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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)

The Curaçao Liquor Factory

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From now on, when I hear the word “Curaçao,” I’ll think primarily of soft, sandy beaches, and colorful buildings. But there was a time (not that long ago!) when the only connotation brought to mind would have been “liquor.” Blue Curaçao has long been a staple at bars around the world, and we went to the Landhuis Chobolobo to see the factory in which it was originally produced.

Curaçao liquor is made from orange peels. Oranges aren’t a native fruit to the island, but a few trees were brought over long ago from Valencia, Spain. The harsh, windy climate of Curaçao proved too brutal for the sweet little trees and after they failed as a crop, they were forgotten about. Over the course of the centuries, the oranges adapted to the terrain, toughening up and becoming known as lahara trees. The bitter fruit of lahara oranges is nearly inedible, but the peels retain the aromatic essence of their Valencian ancestors, and lend Curaçao Liquor its distinctive flavor.

Call me naive, but I had assumed that Blue Curaçao’s famous color was due to some sort of strange chemical process, and I was excited to tour the Landhuis Chobolobo and find out exactly how it was achieved. So when I learned that the liquor itself is clear, and the blue comes from regular food coloring, I was disappointed. Turns out, the “secret” behind Blue Curaçao’s color is one which has already been unlocked various times by my five-year-old nephew during his kitchen experiments.

The Chobolobo factory is still churning out Blue Curaçao, and even using their original distillation equipment, which dates from the early 19th century. The factory tour is free and self-guided, but at least they’ve bothered to make the displays interesting and well-organized. You get a quick history of the island, and learn the story of the Seniors, the Jewish family who established the business. (Fun fact: Curaçao Liquor is kosher. When they were first starting their business, the Seniors had experts brought in from overseas to certify their product.)

As you might expect, the tour ends at a bar where you can taste a variety of the Curaçao liquors, and a shop where you can buy some to take home. It makes a good souvenir, although a rather short-lived one. This sweet drink is one that goes down fast.

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Landhuis Chobolobo – Website
The Genuine Curaçao Liquor – Website

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February 25, 2016 at 5:58 pm Comments (0)

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

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

The Historic Neighborhood of Punda

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Punda was the first area in Willemstad to be colonized by the Dutch, and today has become famous for the superb condition of its colorful, 18th-century buildings. Although we lived in Otrobanda, we crossed the bay almost daily to spend time in Punda, to eat, shop, or just enjoy the neighborhood’s lively atmosphere.

When it was originally settled, this neighborhood was called “De Punt” (“The Point”), a name which eventually evolved into Punda. Willemstad’s most historic buildings are found here, from Fort Amseterdam and the Fortkerk to the Mikvé Emmanuel-Israel Synagogue. And this is the location of the Handelskade: the waterfront collection of multi-colored buildings that has become Curaçao’s most emblematic image.

Over the years, Punda has developed a split personality, in its attempts to please two completely different sets of people. This is ground-zero for cruise ship tourism, and when ships are in port, you’ll find thousands of foreigners roaming the streets of Punda, ordering over-priced meals along the Saint Anna Bay and raiding souvenir shops. But the neighborhood is equally popular with locals, who come here to work and socialize.

If you’re in the mood for local grub, Punda is the place to go. Plasa Bieu might be the most popular spot to try Curaçaoan fare, but there are any number of other affordable joints. We love the Kowloon Restaurant on Keukenstraat, as well as Yat Sun Snack across from the Floating Market. Don’t let the Chinese names throw you off — these restaurants are Curaçaoan through-and-through. We can also recommend the Latin flavors at Kriollomanía and Yammie Madness Chef, for their food as much as for their names. And we liked they tiny Restaurante Simone, for Indian dishes via Suriname.

Not many people reside in Punda, any longer; the neighborhood has become almost strictly for business, eating and shopping. But this always has been, and likely always will be the center of Willemstad… and thus of Curaçao. And we’ve found it impossible to spend time here, without enjoying ourselves. If you’re not smiling in Punda, you’re probably the only one.

Locations on our Map: Handelskade | Plasa Bieu | Kowloon | Yat Sun Snack | Krillomanía | Yammie Madness Chef | Restaurante Simone

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February 6, 2016 at 8:51 pm Comment (1)

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 Local Lunch at Plasa Bieu

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There’s no getting around the fact: Willemstad is a cruise ship city. Nearly every day, another massive ship is in port, and thousands of visitors cram into the old town. It’s a financial windfall for many businesses, but it comes with downsides for locals and local-wannabes like us. For example, there’s an over-abundance of restaurants aimed at tourists, with kitschy decor and high prices. Luckily, other options exist, and we found a great one at Plasa Bieu.

Plasa Bieu Willemstad

Plasa Bieu, or the “Old Market,” borders the Waaigat harbor near the central post office and the Round Market. It looks like a small, rundown factory… and I suppose that’s what it is. A little factory which has been manufacturing delicious, affordable Curaçaoan cuisine for decades. From the looks of things, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that nothing has changed in fifty years; not the stands, the pots, nor the people ladling out stew or frying up fish.

Plasa Bieu Willemstad

There are half a dozen stalls in Plasa Bieu, and we would eventually be sampling them all. For our initial visit, we tried out Grasia di Dios — third, I think, from the entrance. I ordered fried grouper with mashed potatoes and salad, Jürgen got stewed beef, and we both tried a cold glass of a spicy ginger drink. While eating, we were also staring at the delicious plates others had ordered, and already talking about a return trip.

Plasa Bieu welcomes a good mix of locals and tourists for lunch. Our waiter was friendly and, like everyone on Curaçao, apparently able to speak five languages, and we quizzed him about the other plates we saw being served up. A popular dish seems to be cactus soup, and you can also ask for iguana stew. Neither of those sounded the slightest bit appetizing to us, but if you’re feeling bold, be our guest. Iguana awaits.

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December 14, 2015 at 10:17 pm Comments (0)

Fort Amsterdam and the Fortkerk

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Colonial-era Willemstad was protected from marauding pirates and enemy navies with an extensive set of eight forts, six of which have survived intact into the present day. The oldest and most important is Fort Amsterdam, found at the entrance to Saint Anna Bay.

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The Dutch West India Company constructed Fort Amsterdam in 1635, immediately after the Netherlands had taken Curaçao from the Spanish. The territory’s colonial masters lived safely within its confines and, throughout the centuries, Fort Amsterdam has remained the seat of Curaçaoan power. Today, the governor lives here, and there are also a number of government offices.

Within the grounds of the fort, you’ll find the United Protestant Church of Curaçao, built in 1769. The Fortkerk, or Fort Church, was built to withstand siege and has survived in remarkable shape. The only visible bit of damage is a small cannonball embedded halfway into the facade. It was fired by the Captain John Bligh of England, who was attacking Curaçao from his famous ship, The Bounty.

For Amsterdam Curacao

The church is of modest size, but quite pretty. The roof, painted a deep blue, has a clock right in the middle of it. There are simple stained glass windows on the eastern and western walls. The windward, eastern windows are slightly smaller, which allows a cooling draft to circulate. Another curiosity is the Fortkerk’s cistern, found between the church and an alcove that houses a small museum. In the days of siege, a large supply of water was vital, so the church was built in such a way that rainwater would filter through the walls, and collect here.

The church’s adjoining museum is alright, mostly old maps and portraits. The best piece is the antique clockwork, dating from 1788, which ran the original clock tower.

History is palpable in Curaçao, and no more so than when you’re standing in Fort Amsterdam. Here, it’s easy to imagine invading pirates stationed at the mouth of Saint Anna Bay, laying siege to the island, while from the fort, the Dutch defended themselves and their valuable new American property.

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Forchurch Curacao – Website

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December 12, 2015 at 9:48 pm Comments (0)

First Impressions of Willemstad

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Willemstad is the capital of Curaçao and by far its largest city, with about 98% of the island’s total population. In many respects, Willemstad is Curaçao. And for 91 days, it would also be our home.

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Willemstad was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, immediately after the Netherlands took over Curaçao from Spain. The city has preserved much of its colonial architecture and style, prompting UNESCO to name it a world heritage site in 1997.

The location for Willemstad was chosen because of the Schottegat, a large natural port which connects to the Caribbean by way of the Saint Anna Bay. It was ideal geography for the sea-faring Dutch, who settled down on the bay’s eastern side, and began constructing a neighborhood that wouldn’t look out of place in Amsterdam. This eastern section, known as Punda, is the oldest of Willemstad’s four historic districts.

Once Punda became overcrowded, in the early 19th century, people started to populate the western side of the bay. This new neighborhood was called Otrobanda, literally “other side,” and presents a slightly different style of architecture to that of Punda. Today, Otrobanda is considered to be Willemstad’s cultural heart, where locals come to shop, eat and party.

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The other two historical districts are smaller, but still of interest. To the east of Punda, Pietermaai is where the Dutch ship captains and officers settled. This neighborhood is notable for its proximity to the sea, old theaters, and neoclassical architecture. Finally, there’s the Scharloo, just north of Punda, across the Waaigat Bay. This was home to the upper-crust of Curaçaoan society, and still preserves many of its colonial mansions.

We spent our first day in Curaçao walking around the capital city. The first thing I noticed was the city’s outrageous color scheme. Almost every building in Willemstad is a different shade of blue, yellow, green or red. This rainbow array is actually mandated by law in Curaçao — before 1837, when sunglasses were not yet in widespread use, the buildings had been completely white, and the glaring sun caused headaches and eye problems. The colors helped, and the law has stuck around into the present day. Curaçaoans seem to take great pride in their buildings; we often saw homeowners at work repainting their houses.

After the color, the next thing I noticed was the music. Our first excursion into Willemstad was on a Saturday afternoon, and cumbia, samba and salsa were blasting out of houses, booming from the windows of passing cars, and being played by bands at touristy restaurants. We even saw a DJ who had set up on a regular street corner in Otrobanda. Curaçaoans apparently enjoy living with a constant soundtrack of feel-good rhythms.

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Other random first impressions: there seem to be as many tourists as locals, but this surely waxes and wanes whether a cruise ship is in port. The family across the street from us owns a rooster. Policeman are rare, though there are a lot of security guards protecting higher-end shops. Also, there are plenty of dogs but we hardly saw cats. And there’s all types of income-levels: During our first week in Willemstad, Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s yacht, the Tatoosh, was docked in the bay (this is a boat which comes equipped with multiple other boats and a helicopter). I was admiring it, when a crazy-eyed guy with a yellow beard and an apparent drug habit came up to me. “What a boat! Hey man, you have a guilder?”

With all the music, the people randomly dancing, the bars spilling out onto the streets, the festive atmosphere, the sun’s warmth, and the brightly-colored houses, Willemstad is certainly not a city for those who enjoy being dour. There’s nothing gray about it, and it would be difficult to stay in a bad mood once you’re outside and mixed up in the happy-go-lucky vibe. In fact, during the extent of our stay in Willemstad, I don’t think I had a single grumpy day. That can’t possibly be true, but it’s how I remember it… and I guess that’s all that matters, now.

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December 10, 2015 at 9:09 pm Comments (0)
The Curaao Museum 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.
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