Some tourists are eager to turn a blind eye to the social or political situation of a destination as long as the beaches are clean and drinks plentiful. But for more and more of us, even when we’re escaping stressful city lives to vacation on a tropical island, we want more than just beautiful beaches and a welcoming scene. We’re also looking for a deep-rooted history of social significance.
You can find that and more on the southern Caribbean island of Curaçao (pronounced “KEWR-e-sow”), where stories of pain, victory, love, and activism run heavy and seep deep into the soil. While the Dutch island is autonomous, or self-governed, it remains part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is one of the sea’s most prized treasures.
While English and Spanish languages are widely spoken and taught in local schools, the official languages are Dutch and Papiamentu — a unique Portuguese-based creole language infused with Spanish, English, and African dialects, created by inhabitants around the 17th century to converse without white settlers understanding them.
At the height of the slave trade, Curaçao was a hub for the Dutch West India Company’s human trafficking. Ships carrying kidnapped Africans on their way to the Americas stopped here for traders to pick out slaves and transport them to the different regions of the New World for resale. Many of the local inhabitants are descendants from those left behind, who — after a failed slave revolt in 1795 — eventually gained their freedom and the right to self-govern after the Dutch abolished slavery in 1863.
This history is etched in many of Curaçao’s well-respected museums, including Museum Kurá Hulanda, located at Sonesta Kurá Hulanda Village (KuraHulanda.com), a charming village-like boutique hotel with cobblestone pathways and two majestic pools straight out of a postcard. Monuments are also subtly displayed throughout the island, remembering the lives the country was built upon.
While gay rights are moving slowly in the Caribbean, social acceptance has grown tremendously in Curaçao within the last few years. Though same-sex weddings can’t be performed, it is a Dutch island and local sentiment has Westernized. In fact, since 2012, the island has welcomed Pride celebrations to the capital city of Willemstad — a colorful storybook town home to the largest natural harbor in the Caribbean, Schottegat.
Just before my visit, rainbow flags flew above the iconic Queen Emma Bridge, leading to the equally iconic Floating Market, which boasts local artisans as well as people selling goods on boats hailing from Venezuela and other regions. By law, these foreign venders are not allowed to leave the dock or else they risk arrest for trespassing, but their presence welcomes a bustling train of tourists.
If you’re staying in Willemstad, Luke’s Bar (LukesCocktailBar.com) is a must-stop for a night cap. Their unique cocktails are made with fruits special to the region. In the morning, stroll over to the chic Saint Tropez for a breathtaking water view and a wide array of breakfast options, including one of the best smoked salmon omelets I’ve ever had (the sexy cabana boys who served them added to the ambiance).
You can’t leave Curaçao without touring the world famous Curaçao liqueur distillery, Landhuis Chobolobo (CuracaoLiqueur.com), the only place in the world making the famous concoction. You’ll see (most of) how it’s made, but they keep secret ingredients under lock and key — literally.
Once you get your taste of Willemstad, you’ll want to take a car a to Curaçao’s edge, a couple of hours drive. Stop by Toko Williwood (Williburger.club) to snack on an epic goat burger while watching flamingos. One of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed in, Oasis Coral Estate Beach, Dive Wellness Resort, has glorious Caribbean ocean views, a pool, and restaurant on the sand that will make you feel like a high roller for surprisingly little money. Don’t forget to book a snorkeling excursion. The affable instructors at Go West (GoWestDiving.com) will charter you to the distant caves for underwater exploring. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into a creep of tortoises. Located close by is Trio Penotti, an underrated outdoor cafe with a trailblazing cook named Chef Taco, who makes unique original cuisines — including the Thai Peanut and Banana soup, which was shockingly good (I had two servings). The best way to end your visit is where you started: on the beach (Playa Knip is a local favorite with crystal blue waters great for snorkeling).