December 14, 2011
Curacao: The Best Gay Destination in the Caribbean. Period
Steve Weinstein READ TIME: 15 MIN.
You feel it as soon as you disembark from the plane -- or, if you're really lucky, from a gay cruise. Curacao, the small semi-independent island in the Southern Caribbean, is different.
For one thing, this is not a tourist trap. You're not going to see miles of beaches despoiled by giant chain hotels. The hotels in Curacao lean toward the small, out of the way and intimate. Many are guesthouses or a group of bungalows. There is only hotel that is larger than a few stories.
Secondly, this is a real, live nation. Although tourism is a huge part of the local economy, the people here do real work. There is a real, viable economy. The capital and main (pretty much only) city, Willemstad, has industry. The port is a major center for oil rigs. There are some small industries scattered about as well. People do real work. They make things.
This is a good thing. It means that people aren't out to fleece you. On the contrary, they are hard working. It also means that when you are shopping or looking for that out-of-the-way restaurant or searching for native goods, you're going to find the real thing -- not "Made in China" ersatz junk, or American-style cuisine in island drag.
Despite its small size, Curacao is virtually a micro-continent. The landscape varies from the metropolis of Willemstad to the unspoiled and largely unpopulated coves, beaches and parklands to the north. ("North" and "south" are relative terms here, as the island stretches southwest to northeast.)
The people are a reflection of the country's ancient and amazing history.
Varied History, People - & Language
As with most of the region, the Spanish were the original owners, displacing the native tribe. The next to arrive were the Dutch, who named their capital after William of Orange (who ended up king of England, co-ruling with his wife Mary). The huge natural harbor quickly became a center of trade, especially slaves. (More of that below.)
Curacao lies several miles off the northern coast of Venezuela -- close enough so that every day, skiffs take Venezuelan farmers to Willemstad's open-air market to sell their produce. (And more of that below.) The South American influence is also thus felt heavily in the local people.
The island changed hands between the British and French -- yet more cultural influences -- before finally ending up with the Dutch. Until 2010, the island was part of the Netherlands Antilles, a group of island that once included Aruba and Bonaire and St. Maarten. On the day known there as "10/10/10," Curacao became semi-independent, although it still maintains ties to the Netherlands.
The people reflect the multifarious history. Racially, they range from the many Dutch who continue to arrive to take advantage of the fabulous weather, job opportunities and easygoing atmosphere. In addition, there are people from elsewhere in the European Union, especially Dutch-speaking northern Belgium.
Many people speak English, especially those involved with the tourist trade. But the lingua franca is Papiamentu. Like the cuisine, culture and everything else here, this is a stewpot of nations. Although the basis is pigeon Dutch, it borrows from heavily from Spanish, with a bit of English and bits of French, native languages and African dialects brought over by the slaves.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Curacao's polyglot and multi-ethnic history is that it is by far the most successfully racially integrated culture I have ever experienced. The people here are truly colorblind. This may be, in fact, the world's first "post-racial" society. I never saw any kind of prejudice against anyone because of ethnicity, nor heard of any, while I was there. Everyone speaks Papiamentu -- there is no snobbery about a local language.
Profoundly Gay Friendly
One of the most notable aspects of Curacao is how gay-friendly it is. Unfortunately, the Caribbean has become better known as one of the worst hotbeds of international homophobia. We've all heard stories about the gay cruises facing Evangelical crowds screaming to get back on the boat at various ports-of-call. We've all read the horror stories about police backing up vigilantes beating and setting afire gay men.
When the first Atlantis cruise ship arrived in Willemstad, I was told that there was, indeed, a demonstration. Only this time, it was to welcome the boat. Apparently, practically the whole city shut down and had a huge party, complete with fireworks.
I went to Curacao during September to experience a gay party weekend that brought foreigners and natives together in a sort of mini-Circuit Party weekend.
The festivities began with a drag show in a suburb of Willemstadt. Now, I've been to more than my share of drag shows. But I have never seen anything like this. For one thing, the families of most of the participants showed up to cheer them on. Take that, "RuPaul's Drag Show" contestants!
Secondly, the show went way beyond the Liza-Gaga spectrum. There were plenty of English-language dance songs, but also some Spanish and even a Papiamentu number that brought down the house. Talk about energetic. The contest was held in a crowded hall that was packed to the rafters -- literally -- with family, friends, tourists, gay men, straight couples and everything in between. Of all the drag shows I've ever attended, this was easily not only the most enjoyable but also the most comfortable.
After that, my posse proceeded to a pirate-themed dance party on a boat in one of Willemstadt's harbor's estuaries. The music was good, the crowd better: a mix of Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans, people who traveled from other Caribbean islands and locals.
One note: As stated above, most people in any way associated with the hospitality industry speak English language. But if you go off the beaten track, there's a good chance you may not find English speakers. Also, although Curacao is increasingly becoming a popular destination for American travelers, especially since its location is outside of hurricane paths and its southerly position keeps it warmer longer, American tourists are far outnumbered by Europeans.
Personally, I loved this. But if you're the kind of person who is only secure among our own kind and don't like to step outside your personal box ... you have been warned.
A History of Religious Tolerance
I arrived in Curacao from Miami, although it's worth noting that there are also flights from Newark, N.J.
One of the first things we did upon landing was take the requisite walking tour of Willemstad. And the highlight of that tour was the ancient synagogue.
Sitting in the heart of the Central Shopping District, this is actually one of two synagogues in town. Curacao was one of the first places in the New World to welcome Jews and that allowed them to practice their religion. This may be the only place where Jews, in fact, never faced social or official prejudice. Jews became major politicians, as well as businessmen.
Congregation Mikve Israsel Emanual was founded in 1732. The synagogue is famous for its sand floors. The beautiful inlaid wood of the pews, chandeliers and preacher's pulpit stand out especially well in contrast to the rustic floor. I returned to visit the small museum attached to the synagogue and was treated not only to a history of how entrenched the Sephardic (Spanish-origination) Jews were here, but also a capsule glance of elegant Curacao society through the ages.
A History of Slavery
A sharp contrast to the tolerance demonstrated by the synagogue was the Kura Hulanda Museum, dedicated to preserving the memory of slavery in the New World.
Rather than shun its past as a major slave-trading port, the people here have embraced this legacy as a part of their history. Slavery brought many Africans here, along with their customs, which are commemorated and celebrated here.
My guide herself was the granddaughter of slaves, and she sat at their feet listening to stories, which gave the tour a special resonance.
There is much to be ashamed of here, certainly. You can see the instruments of "punishment" (torture, really), robes of Klan-type groups, recreations of the miserable existence of plantation slaves. But there are also beautiful artifacts from Africa and local recreations of African culture.
The museum, which is inside the Kura Hulanda Resort complex, is well worth a visit. Give yourself the better part of afternoon.
First of all, everyone accepts the Yankee dollar. I was very occasionally paid in change in the local currency, but that was unusual and was the equivalent of pennies.
I would give the better part of half a day to shop in the central area of Willemstad. Many of the stores are of the types that one can find in most cities these days with familiar brands But there are some items worth searching for.
Be sure to visit the open-air floating market that stretches along one side of the Da Ruyterkade. You can reach it via the Queen Emma pontoon bridge that connects the two areas of Willemstad, Punda and Otrobanda. There's also a free ferry that crosses periodically.
The market features produce from nearby Venezuela that beggars anything you're going to find in an American supermarket. Also worth trying: the local homemade treats, thick fudge and sweet hard candies made by hand. One local specialty is a praline-type concoction made with lots of coconut. Sweet and delicious.
There are also some very cool native crafts that reflect the island's various origins, especially African. I ventured off to the side streets and found some pharmacies that sold great aloe products (more of that below!).
Yes, Blue Curacao Is Made Here
Going to Curacao without a trip to the Mansion Chobolobo is like visiting Napa Valley without going to a vintner.
This is the site of Blue Curacao Liqueur Factory. There is a mini-museum that explains how this most interesting of liqueurs evolved. The island isn't conducive to most agriculture (which explains all those boats bringing produce from Venezuela on the mainland). One enterprising Spanish colonist tried to grow Valencia oranges, but they were hard and bitter -- so much so that even the goats couldn't down them.
Then, through one of those fortuitous discoveries that mark the history of distilled spirits, someone discovered that, mixed with sugar, the peel of these local plants could be turned into a distinctive-tasting beverage. A Jewish family perfected the process, and, given the blue coloring --�voila! --�Blue Curacao was born.
What I didn't know until I visited the distillery was that the "blue" variety was only one of several. Taking advantage of the very, very low "direct from the factory" prices, I loaded up on Chocolate, Coffee, Rum, Raisin and, of course, Blue. I confess that almost all of them are now gone, but they remain a beautiful memory. Oh, and I should add that many of these flavors are not available widely, if at all, in the United States.
One very important caveat: There are other distilleries that market "Blue Curacao" but they are not actually distilled on the island. Look for the distinctively shaped bottle and the words "The Genuine Senior (flavor) Curacao."
When ATV Really Means All Terrain
When it's time to get out and explore much of the island around Willemstad, the most fun way to do has to be via Eric's ATV Adventures. Located on the outskirts of town, this funky depot for all-terrain vehicles will outfit you with your own ATV, helmet and instructions. What you bring is some courage and clothes upon which you don't mind having mud splattered.
My group took a long trip through an amazing range of terrain that ranged from modest suburbs to the tallest hill on the island, to a mud flat around a series of estuaries.
What was most impressive, however, had to be an isolated farm where aloe and ostriches were raised. The juxtaposition of these two products pretty well signifies the multitude of paradoxes that sum up Curacao. The farm came with a store, where I stocked up on aloe-based moisturizer, a scrub and body cleanse. Great stuff, stuffed with pure, fresh-off-the-farm aloe, at prices that one can only dream of in New York ($6 for the most delicious body scrub that, two years on, still has plenty left.)
The highlight of my trip to Curacao had to be a trip to the relatively uninhabited northwestern part of the island. Here, there are a series of lagoons and coves where the sky-blue waters of the Caribbean reflect off dramatic cliffs carved from millions of years of erosion.
We traveled to Blue Cove, which is ruled over by a middle-aged (but in great shape!) sea salt of Dutch extraction, most recently married to a native. With children and dogs scurrying underfoot, we put on our snorkeling gear and planted ourselves in a small boat.
Unfortunately, the waters were considered too rough that day, but I was not going to waste my Caribbean adventure, so I plunged into the water and swam back to shore.
The views from the boat, however, were wondrous. The captain knew every inch of the seawall and explained some of the history (every inch of Curacao is loaded with hundreds of years of events). The photo here shows some of the cannon left over from one or another of the occupations.
This whole part of the island is dotted with coves, inlets and estuaries, many of them deserted or nearly so. If you are in a car, don't be afraid to go off the main road and explore.
Where to Stay: The Renaissance
The Renaissance Curacao is located in Willemstad, across the bridge from major shopping but steps away from a historic fort and some other interesting sites. It has its own private beach overlooking the Caribbean with all of the amenities. There is also a rather tony shopping area adjacent to the hotel.
The rooms are spacious and modern. But the main attraction may be the Rif Fort, which has essentially been incorporated into the hotel. This 19th century fort was used during the Second World War as an important station to intercept and send radio messages to the allies.
There are several restaurants located within the complex serving a variety of cuisines.
Where to Stay: The Avila Hotel
Close to Willemstad, the Avila Hotel is a historic inn built around a Dutch Colonial style mansion. The hotel once served as the residence of the governor of the island while it was under the British, and later the Dutch. The suites are generous and modern, however.
Of note is an attached museum (in this island of history, every major building, it seems, boasts its own museum), this one dedicated to the famous liberator of Venezuela, Simon Bolivar. Arriving penniless in exile with his sisters, a local Jewish merchant provided the sisters with this dwelling (Bolivar lived further into Willemstad).
The rooms have fabulous views of the Caribbean, and the semi-private beach is isolated enough so that you can feel relaxed while communing with the past --�or just enjoying the present.
Where to Stay: Boase
As a jaded traveler, I'm happy to admit that the Boase knocked me off my feet. This series of private villas is one of those "must be seen to be believed" hotels and only seem to exist in places like the Caribbean or Mediterranean.
Each villa is uniquely designed, with luxurious touches like private water scaring down stairwells, waterfalls, ancient art, rope ladders ... as I said, must be said to be believed. Room rates can soar into the four figures, but start at $350 -- quite moderate for this level of luxury.
Where to Stay: Kura Hulanda
Probably the best-known resort on the island is the Kura Hulanda. This complex is a series of bungalow-type cottages around a central courtyard, with other courtyards, pools and alcoves. It's like a mini-city within Willemstad. Beyond its walls, it feels separate from the rest of the world, an oasis of calm.
The resort also hosts the slave museum described above. (This island has so many layers of history, it seems you can't toss a Frisbee without hitting a museum.)
Each room at the Kura Hulanda is distinct, reflecting the buildings' own pasts. The rooms are enormous and excellently appointed, as are the baths.
There is a sister hotel in the northern, rougher, area of the island. Guests at the city lodge can take a shuttle to the more (relatively; nothing is really far away in Curacao) isolated lodge to enjoy its spectacular beach.
Where to Eat
As befits its heritage, the food of Curacao is a melding of many different cultures. In fact, it would be unfair to say that there even is "a" Curacao cuisine, just as you couldn't say there's an "American" cuisine.
Fish, of course, is an integral part of any restaurant meal. The catch is literally fresh off the boat. The most popular local dish are the stews which have their origin in Africa, but with local ingredients, such as cactus and papaya. Goat is popular and chicken, two meat sources grown on the island.
Having eaten in several restaurants on the island, I can testify that, like San Francisco or New Orleans, you'd have to look to find a bad meal.
Moon (shown) had a gorgeous setting. We ate in the open air, just steps away from the Caribbean. The food is as elegantly presented as the site itself. This is well worth a visit.
For lunch, the Restaurant Governeur provided a Cook's Tour of local dishes, such as "keshi yeni," a stuffed cheese with chicken and prunes; a three-fish stew in a cream sauce; and "karni stoba," the classic local beef stew.
My most memorable meal, however, was taken in the rural part of the island. It was a Sunday, and people were streaming in from church. The cavernous restaurant served only local dishes, and the servers didn't speak English. But the warmth and genuine friendliness of the servers and other patrons gave me a sense that I was "home."
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).