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Trip Report Curacao Trip Report - Feb 2010

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After a 1 year hiatus my wife and I had our eyes set on Curacao to celebrate and drink our sorrows away for both having reached the big 4-0 just recently. We chose Curacao for its guaranteed hot weather (in February), good beaches, and good food and drink.

In summary we had enjoyed our time there – it was hot-hot everyday, the rental was very relaxing, and all around good food and drink. That said, the inner beach bum in us was not entirely satisfied in our latest island adventure because of their dirty beaches. We had learned that for us, ultimately beaches do come first, and what Curacao offered was not among the best that we had seen in the Caribbean.

Here is the link to our album on Webshots:

http://community.webshots.com/user/foodiechan

Travel and Navigation

We redeemed 50k Delta skymiles for one of us, and purchased an extra ticket for $480. Since Delta only operates one Saturday flight to and from Curacao, it made for an automatic Saturday to Saturday visit, which is just about perfect for us. We flew out of LGA on a brutal 8am flight, then a stopover in Atlanta, before our arrival at around 3pm in Curacao. Both flights were okay, be mindful that they now charge you for food, so pack a donut or sandwich before you board.

Since we weren't sure how tough the security screening has become since the Christmas bomber, we chose not to pack any steaks or other meats for the trip. As it turns out both immigration and customs at Curacao airport were a breeze. The airport was quite new and well maintained. Modern by Caribbean standards. That said our bags turned up on a different carousel than that was announced! Well welcome to the islands I said to myself…..

We reserved a car with Avis on-line, and their pick up was at the terminal. On our way to the Avis booth we had our first Amstel Bright. NICE. We rented this dinky Kia with manual transmission (since we both drive a stick we opted for the least expensive option). The process was a breeze and the car costed us about $250 for the entire week. Always remember to print a copy of your confirmation to ensure that you are charged the rates that you were quoted for (I've heard disputes had happened before). Avis gave out a great road map for the island which was adequate for our travels.

Driving on the island is easy; road signs are adequate. Once you are outside of Williamsted the capital travel consolidates to just a few main roads so it is almost impossible to get lost. Do keep in mind that gas stations are scarce once you are out of Williamsted (in fact I had not seen one as we drove around Wespunt) so fill up before you leave town. We did a fair amount of driving and had used may be a tank and a half of gas. We guestimated that it would cost us about 70 Guilders to fill up the car.

With the help from our rental agent we were able to stop by a local supermarket (California supermarket) to pick up supplies (and of course beer) on our way to the Westpunt. There also was an ATM machine in the same complex, which dispenses both US dollars or Guilders. Took 300 guilders out, which turned out to be about 1.79 Guilders to a dollar, which I thought was pretty good.

Quarters

We ended up renting Lucy's Place, a rental overlooking a beautiful ocean inlet/lagoon in the town of Santa Marta 25 minutes from Williamsted on the west side of the island. Since we were unable to locate any reviews for the place it was a bit of a gamble for us because we liked to thoroughly "vet" our quarters. As it turns out it was one of the better rentals in our experience. Its porch overlooks a beautiful lagoon/ocean inlet, and since its west facing we enjoy beautiful sunsets every evening.

Katja the agent greeted us at the rental. The rental has two nice sized bedrooms with their own private bathrooms. There are a/c units in each room, as well as a central unit for the living/kitchen areas. Although the days can be quite hot, we found it very comfortable just keeping the two ceiling fans on low in the living/kitchen areas for pretty much the entire day. We do keep the a/c on at night in our bedroom just to keep the mosquitos at bay.

The rental is nicely appointed, with good tools in the kitchen. Since we cook a decent amount that is really important to us. One observation: their pantry is pretty bare. Other than sugar and coffee, there isn't any kind of spices. We did pack some cooking spices for the trip so it wasn't that much of an inconvenience for us. Speaking of inconvenience, the fridge did not work the first night, which means no cold beer! We called the rental and they dispatched a repair guy that morning (it was Sunday). Afterwards it took may be 24 hours for the fridge to get real cold again. That said I think the unit they had were underpowered because it couldn't keep up with our ice consumption. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that cost of electricity is expensive on the island. In fact for the rental Katja mentioned that at check out she will give the meter another read to gauge power consumption as there will be an extra charge if we are over certain allotted usage.

In the "neighborhood" was the former Sunset Waters resort. We were told that the property went bankrupt recently, so the "use privileges" for the resort that we got from the rental were useless. There is another row of rentals on the road that leads down to the resort. At night we felt private but safe at the same time. Soto is the closest town - they are doing roadwork there currently - and other than a convenient store there's not much to write home about.

The water from the tap in Curacao was good to drink, and we had no issues drinking their tap for the entire week. The house phone at the rental needs a specific, prepaid phone card to operate - basically the card reloads the phone with credits (instructions are in the house binder). There's WiFi at the house and Direct TV. I was able to hook up Peg's iPhone to their router, and that became our only lifeline for the week, as my Verizon Blackberry got no signal on that part of the island. I was able to make calls and get text messages while in Williamsted, but never got my company e-mail to work. Well it was my vacay so I wasn't too worried.

Beaches

Curacao's beaches has what I now coined as a bi-polar personality: the waters were some of the bluest, most pristine that we had seen in our island travels. Yet, they are laden with debris (trash) due to over-usage by both tourists and locals. Case in point: when the locals go picnic on the beach on the weekend I had noticed that some had brought with them a broom, to sweep away the debris left by people before them. As we discover the various beaches, the shady areas by the trees, or under a shaded picnic table really could use a sweep.

Their "playas" are more like coves, and frequently flanked by a rocky outcrop on each side. And since most of them are south facing you get calm waters. We saw lots of kids swimming and playing. The sand could be softer, as most beaches were awashed with coral debris. If you are a beachcomber like us, there are good news and bad news. The good, you could find plenty of interesting coral pieces, and we were so happy to pick up many pieces of clear and brown sea glass! The bad would be the lack of intact seashells. The abundance of people does dampen our excitement a little because we prefer quiet coves with a much smaller human imprint. Note: some beaches do charge an entrance fee, usually a few Guilders and a few more if you want to rent a beach chair.

Most beaches we visited were busy with locals on the weekends, as well as with a predominantly Dutch tourist base during the week. Seems like Curacao is popular with families with little kids because of their calm waters. As with many other European-oriented destinations in the Caribbean we expected and saw many smokers, and not to mention the one-size-too-small Speedos for men!

Here are the summaries of some of our favorites:

Portomari. This beach requires an entrance fee and has a restaurant/bar on site, which makes it a popular spot for tourists. We got there early and claimed a spot to the far end of the beach. The stretch of sand is narrow, and laden with coral debris, but the water there was simply bar none. At knee deep depth there's already a plethora of little tropical fish swimming around you. There's a snorkling trail on the left side of the beach near the little pier. There's really not much coral to see but they had sunken these hollowed out bouys that served as artificial reefs. The result is an abundance of schools of fish congregating near these bouys. Very pretty indeed. The most memorable was when I saw this chick donning a vintage 1980s bikini, straight out of Miami Vice. Check her out in our photo album.

Big and Small Knip. The Knips don't require an entrance fee, and is a popular spot for locals. Both have amazing blue water. There is a "bar" that sells beer on snacks on Big Knip. We spent a lot of time here because its close to our rental. On the weekends they have a vendor that sells local snacks - we had this bag of fried bean fritters which were awesome. Go early if you want to get some additional privacy.

Fort Royal is located near Westpunt on the most western part of the island. There is a restaurant that overlooks the beach, which is small, with no shade, and with brown volcanic sand. It is a popular spot for cliff jumping and we witnessed a few fearless souls doing just that. It was quite entertaining while Peg and I downed our Polars.

Seaquarium is located off a row of hotels to the east of Williamsted, which is on the opposite side of the island from where we stayed. We went there on Sunday evening for their famous party. Access to the beach, unless you stay at one of the hotels, would require an entrance fee. We went in through the Mambo beach club, and club music was already pumping before the sun sets. Picked up two Amstel Brights and we started roaming. I reckon that this stretch of sand is trying to be hip like South Beach. Lounge chairs everywhere, hip looking restaurants, the whole works. But the physical beach is narrow, so the whole set up seemed compressed and I can already foresee how people would pack them in like sardines during the day. What caught my eye was that there were empty beer bottles everywhere.....where's the trashman?

If you liked the clubby environment the Mambo Beach Club would be a nice stop. Open air, and on that Sunday night we saw young locals and tourists alike, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and having a good time. With our clubbing days behind us, we walked over to Hemingway's for a drink instead. We sipped Mai Tais and Blue Hawiians while enjoying some live salsa with a cigar in hand. Heavenly. We left the bar in search for food after the sunsets - at Hemingway's I believe they had a buffet, which was not our thing. And subsequent stops at the Cabana Club etc just weren't tickling us on the right spot (more on food later). As we departed we concluded that it was a wise move for us not to book along hotel row here.

Santa Cruz is on the larger side, and has a dive shop/bar on the rock outcrop to the left. You could rent a kayak from them and go visit the legendary blue room (?), but since weather weren't very good that day we didn't venture out. The beach is more quiet, which suits us, but again, over used and under-maintained, debris everywhere. Another observation was that the water was not as blue as in other beaches. Well good enough to polish off those final chapters of my book.

Lagun is an interesting little cove with services. We also made a stop at Jeremi, which was highly recommended by Fodor. It was a small, quite cove, but awashed with coral debris, and really no sandy patch to show for. Playa Kalki was similar to that of Jeremi, very rocky and narrow. The Kura Hulanda Lodge's restaurant is right by the beach at Kalki which could be a lovely spot for lunch. At where the former Sunset Waters there a rocky beach protected by a breakwater. Some locals would go there and have a picnic by the dock there and fish. We had a walk down there one afternoon and found the background setting of a deserted resort with broken windows and debris just seemed a little too eerie.

Williamsted

We were in Williamsted on two occasions. The night upon our arrival, and then a day excursion in the middle of the week. We drove down into town after we settled in at Lucy's Place in search of a place to eat. We parked on the Otrobanda side and walked across the pontoon. The buildings in Punda were lit up beautifully, and there was live music at the open air cafe by the water, which is a popular spot for tourists. It was later in the evening and most of the shops were already closed so there wasn't much to see. We ended up walking back over to Otrobanda to get a bite. At night it was a nice, comfortable walk, and never felt unsafe.

Midway through our stay we decided on a day trip to town to check out some sites. It was very hot that day which made walking around a bit more strenuous. We took a lot of pictures of the historic buildings, the synagogue, and the colorful architecture. As we venture near the fruit market we saw this line of people coming out of this local joint called Plaza Bieu. As it turned out it houses a number of local food vendors, and we had an amazing lunch experience there (please see below). After lunch we walked around and took more pictures, but it was simply too hot. We felt much better after picking up a daiquari and an Amstel Bright by the outdoor cafe along the water.

One stunning image that caught our attention as we drive in and out of Williamsted was the dramatic presence of “industry.” You will see smoke stacks on the back of an otherwise paradise-like landscape. We reminded ourselves that after all, the foundation of Curacao’s economy is oil, and not tourism.

Food and Drink

We find drink prices reasonable in Curacao. We preferred Polar over Amstel Bright because of cost, and we don't think the quality is any different. Do try Amstel Lager (not light) when you are there, that's the real McCoy. Cost of meals are good and not overly expensive, even at a classy place like Landhaus Daniel. Their grocery stores, especially those close to Williamsted, are well stocked (they do sell liquor and beer). Quality of produce is good as well. If you prefer wine they do have some ok Chilean, and main stream American brands like Gallo.

Since we had a full kitchen at the rental we had cooked in a number of evenings (and not to mention the Winter Olympics was on). We made some jerk chicken from local frozen chickens. Since the chicken thawed during our first evening there while the fridge was down it might have turned bad. Instead we picked up some Dutch sausage and a pack of pre-marinated chicken satays and fired up the grill at home. The satays were actually pretty good. Okay back to restaurant reviews.

Jaanchie's - we tried to have lunch on a Sunday, which was a terrible decision on our part because they were overwhelmed! We sat, listened to this Cubano salsa band for a little, but left because we received no service. We tried again on a week day, and was glad that we made the effort to return. Jaanchie himself is the host, cashier, and walking menu. He offered plenty of fresh fish options - snapper, grouper, mahi mahi, wahoo, and barracuda? Since I never had barracuda before I ordered that, and my wife had the grouper, and I requested a side of goat stew. They offer three sauces for our entrees - tartare, mayo, and onion sauce. Entrees come in these modest three compartment metal platters, with a starch (usually rice and beans) and a small salad flanking the protein in the middle. Good food. My barracuda was meaty, but just right because it was pan fried and topped with his creole sauce. The stew has this unusual sweetness and when I asked Jaanchie what he used for his sweetening agent, to my surprise instead of brown sugar or molasses, he used coconut. Another cooking secret learned!

Landhuis Daniel - this was our last fancy meal on the island and had enjoyed the food there. We arrived near dusk and witnessed a large group of bats hovering around the trees, as if they were welcoming us. Sat down and a few sips of Polar later Peg decided to start with the Dutch Mussels (recommended by a previous forum post), and I took the gamble to get a 3 item combo, chef’s choice. I ended up having a trio of Seafood Bisque, Rabbit liver pate, and a fish tempura. All were expertly done, and I especially enjoyed the pate. Peg’s mussels were also very good with a tasty butter sauce. For entrees Peg opted for the Grouper, and I took the Rabbit Stew. The mains came with steamed veggies and roasted potatoes. Everything were quite delicious. Service there also was prompt and polite – one of the better run operations that we had experienced in the islands. Meal was around USD 80. Pretty good value.

Seaside Terrace – this place we pick up from a review I believe that was in the rental. We spotted the joint on our way out of Seaquarium beach, at which point we were both starving. So we pulled up. Seating was all al fresco, with the kitchen inside a converted container. Service was a bit slow that night because they were overwhelmed with tourists, but no problem, we just ordered another round of Polars. The food did take a while to come out – we were informed in the middle of the wait that the snapper dish that Peg ordered was out, so she switched to grouper. Then moments later we were told that they ran out of rice and beans too. Strike two. So we switched to fries. The manager did manage to get us one order of the rice and beans after all. Our food was fairly good all around. Her grouper was not too dry and my mahi mahi not too tough. Again a nice creole sauce adorns the fish. The fries, for some odd reason had this slight metallic flavor to it, may be it’s the strain of spuds? The manager was apologetic and nice. USD 60ish, very reasonable.

Gouverneur de Rouville – this is where we had our first meal after we arrived at Curacao. It was meant for tourists and the menu reflects such. Our two fish specials – one is a stew and the other “fried” weren’t that spectacular, and I questioned why there would be chunks of Salmon in it if its all “local fish.” The vibe at the restaurant was nice; we ate at the bar, and the bartender was working hard and running around before he finally got to us. Cool guy from Surinam and we talked about local food and culture. That said, I won’t recommend eating here, but as a drink stop it was worth it. Nice views.

Plaza Bieu – that was the gem of our visit, as we are fanatics of local food. In there are large communal dining tables, serviced by a handful of local food vendors. We struck gold! Each vendor serves a slightly different menu, and we settled on one that had whole pan fried snappers. We got one order of the fish (two smaller but meaty snappers), which comes with rice and beans, two Polars, and that was like 25 Guilders. Then we had an amazing goat stew from this vendor (marked with a heartshaped "Love" sign on the exhaust fan on top). This time we requested they serve the stew with "funchi" which is very much similar to a tamale or polenta. Delicious with the stew sauce. With 2 Polars, 30 guilders. That’s the best 50 guilders that we spent on the entire trip. It is also noteworthy that each place had their own recipe of onion sauce which is a mixture of diced onions, chilis, and vinegar.

Had we had more time we would have loved to go to one of those Indonesain rice plates.

Final Thoughts

We enjoy our stay in Curacao. Lucy’s Place was a great rental and we got some good R&R out of the stay. The people and the food was above our expectations, and we got what we wanted weather-wise, it was hot hot hot throughout our stay. Ultimately the beaches were too important to us, and Curacao did not score high in our minds. I think the government should invest more resources to maintain this national treasure.

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