Winter's onset has many of us thinking of the tropics. Palm trees, white sand beaches, and turquoise waters do wonders for the weary soul. But after a few days, we're itching for a diversion for our sun-baked skin.
Our latest discovery for a destination with beauty and brains is Curaçao. During a Caribbean cruise years ago, we never ventured beyond the port of Willemstad and its duty-free shopping. But a recent stay on the island revealed a long and colorful history, along with plenty of culture to keep things interesting.
Willemstad is built around a natural deep-water harbor that has made Curaçao, an island that lies outside the hurricane belt, a major trading port for 500 years. Over the centuries, the native Arawak population witnessed invasion and immigration by Spanish and Dutch explorers, French and English colonists, Portuguese Jews displaced by the Inquisition, and slaves forcibly brought from Africa.
The resulting cultural stew provides an architectural mix of historic buildings, including the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western hemisphere, with a congregation established in 1651. Particularly intriguing is the Kura Hulanda Museum. A series of historic buildings clustered around a former slave yard, it chronicles the plight of slaves and their quest for freedom.
Shete Boka National Park on the north shore, where the sea pounds limestone bluffs with dramatic sprays, showcases the island's unique geology. A series of cliff paths and caverns allow would-be adventurers to channel their inner Jack Sparrow.
Curaçaoans are multilingual, speaking English, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiamentu, a local dialect that blends all of the island's influences. This mixed culture also serves up a varied cuisine, such as keshi yena, a chicken stew cooked in the rind of a Gouda cheese, and batidos, fresh fruit milk shakes that borrow a bit from Cuba.
The best part of this nature, heritage, and culture is that it's never more than a few hundred yards from palm trees, turquoise waters, and shopping. Curaçao is easily reached from Philadelphia via connecting flights through Miami or Charlotte, and definitely offers more than just a cruise port of call.