CURACAO - The Jones family never likes a vacation to come to an end, especially when work has squeezed it to a mere five days. So, unsurprisingly, we arrived at the very last minute at Halo International Airport in Curacao for our sadly premature flight home. Returning our car, filled with sand and shells imported by two beach-happy kids, had required lengthy, fee-avoiding apologies to a frowning Budget agent.
We were flying Dutch Antilles Express (855-509-2550, flydae.com) to Miami, an airline selected primarily for its singular embrace of an archaic phrase in the fee-loving airline industry: Kids Fly Free. Thus, four of us - yes, all four of us - had gone from Miami to Curacao and back for $593.40. That is not a typographical error. Four people. Taxes included. I pride myself on my airline fare mastery, but this was a truly spectacular deal. Free food and booze, too. (The kids-fly-free deal is on till Dec. 15. After that, the kids' fare is half the adult fare. The airline would not say if the free fare will be reinstituted for summer 2013.)
"We've already closed the flight," said the man by the desk. "Hope you can reopen it," I said, secretly hoping he couldn't and we would be stuck for another day. "I guess," he said. "I do own the airline."
Well, whaddayaknow? Try meeting the owner when you fly United Airlines. Here was the perfect end to a fabulous trip for an airline geek - who found time for lots of questions about aircraft dry leases, wet leases, and, my personal favorite, damp leases, not to mention the changing travel situation in and out of Venezuela, just 40 miles south of this very airport. Our host answered them all with a smile.
"Don't forget," he added. "We love kids at Dutch Antilles Express." When you make 'em free, I thought, that love is talkin', baby.
Say you are headed to Curacao for your summer vacation, and you'll get three typical questions. Where's that? Isn't it hot? Why?
Let's deal with them in order. Curacao is a small island of 171 square miles in the far southern Caribbean. It was formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles. After the dissolving of that entity in 2010, it became an independent country, albeit still closely tied to the Netherlands. Its landscape is strikingly arid and cactus-friendly; closer, really, to Arizona than to Jamaica or the rain forest. Almost all its people, be they professionals or supermarket shelf-stockers, seem to speak four languages: English, Dutch, Spanish, and the Creole-like local tongue known as Papiamentu. The beaches are good, not great, if you crave sand and eye candy. If you're here for the fish, they're fantastic.
Sure it's hot in Curacao in summer - this is a vacation, after all - but actually cooler than many other North American locales. Its near-perfect climate changes hardly at all - mid-80s during the day, mid-70s at night. And, crucially, for late-summer and fall travelers, the location just off South America means hurricanes here are rare.
Why? Like so much of the Caribbean, Curacao is a bargain in summer. We stayed at the quiet Hilton Curacao (011-599-9-462-5000, hiltoncuracaoresort.com), a beautiful (yet unpretentious) hotel with two private beaches, infinity pools, a minigolf course, tennis courts, watersports, outdoor bars, restaurants aplenty, a huge fitness center, lush gardens, and even a small and somewhat tawdry casino. The room rate for all four of us was a mere $109 a night.
The hotel upgraded us to lounge access, so each morning we breakfasted on the hotel and each night we sat on the balcony and drank Venezuelan beer, which is very good, and watched the sun set over the little mountain in our view.
The good people at Hilton International did not, I fear, make much of a profit. They can do that in the winter.
Aside from lower costs, summering in Curacao also offers a genuinely exotic international experience. One blissful afternoon, we all sat in a little cafe in the charming Dutch colonial capital of Willemstad, drinking beer again (some of us had root beer) while watching the famous Queen Emma pontoon bridge swing back and forth (it's really more of a boat than a bridge) as a plethora of Venezuelan vessels and Venezuelan characters came and went, all while the European Championship soccer matches played on a TV above our heads. The sun was warm; the surroundings a blend of Amsterdam and, say, Panama; the atmosphere both entrancing and relaxed. This was, I think, the happiest I've been in forever.
A close second was the morning we all saw a sea horse. Curacao is one of the world's great snorkeling destinations. Though you have to be careful with kids and the current (one morning, my 9-year-old panicked in the water, leading to a few scary moments), you don't need a boat to see fish.
With our rented car, we parked, waded out, and snorkeled for hours at Playa Lagun, a beautiful beach surrounded by rocky cliffs and filled with trunkfish, those fabulously chunky tropical fish resembling nothing so much as windup bath toys. We snorkeled some more at Playa Porto Mari, where Dutch and local toddlers wearing snorkels were sticking their heads in the water together, gurgling at the fish, and we skipped the touristy Jan Thiel Beach in favor of a neighboring stretch of sand, where our boys jumped off rocks in what seemed like an impromptu weekend diving clinic, visitors welcome.
Curacao has few of the pests - be they human, insect, or climatological - associated with other Caribbean islands. Nobody peddles illegal drugs - not to us anyway. No all-inclusive bacchanals mar the landscape (there is, however, a legal brothel somewhere on the island, which went untested, even though Tuesday is ladies' night).
The filthy rich seem to flock elsewhere. Dutch tourists are, compared with some notorious nationalities, unobtrusive. Those in the service industry on this island go about their business with a low-key friendliness, even as they shame all visitors linguistically.
And in summer and early fall, the pesky cruise ships that crowd the island in winter are all in Alaska. Brrr.
Oh, and did I mention the airline?