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  • 2000-09 The Hidden Dutch Caribbean Awaits
    by Sara Shoemaker
    The residents of Curaçao haven’t rushed to share their island treasure with the rest of the world. And, since Curaçao has not historically been a main thoroughfare for tourists, a genuine island experience is not hard to come by, both topside and on the exquisitely underexplored fringing reef that surrounds the island.

    From seahorses to wild donkeys, the fauna is unique to its geographical location in the southwestern Caribbean. Flamingos punctuate the blue sky with splashes of pink, while scaly, prehistoric-looking iguanas bask in the sun and nest in the cliffs. The underwater creatures and vistas certainly don’t disappoint either. The diving on the southwest coast rivals the nearby island of Bonaire but is less crowded. It seems that pristine reefs empty of divers are harder and harder to find in today’s world, but not off Curaçao.

    Yellow frogfish, seahorses, Flamingo Tongue snails and eels were just some of the countless marine creatures I encountered on the first day of diving. Between dives I explored old salt ponds dotted with cotton candy pink flamingos and hillside scrub alive with many other species of brightly colored birds.

    The next morning the divemaster took my group to Mako’s Mountain and El Ranchero (Seahorse Ranch). The namesake Mako Shark of Mako’s Mountain has apparently moved on, but the seahorses of El Ranchero are still swaying incognito on coral and sponges. My dive guides, Tooky and Deidrick, were dead-eye spotters of hidden macro critters.

    Off the dock at Habitat Curaçao there is a guideline that runs through the shallows and down the sloping reef wall. Bright yellow and black juvenile angelfish hang out in the shallows there. These cute and inquisitive fish avoided capture on film by swimming directly at the camera lens with such ferocious curiosity that they eluded focus. The dock site is also ideal for night diving because of its accessibility, and it is a perfect spot for experiencing a coral spawn. The spawning periods come during certain lunar phases in September and October, but the corals are not the only creatures spawning during these times—brittle stars, sea plumes and Bearded Fireworms are also reproductively active.

    On the southeastern side of the island are Small Wall and Beacon Point. At these sites, the reef shallows give way to a gentle wall, and the currents are usually mild. Brain corals and reef tropicals abound. But, the deep water off this side of Curaçao, which makes it so ideal for shipping, also keeps the water temperature a few degrees cooler than other similar latitudes in the Caribbean. I was certainly happy to have my 3mm full wetsuit.

    Beyond the reef diving there are two wrecks that should not be missed: the Saba tugboat and the Superior Producer. The Saba has an almost cartoon-like characteristic tugboat shape. It sits in shallow water at about 20 feet and is full of darting fish. The Superior Producer, a sunken tanker, is much deeper at 100 feet and rests just outside the mouth of the Willemstad port. It is a large wreck with considerable growth.

    To guarantee you see all the underwater life to set fin or flipper in Curaçao waters, you may want to visit the Curaçao Seaquarium. I must admit there were some of the fattest eels, Nurse Sharks and turtles I have ever seen lounging in their aquarium homes. I was also grateful to see some flamingos up close since the wild flocks are a bit timid. Submarine views and guided underwater encounters are available for all levels of immersion.

    Habitat Curaçao

    At Habitat Curaçao there is a two-tank boat dive in both the morning and the afternoon, and unlimited shore diving is available with full tanks standing by 24 hours a day. It is truly a dedicated diving resort with dive guides who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Boat divers can enjoy a number of new moorings, which have been installed by dive manager, Mike Stafford and his team, at some popular dive sites including Mako’s Mountain, Rif St. Marie, Long Beach and Santa Cruz.

    The stretch of beach from the Seaquarium to the resort area provides a nice stroll. Palapas, palm trees and watering holes line the beach, and it’s full of sun worshiping tourists.

    If the festive activity and sun-baked revelery near Willemstad is not what you had in mind for your onshore time, then head out to Christoffel Park, a nature preserve bristling with 40-odd species of cacti, wildlife and the island’s highest peak, Mt. Christoffel. The natural beauty of Christoffel Park can be explored on mountain bikes, horses or by foot.

    When you get hungry, be adventurous and check out the local food. Upon Curaçao’s colonization, poor soil limited agriculture to a handful of crops, which became staples. Grains, vegetables such as okra, cucumber, pumpkin and peppers, and tropical fruits feature prominently in the cuisine. Goat, iguana, rabbit, chicken and pork are common meats found in the dishes, which range from Kuminda Krioyo (Creole food) to Dutch/Indonesian-influenced menus to more international fare. Kabritu, stewed goat, is a very typical local offering. Another local specialty is Kadushi, otherwise known as cactus, which is made into a slimy soup. This is an acquired taste but something special for the adventurous. Fresh, locally grown produce is available at the market in Punda and some at the floating market in Willemstad.

    If you want to treat yourself to an outrageous culinary experience try Landhuis Zeelandia —a restaurant in a remodeled landhouse just outside downtown Willemstad. On an island replete with outstanding food, this restaurant makes a big impression, expertly blending the rich mix of the cultures in Curaçao—European, Caribbean and South American—into fantastic fare.

    Good food, nice people, uncrowded dive sites and spectacular wrecks rife with marine life. It’s a great combination for divers seeking a destination that hasn’t been overrun with tourism, and still retains that unique Caribbean charm that makes for an unforgettable dive adventure.



    GETTING THERE:

    BEST TIME TO VISIT
    It is most crowded on the south side of the island (Willemstad area) during November through April because of heavy cruise ship traffic. Water temperatures are warmest during summer months, and Curaçao usually falls below the hurricane belt.

    CLIMATE
    Average temperature is 82°F. Usually sunny and breezy with average annual rainfall of 21 inches.

    Water Temperatures
    Water temperatures average 80°F but become cooler in winter (78°F).

    EXCHANGE RATE
    One U.S. dollar equals roughly 1.777(NAFI). However, the U.S. dollar is readily accepted.

    TIME DIFFERENCE
    Same as Eastern Standard Time.

    CONTACTS
    Curaçao Tourist Board
    (800) 270-3350
    www.curacao-tourism.com • e-mail: ctdbny@ctdb.com

    Habitat Curaçao
    (800) 327-6709
    www.habitatdiveresorts.com • e-mail: info@maduro.com

    Princess Beach Hotel/Princess Divers
    (800) 992-2015
    www.oceanencounters.com • e-mail: info@oceanencounters.com

    Princess Divers: (800) 932-6237

    Underwater Curaçao/Lions Dive Hotel
    (888) 546-6734
    www.oceanencounters.com • e-mail: info@oceanencounters.com

    Curaçao Marriott
    (800) 223-6388
    www.marriotthotels.com/curmc

    Plaza Curaçao
    (800) 766-6016
    www.plazahotelcuracao.com • e-mail: info@plazahotelcuracao.com

    Air ALM (direct flights from Miami)
    (800) 327-7230
    www.airalm.com