WILLEMSTAD, Curacao - The owner of Jaanchie's takes a seat at my table. He is a compact man in his 60s who wears spectacles and a white guayabera and recites the entire menu rather than hand out a printed one. He is listing seafood when I interrupt to say I hear he makes a mean iguana soup.

He raises his eyebrows and asks whether I am traveling alone. Yes, I am.

He shakes his head. "I don't know if I can recommend the soup for you," he says gravely. "At night, you know. . . ." He pauses, then coyly lets me know that on Curacao, iguana is considered an aphrodisiac.

I order it anyway, along with an entree of goat stew. The iguana soup tastes exactly like chicken soup. But one bit of meat with tiny bones arrayed just like those on the spine of an iguana's back suggests that the chunks of iguana are real.

The reptile is common on this arid island in the Netherland Antilles, between Aruba and Bonaire, 40 miles north of Venezuela. Curacao became an independent country on Oct. 10, autonomous from the Dutch.

Thirty-eight miles long, about nine miles across at its widest point, the strip of desert in the middle of the ocean is studded with volcanic rock, limestone cliffs, a dozen kinds of cactus, and the divi-divi tree, whose branches point west in the direction of the wind.

Most beaches are rocky rather than sandy; people come here to dive in the clear blue water rather than to sun next to it. Curacao's reefs have more than 50 species of coral and hundreds of species of fish, with dozens of dive sites. But I'm not a diver; I'm here to see what's on dry land.

The island is an intriguing intersection of cultures. The location is more Latin than Caribbean, the culture more Dutch. Curacao's ethnic mix includes Arawak Indians, who migrated from South America; the Dutch, who took over the island in the 17th century and made it a center of the slave trade, accounting for its African residents; Jews from Spain and Portugal who fled the Inquisition; Venezuelans, whose crude oil is refined here; and descendants of settlers from Spain, Britain and France, who at various times occupied the island or fought the Dutch for it.

The official language is Dutch, but many people speak English, Spanish, or a Creole language called Papiamentu. The official currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder, but everyone from taxi drivers to street vendors accepts my American dollars without hesitation.

Poverty and affluence are side by side as well, even in the touristy part of town along the harbor, where the cruise ships dock. A prettily painted house sits next to one that is boarded up, a sheet of corrugated tin tearing loose from the roof.

To get my bearings, I take a three-hour tour by PeterTrips. Three of us are from the United States, the other four from the Netherlands.

From a hilltop south of this capital city, our tour guide points out Spanish Waters, the bay where Spanish galleons once put in.

At nearby Caracas Bay, we climb deteriorating stone steps to Fort Beekenburg, where Curacao was defended from pirates and French and English invaders in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bloblo lizards skitter through the cacti, and a little land crab raises its claws as if to resist this invasion by tourists.

At Fort Nassau, where thick walls house one of Curacao's pricier restaurants, we get a spectacular view of the Schottegat lagoon. We see the Isla oil refinery, the Queen Juliana Bridge, and a tugboat accompanying a freighter into Santa Anna Bay, the deepwater channel that divides Willemstad.

The Dutch West India Co. turned Willemstad into a center of trade in the late 1600s, and the harbor remains its economic heart. The port handles not only cruise ships but also tankers headed to the refinery, which is operated by the Venezuelan state oil company.

Willemstad grew up on the south side of Santa Anna Bay, in an area called Punda. Here I find the Jewish quarter and synagogue, the oldest in the Caribbean; the Maritime Museum, housed in the former Hotel Venezuela; and stores selling Dutch linens, European watches, and blue-and-white Delft porcelain.

At the Old Market, people sit at long, communal tables and eat baked whole snapper, fried plantains, goat stew, a polenta-like dish called funchi, and the other traditional local foods.

At the Floating Market here, boats line the canal and fishermen lay out their catch for shoppers. On the sidewalk, produce stalls are stacked high with tropical fruits and vegetables brought from Venezuela. The vendors live on these little boats.

The waterfront street, the Handelskade, is lined with Dutch Colonial-style buildings painted in bright colors. This strip, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the iconic picture of Curacao.

According to local lore, the buildings were originally painted white. When the governor got a migraine and his physician blamed the glare reflecting off the stark white buildings, the governor ordered them paintedin colors. As the story goes, it later turned out that the doctor owned stock in the paint company.

It's early December, just before the start of the high season, when crowds are small and good hotel deals are available, but some tourist attractions are closed or open only a day or two a week. Two activities I had looked forward to, a jeep tour of Christoffel National Park and a cooking class at Angelica's Kitchen, aren't available.

On the afternoon I arrive, I settle at an outdoor table along the Handelskade for a late lunch and people-watching. The menu is a mishmash of Dutch, English and Spanish. The only words I have figured out are broodje, which means sandwich, and tosti, a grilled sandwich. The menu lists an "old cheese" sandwich, which turns out to be Gouda.

From my waterfront seat, I watch the swinging pedestrian bridge open for boat traffic, teens doing skateboard tricks on the opposite side of the water, a guard screening visitors to the casino at Howard Johnson, and Holland America passengers waving as the cruise ship departs.

Across the bay is Otrobanda, the "other side." Here Jacob Gelt Dekker, a Dutch entrepreneur, renovated Dutch colonial houses from the 18th and 19th centuries and turned them into the Kura Hulanda, the resort where I am staying. Mornings, I have coffee and yogurt in the courtyard, then wander through the complex, examining the sculpture. In addition to the 80-room hotel, the complex has several restaurants, shops, a spa, a casino, and a museum.

The museum displays the art and history of Africa, focusing on the slave trade. There are piles of leg and hand irons, irons that fit around the head and neck, sketches of torture inflicted on runaway slaves, and drawings depicting lynchings. By the time I reach the stairs that descend into a model of the hold of a slave ship, I am too tearful to continue.

Punda and Otrobanda are connected by two bridges. The Queen Emma is a pontoon bridge for pedestrians. When a small boat wants to enter the harbor, the bridge swings open perhaps 15 degrees, leaving a gap between the end of the bridge and the Punda side, just wide enough for the boat to squeeze through.

But when a freighter or cruise ship approaches, the bridge operator steers the Punda end of the bridge 90 degrees to the opposite shore so that it's snug against the Otrobanda side, leaving plenty of room for the ship to pass.

The other bridge, the Queen Juliana, is narrow and 185 feet high - enough for cruise ships to pass under. It is from this bridge that I leave Otrobanda to tour the island in my rental car.

I chose this day to drive around the island because three cruise ships are scheduled to dock in Willemstad. Two days earlier, I visited the Senior Curacao distillery, sampling the island's namesake liqueur. After buses carrying passengers from two cruise ships arrived, I had to elbow my way through the crowd of people edging their way toward the trays of samples lined up in tiny cafecito cups.

The road that circles Curacao is an easy day trip, and I've planned several stops, including Christoffel National Park, Jaanchie's for lunch, and the salt flats.

The temperature is in the low 80s, and the sun is fierce, so the park ranger recommends against trying to climb Mount Christoffel, which at more than 1,200 feet is the highest point on the island. Instead, she suggests the loop road on the east side of the park and points out some short walks. The first is an easy climb to a plateau with a panoramic view of Mount Christoffel on one side, the ocean on the other. I strain my eyes in hopes of seeing Bonaire, but there's no sign of any land.

After another short drive, I follow a foot trail to caves with Indian drawings. Crude brick-colored drawings mark the entrance to one cave; other marks look like contemporary graffiti.

Jaanchie's, a tourist attraction in itself, is near the northern tip of the island. Bird feeders hang near the restaurant entrance, and I watch orange-breasted trupials and bare-eyed pigeons flitting from branch to feeder.

Near the center of the island,at the salinas, or salt ponds, I pause at a small monument honoring "freedom fighters" in the slave rebellion of 1795. Slaves produced the salt, and it was here that the heads of the rebellion's leaders were displayed on stakes.

Today the salt ponds are a sanctuary for a flock of flamingos. About a dozen are feeding, dipping their beaks in the shallow water.

The flamingos migrated from Bonaire in the mid-1980s. They are like so much of Curacao's population, drawn here from their roots.

Captivating Curacao

American Airlines flies to Willemstad from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $688.

Places to stay

Hotel Kura Hulanda

Otrobanda

1-877-264-3106

Renovated Dutch Colonial buildings clustered around a village square. Its sister property, Lodge Kura Hulanda, is at the western end of the island and caters to divers and snorkelers. Both are members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Rooms at either start at $135 through Dec. 23; holiday rates from $360 in Otrabanda, $350 at the lodge; from $170 after Jan. 2.

Avila Hotel

1-800-747-8162

A boutique-style hotel with 150 rooms on a private beach east of the harbor. The hotel is built around an 18th-century Dutch Colonial-style mansion, with three newer wings. Doubles from $240; from $280 after Wednesday.

Hyatt Regency Curacao

011 599 9 840 1234

A 350-room resort with spa, tennis courts, marina, and 18-hole championship golf course set between the Caribbean Sea and Spanish Water Bay. Opened eight months ago. Rooms from $149.

Renaissance Curacao Resort

& Casino

Otrobanda

011-599 9 4355000

Built at the historic Rif Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site at the harbor; 237 rooms; private beach. Rooms from $161 until Dec. 22; holiday rates of $337; from $253 after Jan. 1.

More information

Curacao Tourist Board

1-800-328-7222

- Marjie Lambert

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