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Going Dutch in Curacao

Island's melange of architecture, food and cultures merits more than a cruise stop

January 31, 1999|LOIS BRUNNER BASTIAN | Bastian is a writer who lives in New Jersey

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao — Think Caribbean and you're likely to think British or Spanish, maybe French. My husband and I have sampled each island nationality, and last year we were looking for something different. Dutch, it turned out.

The choice arose when I saw a line in a guidebook that pronounced Curacao "the most important island architecturally in all the West Indies."

Hmmm. . . . Never having been to the Netherlands, we'd never seen Dutch architecture. Curacao is outside the hurricane belt, I read; English is spoken and cars drive on the right. Three more pluses. When we discovered that the island's pre-Lenten Carnival coincided with our vacation dates, that clinched it. Curacao it would be.

The island, 35 miles off the Venezuelan coast, is a popular port of call on Caribbean cruises. (We flew there.) For ship passengers docking in the capital of Willemstad, the Dutch touch is evident immediately. Along one side of the harbor is Handelskade, a quay lined with tall, narrow buildings in the Dutch colonial style, painted in tropical pastels and topped by baroque curved gables. The sight makes a first and lasting impression of Curacao and has earned it a place on UNESCO's roster of World Heritage Sites.

Our first priority was checking into the guest house we'd selected from literature sent us by the Curacao Tourist Board.

Luxury accommodations aren't important to us. Convenient location, economical rates and rubbing elbows with local people are. In print, the Buona Sera Inn, a 15-room guest house less than a 10-minute walk from downtown, sounded ideal. In person, it proved to be just that.

Our room was bare-bones but spotless. It included a queen-size bed and two singles, night tables, chair, an alcove to hang clothes, air conditioner and private bath (cold water only). Windows with a view of the Caribbean helped compensate for the cold showers and sparse furnishings. The price: $47 a day. For a few dollars more, guests could have breakfast or lunch in the dining room; there also was a small lounge with TV.

Hastily stashing our bags in our room, we headed out for the Handelskade. The buildings, their sinuous roof lines highlighted by the strong sunlight, were as appealing as advertised. But they weren't the only sights to marvel at from the Handelskade.

The harbor, St. Anna Bay, divides Willemstad into two parts: Punda, site of the original settlement, and Otrobanda. They are connected by two very different bridges.

The Queen Emma, a low wooden pontoon bridge for pedestrians, swings open as often as 30 times a day to allow ship traffic through. No matter how often my husband, the engineer, watched it, he remained fascinated by the mechanics of its operation. When the Emma is open, a free ferry shuttles pedestrians across.

Beyond the Emma is the modern Queen Juliana Bridge, which arcs skyward almost 200 feet above the bay. Until recently, this was high enough for most cruise ships to pass beneath. A new terminal is being built to accommodate the growing number of megaships.

During our 17-day visit we stopped almost daily at the Tourist Office, which was between our guest house and downtown--often enough for the cheerful staff to teach us a little Papiamento. That's the bewildering local dialect--a smorgasbord of Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, English and West African words--spoken here and on neighboring Aruba and Bonaire.

Soon we were greeting residents with Bon dia (good morning), straight from the Portuguese, and asking Con ta bai? (How are you?).

Identifying the sources of Papiamento words we saw became a game. Kaya, the word for street, clearly came from the Spanish calle, as did awa from agua, meaning water.

A Tourist Office employee told us that 80% of Curacao's visitors are European; only 20% are American. In her experience, Americans preferred nearby Aruba because of the many beach resorts where they're pampered. "Americans are less interested in learning of island culture," she said. "Europeans rent a car, get out and see everything."

Our goal exactly. While Willemstad's duty-free shopping is the big attraction for cruisers, Curacao's unusual past and multifaceted present are what held our attention.

A Dutch colony since the 1600s, Curacao and neighboring Bonaire plus two and a half tiny islands east of Puerto Rico make up the self-governing Netherlands Antilles.

For centuries, just about every European trading power operated here--unfortunately, slave traders among them. This melange of roots endures today not only in the Papiamento language--the locals are schooled in Dutch and most also speak English or Spanish--but in the food and customs, and in the relaxed racial ambience.

The majority of the people we encountered seemed to have African ancestry, as did our hosts at the Buona Sera, the Dap family. And Carnival was definitely an Afro-Carib affair in the music, costumes and all-out exuberance.

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