Diving Into the Best of Curacao
With JetBlue's direct flight from New York to Curaçao, this Caribbean island has never been more accessible. Leigh Crandall takes the plunge off of the northwest shore to discover one of the Caribbean’s prettiest dive spots, and rounds up the best activities for first-time visitors back on dry land, too
The wave moves towards us, white foam forming at its crest as it rolls over our heads. Beneath the water, the navy-colored expanse of the Caribbean Sea spreads out before me, visible for a moment through my mask before the wave passes and my head is above water again. I turn to watch as it explodes onto the rock wall just behind where I am treading water, and as I start to feel the receding current’s pull towards the open ocean the dive instructor’s eyes meet mine and he signals that it is almost time.
It is my first visit to Curaçao, the “C” in the ABC Islands of the Netherlands Antilles. Located just north of Venezuela, the island is known for some of the best shore diving in the Caribbean, with wrecks and reefs that are home to a diverse population of hard corals, sponges, tropical fish, sea turtles, rays, moray eels, and more. On this morning, I’m part of a small group run by Go West Diving that’s come to the island’s northwest side to free dive a grotto known as the Blue Room, accessible via a quick swim beneath the cave’s jagged wall.
It’s along this wall that I’m currently bobbing as I gather my courage, and as the next wave crashes towards me I inhale deeply and plunge beneath the water. Rolling over so that I can see the craggy surface of the grotto’s entrance above me, I kick like mad until the rocks disappear, replaced with a muddy blackness that is the dark of the cave ceiling, opening up and up beyond the reach of the light.
Popping above the surface for a deep breath, I turn to look back at where I’ve just come from and am rewarded with the first glance of what inspired the name “Blue Room”. The sunlight from beyond the cave wall filters through the underwater cavity, turning the water a dazzling aquamarine.
Diving again I see I am not alone. A large school of fingerlings has assumed a spherical shape, like a giant eye watching over this small but spectacular piece of the world, watching this diver’s dark silhouette traced in blue as I swim deeper.
Shete Boka National Park
A visit to this seaside park on the island’s north coast feels a bit like a trip to another planet thanks to the dramatic, otherworldly look of the lone path leading visitors along the sheer limestone cliffs that drop off to the deep blue sea. Start at Boka Tabla, where steps carved into the rock take visitors to the entrance of an underground cavern. Perch on the edge to watch the waves roar in then continue on along the Boka Pistol Trail, about a one-hour walk. The path runs through Boka Brown beach where sea turtles come to lay their eggs and past Boka Pistol, so named for the gunfire-like noise created as the waves crash upwards against the cliffs.
Dedicate one afternoon to wandering around the colorful alleyways of Curaçao’s capital of Willemstad. Start with a visit to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest temple in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. The pretty structure dates from the 1650s and still features details from the era, like sand-covered floors. Next, lunch like a local at the food stalls of Plasa Bieu market. Opt for a dish from Yvonne de Plaza, easily identified by the long line of people queued up for dishes like stewed goat, fried red snapper with polenta, and okra soup. Grab a tamarind-flavored batido (a blended drink that’s similar to a smoothie) from the truck parked just outside Plasa Bieu, and continue on to the floating market, so named for the boats of the Venezuelan vendors who cross the sea between South America and Curaçao to sell fresh fish, fruits and vegetables along the waterfront. Stroll over to Handelskade, a row of colorful Colonial Dutch buildings perched along the harbor that now houses boutiques and sidewalk cafés. End with a visit to Nena Sanchez’s gallery. The local artist’s work decorates several of the neighborhood’s alleys and her colorful paintings and prints make the perfect souvenir.
Curaçao has 38 beaches to choose from, and many of the best are along the west side of the island. Knip Beach is a local favorite thanks to sugary sand and calm water that’s perfect for sunbathing and taking a dip. Playa Kalki is a great pick for visitors who plan to snorkel thanks to “Alice in Wonderland,” a spectacular stretch of reef just off the shore. After working up an appetite, head to Kalki Beach Bar & Grill for light fare and tropical drinks, or up the stairs along the cliff to Watamula Restaurant, where guests dine beneath open-air thatched roof huts with views of the water. If you’d prefer a more secluded stretch of sand, try Playa Jeremi. It's the perfect place to watch the sunset, but you'll need to bring your own drinks and nibbles.
Old Quarry Golf Course
Golfers will love playing a round at this 18-hole Pete Dye-designed course overlooking the Caribbean Sea, consistently rated among the best in the Caribbean and Mexico. Afterwards, head to Shore American Seafood Grill for a drink with ocean views and a dinner of locally sourced ceviche and fresh red snapper prepared by Chef de Cuisine Heinrich Hortencia.
Christoffel National Park
The island’s largest park is must visit for nature lovers thanks to a wide variety of local species like iguana, owls, and the Curaçao white tailed deer, plus flora including bromeliads and wild orchids. Eight hiking trails range in length and difficulty, the toughest being the round trip hike to the top of Christoffel Mountain. Wake early to avoid the intense afternoon heat on the two and a half hour climb to the island’s highest point, where spectacular views of the island await.
Den Paradera Herb Garden
Get to know another side of the nature on this Caribbean island with a visit to Den Paradera Herb Garden. Most folks on the island know Dinah Veeris’ name thanks to the healer’s encyclopedic knowledge of the medicinal benefits of herbs and plants, which she has been studying for more than three decades. Veeris has grown an enchanting garden over the past twenty years and, while self-guided tours are an option, it’s best to sign up for a guided walk with Veeris or her son, whose enthusiasm for the plants around them is infectious. Luckily, their homemade remedies and homeopathic products are available for purchase at the garden’s shop.
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