Dutch-style houses, Curacao

Curacao is a tangled plate of spaghetti western tossed down in the Caribbean Sea and garnished with a glob of Willemstad sophisti-sauce. The island's scrubby kunuku (countryside) is strewn with cacti, keening divi-divi trees and lizards looking glibly at diving weirdos with oxygen strapped to their backs.

In their national anthem, the people of Curacao sing of the island?s splendour. You will discover this splendour in romantic and secluded bays, the beautiful and protected scenic areas and the colourful and lively capital, Willemstad. Experience the many sports activities, the peace and quiet of the countryside and the lovely restored country estate houses. "Bon Bini!" Curacao warmly welcomes you.

Although Holland had already laid claim to Curacao in 1634 it wasn?t until 1814 that she received full sovereignty. Around 50 ethnic groups live on Curacao, a variety highlighted in Papiamento, the locally spoken mix of Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and native indian.

The Dutch established Fort Amsterdam in 1635 by building the Governor’s Palace and Church. This part of Willemstad is still known as Punda, after the name De Punt used in the early days. In Punda you can find typical Dutch shops with red roofs, gabled windows and white decorative stucco. The Penha House is certainly the most well known building in this Dutch style and today is a marvelous shopping centre.

Punda is the oldest part of the city, crowded with 17th- and 18th-century Dutch-style buildings. The 1732 Mikve Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest in the Americas. Its interior, including the original pipe organ and brass chandeliers, has been carefully preserved, and the floor is covered in footstep muffling sand. There’s an adjacent Jewish Cultural Museum.

Fort Amsterdam was once the center of town and now houses the main offices for the government of the Netherlands Antilles. You can see a cannonball lodged in the wall of the fort chapel, a memento of Captain Bligh’s 26-day siege in 1804. Also in Punda is the wonderful floating market (mercado flotante).

At the eastern end of Willemstad is the Sea Aquarium, where you can get a preview or a recap on the creatures of the deep. You can even dive or snorkel in this controlled environment if the sea seems a little frisky. Head west and across the channel to Otrobanda (’other side’). Otrabanda became Willemstad’s first suburb in the late 17th century, when lepers and convicts banished from Punda began moving here.

The area’s low-rise architecture is the result of an 18th century order not to obstruct Fort Amsterdam’s line of fire. Most of the city’s historic buildings are in Otrobanda, including the 1734 St Anna Basilica, the oldest in the Antilles. Otrabanda’s charm extends beyond its brochure-ready buildings. The maze of streets and lanes wiggling back from the waterfront are fun to wander - stores and houses run the gamut from pastel and spruce to crumbling and spooky.

The Curacao Museum in western Otrobanda is housed in a 19th-century sailors’ hospital. Displays include paintings by early-20th-century Dutch masters, a carillon and a menagerie of other musical instruments, and a hat-making diorama. There are also worthy exhibitions on the local Indian population and the geology of the ABC islands.

The Christoffel National Park, at the northwestern end of the island was pieced together in the 1970s from several former plantations. You can drive through much of it (choose between a 6 mile [9km] coastal route or the 8 mile [12km] mountain drive), but the best way to see the park is via its short trails through rogue stands of mahogany and past limestone terraces and Amerindian petroglyphs.

Connoisseurs of Baroque architecture can admire the landhuisen (land houses) of the old plantations, one of which houses the Savonet Museum, with exhibits on the island’s natural and human history. You can also hike to the top of 1240ft (370m) Mt Christoffel, which has a view of Bonaire on clear days.

The Curacao Underwater Marine Park consists of over 12 miles (20km) of coral reef off the southeastern coast. Divers can explore pristine coral and several wrecks, including a small tugboat covered in orange tube coral. The tug lies in less than 20ft (6m) of water, so even snorkelers can get an eyeful. A number of good dives are accessible from the shore - revheads can check out the Car Pile sunk right in front of the Princess Beach Hotel.

What makes Curacao a dream destination for sun lovers are the wonderful bays on the south and west coasts of the island. A good example is Playa Kalki, an idyllic sandy beach hidden between two huge limestone rocks. Another is Playa Abou, near the country house Knip. This magnificent sandy beach is a favourite with the locals.

Curacao has water sports for all tastes. With idyllic bays for swimming, and a varied rolling landscape, Curacao offers a variety of land and water sports activities. An abundant choice of leisure and entertainment attractions guarantee the visitor a stimulating vacation.

The south coast of the island is one of the most beautiful dive regions in the Caribbean. A hundred dive sites, and three underwater parks, are just waiting for you to discover. And the fascinating coral reef is also within effortless reach from land, making it an underwater paradise for the novice diver or snorkeller.

Even as close as the breakers, fish, sea urchins, corals and crustatians can be seen in their full splendour. For those who would prefer to observe the underwater world without getting wet, a trip to the famous Sea Aquarium is the perfect thing. And if you’re looking for that special kick, why not try feeding live sharks as a snorkeller or diver? There?s also a lot happening above water.

The sea breeze makes the coast of Curacao an El Dorado for wind surfers. Due to the northeast Passat wind, sailors always have wind in their sails. Spanish Lagoon is where you?ll find the islands’ sailing centre. Whoever has a sailing licence can rent a boat here. If you only want to sail along you can also do so. For those who enjoy sports fishing there are the inshore waters of Curacao.

In the protected waters of the bays you can fish for tarp and snook as well as ladyfish, barracuda and horse-eyejack fish. But not only water sports lovers can enjoy themselves on Curacao. The Curacao Sportsclub has 18 tennis courts, where everyone gets to swing. And golfers who come to The Curacao Golf and Squash Club really get their money?s worth.