“You are now visiting the country of Curacao,” said Eveline Van Arkel, the phrase still new to the Dutch native’s tongue.
This was crucial information, and not as obvious as you might think. You see, five months and 10 days ago, Van Arkel was welcoming guests to an entirely different nation, the Netherlands Antilles. Today, it was Curacao; drop the Dutch.
To illustrate the momentous event, Van Arkel looked toward the sky. Standing in the empty parking spot of the new prime minister, the longtime resident pointed to the flag of Curacao flapping solo high above the walls of Fort Amsterdam, the old Dutch stronghold that now houses government offices. On 10/10/10, she explained, the island lowered its other rectangle of fabric, the one sprinkled with stars representing the Antilles Five: Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba. (The sixth original member, Aruba, fled in 1986; St. Maarten left the fold at the same time as Curacao.) The action marked the dissolution of the Antilles and the island’s rise to nation status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Fly, Curacao, fly.
“We are a country autonomous under the flag of the Netherlands,” Van Arkel said. “It’s a step toward independence.” I looked at her with a puzzled expression, as mental images of wooden clog burnings and Edam cheese meltings disappeared. “Don’t worry,” she added comfortingly. “I recently had to explain it to some Dutch visitors who didn’t understand it either.”
Earlier this month, I arrived in Curacao naively expecting a country drunk on independence, as if the faucets gushed a cocktail of the local liqueur, Blue Curacao, and liberation. I misjudged, but not entirely. The Caribbean island with the rich past is a frequent celebrant of freedoms. And though I didn’t see dancing in the street or flags draped over shoulders superhero-style, I did discover a land infused with an indefatigable indie spirit.
One image of Curacao has launched a thousand T-shirts, notecards, postcards, paintings, mugs and magnets: Willemstad’s lineup of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch architecture dipped in Easter egg colors. (An omission from this scene is the massive oil refinery on the city’s harbor, with fiery, pluming stacks.) The scenery has not been doctored — the roof tiles really are as red as ripe tomatoes, the gables curlicued like a gentleman’s script — nor will it ever be allowed to be.
In 1997, UNESCO designated a large swath of the capital a World Heritage site, including Punda and Otrobanda, the two halves of town divided by St. Anna Bay, and the old Jewish quarter of Scharloo.
“The history is amazing for this little piece of rock,” said Van Arkel. “We are on the same level as the pyramids.”
Curacao’s diary is long, dense and sometimes dark. In 1634, the Dutch wrested control of the island from the Spaniards, who had previously grabbed it from the first inhabitants, the Arawaks. Because of the island’s appealing location 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela, the Dutch West India Co. established one of the largest slave markets here. It also built two camps that were part rehabilitation center for Africans sick from the rough sea voyage and part barracks for those not yet sold.
At the Kura Hulanda Museum, this chapter is given its own public reading. Founded by a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur on the site of a slave-holding yard, the anthropological institute dedicates an entire building to the slave trade. Placards describe in painful detail the roundup and sale of Africans, while rows of metal shackles contribute an air of verisimilitude, the manacles eerily swinging as if pushed by ghosts. On a replica slave ship, visitors crawl into its belly and imagine the worst.
A wall outside the exhibit brandishes the words of a local poet: “Let not woes of old enslave you anew.” The phrase is written in three languages, including Papiamento, a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Arawak and a smattering of African tongues that the slaves used as a form of communication. (Dutch and Papiamento are the official languages.) A tour guide explained in Dutch the significance of an unadorned auction block. He rang the bell suspended overhead, the toll’s meaning needing no translation.
Every story, especially the most despairing and dehumanizing, needs a hero. Curacao had Tula, a slave who led a monumental uprising in 1795. The revolt took place at Landhuis Kenepa, a former plantation that now contains the Tula Museum, but the conversation that sparked the movement began at the landhouse at PortoMari.
At Playa PortoMari, a cove with water so clear you can see the grains of white sand between your toes, it’s easy to forget that life here was not always so good. The beach near the old plantation does not lack in diversions; you can rent diving and snorkeling equipment from an on-site shop or settle into the open-air restaurant for some “broccoli soep” and “Cajun friet.” But to pay tribute to the hundreds of freedoms won on Curacao, I shook myself from my sun-baked stupor, strapped on my sneakers and hiked up the Seru Mateo Trail.
The short, hilly route was named after Matthew, a freed slave who remained at the plantation after his emancipation in 1850. I trekked by cactus and divi-divi trees camouflaging birds whose chirps filled the air. At the top of the trail, I peered over the cliff at a vast panorama that knew no bounds.
I was having one of those days.
The petty annoyances went as follows: My rental car had a flat and the Thrifty agent told me that I was responsible for mending the tire now soft from a giant nail. Rolling along on the spare, I swerved hard to avoid a large iguana dashing across the road, thankfully avoiding two flattened objects in one day. Finally, my guide never showed up for the sunset deer-spotting tour at Christoffel national park. I waited outside the locked gate for the better part of happy hour, sweating in heat that did not seem to fade with the sun. Eventually, I took cover in the car but had to close the windows because microscopic bugs were biting my limbs like ferocious sewing needles. Yeah, it was that kind of day.
But all those frustrations flitted away once — deep breath — I sat on an ostrich.
Curacao is aflutter with wings; the bird-watch count numbers more than 168 varieties. For instance, on the drive to PortoMari, I passed a flock of flamingos standing in one-legged yoga poses, their long necks bobbing for food. At Zambezi Restaurant, a yellow-bellied trupial patiently perched on the bar counter, just another patron awaiting his meal.
Unlike their brethren, however, the ostriches are not free to move around the island. In the 1990s, the Curacao Ostrich Farm started importing the big birds from Africa as a form of novel entertainment. Jeep tours of the property begin and end at the restaurant, in case viewing the birds suddenly whets your appetite for a plate of ostrich prepared jerky-style or in a spicy herb or apricot sauce.
A few years after opening, the farm started offering ostrich rides, taking its cue from Australia and Africa, where transport by the world’s largest bird is common. Of the 156 or so residents, only a few have been trained to carry humans. It’s a special skill, mainly requiring the bird to not freak out and run into a fence, a car, a tree or other object in its path.
“Ostriches are very stupid and scared animals,” said Bob Smink, a staff member. “He wants what’s on his back off. If the handlers let go of that beast, he will not stop. He does not know that the fence is a fence and will hit it and you will fly.”
So that’s why I had to sign a waiver acknowledging that this activity could cause “serious and grievous injuries.”
The excursion takes place on a short dirt road lined with ostriches watching the folly. A man who spoke little English drove me to the spot in a pickup truck. Once parked, he motioned for me to stand back while he and his assistant selected a bird and placed a black sock over its head. A horrifying image of a kidnapping flashed through my mind, but I later learned that “turning off the lights” calms the bird. He thinks that it’s night and bedtime.
The men steered the bird over to the truck and backed him in. I threw a leg over his flanks and grabbed his wings, a clumsier version of Lord Vishnu atop his feathered chariot.
I had barely settled in before the ostrich’s beanpole legs started moving (guess he’s a sleepwalker). I gripped his wings, which were surprisingly strong and muscly. The feathers tickled my wrist, but I didn’t loosen my grip. I was in no mood for grievous injuries.
We galloped awkwardly for a short stretch, then stopped so the assistants could remove the sock. Free to see, the bird headed straight for the truck and his pen. His neck torqued and twisted like linguine in a pot of boiling water. When we reached the truck, he tried to break free. I prepared to be carted off into the horizon — or at least the nearest fence.
Luckily, the men regained control. I hopped back into the truck and looked up to see a tour vehicle full of visitors clapping at my feat. I bowed, then plucked some stray feathers off my legs and tossed them into the breeze.
Surrounded by the bay and the harbor, Willemstad is, by necessity, a city of bridges. Without these connections, Punda and Otrobanda, and Scharloo and Punda, would forever be star-crossed lovers. Of the city’s three, one bridge in particular — the Queen Emma — is more than just functional. She is the object of deep affection.
“This is our pride and joy,” said Van Arkel, the tour guide. “We call her the Swinging Old Lady.”
Opened in 1888, the 548-foot-long African wood bridge was designed by an American and is supported by 16 pontoons. When ships need to pass, an alarm sounds and the bridge unhinges from the Punda side, sweeps across the bay and lines up parallel to Otrobanda. To inform pedestrians mulling a crossing, the bridge’s caretaker flies colored flags that denote the wait: orange means partial opening that will last 20 minutes or so; blue translates to fully open for up to 40 minutes. When the bridge is unavailable, pedestrians can take the free ferry that shuttles between the two sides.
During my numerous forays in Willemstad, I had seen the bridge fully open and completely closed, but I had never witnessed that magical in-between moment when it moves.
And so I waited.
I sat patiently on a bench in Punda, my gaze ping-ponging from the bridge to the ocean to the harbor. No incoming or outgoing vessels. For better reconnaissance, I went over to Rif Fort in Otrobanda and climbed the stone steps for a general’s view of intruders — or allies, in my case. In the distance, I noticed a large tanker creeping toward the bay.
I was so focused on that ship, I didn’t notice a pilot boat approaching the bridge from the other direction. Nudge to self: Look 360 degrees.
The warning bell shrilled as I dashed down the stairs and sprinted to the bridge. I watched it start to move, a long leg slowly kicking out. I saw other people sauntering across with little regard for the blue flag. My action hero took over.
I crossed the bridge once, then realized that I had enough time to go again, hoping for a bit more suspense and drama. On Punda, the bridge was beginning to separate from the shore, starting its languid arc across the water. I jumped over a small gap between the edge of the bridge and the land. The buildings on Otrobanda receded as I walked toward them.
I was unsure if I’d make it back to Otrobanda before the bridge completely disengaged. If that happened, I could be stranded for, yes, up to 40 minutes. I calculated the time I needed to make my flight home and wondered whether I was hydrated enough for such a wait under the high noon sun. I picked up the pace.
When I reached the end of the bridge, I leapt over a space large enough to swallow a small child. I landed before a metal gate, the final barrier to terra firma. I squeezed through it sideways as it ground to a close. The bridge was officially off-limits.
I headed over to the ferry, and as the boat chugged off, I noticed eight people trapped on Queen Emma. I sincerely hoped they’d brought enough water with them.
American Airlines offers connecting service from BWI Marshall to Curacao from $429 round-trip.
Hotel Kura Hulanda
Spa & Casino
Langestraat 8, Otrobanda 877-264-3106
Sleep inside a centuries-old Dutch colonial building, part of a restored village with restaurants, plazas, a museum and shops. From $160 a night.
Prinsenstraat 80, Punda
The basic hotel in the center of town is a training facility for hospitality students. From $83, including breakfast.
Sculpture Garden Restaurant
Hotel Kura Hulanda
Dine on gourmet Euro-Caribbean cuisine in a lantern-lit outdoor sculpture garden. Entrees $14-$43.
Plein Cafe Wilhelmina
Wilhelminaplein 19-23, Punda
The indoor/outdoor cafe has a European vibe and international dishes. Menu of the day costs about $6.50.
Old Market (Marsche Bieuw)
De Ruyterkade, Punda
This lunch spot, which is popular with city workers, serves local fare (goat stew, pumpkin pancakes, stewed papaya with polenta, etc.) in a noisy, family-style setting. Less than $7 per plate.
Eveline Van Arkel tours
The Dutch native and longtime island resident offers two-hour historical tours of Willemstad for $25 per person.
Kura Hulanda Museum
Hotel Kura Hulanda
Covers the origins of man, African art and cultures, the slave trade and more. $9.
Curacao Ostrich Farm
Ride an ostrich ($25) or see the birds, plus emus, crocodile and pigs, from a safer distance on a guided tour ($15).
Full-service beach with bar and restaurant, changing facilities, gear rental and hiking trail. Entry fee about $2.50.