“Where am I?”
The question ricocheted around my brain as I surveyed Omundo, a sleek piano lounge just outside Willemstad packed with a diverse throng of revelers. Tall blonde men in slacks and women in sundresses puffed on cigarettes; black men in tailored European button-downs lounged; and curly-haired, brown-skinned women sipped martinis. Balmy air mingled with the air-conditioned chill while the soundtrack veered from live Cuban jazz to merengue to techno to throbbing reggaeton. Through the din, I could hardly discern the chatter by the bar – or even the languages, for that matter. Dutch? Spanish? Spanglish?
I’d been in Curaçao for five hours, and my disorientation was complete. It kicked in the moment I arrived and met my driver, Chernov, a portly Curaçao native with a name straight out of Dostoyevsky, features that could have been South American, West Indian or European, and an accent that might be taken for Puerto Rican. On the 40-minute ride to my hotel, I had caught a sunset glimpse of a landscape that was blatantly bewildering: cactuses and sand dunes that looked more like the American Southwest than the Caribbean. Choosing to get my beach fix for a couple of nights in “the country” (the island’s rural west end, 35 minutes from the capital of Willemstad) before devoting the rest of my time to adventures in the historic city, I’d booked into Lodge Kura Hulanda, a beachfront resort with a pan-African aesthetic. I was checked in by a woman from Amsterdam and escorted to my room by Herbert, from Venezuela. Along the way, he called out to a bellman. “That doesn’t sound like Spanish,” I remarked. “That’s because it’s Dutch,” he said.
Not that I hadn’t expected Curaçao to be, as it advertises itself, “real different.” The 171-square-mile island that hugs Venezuela (the “C” in the Dutch “ABC Islands” chain, including Aruba and Bonaire) is known as a cosmopolitan cook-up: a multicultural mélange of the Netherlands, the Antilles and South America. Claimed by the Dutch West Indies Company in 1634, Curaçao became a prosperous salt producer and bustling slave port. During the 17th century, Jews from Spain and Portugal took up residence there, and in the early 1900s a new oil refinery brought even more foreign nationals into the mix. Consequently, Curaçao natives speak four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento, a Creole that fuses all of the above with African dialects and Portuguese. While I knew the history and was drawn by Curaçao’s reputation, nothing had prepared me to feel quite so dazed and confused. Drifting into dreamland after my first night out, I wondered if five days would be enough to situate myself in this pleasantly perplexing place.
The next morning I surveyed strange surroundings: On one side was a classic Caribbean vista of shimmering sea and white-sand beach, but on the other was a panorama straight out of the South African veldt. Having coffee with Delno Tromp, the hotel’s charismatic general manager, began as many of my encounters here would.
“Where are you from?” I asked. Amid Curaçao’s blur of accents and skin colors, categorization – both racial and geographical – I was confounded. “Guess,” came the reply. “Venezuela?” I ventured. He shook his head. “Holland?” Tromp’s smirk grew. “Germany?” Wrong again. I tried the obvious. “Here?” I said, sheepishly. “I’m from Bonaire,” Tromp finally revealed. I was fast discovering that for most residents of Curaçao, “well-traveled” is an understatement. They milk their language skills, proximity to South America and European passports for all they’re worth.
I’d heard the buzz about the island’s western beaches and soon spied them in droves: white-, black- and gold-sand specimens, some clogged with cruise-ship passengers, others deserted save for scattered fishermen hauling in the day’s bounty. The surreal landscape would have thrilled Georgia O’Keeffe: Bright yellow houses punctuating flat, desert-like stretches; cactuses lining the dusty road, contorting themselves dramatically, like green pipe cleaners; iguanas scurrying to and fro, avoiding cars and people.
I whiled away the afternoon under a palapa at Cas Abou Beach, a popular hangout for tourists and locals, wading through water so translucent I could clearly see tiny fish darting out of my way. Then I had my first-ever beachside massage. Luxuriating in a feast for the senses – the masseuse’s expert touch on my back, the sound of waves lapping the shore, the lemon-lime scent of essential oils – I finally understood what all the fuss was about: Massages and beaches are indeed a marriage made in heaven.
I’d planned to take full advantage of my west-end stay by hiking in nearby Christoffel Park, home to 20 miles of trails, three former plantations (known as landhuizen) and Mount Christoffel, at 1,239 feet the island’s highest point. But laziness prevailed, so I asked Chernov to drive me along an asphalt trail instead. We cruised beneath a green canopy and along a red clay road to a lookout that was ominous yet stunning. Waves crashed fiercely on a black-sand beach sheltered under a slate-gray sky. Limestone cliffs crowned the scene, and hawks circled above. Not a soul was in sight.
From there it was a short ride to the neighboring national park at Shete Boka (Papiamento for “seven mouths” or inlets). Surveying the tablelands (limestone inlets that overlook the island’s rugged north coast) I had yet another “where-am-I?” moment. Here was another vista unlike any I’d seen in the Caribbean, with red clay soil stretching flat-out for miles, sprinkled with green shrubbery and aloe plants. Chernov, not one for small talk, hit the nail on the head. “This is pure nature,” he sighed.
And this, I thought hours later as I scrutinized a parade of beauty queens from the judges’ booth, is anything but. I’d landed here because Trevor Nisbeth, a scene maker who’d volunteered to be my night-life guide, had invited me along while he judged the Miss Curaçao pageant. At the backstage after-party, I sipped wine and chatted with locals in whose presence I began to feel painfully provincial. A fashion designer told me he’d moved to Holland after living in Hong Kong; an investment banker had worked in several European countries; Trevor had traveled extensively and worked everywhere from China to Ecuador. Conversations started in one language, progressed into another and concluded in a third. On the way back to the hotel, I got my first good look at Willemstad’s famed waterfront, lit up at night. It looked like a movie set. Beautifully restored pink and yellow 18th-century buildings stood beside gray ones that showed their age, as if to testify, “Yes, there are real bones beneath the fancy facades.” I asked Trevor to pull over so I could get out and take it all in. Had I been beamed up to Amsterdam?