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  • Plaza Hotel and Toucan Divers

    Curacao's Dynamic Duo Creates Vacation Magic

    Text and Photography by Walt Stearns, Sep. 1997

    I have never had much of a passion for shore diving; climbing over rocks, negotiating the surf while dragging a camera, making a long swim out to the site. Then I discovered shore diving off Curacao, which is incredibly easy. Wade out a few feet from shore (through nearly nonexistent surf) and you are on the threshold of reefs that bristle with colorful life.

    At just such a site off the quiet little bay of Porto Marie, the water makes a quick transition from translucent shallows, with a tinge of light green, to a rich sapphire blue. The top of the reef begins about 28 feet from the surface and cascades to more than 200 feet. Between 60 and 130 feet, numerous collections of red and brown wire corals and several species of sponges, including large Purple Tube and Orange Elephant Ear, seemed to be everywhere on the slope's steep contours.

    Because of the abundance of sites such as this, easily accessible from shore, Curacao's dive centers provide shore diving services. One of these is Toucan Diving, above the lobby on the first floor of the Plaza Hotel Curacao on the St. Anna Bay waterfront.

    The Plaza Hotel was built atop the partial ruins of 17th century Fort Amsterdam, which guards the entrance to St. Anna Bay in the port city of Willemstad. Its accommodations are top notch. With 235 rooms, amenities include air-conditioning, color TV, telephones and large, comfortable beds. The resort's 18 luxury suites and single Royal Suite also have a sitting room with a small balcony. The reception and information desk is in the spacious ground floor main lobby, which has a number of shops, including a hair salon and day care center; the casino is next door. Sharing the floor with Toucan Diving is one of the resort's two restaurants, the Waterfort (the second is on the penthouse level) and a pool.

    In addition to having a retail center and rental department well stocked with the latest equipment from both TUSA and Scubapro, Toucan Diving is also Curacao's leading Instructor Dive Development (IDD) affiliate. IDD is the largest certifying agency in Europe. Toucan is also offers PADI certification. Guests can take advantage of training and certification, from open water to divemaster, offered by both agencies. Beyond divemaster certification, IDD is the only option.

    After breakfast, guests can book a choice of one, two or three guided shore dives. The cost for each, including weights, tank and transportation, is $18 per diver.

    Guests are taken to one of the numerous and easily accessible shorebased dive sites, such as Porto Marie, Black Coral Gardens, Playa Hulu, Playa Largu and Rediho. Following the dive and a short rest on the beach, guests can return to the hotel or dive another site.

    Almost straight out from the hotel's back door is the deep wreck of the Superior Producer. Lavishly overgrown with small Orange Cup Corals, sponges and frequented by schools of reef fish, the large freighter is an impressive sight, sitting fully intact on even keel at a depth of 104 feet.

    For an adventurous shore diving excursion, each Friday Toucan Diving offers Safari Diving. The adventure begins with a Jeep ride through several back roads and trails, cutting across the island's interior. Nicknamed the Wasp Waist, Curacao's countryside is full of dense, thorny scrub brush and cactus. Owing to the continual trade winds, Curacao's annual rainfall is sometimes measured in millimeters; thus, lush vegetation is out of the question. However, there is a wide assortment of life on the island, including indigenous species of parrots, lizards and iguanas, as well as a few wild donkeys.

    Upon arrival at Curacao's remote western tip, divers make two shore dives on pristine shallow reefs and drop-offs. The cost for this truly unique trip is $36 per person, including tanks, weights and transportation. This adventure is also open to snorkelers.

    Some Boat Diving, Too: Although Toucan Diving's mainstay is shore diving, it also provides outings on the 56 foot, twin hulled boat Toucan II. Every Sunday and Monday the boat departs the hotel's dock for a three-quarter day trip to the West Point area. Included are two dives at sites such as Mushroom Forest, followed by an on-board barbecue and some snorkeling. The boat returns to the dock by 5:00 pm, completing an enjoyable, full day.

    Monday's itinerary is quite a bit different. Besides being designed for snorkelers and divers, the excursion begins with a morning dive in Curacao's Seaquarium. It's called the Animal Encounter and divers can feed the park's collection of Nurse and Lemon Sharks and a couple of adult sea turtles through a fist sized hole midpoint in a large, underwater window. The Lexan panel separating the divers from the sharks is almost entirely invisible in the water, which can present some interesting photo and video opportunities. In addition to the shark and turtle pen, a second dive inside the park offers an encounter with stingrays that's similar to Grand Cayman's Stingray City. Afterward, Toucan II makes a stop at one of Curacao's two tugboat wrecks. Centered in a long strip of shallow coral reef 10 to 15 feet deep, the wrecks are ornately covered with coral and sponge growth; each comes within three feet of the surface.

    On the Waterfront: One of Curacao's most delightful characteristics is its historic charm and scenic beauty, particularly along the beaches and well known waterfront district of Willemstad. Besides being the center of commerce, what makes the city unique is its colorful blend of traditional Old Dutch architecture and modern engineering. Many of the buildings date to the mid 1700s.

    Spanning the harbor is Curacao's famous floating pontoon bridge, the largest and one of the oldest operating, floating, swing bridges in the world. Overlooking it is the island's massive concrete span bridge, resembling a giant bow. A prime example of modern engineering, the span is high enough for some of the world's largest cruise ships to pass under.

    With the Plaza Hotel Curacao next to the entrance to St. Anna Bay, virtually all of these picturesque sights are in clear view. From the hotel's front door, the center of Willemstad's St. Anna Bay shopping district, the Punda Boatmarket, Handelskade and the historic Government Building, are just a short distance away.

    The island's year-round temperature is usually in the mid 80s (F). While casual, light clothing is the rule by day, evening can be a different matter. Featuring several casinos, restaurants, bars and discos, Curacao has become known for its nightlife; pack some fancier clothing for these establishments.

    Getting There: Servicing Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire from both Miami and Atlanta is the island's national air carrier, ALM (Antillean Airlines). Departing two to three times daily from Miami, flights to Curacao take just under three hours.

    For more information on diving packages with Plaza Hotel Curacao, call (800) 766-6016, (617) 821-1012, fax (617) 821-1568. You can call Toucan Diving direct at 011 (599) 961-2500 or fax 011 (599) 961-6543. You can also write to Plaza Piar, Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.