Disembarking our cruise ship at Curacao feels a bit like stepping into fairyland. Impossibly turquoise waters sparkle. Dutch-styled buildings in paint box colours bedazzle. And locals warmly welcome us with, 'Bon Bini.'
The elegant Queen Juliana Bridge leads us from the cruise ship terminal and straight to old town Willemstad.
Air-conditioned taxis whisk us within minutes, from the blistering terminal and across elegantly arched Queen Juliana Bridge, to Fort Amsterdam, right in the heart of old town Willemstad. Once guarding against enemy ships and pirates, this 1635 citadel still overlooks the harbour's entrance.
Front seats in the pink open-air Trolley Train seem perfect for our narrated city tour. Guide Rosa begins, "Though typical throughout Western Europe, here in the Caribbean Willemstad's colonial buildings are unique." Chugging on along Sha Caprilleskade, she points out wooden boats from Venezuela, 19-kilometers away. Docking together, they form the renowned Floating Market. "Vendors have sold fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, honey and cigars from their boats for decades, a trade handed down for generations." Street level stalls stretching along the block sport red, orange and yellow awnings.
Vendors from Venezuela have sold their goods at Willemstad's Floating Market for generation
Across the Queen Wilhelmina drawbridge, we visit a street of picturesque mansions built in Scharloo neighborhood during the1880s. Rosa recounts, "Surprisingly, all buildings were once just whitewashed, until one Governor complained about the blinding effects. As the story goes, he ordered multi-coloured exteriors…and so the paint company owner, became rich!"
Displaying bright red, orange and yellow awnings, street level market stalls are filled with produce, handicrafts and more.
Striking in pinks, yellows and blues trimmed with white, these restored homes exemplify Jewish prosperity. Many are surrounded by white wrought iron fences. Some feature gables; others, verandas with cascading scarlet bougainvillea, are considered to be good luck. A stop at the ornate green Wedding Cake House allows us a photo op at Willemstad's most photographed building, now home to Central Historical Archives. One classy red manor house has become the Venezuelan Embassy. And at the end of the street, a gold home with red-tiled roof is Curacao's Radio Hoyer.
Some homes are not yet refurbished. "Made with coral, rock and concrete containing sea sand, these early houses deteriorate easily and sometimes collapse due to leaching salts," Rosa explains. "And to keep their look fresh, they need painting every 6 months, plastering every 2 years. With upkeep so expensive, many owners abandoned them." The government now maintains these heritage buildings.
In a traffic circle on our way to the island's largest cathedral, we sight Simon Bolivar's imposing statue, a courageous man who lived in Curacao while working to liberate the region's Spanish colonies.
A stop at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary reveals a surprisingly austere, gold-ochre exterior. Inside, we find the cathedral to be bright and airy. And in one alcove, an artist from Guadeloupe used broken glass and recycled plastics to create a magnificent mosaic of Mary.
An alcove inside the Cathedral features a magnificent portrait of Mary, created from recyclables by an artist from Guadeloupe.
Passing by Mikve Israel Emanuel, we learn that it replaced an earlier synagogue in 1865 and was in continuous use until 1964. In colonial times, Sephardic Jews found religious freedom in Curacao, developing into a thriving community by the mid-17thcentury. Artifacts and icons illustrating their early lives and customs are exhibited at the Jewish Cultural Museum.
Willemstad's oldest Protestant church, Fortchurch stands inside Fort Amsterdam and is now a museum.
Sculptures, including charming statuary of other early settlers, decorate sidewalks along Willemstad's narrow, orderly shopping streets that face Santa Anna Bay. Ending back at Fort Amsterdam where we began, a stroll through the citadel's shaded courtyard reveals a historic Protestant Church, nowadays a museum. The current government offices are next door and the Governor's Palace sports a black mark high on the front wall. "That hole recalls a British cannonball fired in 1804 during a month long siege," Rosa says, smiling. "It memorializes our victory."
As our tour ends, some take taxis to the ship. We find our own way along a scenic 2-kilometer walk. Mingling with foot traffic, we cross the pedestrian-only, one-of-a-kind pontoon bridge linking Willemstad's two historic districts. Fondly nicknamed 'Swinging Old Lady,' Queen Emma Bridge opens many times daily to allow regular access to Willemstad, one of the world's busiest ports.
Looking back across the bay from the other side, we again admire wondrous 18th-century waterfront buildings, their reflections dancing in the pretty bay. After browsing among rows of waterside handicraft stalls, we amble on through early 19th-century Rif Fort. Today, little shops, bars and eateries surround this landmark's courtyard.
In one shop, we sample liqueurs tasting of oranges, in another, piquant cheeses. Armed with local blue Curacao, wheels of Gouda and chocolates for our homefolks, we cross a small park to rejoin shipmates aboard Carnival's Freedom.
With World Heritage status and Spanish, Dutch, British and Jewish heritage, Willemstad, proves an extraordinary southern Caribbean port, making Curacao a delightful destination for visitors.
IF YOU GO:
Find Caribbean itineraries at www.carnival.com
PHOTOS by Chris & Rick Millikan
1.The elegant Queen Juliana Bridge leads us from the cruise ship terminal and straight to old town Willemstad.
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