Curacao
Awe-Inspiring Scenery, Amiable People

Text and photography BY TOM & THERISA STACK

During our last evening, as Therisa and I watched the tropical sun immerse itself in the Caribbean, we knew the unique and varied sensations of Curacao would remain etched in our memories. Crystalline waters, profuse marine life, awe-inspiring shipwrecks and amiable people are but a few of the reasons for you to sample firsthand, as we did, the overlooked 'C' of the ABC Antillean Islands! At Mushroom Forest, mountainous Star Coral heads stud the underwater landscape in a riot of colors and texture. Continuously emerging from the edge of 100 foot plus visibility, these immense mushroom shaped coral formations and their diversity of marine inhabitants will captivate you for the duration of your dive. Save some air, though, for the best is yet to come! At the end of your dive enter the shallow, safe and broad entrance of the mystifying Mushroom Forest Cave, etched deeply into the shoreline. Here, amid flowing schools of Silversides, your dive light will illuminate vast colonies of Orange Cup Corals and other invertebrates. The enormous entrance and daylight is always visible, making this an experience even beginning divers will never forget.

We had admired many shipwrecks over the years but the Tugboat is one of a kind. Lying on a ledge in a scant 15 feet of water surrounded by a variety of corals, she was a readily accessible photo backdrop. Aptly named, she was in reality an old pilot boat festooned with colorful corals and sponges. Equally astounding was the sheer vertical wall only a few fin kicks away, making her an ideal way to finish a wall dive while doing a safety stop. It became a difficult challenge not to expend all of our film and energy on the spectacular wall, knowing that the classy little Tugboat awaited us on our ascent. We dived her countless times during our week in Curacao and each time she took on a new appearance as the ambient light of the shallows played over her decks at different times of the day. Even our surface intervals at Tugboat were a feast for our eyesNazure water, ruins of the Customs House perched high above on a cliff, guarded by a crumbling fortress nearby. These were among many constant reminders that bore mute testimony to Curacao's colorful and varied history. Tugboat left wonderfully indelible impressions in our mental dive logs, as did the beautiful island and people of Curacao.

Curacao is the largest of the Netherlands Antilles Islands, 35 miles north of the Venezuelan coast and only 12 degrees north of the equator.

Easily reached by a three hour flight from Miami via ALM Antillean Airlines, Curacao is an enticing destination. Thirty-eight miles long and averaging four miles in width, it is arid, with cactus cloaked, gently rolling hills. Impressive St. Christoffelberg peak towers 1,230 feet within Christoffel Park at the west end of the island. With an average year-round air temperature of 82 degrees F and visibility commonly exceeding 100 feet, Curacao ranks among the best dive destinations in the Caribbean.

Ships flying many different flags have plied these waters over the centuries. Originally claimed by Vespucci for Spain in 1499, Curacao was later abandoned to the Dutch West India Company. Dutch, and a multitude of other European immigrants, settled here to pursue an economy based on merchant trade. In the 17th century, a group of Jewish merchants brought their families from Holland to Curacao and, as a result, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is on the island. While the British controlled the island briefly, Curacao otherwise remained under control of the Netherlands until 1954.

Autonomous now, she still retains close ties to the Netherlands. The architecture displays its Dutch heritage while adorned with the pastel shades of the Caribbean. The people of Curacao are a delightful potpourri of Dutch, African, Spanish and nearly every other race and nationality imaginable. Stroll along the waterfront of Willemstad or hop aboard the small ferry to explore the colorful Otrobanda district and you will hear the native tongue of Papiamento weave a tapestry of melodious sounds in the air. A thriving economy built on a strong infrastructure has relegated tourism to a minor role. Thus Curacao has been passed over by American divers until only recently. The exciting development of new dive operations by knowledgeable and caring professionals, enveloped by warm waters saturated with marine life, should place Curacao squarely at the top of your list of Must Dive destinations.

Caribbean Sea Sports is a new and energetic dive operation run by Tom Zeck at the fantastic Sonesta Beach Resort and Casino complex. Tom possesses an unbridled excitement about the ocean and its inhabitants. This contagious enthusiasm has spread among his staff and divemasters. Smiles and upbeat attitudes are prevalent on the new jet drive Pro 42 dive boat. Thoughtfulness abounds from a full stern sunshade canvas and fresh fruit between dives to the helping hands of captain and crew aiding you back aboard the boat.

Dive sites are very diverse, offering a wide range of excitement to meet every level of dive expertise. Playa Largo and Bachelor Beach feature magnificent coral heads in shallow, calm water surrounded by pristine white sand. Tropical fish abound, delighting both the snorkeler and beginning diver alike. Porto Marie boasts a unique double reef system that begins in only 30 feet of water. A beautiful sand valley offers a place to kneel, relax and observe before continuing to the deeper reef beginning at 70 feet and sloping on past 100.

Advanced divers will be totally awed by the wreck of the Superior Producer, a 250 foot long freighter resting upright in 100 feet of clear water. Blanketed with sponges and brilliant Tubastrea Cup Corals she is an underwater photographer's dream studio, providing endless macro opportunities or backdrops for diver/wreck photography. Most intriguing is the Hook's Head night drift dive. Entering the calm waters from the beach at sunset, divers drift slowly along the top of the slope at 30 feet, with the reef on the right and the open Caribbean on the left. As the prolific ecosystems undergo the transition from day to night, dive lights illuminate Squirrelfish, eels and lobster emerging from their daytime hideouts. Parrotfish secrete their protective mucous cocoons. Flashing a dive light into the depths on your left you spy silvery pelagics swimming along the deep sloping reef face. Ending your dive down the coast at Hook's Head Bar you enjoy a drink while recounting your unforgettable experiences.

Sonesta Beach Resort is a AAA Four Diamond Resort boasting 248 luxurious rooms, three fine restaurants and more than 5,000 square feet of meeting and conference rooms. This stunning new resort caters to family groups and offers a Just For Kids' program for children from toddlers to age 12. An on-site business center features fax and copy machines as well as computer/modem ports. Groups of up to 150 divers can be supported in comfort. The breathtaking Casino offers gaming action for waterlogged divers who seek a diversion.

Farther east on the island is Lion's Dive Hotel and Underwater Curacao. A PADI Five Star IDC Dive Center with two 40 foot boats, Lion's Dive has been catering to divers from around the world for more than nine years. Truly an international dive resort, PADI IDC training is offered in five languages. Lion's Dive adheres to the highest standards of diving education and safety. Factory authorized service and repair for both Mares and Sherwood equipment is available on site. Private dive lockers are dockside with 24 hour service. Managers and directors Jan van Beurden and Jac Heeren stress that flexibility to meet divers' expectations and needs is of utmost importance at this well thought out resort. Even though you book your dive package and accommodations in advance, you may change your day scheduling and departure times. Jan and Jac are especially proud to provide handicapped divers with comfortable access to everything from the beach, restaurant and pool to the dive boats.

Seventy-two ocean view rooms with a distinctively Dutch feel are located amidst lush landscaping, providing you with what Jan and Jac term a barefoot elegance.' The Dutch Royal Family often chooses to stay and dive with Lion's Dive. Guests are offered free entrance to the new Seaquarium next door, featuring above and below the water encounters with fish, sharks and rays.

Dive sites are numerous and mind-bending, with steep slopes and walls festooned with marine life and fish. At Lost Anchor you follow immense, encrusted chain links down the slope into the depths. Divers can see an abundance of large Purple Tube Sponges here, where visibility usually exceeds 100 feet. The best educated guess is there is no anchor at the end of the chain, rather the chain was historically strung across the bay to prevent galleons from entering.

Remote East End is boat accessible only and Lion's Dive has permission to enter these otherwise private waters. Here you can sample some really virgin diving and hopefully encounter large pelagics. A special day trip is often made to Klein Curacao on request. A rugged, uninhabited island three miles off Curacao's eastern coast, Klein Curacao features precipitous cliffs, sheer vertical walls, numerous pelagics, turtles, dolphins and sharks. Overnight campouts to the island are also available for those who want additional time to experience the best in high-voltage dive adventure.

Habitat Curacao is closest to Mushroom Forest and the incomparable Mushroom Forest Cave, mentioned in the beginning of this article.

Princess Divers at Princess Beach Resort & Casino is another Peter Hughes accomplishment and PADI Five Star Facility offering the only nitrox certification on the island. Manager Lex Kleine and his staff are seemingly possessed with never ending smiles and positive attitudes. Divemasters Alan, Gunnar and Elvis readily share their intimate knowledge of dive sites such as Old Pier, where Therisa opted to go on an underwater photo-macro safari. The interplay of light streaming through the encrusted pier pilings was like being in a cathedral of stained glass windows.

Our nitrox dive on the nearby wreck of the Superior Producer afforded us enough additional bottom time at 90 feet to swim and photograph the entire length of this elegant shipwreck. Princess Divers also offers day trips to the pristine, world-class dive sites at Klein Curacao and East Point where you may be awarded a unique opportunity to encounter sharks, dolphins and turtles.

Princess Beach Resort offers varied live entertainment, great restaurants and multi-hued sunsets. If you're not quite up to utilizing their fitness center, you can always try limbo dancing.

For more information on Curacao, please contact Caradonna Caribbean Tours, (800) 328-2288, (407) 774-9000, fax (407) 682-6000 or send e-mail to sales@caradonna.com. You can also visit the Web site at www.caradonna. com.