“I speak four languages,” says the taxi driver as he chauffeurs me from Curaçao’s airport to downtown Willemstad. “English, Dutch and Spanish. And Papiamento.”
Papiamento, a mélange of English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch even contains some African tribal dialect.
Spicy, diverse and tropical in its rhythms – the perfect metaphor for Curaçao – spicy, diverse and tropical in its rhythms.
Welcome to Papiamento Island.
Consider Willemstad itself. One of the biggest harbors in the Caribbean, a huge oil refinery nearby. But the town’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, and an eighteenth-century fort, cannon still sprouting like porcupine quills from rough-hewn stone battlements, squats implacably at the mouth of the harbor.
And those guns are aimed at a street scene that shows like Amsterdam on acid: buildings along Handelskade boast the same tall, narrow architecture and Dutch trim that graces Netherland’s canals but are painted downright Caribbean. Baroque facades in periwinkle blue, coral, and lemon yellow.
Even the colonial fortress itself has a split personality. Outside the walls, towering palms dominate a promenade populated with designer shops that could hold their own on Rodeo Drive.
Inside – instead of colonial soldiers – I discover courtyard bistros and elegant eateries where tourists sip cocktails tinted sky-blue by the liqueur that shares its name with this island with the multiple personality.
Consider this: Across a narrow channel from the Curaçao Maritime Museum, housed in a former mansion, a fleet of Venezuelan fishing boats forms a floating market where you can pick up the catch of the day. It’s just down the street from a huge circular interior market, itself reclining hard by a whole procession of vendors’ stalls where they hawk their mangos and yams and bananas in a cacophony of languages.
Curaçao’s beaches are equally Papiamento in personality: diverse, distinct, contrasting.
Consider Playa Porto Mari: Surrounded by cactus-studded rolling hills, turquoise waters and alabaster sand, centerpiece a raft where swimmers lounge, bobbing in soporific surf. Or Playa Knip, popular with locals. Think Cas Abao, bordered by rugged rock outcroppings, where you can dine seaside and wash lunch down with daiquiris. Or head south where the action is and swim in limpid waters protected by a great stone barrier, stroll a boardwalk decorated with bars and restaurants and souvenir shops at Aquarium Beach, where your sun-seeking soundtrack comes from speakers spouting reggae and soca.
But maybe you prefer nature. Or history. Or culture.
Check out the blushing inhabitants of a flamingo sanctuary with a backdrop of desert scenery that could hold its own in Arizona.
One day I combine all these delicious ingredients into one irresistible dish.
I mix history with local art at Landhuis Jan Kok. A landhuis is the Dutch Antillean equivalent of the British Caribbean great house. Here, at one of Curaçao’s oldest, I visit a gallery featuring the whimsical and colorful art of Nena Sanchez. I follow that with a stroll through the lunar-like landscape of Shete Boka National Park, watching great waves shatter on ironwood shores, all accompanied by tympani-roll-surf. Next on the agenda is an exploration of the island’s west end beaches including lunch at Playa Porto Mari.
A perfect day in paradise
By the end of that day, doing dinner at Mundo Bizarro, a restaurant downright Baroque in it furnishings and accouterments in a vibrant section of Willemstad called Pietermaai, an enclave as diverse as Curaçao’s chief lexicon in its own right, I come up with this Papiamento riff.
Proud of myself for at last defining the appeal of this erstwhile outpost at the far reaches of the Dutch empire, I let it inform and influence every other experience for the rest of my time on Papiamento Island.
Until, during a tour of the Curaçao Sea Aquarium with Bryan Horne, proprietor of an operation that lends support to my thesis: both Bryan’s operation (Substation ‘Curaçao’ combines tourist excursions and scientific research in a purpose-built submersible) and this park we’re strolling through (the usual tourist-type show admittedly, but also home to the Curaçao Dolphin Therapy Centre, a clinical facility complete with resident psychologists) are as multifaceted and diverse as Curaçao and her resident language.
Now the epiphany. We’re exiting the Dolphin Academy office when a local woman from behind the desk asks Horne how his young daughter is doing.
Horne’s eyes light up.
“Dushi,” he says, “dushi.”
‘Dushi’ is Papiamento for enjoyable, for delicious, for pleasing, for sweet, for all things nice and good.
My brief island sojourn flashes before me like one of those movie collages: lonely and surreal landscapes, historic buildings, and beaches nuzzling heaven-colored waters.
And now I replace that first nickname with a title even better suited to describe the allure and appeal of Curaçao. Now I revise that initial thesis.
Welcome to Dushi Island.
For more information on visiting Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean outpost as diverse as the language spoken here, visit: www.curacao.com/en
Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating.