Nature imbued Curacao with the stamp of the American Southwest. No forested mountains soaring from the sea, like the other Caribbean islands. None of their blinding white beaches, either.

Instead, Curacao (Coor-ah-sow, rhymes with how) is a low-growth place, reminiscent of Arizona. Cactus juts from the brownish soil. Scrubby plants, boulders and divi-divi trees add to the arid harshness of the land. Instead of delicate sailboats, macho oil tankers clot in the harbor, fifth busiest in the world.

Also atypical for the Caribbean: If you've done the main city, you've pretty much done the island -- which has a population of 160,000 humans and 40,000 goats.

A sightseer's paradise it ain't. But once you shake your senses into remembering that this is the Caribbean and not Phoenix, Curacao can be endearing -- especially if your cruise ship anchors there and the choice is vegetating in your cabin or looking around a bit.

Willemstad is Curacao's storybook capital. More than 300 cruise ships call every year, and their docks command the best views of the colorful city.

Colorful? Imagine a thousand Howard Johnsons with their orange-tilted roofs. Now add gables, and paint the walls soft hues of blue, yellow and butterscotch, sprinkle them on hills flanking a narrow channel, add a dash of Old Dutch atmosphere, and you've got Curacao.

Sadly, though, it is a city best seen from a distance. After the channel-side row of Amsterdamish shops, the quaint Queen Emma pontoon bridge spanning the channel and the Venezuelan merchants selling boatsful of fruits, meats and fish in a floating market, Willemstad is a littered, crowded hodgepodge of stores showing watches, luggage and linens.

Finding a bargain among them takes some digging, and it's best to price goods at home first. Shops close from noon to 2 p.m. for siesta, an influence from Spanish-peaking Venezuela, only 30 miles away. Only restaurants are open and a popular choice is the Indonesia, on the waterfront.

Rijsttafel, imported under the Dutch influence from Indonesia, is a dish, and it's best, quite logically, at the restaurant called Indonesia. It consists of a scoop of rice ringed by 10, 16 or 25 globs of different meats, fish, vegetables, coconut with curry sauce, etc. The rice is crowned by satee -- babi-skewered meat in a tasty peanut sauce -- and it's all laid out at one time.

Locals also recommend Bistro le Clochard on the harbor front for French cuisine; Waakzaamheid, a transformed hilltop fort, and Detaveerne, an octagonal house on the city outskirts, featuring continental cuisine. Prices for all tend to the high, New Yorkish side.

The rickety Queen Emma footbridge spans the channel but swings open for ships of all sizes and registry. When it was finished in 1888, shoeless persons could cross for free; but those with shoes had to pay two cents. It was felt that shoes would wear out the bridge. Today, a siren announcing an approaching ship triggers a mad dash of pedestrians across the bridge.

The mouth of the channel is flanked by two forts. One, the Waterfront, is rudely abutted by the modern Curacao Plaza Hotel, which, like the other major inns, mercifully provides some entertainment with a casino. It's the only hotel I know of with maritime insurance in case it gets rammed by a ship. Underwater swimmers are seen through portholes at the Terrance Pool Bar (there's also some excellent snorkeling and scuba diving in waters ringing the island).

The old footwalls of the fort brush up against the hotel's landscaped gardens, and their archways are sacrilegiously stuffed with shops. Another modern hotel is the more resorty but well-done Curacao Hilton, up the beach.

This is the last place you'd expect to find it, but Willemstad boasts the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The Mikve Israel Synagogue was built in 1732. Noteworthy is the well-sanded floor, which symbolizes the Israelites' years of wandering the desert. There's a very fine Jewish museum next door.

The Dutch settled Curacao in 1634 and were hell-bent on making it just like home, right down to the street names like Handelskade and De Ruyterkade. Dutch is the official tongue, but English is spoken widely. The Antillian florin or gilder fetches $1.77 U.S.

After gambling, about the only entertainment is going to the beach of imported sand at Westpunt, the private clubs for calypsoing, or the festive street parties, which usually don't need a reason to happen.

A different kind of entertainment is to be found at Happy Valley, a bordello about 20 minutes from town. Happy Valley girls must abide by strict health and behavioral rules. They receive twice-weekly checkups and 500,000 units of penicillin per week.

Although it is home to the Shell Oil refinery, one of the largest in the world, Curacao is best known for producing the liquer of the same name. Curacao is made after a 17th-century recipe at an Old World estate northeast of Curacao's harbor, fifth busiest in the world. Skins from green, midget oranges called "Laraha" are the nucleus of this nectar. Visitors to the Senior and Co. estate get free samples.

Cruiseships feed the most tourists to Curacao, but there's daily air service to the island. A tour-basing fare is available, if you pre-pay for a land package, available from travel agents. Connections are made with KLM in Miami.

For those planning extended stays, Curacao's "Free Spree" program provides a rental car for a day, various admissions, gaming chips and a bottle of Curacao liquer. Rates start at $136 per perspon, double. Taxis charge flat rates to in-town destinations, but for longer trips you should negotiate the fare with your driver before leaving. CAPTION: Illustration, no cation, By Gaetan Jeannin, from the book "Art Deco Internationale,"; Copyright (c) 1977, Quick Fox; Picture, The Ship's Bridge, Willemstad, Curacao.