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Perfect Caribbean – Cultural

November 17, 2007
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Perfect Trip: Curaçao

Day 1 Wandering Willemstad’s waterfront with its gables, schooners and Amstel signs, I’m reminded of Amsterdam. The illusion might linger — given the amount of said lager I’ve imbibed — but rather than speaking Dutch, the locals are communicating in exotic Papiamentu, an amalgam of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Arawak and various African dialects spoken only on Curaçao and the other Netherlands Antilles. Bo komprende? Also, rarely does it get this hot in Holland, a heat I finally beat by grabbing a table at Blue’s, located on the far end of Avila Hotel’s pier, where live music mingles with gently lapping waves.

Day 2 Crossing the Queen Emma Bridge from Willemstad’s waterfront Punda district, I enter the funky Otrabanda district (the “other side”). Founded in the early 1700s when the island was controlled by the Dutch West India Company, Otrabanda was once a refuge for lepers, criminals and other social outcasts; of late, it’s become a bastion of galleries, boutiques and eateries that flank cobblestone lanes. Here I find the Museum Kurá Hulanda, which fairly well blows my mind — first with its anthropological treasures from around the globe (like ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets!) and then with its emotional and occasionally shocking retrospective on slavery: Buccaneers based on Curaçao sold hijacked slaves to a thriving Dutch colony on Manhattan Island.

Day 3 Venturing away from Willemstad into the surrounding countryside, I discover dozens of old plantation houses converted into galleries and small museums where Africa, Europe and the Americas collide to startling visual effect. At Landhuis Bloemhof, I browse works by dozens of Netherlands Antilles artists and visit the meticulously preserved atelier of sculptor May Henriquez. But nothing tops the digs of eccentric artist Yubi Kirindongo, who leads me around his home, garden and sprawling outdoor studio and introduces me to his pet crocodile named Wazoo. Kirindongo converts scrap materials into abstract sculptures with metaphorical themes that reflect Curaçao’s history or current events. “Dare to try something different,” he tells me.

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Day 4 Jazzed by the previous day’s rural escapades, I head for Curaçao’s “Wild West” and the tranquil waters of Santa Martabaai, the cactus-studded trails of St. Christoffelberg and the sea caves at Boca Tabla. But the day is not without its detours, food foremost among them. Daring to be different, I order roast kabritu (goat) and sopi yuana (iguana soup) at Jaanchi’s, a roadside bodega. Sunlight fading, I make my way to Landhuis Brievengat, an old, whitewashed plantation house converted into a bar and music venue. While the band belts out merengue, salsa and homegrown tumba tunes, I grab an ice-cold Amstel and slide into the vibe. Tur kos ta bon. Yeah, it’s all good. — joe yogerst

If Streets Could Talk Puerto Rico

From the front entrance of Chateau Cervantes, a 12-room hotel that occupies one of more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century buildings in Old San Juan, cobblestone roads meander off in every direction. Some lead eastward, ending abruptly at the six-story, 18-foot-thick Spanish harbor fortifications of the imposing El Morro fortress that dominates the eastern tip of the island. Another street bears past a 1530s Gothic-style church on one block and the San Juan Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere, on the next. The road to the San Juan gate has been walked by sailors for centuries. Scour the surrounding alleyways for island-grown espresso and delicious local dishes, or join islanders in a game of dominoes or checkers alongside trickling wall fountains. Rates from $300. cervantespr.com; gotopuertorico.com — tim jacob

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Literary Treasure Jamaica

Jamaica’s sleepy southern coast is the setting of the Calabash International Literary Festival (May 23-25, 2008; calabashfestival.org) where writers, artists and musicians gather for three days of beach-side poetry readings, reggae raves and impromptu debates on the global impact of Caribbean spoken-word and musical traditions. Bury your feet in the sands of Treasure Beach while founder and novelist Colin Channer along with writers Michael Ondaatje, Kwame Dawes and Maryse Condé join Washington Post columnist Jabari Asim to channel Jamaica’s contagiously creative spirit during free readings and discussions. Punctuate your day with sing-along jams and open-microphone sessions and then dance at all-night parties around a seaside bonfire. Calabash overtakes Treasure Beach in front of Jake’s, a patchwork of whimsical cottages featuring one-off features like open-air rooftop patios, found-object headboards, outdoor bathtubs and terraces off which you can fish. Walk off dinner on two miles of uninterrupted shoreline then return to Calabash, which will certainly still be going strong. Jake’s rates from $95. jakeshotel.com; visitjamaica.com — tj

French Soul Martinique

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Board the Cyparis Express for a short tour of St. Pierre — the charred remnants of the former “Paris of the West Indies,” decimated by the 1902 volcanic eruption that killed all 30,000 residents in minutes. (The sole survivor was a man held in a dungeon jail cell.) Today Fort-de-France, 20 miles south of St. Pierre on Martinique’s western coast, serves as the island’s cultural capital. Wander through the city’s narrow alleys and fruit markets and swing by the Bibliothèque Schoelcher (a domed Romanesque- Byzantine building shipped to the island after its debut at the 1889 Paris Exposition). As you observe the French fashions in La Savane park, it’s easy to imagine what St. Pierre might have become. Across a deep blue bay sits the Sofitel Bakoua Martinique, where sundown mixers and French-Creole appetizers are served poolside, enjoyed along with Martinique’s unique zouk rhythms. Rates from $259. sofitel.com; martinique.org — tj

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