Even if you've never been to the capital city of Willemstad, you've likely seen the colorful postcard-perfect section of Handelskade perched along Santa Anna Bay. This historic waterfront strip is a vibrant reminder of Curaçao's Dutch heritage, as well as a favorite photo-op for professional photographers and visitors alike. Start your walking tour at the restored Rif Fort near the mouth of the harbor, filled with shops and dining venues to dig into, then cross the famous Koningin Emmabrug pontoon bridge to the Punda district and weave your way through the interlocking streets that house everything from artisan shops to upscale, brand-name retailers. Shoppers with an appetite should head to the Mercado Flotante - the bustling floating market that's always bubbling over with fruits, vegetables and the day's fresh catch. Then crossing back to the Otrabanda side, stop by the Museum Kura Hulanda. Housed in a revitalized Dutch Colonial building amid the luxury Hotel Kura Hulanda compound, the museum boasts a sizeable collection of African art – one of the largest in the Caribbean – and also features unique exhibits like a thoughtfully reimagined slave ship interior.
Museum Kura Hulanda entrance fees from $9 for adults, $6 for kids 12 and under. Half-day guided tours of Willemstad with Explore Curaçao from $27.50 including lunch.
2. Beaches, Boating and Snorkeling
Curaçao boasts 38 stunning beaches, but the finest of them fringe the west end. Guests of the new Renaissance Curacao in downtown Willemstad can enjoy a one-of-a-kind manmade "beach experience" at the resort's second-floor saltwater infinity pool, but visitors of any resort should still grab a rental car or hop a cab to Cas Abou Beach for arguably the prettiest stretch of sand and sea on the island. There's a snack bar and restroom facilities so it's perfect for a long beach day, but go early – it's popular with day-trippers and gets pretty crowded in the afternoons. Further northwest is Playa Jeremi, a pristine beach with fewer comforts but even more natural beauty – and a fraction of the crowd. From either beach, you can enjoy snorkeling right offshore. But to really appreciate what Curaçao's waters have to offer, hop a charter boat for sailing, offshore snorkeling and diving. If you have the time, take a full-day excursion to the nearby volcanic rock known as Klein Curaçao, an uninhabited islet that offers Curaçao's longest stretch of pristine, white-sand beaches.
Half-day snorkel excursions with Explore Curaçao from $77 for adults, $67 for children. Sunset sails from $80 for adults. Full-day trips to Klein Curaçao from $81 for adults including lunch.
www.curacao.com, www.curacao-actief.com, www.explore-international.com
3. Dining and Nightlife
Visitors with a little time and plenty of caffeine to keep them going to will find a bounty of nighttime diversions in and around Willemstad, from outdoor restaurants and jazz clubs to martini bars and casinos. Fridays and Sundays are the big nights here from happy hour to last call, but visitors and locals shouldn't have to wander far to find nightlife any night of the week. De Gouveneur in Otrabanda is a hot spot for live music, and a slew of dining venues and bars in the Rif Fort offer cold drinks and cool company any time of the night. Gambling opportunities abound in most hotels – including the Breezes, Marriott, Hilton and Renaissance properties – and the stand-alone Holiday Beach Casino even offers sports wagering. Shake things up with a little live jazz at the Avila Hotel's Blues Bar or head to Zanta Beach or the open-air Mambo Beach, both on Sea Aquarium Beach, for DJs and dancing.
Cover charges and drink prices vary by location.
4. Explore the West End
Historic Willemstad is lovely, but to appreciate all that Curaçao has to offer, visitors should break out of the capital city for a day trip at least once. Rent a car or sign up for a guided tour and explore the vast and undeveloped west end of the island. Adventure operator Explore Curaçao offers Jeep Tours through the island outback, departing from Willemstad and making various stops throughout the arid landscape. One such stop is Boca Pistol, a hollowed-out stretch of shoreline where a cannonball of sea-foam bursts from the earth with each incoming wave – a phenomenon known as the "Breath of Curaçao." There's also a sea-cave nearby that many visitors descend at low tide for a glimpse of the island's coral-stone foundation, and back above ground there's an abundance of desert flora and fauna to spot, from cacti to iguanas.
Half-day Jeep Tours with Explore Curaçao or Curaçao Actief from $65 per person.
5. Christoffel National Park
Grab your sneakers and head to this 4,450-acre wildlife preserve near the island's west end. The park offers nature-lovers a variety of hiking trails through its variant garden and desert landscapes, including a two- to three-hour hike to the top of the 1,240-foot Mt. Christoffel, the island's highest point. On clear days, you'll see as far as Venezuela. If hiking isn't your thing, give your feet a break and enlist the aid of an on-site adventure operator offering horseback rides or jeep tours of the grounds. Kayaking is also available in areas throughout the park. Bring a picnic lunch and spend the day at leisure; then when you're ready to cool off, take your pick of nearby beaches (see number 2) – among the best on the island.
Park entrance from $10 per person.
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