Hello everyone! I’m late in writing this post because I’ve been crazy busy at work for the past couple of months, but this was a great vacation and I just had to find time to share. We went to Curaçao for the Christmas Holidays in December 2017 and really enjoyed it. Here are some highlights of our adventures in this unique Caribbean island paradise!
Curaçao is a small island in the south Caribbean (off the coast of Venezuela) and, along with Aruba and Bonaire, form the “ABC” Islands or the Dutch Caribbean islands. The ABC islands had been on our travel plans for a long time, and we were looking forward to visiting Curaçao, the largest of the three islands. The Country of Curaçao includes the main island of Curaçao and the uninhabited tiny island of Klein Curaçao (“Little Curaçao”). The main island has a population of about 160,000 in an area of 444 km2 (171 sq mi), and its capital is Willemstad. The official languages are Dutch, Papiamentu and English, however, Spanish is also common. The local currency is the Netherlands Antillean Guilder (also called the florin, abbreviated Nafl or ANG or FL), but US dollars are widely accepted (exchange rate is around US$ 1 = Nafl 1.75). Many prices are displayed and can be paid in either currency. Getting some local currency is always advisable, as the exchange rate may not be always favourable or consistent, and in a few situations (such as parking meters), only the local coins are accepted.
We had a lot of fun exploring Aruba before this trip and didn’t stay at an all-inclusive resort there, so we wanted to try travelling to Curaçao in the same way for a fair comparison. With that in mind, we booked our plane tickets (non-stop flights from/to Toronto), a rental car, and found a studio (room with a private bathroom and a small kitchen) on AirBnB (we also noticed many options available on booking.com and other similar websites).
We landed at the Hato International Airport (CUR) and it was as busy as expected for the Christmas travel season. We didn’t know this (I blame it on also being very busy before the trip to allow for more research/planning), but travellers going to Curaçao can complete an online ED-card in advance for immigration clearance and that line was much shorter and moving a lot faster than ours! There was also a faster secondary passport screening line for US, Canada and EU citizens.
The car rental counters were all very busy too, and it took almost 1h to get the car. Thank goodness they have free WiFi at the airport! That helped pass the time and allowed us to start getting our bearings, look up points of interest near our accommodation, etc. To avoid additional data costs or the additional step of obtaining a local SIM card with data, we had downloaded a Google map of entire the island for offline use. It worked quite well for driving around and even had turn-by-turn voice navigation!
Our studio had a well-equipped kitchen and a full-size fridge, and after a quick visit to a grocery store, we had some breakfast essentials, snacks and beverages to get us started. There are many small independent grocery stores around the island, but we usually prefer to shop at larger stores for a wider selection.
We liked the Centrum Supermarket chain in general (there’s one in Piscadera and one in Mahaai) for their product variety. We also went to the Vreugdenhil, which is smaller but still adequate, and the Luna Park Maxi Market on Caracasbaaiweg, which is ok for the basics and is open late (until 10 pm). On the day before we left, we went to the Best Buy Market, which is more of a warehouse style with no membership required, but there was nothing special about it. After we came back home, we saw some great reviews for the Mangusa Hypermarket, which seems to be a much larger store with a food court inside, but we didn’t visit it on this trip.
We drove around and visited many different areas on the island (click here for a map and more info), and each had a unique vibe, with lots to see and do. Roads are mostly in good shape, except in some more remote areas, and we quickly got used to the many roundabouts and some of the local driving habits. Being a small island, the beaches in Curaçao are never far, and they are usually the main attraction for us.
Many of the beaches charge an admission fee and also for amenities like sun loungers and, in some cases, use of washrooms. Some places have a wide variety of food options while others have none, and food prices can vary quite a bit too. In some spots, the loungers are set so close together that it reminded me of the sun deck on a cruise ship, and it may be hard to relax and enjoy a view of the ocean in these crowded/noisier spaces. There are usually quieter areas with more room to spread out, but those may be farther from the food and the WiFi, so it’s all about priorities! 🙂
These are the beaches we visited on this trip:
- Mambo Beach (aka Seaquarium Beach) and Mambo Beach Boulevard – A very busy, beautiful wide beach in Willemstad, with calm waters and plenty of sand with no rocks, plus some rocky areas to the sides/front barriers (easy to see them), and fun snorkelling near the shore.
The beach stretches from the Lions Dive and Beach Resort on the left (and the Curaçao Sea Aquarium at the far end, across the bridge) to the Wet & Wild Beach Club (more crowded, blue loungers) on the right. In between these two points, are the beautiful and more upscale Madero Ocean Club (busy, beige loungers), and all the beach-front Mambo Beach Boulevard (very busy) shops and restaurants/snack bars (we tried a bunch of them during this trip for lunch/snacks at the beach during the day and also came back in the evening for dinner a few times).
Entrance to the beach is paid right on the sand and each colour of beach lounger means they are rented by a different beach club/operator (one just needs to find a suitable spot and sit, and staff walks around collecting the fees). Some of the businesses provide drink/food service right at the beach.
We liked sitting near the Aloha Beach Bar (pink loungers, rental comes with a bottle of water or a soft drink) for the relaxed vibe, good WiFi and tasty good-priced snacks. Another favourite was the Chill Beach Bar & Grill (quieter side with black loungers) by the Lions Dive Resort – good food and drinks, hammocks, fun decor, nice crowd and music for happy hour, and fewer loungers (need to get there before 10:00 am) on a wider stretch of sand, so it doesn’t feel crowded as other areas of the beach.
Large parking lot and free parking. Entrance: Nafl. 6 | Beach lounger: Nalf. 6 | Facilities: WiFi, Public toilets and beach showers, Bars/Restaurants/Shops
- Jan Thiel Beach – Another very busy, full-service area around the Jan Thiel Baai (Bay), a bit further East from Willemstad, but still very convenient to spend the day. Wide flat sand area and a long boardwalk (with stairs going down directly into the water for awesome snorkelling!), tons of loungers and huts/trees for shade, but only a small beach and another access with steps to walk into the ocean. Entrance is charged at the gate to the large parking lot (payable by cash or credit card).
In the main area, servers from Zanzibar Restaurant charge for the loungers and we got food/drinks from them as well. Other amenities include a few small shops, Koko’s Restaurant, Restaurant Tinto, Zest Beach Cafe and Zest Mediterranean (the Café has tables right on the sand), Dulce Ice Cream Shop, beach activities and rentals, and a lively Happy Hour with DJ and Band. Twice while we were there, we saw a boat (maybe from the aquarium) come by followed by a pod of dolphins jumping and playing (or performing?) near the shore. Such beautiful creatures!
Entrance: Nafl. 6 | Beach loungers: from Nafl. 6 | Facilities: WiFi, Public toilets and beach showers, Bars/Restaurants/Shops
To the left of the Jan Thiel entrance gate (walking distance) is the Papagayo Beach Complex (Plaza/Hotel/Resort/Beach Club), with other shops and restaurants, another small beach, and there’s also a Van den Tweel Supermarket by the hotel lobby.
- Caracasbaai – Rocky beach to the East of Jan Thiel, calm and shallow. It may be good for snorkelling, but we didn’t try. Seems to be a popular spot for locals. Two restaurants (The Golden Seahorse and Pop’s Place) and free parking. We didn’t try either of the restaurants there, so I can’t comment on their food or service.
Entrance & parking: Free | Facilities: Toilet, Snack bar/Restaurant
- Directors Bay – This beach was the furthest to the East we visited during this trip. It’s very secluded and the small road to get there is bumpy and narrow, with unpaved sections. Beautiful setting, calm and clear turquoise water. Nice spot for snorkelling, but the ground is covered with crushed shells and coral. Water shoes recommended. Used to be a private beach for the Shell refinery management and their families, now it’s open to the public.
Entrance & parking: Free | No facilities.
- Moomba Beach Club – Small and quiet beach in the Piscadera area (West of Willemstad), with a restaurant and amenities (beach shower, washrooms, straw umbrellas). We were told the snorkelling is ok there but didn’t try. Sea had some small waves and bottom is rocky. It was hard to find a sand patch to get into the water and waves made it difficult to stay clear of the rocks. Water shoes may help.
Entrance: Nafl. 10 includes a towel, sun lounger and bottle of water. Decent size parking lot.
- Cas Abao Beach – Full-service beach with white sand, beautifully clear and calm water, about 40 mins drive West of Willemstad. The access road was muddy and full of potholes, but the beach was a nice oasis. There are palm trees and huts for shade, rental sun loungers, a bar/restaurant, diving and watersports, and a massage place. Great spot for snorkelling too!
Open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Entrance is charged at the gate a few hundred meters away from the beach. Large parking lot.
Entrance: Mon–Sat Nafl. 10/car | Sundays & Holidays Nafl. 12,50 (max 4 ppl/car, Nafl. 2,50 for additional person) | Sun lounger Nafl. 5 (includes a shower token) | Facilities: WiFi, Public toilets and beach showers ($), Snackbar
- Playa Lagun – Picturesque small enclosed beach with tall cliffs and fishing boats. Calm and clear turquoise water. Nice spot for snorkelling, but in some areas, the ground is covered with crushed shells and coral. Water shoes recommended. Some huts for shade and rental loungers. Two restaurants, one across from the parking area (Lagun Fish House) and another atop the cliff to the right fo the beach (Bahia Beach Bar) offer nice views. We didn’t try either of the restaurants there, so I can’t comment on their food or service.
Entrance & parking: Free | Facilities: Toilet, Snack bar/Restaurant
- Playa Jeremy – Tiny enclosed beach with calm water. Beautiful unspoiled setting with rock cliffs on both sides. Nice spot for snorkelling, but the ground is covered with crushed shells and coral. Water shoes recommended.
Entrance & parking: Free | No facilities
- Kleine Knip (Playa Kenepa) – Small enclosed beach with calm water. Some rocky spots are good for snorkelling. Seemed to be more of a local hang-out. Some huts for shade and rental loungers.
Entrance & parking: Free | Showers and Restrooms Nafl.1,00 | Sun loungers Nafl. 7,50
- Grote Knip (Playa Kenepa Grandi) – About 1h drive from Willemstad in the Westpunt, but totally worth it! A popular spot for snorkelling with a large, sandy beach. The water is clear and an unreal shade of turquoise.
Entrance & parking: Free | Facilities: Snack bar | Showers and Restrooms Nafl. 1,00 | Sun loungers Nafl. 7,50
Besides the beaches, we also enjoyed spending time in these must-visit areas of Willemstad, and visited multiple times during the day and in the evening:
- Pietermaai – This central district of Curaçao went through phases of being a residential neighbourhood with stunning colonial architecture, then becoming neglected and run-down, to lately being rebuilt and restored to its former glory while also becoming a hub of business, culture, accommodations, dining and entertainment. There’s plenty to do during the day – beach clubs and diving shops, spas, boutique hotels, restaurants and shopping (everything from street vendors and a floating market to local shops and luxury brands). In the evening, the district comes alive with a variety of dining options, nightclubs/music and a lively bohemian atmosphere. The Punda area is located within the Pietermaai district, the region nearest to the St. Anna Bay and the floating Queen Emma Bridge. We enjoyed strolling around the streets lined with pastel-coloured colonial buildings, crossing the bridge and appreciating the views of the bay from both sides. Punda is also home to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Western hemisphere, and many other notable historical buildings. Check out what’s happening in Punda these days!
- Otrobanda – Across from Punda, on the other side of the Queen Emma Bridge, is Otrobanda (meaning “the other side”). This busy district offers an enchanting mix of colourful architecture and many UNESCO listed buildings, plus bustling streets full of shops, hotels, casinos and restaurants. Two of the largest attractions are the modern Renaissance Mall and Hotel, and the beautifully-restored Rif Fort located at the entrance of the St. Anna Bay, which was converted from an armed 19th-century fort into a lovely waterfront mall and courtyard with a charming setting.
Local food is called Krioyo (pronounced the same as criollo, the Spanish word for “Creole”) and boasts a blend of flavours from Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. The Dutch influence is also seen often, but we noticed a nice variety of restaurants overall (from formal to food trucks, and including Latin, European, Asian, etc.), able to suit any craving or budget. There are many interesting dishes to try, but with our food restrictions in mind (no poultry, red meat or pork), we were more limited in what we could have. Still, the food in Curaçao did not disappoint. Here are some of the offerings we tried and recommend. 😉
- Arepas (cornmeal patties, served filled with cheese, vegetables and/or meat)
- Stroopwafels (thin crispy waffle filled with syrup) ~ packs available at supermarkets
- Patat oorlog (fries with chopped onions, mayo and peanut sauce!) ~ available at many snack bars and restaurants. We LOVED the peanut sauce and mayo on our fries!
- Kibbeling (battered fish bites) ~ available at restaurants and snack bars
- Lekkerbek (battered fish fillet) ~ available at restaurants and snack bars
- Oliebollen (fried sweet snacks, similar to donut holes) ~ dry mix and prepared ones available at supermarkets. It seems they are traditional for the Christmas season, and we were able to get fresh ones being fried/sold hot at food stands in Punda (Center of Willemstad).
- Keshi yena (cheese-covered casserole) ~ available at restaurants
- Ontbijtkoek (spiced breakfast cake, very dense and sweet) ~ available at some bakeries and supermarkets
- Tompoes (layered napoleon-style pastry) ~ available at some supermarkets and as a dessert
- Speculaas (spiced Dutch cookies) ~ available at supermarkets
- Tosti (grilled cheese sandwich) ~ available at restaurants, snack bars and cafés
- Borrelnootjes (crunchy covered peanuts) ~ available at supermarkets
- Pisca Cora (fried red snapper) ~ available at restaurants serving local cuisine
And these are some of the places we ate at: La Boheme (arepas, sandwiches, good breakfast), CREPES:etc. (arepas and crepes), Aloha Beach Bar (Dutch snacks, fries with peanut sauce, and fish burger), Plein Café Wilhelmina (full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner), Eetcafe De Buren (full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner), Mijn Broodje (café with a variety of sandwiches and some pastries), The Green House (full menu for lunch and dinner), Friethuis (Dutch snacks, fries with peanut sauce), Sea Side Terrace (local, no-frills food joint by the water with nice views during the day – found it a bit pricey for the setting/portions), Zanzibar (at Jan Thiel beach, smaller menu for breakfast & lunch, pizza after 4 pm and more options for dinner), Plasa Bieu (old market in Punda with picnic tables and a very rustic no-frills setting, serving home-style authentic local food from open kitchens), De Kibbeling on Caracasbaaiweg (homey food truck, good kibbeling and lekkerbek), Panaderia Restaurant Latina on Santa Rosaweg (delicious arepas, slow service), etc.
We also recommend checking out the official Curaçao.com website for tons of great information and guides. Downloadable apps with plenty of offline content and maps include the Curaçao App and the Curaçao To Go App.
Ever been to Curaçao or planning to go? Send us your tips, feedback or questions in the comments below ~ Enjoy Curaçao!