Hurricane? What Hurricane?
Sunday, June 4, 2006
All the way to Curacao, I feared the worst. My long-planned trip to this Dutch-flavored Caribbean island came in late September last year -- the height of hurricane season. A day before my departure, Hurricane Rita had just been elevated from tropical storm status and was veering toward the Florida Keys. I knew that Rita was barreling north and that Curacao was comfortably out of the center of major storm activity. Still, I worried that in this stormy season I would spend the entire time watching rain pelt the beach from my hotel window.
But two hours after landing, I was ambling along Mambo Beach, a popular hangout for Curacao sunbathers. The temperature was 81. A soft breeze floated in from the west. The sky was a cloudless cornflower blue. And a cluster of revelers boogied to Latin and American Top-40 tunes along the beach.
During my visit -- and by most accounts all year long, with allowances for slight temperature shifts, a brief rainy season and an occasional change of dance songs -- that blissful report would hold strong.
June marks the beginning of hurricane season, and Caribbean-bound travelers seeking safe harbor from the threat of storms (the season runs through November) would be hard-put to come up with a safer bet than this southernmost Caribbean outpost. Leading Aruba and Bonaire as the largest of the so-called ABC islands, it lies in a narrow ocean region at the southern tip of the Lesser Antilles, where hurricanes rarely tread. (See chart below for other options.)
While cheaper lodging and good air deals are attracting more travelers to the Caribbean in the summer and fall, the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes makes it a more precarious time for an island vacation. Choosing your destination wisely, based on location, can minimize the risk.
The close proximity of the ABCs to the equator helps stave off the complex wind patterns that drive hurricanes. The imposing land mass of Venezuela, 40 miles away, is another storm deterrent. Although the long reach of Hurricane Ivan left a little damage on Aruba in 2004, and Tropical Storm Joan punished the coast of Curacao in 1988, the last major hurricane to hit any of the ABCs head-on was in 1877, according to the Meteorological Service of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, or Meteo.
* * *
If the hope of avoiding foul weather lures visitors to this lesser-known island, I quickly discovered the main attractions that will keep them here: nearly 40 beaches covered with silky white sand giving way to water so clear you could stand shoulder-high and still see your toenails. Although most of the best beaches are a drive of at least 20 minutes from the concentration of resorts in and around the capital of Willemstad, getting there is worth it.
There's a seaside scene for every mood. On the wild side: Mambo Beach, a lively stretch of revelry, including a funky club by the same name, on the western side of the island, with killer tropical cocktails and nonstop dancing. For escapists: Playa Lagun, an isolated, romantic cove framed by imposing cliffs in the island's northwestern stretch. For families: Playa Knip, near the town of Westpunt. Two coves there provide a great perch to lounge in beach chairs while the kids play in the water.
For those not content to laze in the sand, Curacao (pronounced CUR-a-sow) is also one of the Caribbean's top scuba and snorkeling destinations. I took a dip off Playa Lagun and was wowed by coral reefs loaded with staghorn, an exotic tropical fern, and red-dotted barracuda. Another afternoon, I walked from my room at the Curacao Marriott Beach Resort straight out to the ocean and dove in. In a matter of minutes, I was face to face with a school of brightly colored butter hamlets, yellowhead wrasse and other exotic creatures.
The Dutch-inspired mansions perched like crown jewels on avenues and hilltops across the island are another Curacao marvel, legacies of an era when this was the tropical back yard of wealthy industrialists and traders. They range from Willemstad's low-rise merchant houses made of coral, painted in bright island colors and capped with gables, to stately great houses decorated with imposing mahogany balustrades and other ornate features, mostly in the countryside.
Then there's the food. From the bowl of spicy Cuban soup I devoured at the bar of the Gouverneur de Rouville Restaurant and Cafe Willemstad to the escargot casserole and grilled reef lobster in the elegant courtyard of the Astrolab Observatory, every one of my meals was a delight. Sampling iguana soup, goat stew, cactus flowers and other beloved Curacao dishes was one of my favorite adventures.