Things to Do in Curacao
||Hot throughout the year, but tempered by cooling trade winds. The main rainy season is from October to December. The hottest months are August thru November (90°F, 32°C), the year round average is 77°F, 25°C. The driest months are May and June.
Curaçao's beaches may be nubbled with coral or strewn with imported grains and the local liqueur a first rate gut-rot, but it more than makes up for these niggles with high comfort levels, guaranteed balminess and a friendliness that constantly threatens to bubble over into a party.
The island's scrubby landscape is strewn with cacti, keening divi-divi trees and lizards looking glibly at diving weirdos with oxygen strapped to their backs. The capital, Willemstad, manages to be both dinky and grand while serving up the food, shopping and slickness of a town much less manageable.
Temperature is not an issue when planning a trip to sunny, dry Curaçao, since the average year-round daily high is 82°F (28°C) and constant trade winds keep humidity low. If rain falls, it's usually in November or December. The island lies below the hurricane belt, so there's usually no need to worry about being blown away while on vacation. If you're planning on diving, the most popular sites are at their calmest between September and December. If partying is more your scene, Carnival (February) is a great time to visit, but book early and expect higher prices.
As with most of the Caribbean, the peak tourist season is between December and April, but this has more to do with the weather in North America and Europe than it does with the weather on Curaçao. It's therefore best to visit outside this period, when tourists are thin on the ground and room rates tend to be 30-50% less than those charged during the busier months.
Carnival is Curaçao's biggest event, held every February before Lent. People dressed in wild outfits gather in the Otrobanda district of Willemstad and then shake their way through the streets for three leg-jellying days, stopping here and there to eat, drink and dance to the music of hundreds of competing bands. On Easter Monday the Great Seú March celebrates traditional culture in song, dance and costume. Curaçao's long-standing Caribbean Jazz Fest, held for two days every October, is a slightly mellower event that brings international jazz musicians to Willemstad.
Curaçaons do celebrate Christmas, but the big gift-giving day is Sint Nicolaas Day on 6 December. Sint Nicolaas is a Dutch Santa Claus figure who arrives in Willemstad's St Anna Bay in late November in a boat laden with candy and gifts for the kiddies. On the eve of Sint Nicolaas Day, children leave a bucket of water and a shoe plugged with hay and carrots for the horse-borne saint. Well-behaved littlies wake up to find their shoes filled with goodies.
In late December, there's a chaotic end of year regatta shmatta from St Barbara to St Anna Bay on Curaçao's southern coast. Competitors can enter with any sort of sailing craft, meaning wily windsurfers try to outgun sleek ocean-going sailboats.
Forget the squat resorts muscling each other along the coast and don't be put off by the disjointed shambles of badly signed roads: Willemstad is gorgeous. The capital of the Netherlands Antilles and one of a select number of urban areas on UNESCO's World Heritage List, it's divided in two by capacious St Anna Bay, the largest harbour in the Caribbean. Punda, to the east, and Otrobanda, to the west, are connected by a quaint pontoon bridge known as the Swinging Old Lady - she cocks a leg for boats.
Punda is the oldest part of the city, crowded with 17th- and 18th-century Dutch-style buildings. The 1732 Mikvé 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 centre 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). Vendors make the sea trip from Venezuela every morning with fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood - the stalls aren't actually floating, but they're close enough to the water to justify the name.
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. The Riffort, a defensive post on the entrance to the sea, has been used as a telegraph station, radio station, desalination plant, WWII officers' digs, scout hall and is now partly occupied by a ritzy restaurant.
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. Also, much of the advertising and store signage is hand painted, giving the streets perky, individual characters.
The Curaçao 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 (hats were a source of income for many women up until WWI). There are also worthy exhibitions on the local Indian population and the geology of the ABC islands.
Christoffel National Park
This large 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 the coastal route or the 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 Mt Christoffel, which has a view of Bonaire on clear days.
Entry to the park is steep, so it's worth getting up early and making a day trip of it. All the park trails are accessible by 2WD except a rugged offshoot of the mountain routes. If you don't want to drive, the Westpunt bus from Otrabanda will drop you at the park entrance, where there's an information centre and a number of trailheads.
Curaçao Underwater Marine Park
The Underwater Park consists of over 20km (12mi) 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 shallow water, so even snorkellers 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. Those who want to get farther afield can hook up with one of numerous boat operators running daytrips to remote sites. All sites within the park are marked with buoys, and the park is at its calmest between autumn and early winter.