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Buildings in Petermaai district (Curaçao Tourist Board)
Even though a record-breaking heat wave has smothered New York City, I'm still packing my SPF 30, a pair of shades, and an overpriced but tailored pair of Parke & Ronen swim trunks and heading south of the border this winter. No, I'm not talking Mexico. Cancun is so overdeveloped you might as well be sequestered in a resort off the coast of Florida with Jeb Bush. For a truly authentic island adventure, head to Curaçao, where you'll discover pristine beaches and an eclectic, welcoming culture which has yet to be overrun by tourists.
The arrival of explorer Alonso de Ojeda (a sidekick of Christopher Columbus) in 1499 marked the first influx of Europeans to Curaçao. The island has been a hot potato colony among the Spanish, Dutch, and British for more than 500 years, resulting in a melting pot of ethnicities and languages. In 2010, the Netherlands Antilles dissolved and Curaçao became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Flight snobs will gravitate toward JetBlue to get there, which is currently the only carrier with a direct route from New York City, but there are plenty of other options with short layovers in Miami. Take your time—nobody will be in a rush once you get there, and that manic, urban vibe will quickly melt away.
Who You Calling Dushi?
Dushi sculpture (Matthew Wexler)
If you're the type that needs time to unwind before spending an entire beach day reading a James Patterson novel, plan on touring the capital city of Willemstad upon arrival. You'll discover a blazing red sculpture that reads "Dushi," which is the native Papiamentu language word for "sweet" or "sweetheart"—it's a sentiment you'll hear often and exemplifies the island's low-key, friendly vibe.
A visit to the Kurá Hulanda Museum tells a different but important story about Curaçao's past. Founded and privately funded by Dutch businessman Jacob Gelt Dekker to the tune of about $6 million, the collection represents the island's slave trade as well as the vibrant cultural identity of its inhabitants. Be sure to request a guide to get a personal perspective and extra little-known facts. The museum is an important way to gain perspective on the island's history and will make you appreciate even more the generosity and friendliness of its people.
Kura Hulanda Museum (Matthew Wexler)
For another sample of Curaçao's curious history, visit the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue and Jewish Museum—the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Jews originally arrived on the island with the Dutch in the 1600s as translators, and eventually established their own sources of income through agriculture, shipping, and banking. The synagogue's floors are still covered in sand, symbolizing Moses's journey across the desert as well as secretive prayers during the Spanish Inquisition.
Scuba diving in Curaçao (Curaçao Tourist Board)
Curaçao is known for its beaches, but not the sprawling, manicured types you'll see in South Beach or other more familiar destinations. There are over 35 beaches to discover on the tiny island—some require a nominal fee but most are free and offer access to incredible snorkeling, scuba diving, cliff jumping, and simple snoozing under the Caribbean sun.
Head west to avoid the crowds, and check out Playa Piskado and Playa Grandi, as well as Playa Kenepa. (Curacao tourism's beach directory has more options for where to head.) For those looking for more time under water, Go West Diving offers both diving as well as snorkeling charters depending on your skill level and interest.
De Gouverneur lunch (Matthew Wexler)
Curaçao cuisine is a hodgepodge of global influences and it takes a bit of effort to discover regional dishes with authentic flair. And if you have any sense of urgency, forget about it. Friendly doesn't always translate to organized or efficient, but what's the rush? For local bites in Willemstad, De Gouverneur offers signature dishes in what was once the governor's mansion. Request terrace seating to enjoy the harbor views and Handelskade (the colorful buildings that line the waterfront). Keshi Yena is a house specialty—a concoction of stuffed cheese with chicken, prunes and baby onions.
For a more casual setting just steps away from the harbor, head to Marsche Bieuw, the old market food court, where you'll find locals and tourists alike heading to various stalls for heaping servings of stewed goat, locally caught Mahi Mahi, fried plantains, and pumpkin arepas for dessert. To spice things up, most vendors offer homemade or imported piccalilli—a vinegary-based relish that will cut through the fatty goodness of all that fried food.
As a fond farewell with epic views, head to Brakkeput Mei Mei, a former 18th century plantation that has been transformed into a massive dining and entertainment complex. Simply-prepared grilled fare pairs with nightly happenings, which range from miniature golf and salsa lessons to outdoor concerts.
Beachfront at Papagayo (via)
There are plenty of accommodations throughout the island but be strategic in terms of location. Despite Curaçao's modest size (approximately 40 miles from northwest to southeast), there's rarely a straight path anywhere and you're likely to get caught in traffic or switchbacks as you (or your driver) navigate the roads.
Opened in late 2014, ACOYA Hotel Suites & Villas is one of the island's newest properties and ideal for groups and families. Offering a range of 224 rooms, ACOYA is a quiet respite to enjoy the sun and take a dip in the gorgeous swimming pool (open 24/7) that overlooks a natural lake.
For a little more swank that forgoes "family-friendly" for "adults only," Papagayo Beach Hotel is a slick, sprawling property that overlooks Jan Thiel Bay. Request an ocean front room to take full advantage of the photo ops, and you'll be the Instagram-envy of your inner circle.
Travel was provided by the Curaçao Tourist Board.
Matthew Wexler is the national style and travel editor for EDGE Media Network and has contributed to more than 20 print and online media outlets. When not traveling, you can find him napping on the couch with his dog. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @roodeloo.