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A Couple of Curious Museums in Willemstad

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The very fact that tiny Curaçao has a Postal Museum was strange enough to arouse our curiosity. And after learning that it’s housed in the island’s oldest surviving building, we knew that we’d have to check it out. Later on the same day, we passed by another museum which looked to be even more unusual: the Octagon Museum in Pietermaai.

Postal Museum Curacao

The building currently occupied by the Postal Museum dates from 1693, just a few decades after the Dutch established Willemstad. Tightly packed between other buildings on the narrow, pedestrian-only Kuekenstraat, it’d be easy to waltz right by the ancient structure without ever noticing it. But it’s worth pausing to take a look, and depending on your interest in stamps, perhaps stepping inside.

To be honest, neither Jürgen nor I are the slightest bit interested in stamps, but we decided to visit the museum anyway. It’s kind of our job. When we stepped inside, the woman working there jumped to life; it’s safe to say that the Postal Museum doesn’t draw a lot of tourists. After taking our money (just $2 apiece), she led us on an exhaustive tour of the museum’s exhibits.

Her enthusiastic presence turned an experience which might have been dry into one which was rather fun. Frequently, she’d start to take her leave, saying something like, “Alright, I should let you see the rest at your own pace,” before remembering another piece of trivia which she simply had to share. And after we were done with the exhibits (all of which are dedicated to the history of postage in the Dutch Antilles) we stayed and chatted for awhile about her trips to Holland, and her distaste for Carnival.

We now walked down to Pietermaai, where we had seen signs for something called the Octagon Museum. We followed the signs onto the property of the Avila Beach Hotel, where we found an evidently old, octagon-shaped building. What could possibly be the subject matter of this museum?! Go on, I’ll give you a few guesses…

[splutter] Why, yes… you’re right! The Octagon Museum is dedicated to the life and times of South American liberator Simón Bólivar! How in the world did you guess that?!

Yes, this museum, which is only open for a couple hours on a couple days during the week, is all about the accomplishments of Simón Bólivar, and his Curaçaoan connections. Immediately before his military successes on the continent, he spent time on the island, staying in the now-vanished Plezier House in Otrobanda, and as a guest of the wealthy merchant Don Mordechai Ricardo, who owned the Octagon tower.

The museum is nicely done, with copious information on placards spread throughout the rooms. There are paintings and period furniture, as well as a copy of the Cartagena Manifesto. Although the museum itself is small, you’ll have to dedicate some time to it, if you want to read everything.

So there you have it: the oldest house on Curaçao is dedicated to stamps, and the most geometric house in Curaçao is dedicated to Bólivar. In the unlikely event of a rainy day during your stay, you might want to check out one, or even both of them.

Locations on our Map: Postal Museum | Octagon Museum

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More photos of the Postal Museum
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More photos of the Octagon Museum
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February 26, 2016 at 9:51 pm Comments (0)

The Curaçao Museum

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Found in the former military hospital, the Curaçao Museum opened its doors in 1948, making it the oldest museum on the island. Its exhibits include world-class works of art, and period furnishings that pay tribute to the opulent past of the island’s richest days.

Curacao Museum

The museum’s furniture is absolutely beautiful, with many pieces hand-carved from mahogany, including the island’s oldest dining-room table, a phonograph and a grand master bed. But even better is the artwork. An entire room is dedicated to renowned Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Charley Toorop. You’ll also find paintings by some of Curaçao’s home-grown talent, including Charles Corsen, whose Black Madonna a minor controversy when it was painted in 1950. Also noteworthy is wall-sized map of the Caribbean, made of stained glass and created for the 1939 World Exhibition in New York.

One of the most interesting pieces in the museum is the carillon, a type of organ which uses bells instead of pipes. A series of levers and strings connect the instrument, found on the ground floor of the house, to 47 bells which can be seen outside on the roof. This is called the “Four Princesses Carillon”; the four biggest bells were named individually for each of the Dutch princesses, and the other 43 are named for Curaçaoan dignitaries.

Curacao Museum

Also part of the museum is the Snip Haus, where you can see the nose and cockpit of the KLM Fokker F.XVIII which, in 1932, made the very first transatlantic journey between Holland and Curaçao. Known popularly as the Snip, the plane needed 55 hours for the crossing, but arrived in time for Christmas with sacks of letters and presents from relatives in the Netherlands. It was greeted euphorically by the people of the island, whose previous connections to Europe had been restricted to ship.

We enjoyed the Curaçao Museum; it looks larger and more daunting than it really is, and a visit doesn’t require more than an hour. If you don’t have a car, it’s a little out of the way, about a twenty minute walk from Otrabanda’s Brionplein, but worth the effort.

Location on our Map
The Curaçao Museum – Website

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February 25, 2016 at 10:48 pm Comment (1)

Curacao’s Maritime Museum

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Ever since the dawn of the 16th century, when it was finally drawn onto the maps of European explorers, Curaçao’s fortunes have been tied to the sea. The Maritime Museum, located across from the Floating Market at the beginning of the Waaigat Harbor, is a must for anyone interested in understanding the history of the island.

Maritime Museum Curacao

The museum occupies one of the most stunning mansions of the Scharloo, directly at the end of the pedestrian L.B. Smith bridge. This two-story house was built as a private residence in 1729, but burnt to the ground in 1988. After a complete renovation, the building re-opened to the public in 1998 as the Maritime Museum.

The renovation of the property was marvelously done, with an interior designed to evoke the hull of a ship, including portholes, railings and even the spiral staircase which leads to the deck… although in the museum’s case, it leads to a third-story room for special exhibitions.

Maritime Museum Curacao

Even those without a special interest in the seas should find plenty inside this museum to hold their attention. The exhibits start at the very beginning, with the canoes employed by the Arwak Indians to reach Curaçao from the Venezuelan mainland. The museum then moves on to the “discovery” of the island, its occupation by the Spanish and Dutch, and the Atlantic slave trade.

We enjoyed the section about the dawning of cruise ship tourism. I had never thought about when this phenomenon began, but it’s older than I would have guessed. The first cruise ship reached Curaçao from New York City in 1901. Passengers in those days eschewed the island’s beaches, disembarking primarily to shop in Willemstad, which was known for fashions and jewelry at prices unheard of in Manhattan.

With further exhibitions about the Isla Refinery and its dry dock, as well as old nautical maps and uniforms, this museum could easily occupy an hour or more, and we highly recommend a visit. Keep in mind that they also offer a ferry tour of the Schottegat Harbor two days a week. If you plan correctly, you can buy a joint ticket for both the museum and the tour.

Location on our Map
Curacao Maritime Museum – Website

Hotels In Curacao

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February 25, 2016 at 12:14 pm Comments (0)

Landhuis Dokterstuin and the Kas di Pal’i Maishi

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For a contrast between how the different social classes of colonial-era Curaçao lived, visit first the thatch-roofed Kas di Pal’i Maishi, and then head over to the nearby Landhuis Dokterstuin. Set high on a hill, and today home to a popular restaurant, this 18th century mansion is as grand as its neighbor is humble.

Kas di Pali Maishi

The Kas di Pal’i Maishi is a beautifully-preserved adobe house, of the type which used to be found all across Curaçao. These “kunuku houses” were typical dwellings for the island’s inhabitants, and although they’ve mostly been replaced by modern homes, they can still occasionally be seen. There’s nothing fancy to them, but their cool white walls and open windows are perfectly designed to deal with the island’s heat.

Today, the Kas di Pal’i Maisha is a museum dedicated to the bygone way-of-life of the kunuku house, containing some tools and artifacts from the olden days. The exhibits aren’t terribly engaging, but the house itself is interesting, and it’s worth the small entrance fee to get inside it.

Perhaps the family who lived in this house worked at the nearby Landhuis Dokterstuin. This plantation house dates from the 18th century and, like most of Curaçao’s landhuizen, sits proudly atop a hill, with a view over the surrounding countryside.

We visited on a Sunday around lunchtime, and almost didn’t find a place to park. But the people streaming into the plantation house weren’t there to admire its architecture or the elegance of its interior furnishings. They were hungry. Today, the Landhuis Dokterstuin is the home of Komedor Krioyo, one of the island’s best-loved restaurants.

It took a long time for us to get a table, and even longer before our meals arrived, but the wait was worth it. The food was excellent; I had goat meat with tutu, a sweetened mix of cornmeal and black-eyed peas, while Jürgen had stewed beef. But the true highlight of Komedor Krioyo was its rollicking atmosphere. Every table in the large dining hall was occupied by another huge family, and it was the best kind of friendly, fun chaos.

Locations on our Map: Kas di Pal’i Maisha | Landhuis Dokterstuin (Komedor Krioyo)

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January 23, 2016 at 7:40 pm Comments (0)

The Kura Hulanda Museum

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Found in the heart of Otrobanda, the Kura Hulanda is both a resort and an anthropological museum. Fifteen buildings house hundreds of cultural artifacts, with a focus on Africa and the Atlantic slave trade. It’s an impressive collection… especially when you learn that it’s privately owned by a single man.

Kura Hulanda Museum

The museum takes visitors on a journey from the earliest days of man, with exhibits on evolution and the lands of Abraham, through the horrors of slavery, and into the present day and modern African culture. There are archaeological artifacts from the Middle East, paintings and prints from the days of colonialism, bizarre wooden death masks from the Dogon Culture, and much more.

Kura Hulanda Museum

We spent most of our time in the rooms dedicated to the slave trade, reading harrowing tales of the transatlantic journey suffered by the people who had been kidnapped from countries like Benin and Ghana. The basement of one building has been transformed to resemble the hold of a slaving ship, where hundreds of men and women were packed in and chained up. It’s sickening to learn how the sick would simply be tossed overboard, or how they were given almost no nourishment or water for the three-month journey, or how families were torn apart. Ah, humanity… what the hell is wrong with us?

Kura Hulanda Museum

There’s a lot to see in this museum, and nearly all of it is worthwhile. I could have spent an hour in the room dedicated to great African kingdoms of the past, such as the ancient Ghana Empire and the powerful Mali with their great center of learning at Timbuktu. There are further halls dedicated to the bronze art of Benin, the former Dutch colony of Suriname and the rise of Islam across Africa.

After finishing up at the museum, we checked out the rest of the Kura Hulanda Lodge, which is a large and evidently expensive tourist resort, and we came away conflicted. This lodge occupies an entire block of Otrobanda, giving its guests a central, authentically Curaçaoan place to spend their holidays. The old, residential buildings are beautiful, and it’s great that they’ve been renovated and given new purpose; looking at photos, it’s shocking how they had been left to deteriorate.

Kura Hulanda Museum

But these streets had been an once important part of Otrobanda, parallel to the main thoroughfare of Breedestraat, and a stone’s throw from the harbor. This had been a neighborhood where everyday folks lived and worked. Yes, it’s been renovated, but now it’s closed off to local traffic; an entire section of the most important zone in Otrobanda privately-owned and dedicated to tourism. We’d feel a lot better about the project, if the restored buildings had been sold back to regular folks. But I don’t suppose there would have been a lot of money in that.

Regardless of our feelings toward the lodge, we were impressed by the museum. It’s an astounding collection which manages to toe the line between entertaining and educational, and is worth the time and effort of visiting.

Location on our Map
Kura Hulanda Museum – Website

21 USD Car Rentals For Curacao Can Be Found Here

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January 20, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (0)

The Tula Museum at Landhuis Knip

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In the late 18th century, a slave named Tula lived and worked at the Knip Plantation, on the northern tip of the island. Angered by the injustice of his situation, he freed himself and led a revolt across Curaçao. Today, his legacy is remembered in the Tula Museum at the Landhuis Knip.

Tula Museum Landhuis Knip

It’s deeply satisfying that, today, the primary purpose of the Knip Plantation is to pay tribute to a man who was once enslaved here. Sorry Mr. Landowner, I’m sure you considered yourself to be pretty important, and I’m sure that back in the 1700s, you were. But history doesn’t remember your ilk too kindly. There’s nothing to honor you at your former mansion. Instead, it’s dedicated to a man you bought, abused and dehumanized: Tula, the slave who eventually said “enough.”

Inspired by the successful 1791 revolution in Haiti, Tula organized the slaves of the Knip Plantation, then informed the plantation master that they now considered themselves to be free men and women. They marched from Knip to Lagun, freeing more slaves and growing their force along the way. By the time they reached Porto Mari, Tula had a group large enough to be of true concern to the Dutch. And if they weren’t concerned yet, they soon would be. On August 19th, 1975, the Dutch army attacked the rebels and were roundly defeated.

Tula Museum Landhuis Knip

But the rebellion didn’t last much longer than that. Chastened, the Dutch organized a serious response, gave orders to kill any armed slave, and dealt a crushing defeat to the rebels. Tula was among those who escaped, and continued a short-lived guerrilla campaign against the Dutch, until his location was betrayed by a slave. He was captured, and then publicly tortured and executed as an example to any others who might get ideas of independence.

Given the compelling history, the Tula Museum in Landhuis Knip is unfortunately a disappointment. The landhuis is nice, but the exhibits don’t go nearly far enough in telling the story. There are some artifacts and implements from the days of slaving, but not much about Tula nor his revolt. And what little information there is, is only in Dutch. It’s a missed opportunity.

Still, the Tula Museum provides the chance to remember this man who has achieved hero status across Curaçao, and makes for a nice cultural stopover between the nearby beaches of Grote and Kleine Knip. But if you want to learn about Tula, it might be better to hunt down the 2013 film about his struggle, starring Danny Glover.

Location on our Map

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January 3, 2016 at 9:56 pm Comments (0)

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel: The Oldest Synagogue in the Americas

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When you think of “Curaçao,” you’re likely to think of things like “scuba diving,” “liquor,” “beaches,” “cruise ships” and “historic Jewish community.” Wait… what was that last one?! It’s unexpected, but this little island has the oldest Jewish congregation in the Western Hemisphere, with a history that dates to 1651. And Willemstad’s Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is the New World’s oldest synagogue.

The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

The Netherlands has a long history of religious tolerance. In the 17th century, when most European countries were persecuting and forcing their Jewish populations into ghettos, Dutch Jews had been accepted as skilled members of society, and were flourishing. In fact, they were among the founding members of the Dutch West India Company. In 1651, the firm sent twelve Jewish families to Curaçao, establishing a small but strong presence which has endured into the present day.

Dedicated in 1732, the synagogue is located in Willemstad’s historic Punda district, near the Floating Market. After passing through the gate, which welcomes visitors with a Hebrew sign that says, “Blessed May You Be in Your Coming,” you arrive in a small courtyard with access to a gift shop, a two-story museum and the synagogue, which is referred to as the “Snoa.”

I’d bet money that the first thing everyone notices on entering the Snoa aren’t the walls, the doors or the furnishings… but the sand-covered floor. This is done as a tribute to the Tabernacle; the holy structure which wandering Jews once carried through the Sinai desert. It’s also a nod to the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when worshipers would cover the floors of their synagogues in sand to muffle the sounds from outsiders. Here in Curaçao, the sand made us think of the beach… and I can imagine we’ve shared this association with many frustrated kids whose parents have yet again dragged them to worship.

The interior decoration in the Snoa is mostly carved from red mahogany, and there’s a nice breeze which runs through the room. We stayed for awhile, wanting to get our money’s worth (entrance to the Mikvé-Emanuel is $10 per person), and then moved on to the museum, housed in the former Rabbi’s residence. Here, we found shofars (horns which were used to call people to prayer), ancient scrolls and haggadah, dishes and plates, and a silver hanukkiah dating from 1716, which is still in use.

If you’re Jewish, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is a must-see, but it’s fascinating for others, too. Jürgen and I barely know a bar mitzvah from a brit milah, but we enjoyed our visit. It’s amazing that the oldest community of Jewish people anywhere on this half of the planet is on this tiny island in the Caribbean. I think they picked a good home.

Location on our Map
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue – Website

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December 15, 2015 at 11:13 pm Comments (2)
A Couple of Curious Museums in Willemstad The very fact that tiny Curaçao has a Postal Museum was strange enough to arouse our curiosity. And after learning that it's housed in the island's oldest surviving building, we knew that we'd have to check it out. Later on the same day, we passed by another museum which looked to be even more unusual: the Octagon Museum in Pietermaai.
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