, restaurants, shops, and an acclaimed anthropological museum. I was surprised to discover that I'd been there previously when I wandered in during a day in port just last year.

Synagogue Mikvé Isreal-Emanuel

What did you do?
High on my list of things-to-do was a walk around historic Willemstad. Following the Curaçao Tourist Board Architectural Walking Guide, I began at Fort Amsterdam and passed the Governor's Palace, Fort Church, and other government buildings on the way to Waterfort. Part of the city's defensive fortifications, Waterfort is now the home to restaurants and shops. I then headed across town and stopped at Synagogue Mikvé Isreal-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the western hemisphere. Built between 1730-1732, the exterior is typical of the local architectural style. Surprisingly, the floor inside is sand, in remembrance of the forty years the Jewish people spent wandering in the desert. From there, I headed to the floating market where Venezuelan fishermen offload their catch each day and merchants sell tropical fruits and vegetables from stalls lining the wharf. I couldn't pass up the wonderful smells wafting from the Old Market, where lunch was being readied over charcoal fires and the most expensive meals are about $7. And, of course, there is shopping downtown!

Shark enclosure & a friendly brown pelican at Sea Aquarium

For the afternoon, I was off to the Sea Aquarium and a REAL adventure for a timid swimmer like me. With snorkel gear, fins, and a flotation vest, I joined others in the deep water enclosure to get up close and feed sharks, giant sea turtles, stingrays, and tropical fish. The sharks and turtles are behind wire and glass enclosures and they are very aware of the circular openings where swimmers can offer them food. I was so awe struck that my fear of swimming in water over my head was forgotten. If that encounter sounds a bit much, there are dozens of underwater exhibits inside the Sea Aquarium to view, as well as the adjacent Dolphin Academy where numerous encounters and training shows are offered. Oh, and don't forget the pelicans and the flamingoes and the sea lions. There's a lot to see and it's a great place to introduce children to wonderful sea creatures.

For adventure on land, I was off to try my hand at Eric's ATV-Adventures. Unfortunately, in additional to being a lousy swimmer I have a really sensitive back and had to bow out. I was really disappointed when my friends returned from their off-road ride... I missed out on scenic vistas, isolated beaches, and great fun. Check with your shore excursion desk to see if they are featuring this tour!

I did manage to get lost in Curaçao. Actually, make that lost in history at the Museum Kura Hulanda, whose mission is "To acquire and exhibit collections related to the cultural identity of the people of Curaçao, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Rim." It's a revelatory experience built on land that was once used as a slave market. The rich collection of artifacts and exhibits follows the heritage of islanders from Africa to the Caribbean. One in particular that touches visitors is life-size reconstruction of a slave ship hold. The museum is so fascinating that I lost all track of time.

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