WILLEMSTAD, Curaçao - It looks like Amsterdam - and a little bit like South Beach in Miami.
With its waterfront and colonial buildings in fairy-tale pastels, Willemstad shares some similarities with the Dutch city - and with South Florida. But Willemstad is very Caribbean.
It became a Dutch trading center in 1634 because of its natural harbor, one of the prettiest in the Caribbean.
A long channel, Sint Sannabaai, divides the Punda (the point) area on the east bank and the Otrobanda (the other side) neighborhood on the west bank.
The Punda's waterfront is the iconic image of Curaçao, featuring buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, with Dutch gables and red-tiled roofs. They are painted blue, pink, citrus yellow, pistachio, and other pastel colors.
The buildings got their paint job in 1817 after a governor reportedly got migraines from the sun hitting the then-white surfaces. The governor also had investments in a paint company, according to local legend.
The whole neighborhood is a World Heritage Site, with more than 750 buildings that have been declared monuments. The port is easy to explore on foot.
A floating 700-foot-long pedestrian bridge links the Punda and the Otrobanda. The wood-decked Queen Emma Bridge swings to the side to let ships enter the harbor. Ferries connect the two sides of the harbor until the bridge swings back.
Curaçao (pronounced kur-a-SOW) is a diverse and multicultural crossroads in the southern Caribbean with an ethnically mixed population representing 50 countries. The sophisticated island has 38 small stunning beaches, world-class diving and snorkeling, brand-name hotels, casinos, nighttime partying, and restaurants.
The generally flat, rocky island is also known for its oil refineries, lizards, stray goats, aloe vera plantations, and ostrich farms.
It was a Dutch territory until 2010, when it became a self-governing country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
This industrialized island does not rely on tourism like other Caribbean islands. But it is popular with Europeans and is being discovered by Americans. It even produces its own citrus liquor: Curaçao of Curaçao. It comes from the peel of the laraha citrus fruit.
With its sister islands Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is off the beaten path for most Americans. The island is 38 miles long and 9 miles wide with a population of 140,000. It lies 35 miles north of Venezuela.
The average temperature is 82 degrees and the island features 360 days of sunshine a year, gentle trade winds, water temperatures from 75 to 82 degrees and little chance of hurricanes. It gets 23 inches of rain per year.
The only difference between winter and summer is that sunset occurs 15 minutes earlier in the winter.
The island is flat and arid, a sort of Arizona-by-the-sea. It is dominated by 20-foot-tall cacti and wind-shaped divi-divi trees. The north side of the island is rocky, with strong waves.
The south-side beaches, known locally as bocas or playas, feature silky white sand and unbelievably clear water. The beaches generally aren't big and are found in secluded coves and bays. That is very different from nearby Aruba with its miles-long beaches. Many of Curaçao's south-side beaches are rocky, and beach shoes may be advised.
The island features more than 50 species of coral and hundreds of species of fish. Reefs here are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean.
It has strong ties to the Netherlands - in its history, food, architecture and lifestyle.
The official languages are Dutch and Creole-like Papiamentu (a combination of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and African dialect), but English and Spanish are widely spoken.
It was discovered by the Spanish in 1499, but they dubbed Curaçao the isla inutil - "useless island" - after they failed to find any gold. The English and French once staked claims.
At one time, half of the white population of Curaçao was Jewish. Jews from Spain and Portugal fled to Holland to avoid the Inquisition in the 15th century, and many later moved to Curaçao. They were joined by Jews from Brazil and Mexico.
The yellow Mikve Israel Emanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas, founded in 1732. It is in the Punda neighborhood with its narrow alleys and first-rate shopping. Next door is the Jewish Historical and Cultural Museum, and nearby is a colorful floating market where vendors arrive daily by boat from South America to sell fish, vegetables and more.
One of the most interesting sites on the island is Hotel Kura Hulanda on the Otrobanda side of the harbor that features a $6 million museum focused on slavery.
Curaçao was the center of the Caribbean slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. More than 500,000 slaves from Africa were shipped through Curaçao en route to other destinations.
The African History Museum, where a slave yard once stood, fills 15 buildings and occupies more than 16,000 square feet of space with artifacts and displays. The museum is backed by Dutch philanthropist Jacob Gelt Dekker. It is another World Heritage Site.
Curaçao is also home to eight old Dutch forts and plantations, sitting on hilltops in the countryside, where peanuts and corn were raised.
Fort Amsterdam was built in 1635. It now houses government offices in Willemstad.
Rugged Christoffel National Park covers 4,600 acres on the island's northwest end. It features the island's highest spot, Mount Christoffel at 1,220 feet, and three former plantations. There are 20 miles of trails and caves with Indian drawings.
The Curaçao Sea Aquarium on the southeast coast is a popular attraction with 400 species of fish, corals, and sponges. Divers and snorkelers love the coral reefs in the 12-mile-long Curaçao Underwater Park on the southeast coast.