In two days, cartographers will need to update their maps of the Caribbean. On Sunday, October 10 (that is, 10/10/10), the Netherlands Antilles will be dissolved. Curaçao and St. Maarten will become autonomous countries (still under the Dutch crown), while Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire will be rezoned as Dutch principalities. It’s an exciting time to visit Curaçao, a tiny island that—though popular with well-behaved travelers from Europe and South America—is under the radar of most Americans.
Unless they’re on a cruise, that is. Curaçao’s capital, Willemstad, is a popular port of call for several cruise companies. It’s certainly a charming little city, with an old town area and colorful waterfront designated a World Heritage Site in 1997. But it’s the rest of the island that deserves your consideration—particularly if you think you’ve seen everything the Caribbean has to offer. Curaçao is pretty affluent, but still chill and welcoming. It's vibrant, but laidback. You order a Heineken from a Dutch-speaking bartender—not a Corona from a Margaritaville dropout. You befriend fellow travelers from Amsterdam, Berlin and Buenos Aires—not New Jersey. No offense, of course. I'm from New Jersey.
My wife and I spent two weeks on Curaçao in May. Normally, we wouldn’t spend two weeks in a single place. Not to mention such a small place—Curaçao occupies just 141 square miles in the southern Caribbean, and a significant portion of that is privately owned, undeveloped and off-limits. But we’d heard so many good things that we decided to dig in.
We spent our first night at the Renaissance Curacao Resort & Casino, a mid-range Marriott whose grounds include the shops and restaurants of Rif Fort plus their truly impressive “infinity beach.” (That’s an infinity pool with an artificial beachfront, as seen above.) Then we bounced around for a few nights, wisely choosing the impeccable Hotel Kura Hulanda in Willemstad’s Otrabanda neighborhood and its sister property, Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club, further afield near Westpunt. (That's the view from our room, at the top.) We were also early guests at the Hyatt Regency Curaçao, which had recently opened. Most of our trip was spent in the outstanding Avila, something of a grande dame hotel.
With its new status, Curaçao will be politically equal to Aruba, its neighbor to the west that seceded from the Dutch Antilles in 1986. But that’s where the similarities end. Aruba is known for its massive resorts and timeshares. Curaçao, on the other hand, has just a few resorts, and they’re ganged together along Seaquarium Beach. Development is tightly controlled: building height is restricted, most of the beaches are public and carefully maintained, and no one’s begging the international hotel chains to break new ground. It’s refreshing to see a Caribbean island—or any popular destination, for that matter—take itself, its culture and its land so seriously.
Everything may change after Sunday, of course. New officials must be elected, and Curaçao will be responsible for balancing its own checkbook. But after speaking with several government officials in May, I’m uncharacteristically optimistic.
Jeff Koyen is the Deputy Online Editor of Travel + Leisure.