The flight from Bonaire to Curaçao only takes 15 minutes – 46 miles. We’re up and we’re bumping down again. All of these islands have the same prevailing winds. First impressions of airport organisation aren’t encouraging. They’ve just introduced a fancy self-scanning booth system for chipped passports, but the signs say that you have to complete an online embarkation form before you arrive if you want to use them. Nobody told us about that, so no-one is entering the shiny new booths, despite the fact that two large planes have just arrived from Amsterdam.
As the immigration queues build up the officials decide to waive this rule. They call us up one by one and scan our passports for us. In the baggage hall the handlers have totally ignored the screens telling us the carousel at which our luggage will arrive. They’ve decided to make life interesting by mixing up bags from the four arriving flights on all the belts.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings it’s already obvious that Curaçao is very different again, from Bonaire and Aruba, with much better infra-structure and, dare I say it, sophistication. It’s also much more Dutch. My boutique hotel is a picturesque converted town house, by the sea, in the Pietermaai district, of the capital Willemstad. I’m delighted to find it has an excellent restaurant, which serves possibly the best caipirinhas I have ever tasted.
Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, is a UNESCO heritage city, so I have high expectations. There are clusters of bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses. It’s most colourfully picturesque along the banks of the canal like opening which leads to the sea-water-lake-cum-harbour around which Willemstad is built. There’s a wobbling pedestrian pontoon bridge across this, which swings open with very little warning, to let boats through. A buzzer sounds, but it moves almost immediately, no flashing lights, resulting in hordes of suddenly running people, leaping across the steadily decreasing overlap, as the pontoon slides away. I'm one of them.
There are a couple of forts and a ‘floating market’, which is not really floating, as all the goods have been taken off the boats and displayed on stalls along the roadside. It’s also a busy cruise ship port. The west bank, especially, is crowded with escapees from the liner on the dock. ‘Where did ya get your map love?’ It goes without saying that the route from the quay to the fort is lined with so called high end shops - Tiffany, Gucci, Prada, gaily decorated, in an attempt to blend in with the local architecture.
Pietermaai feels more authentic to me. The gabled buildings have not been over-restored and are generally more shabby chic. Some are so crumbly they have been rescued with hoardings and vibrant street art. There are plenty of murals. I spend the afternoon on a tiny man made ‘City Beach’ here. And I’ve sampled another good restaurant this evening. Really tasty Asian/Caribbean food. Really expensive too.
I’ve opted for car hire today. This is something I usually avoid: driving on the wrong side of the road, unfamiliar cites and stick shifts (as the Americans call them). But it’s cheap here and they have automatics and it’s the most convenient way to tour the beaches. My car is a dinky little Nissan Micra and, as it turns out, driving on the right is a doddle, even in all the traffic. Maybe it’s like riding a bike-once you’ve done it before adequately you’re okay.
The road signs and the GPS are a different matter altogether. I’ve downloaded an app called maps.me, as it works offline and the phone signal is erratic. I’m directed to ‘slide left’ and also to ‘exit, then turn left’, which apparently means, just turn left. ‘Turn right and then left’ means goes straight on, according to the road markings. I’m forever in the wrong lane and thankfully the locals are reasonably patient. They overtake me as soon as they can, but no-one toots at me.
It’s definitely an island of two halves. Willemstad seems to be surrounded by a huge industrial estate and I’ve explored most of it by the time I’ve misunderstood all the ambiguous commands I’ve been given. The island is orientated more or less east-west and I’m heading west, where all the best beaches are. The traffic peters out eventually and I can potter along. As in Bonaire, (though that’s north-south) this end is pretty limestone hills, but this time covered in shrubs, as well as the ubiquitous finger cacti.
I visit five beaches, Playas Lagun, Jeremi, Grote Knip, Kleine Knip and Fortis. I snorkel at Lagun, where the publicity says the fishermen’s gutting of their catch brings in turtles. It’s a small sandy cove that’s pretty enough, though spoilt by ugly concrete constructions on the beach. No fishermen, (but some boats upturned on the beach) and no turtles, but plenty of unusual fish along the rocky headlands.
Playa Jeremi is a larger cove, but not as pretty. I talk to two South Africans relaxing on a bench on the cliff above. The guy used to live in Brighton near me, it so is a small world. Three Dutch divers tell me that the only decent snorkelling here is right out on the reef and there’s no-on else that distance away in the water. I decide to move on.
Grote Knip is another beach that features on the best beaches in the world lists. (See my own list of best beaches.) It’s longer than the others on the island and the sea really is an amazing blue. I’ve read that Curaçao liqueur is that colour because it’s supposed to represent the sea around Curaçao. Possibly, but I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s quite that lurid.
Grote Knip is also famous for rock bombing. Visitors queue up on top of a crag to jump into the crystal-clear waters (this bit sadly is true). However, the stretch of sand, though wide, is horribly crowded. There are tour buses parked up for heaven’s sake. So, I depart for Kleine Knip, which I’ve read also has good snorkelling. It does. And there are turtles.
I spend some happy hours in the small bay at Kleine Knip, swimming, snorkelling (there is a turtle here) and eating delicious, (at a price), fried snapper and banana, bought from the local entrepreneur. She has the monopoly on this beach.
Fortis, at the top of the island, brags that it has the best view in the west, all down the cobalt coast, but it’s shingly and definitely not the nicest place to snooze. There’s a bar there advertising iguana curry. I don’t think I’ll risk it.
Next decision: a circumnavigation of the island, visiting viewpoints on the way back. This is definitely a mistake. The GPS can’t cope and keeps diverting me down unmade roads, where I end up in people’s backyards. Their dogs aren’t too happy about it. I also need fuel - from what the locals call a pomp station. It would also have been good if someone had told me that you have to pay for petrol before you fill up here, in cash. Fortunately, it’s cheap - a dollar a litre - and I emerge from the whole day happy and unscathed. So does the car.
A last stroll east along the coastal road. More man-made beaches, more restored colonial gables, lots of bars, cafes and dive shops. A sign boasting 'Cold beer, Hot instructors' probably wouldn't pass muster elsewhere. A final fresh lime drink sitting on the rocks by the sea.
Then I’m braving Curaçao Airport again. It’s even worse than on the way in. The check-in queue curls half the length of the departures area and then turns to double its size. It’s a challenge trying to work out where to join it, as it’s unintentionally merging into the queue for security and immigration, which runs the whole length of the hall, before twisting back on itself. One thing about travelling – it’s taught me patience, to a certain extent. An hour and a half later, when I finally get to passport control and another line, there are three of those spanking new little e-passport booths illuminated, but roped off. ‘Can I use those?’ I ask, waving my little wine-coloured book. They nod and I’m through. Danki Dios, as they say in Papiamento.
Goodbye Caribbean, I’m heading home.
(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)
The ABC Islands are the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. They are located less than one hundred miles north-west of Falcón State, Venezuela and, as such, are generally considered to be the only Caribbean Islands that are part of South America.
Aruba and Curacao are both constituent parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other two countries in the kingdom are the Netherlands and Saint Maarten. So, the nationality of the citizens of the ABC islands is Dutch, but the islands are not a part of the European Union.
Bonaire is one of the three Dutch BES Islands in the Caribbean, along with Sint Eustatius and Saba. Bonaire was part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the island became a special municipality within the country of the Netherlands. An 80% majority of Bonaire's population are Dutch nationals, and nearly 60% of its residents were born in the former Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.
The ABC Islands earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetio, a branch of the Arawak. They came by canoe from Venezuela in about 1000 AD. In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda arrived at Curaçao and a neighbouring island that was almost certainly Bonaire. He is said to have called the islands Las Islas de los Gigantes, or Islands of the Giants due to the size of the native inhabitants, the Caiquetio Indians. By 1527 the Spanish had formed a government and established Catholicism on the islands. However, the Spanish conquerors decided that the three ABC Islands were 'useless', having no mineral wealth.
Nevertheless, the Spanish remained until they conceded the islands to the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands lost control of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to the British twice during the early 1800s. The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.
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