There is no feeling like stepping onto a planein the middle of winter, bundled up from headto toe and in a matter of hours stepping outinto warm breezes that force you to peel off the layers.Craving this feeling is what drew us to Curaçao,an island located in the southwestern Caribbean,between Aruba and Bonaire, just 35 miles north ofVenezuela. Unlike many of its Caribbean cousins,tourism is not the primary source of economic sustenancefor Curaçao, which has helped the island avoidbecoming overly westernized. But this little secretcan't last for long as more and more travelers flockto its shores for more than just a beach-time getaway.
Curaçao is a blended nation with 160,000 residentsfrom 55 different cultures and has earned areputation for religious and ethnic harmony. It is thistolerance that has fostered some of the most fascinatingreligious history in the world. In 1651, a PortugueseJew and 12 families immigrated to Curaçaoand established the first Jewish congregation on theisland. Others followed, seeking asylum from theremnants of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition.Soon the community grew to more than 2000, andin 1732 the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue(www.snoa.com) was built. This place of worshipstill stands today, making it the oldest synagogue incontinuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
When you enter the walls of this holy place, yourgaze will fix itself on the impressive high-vaultedceilings of the limestone and coral Dutch colonialarchitecture. Its most interesting design element,however, is the sand floor. This unique ground coverwas chosen purposely to remind worshippers of thetimes when Jewish ancestors used sand floors asmeans for concealment and survival, muffling thesound of footsteps and prayers. When you visit thesynagogue, be sure to allow sufficient time toexplore the adjoining museum. It boasts a large collectionof artifacts from the Jewish community ofthe island throughout the centuries.
The synagogue and museum are just two of themany treasures you will find in the Punda section ofthe island's capital, Willemstad, which was recognizedas a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Amid thecheerful shops and fragrant restaurants, you will findthe Floating Market, a Willemstad tradition. It earnsits name from the simple fact that it does indeed float;vessels arrive daily from Venezuela, Colombia, andother Western Indian islands to dock on the WaaigatCanal to peddle their wears—a wide range of freshfish, fruits, vegetables, and spices. It's a delightful andcolorful peek into island life.
And speaking of colorful, there is no want forcolor in these parts. The Dutch architecture that surroundsthe town is not to be missed. Legend has itthat an old Dutch governor demanded that the townpaint its buildings with outlandish bright colors toalleviate his migraine headaches. The second part ofthe legend adds that he was also an owner of a paintfactory—that's what we call supply and demand.
Unique Museum Experience
The beauty of Curaçao extends beyond the Pundasection, just a short walk over the floating bridge(which swings open to accommodate barges) to Otrabanda.This section houses one of Curaçao's greatestcultural treasures, the Museum Kurá Hulanda (www.kurahulanda.com). This anthropological museumfocuses on the cultures that dominate Curaçao's historyand houses artifacts and exhibits documentingthe African slave trade, West African Empires, andpre-Columbian civilizations. As you wind your wayfrom one beautiful little building to another, you arestruck with an endless narrative of struggle, survival,and triumph. Step into a replica of an African slaveship and imagine the suffering that would haveoccurred there or marvel at the artwork of once powerfulAfrican nations. It is on par with any of the greatmuseums in Washington, DC.
The setting of this museum is actually part of a complex,the brainchild of Jacob Gelt Dekker, a prosperousDutch entrepreneur who has made countless contributionsto the development of Curaçao. The complexhouses the museum; several restaurants, including thedelightful Astrolab Observatory gourmet restaurant;and a luxury hotel, the Hotel Kurá Hulanda (877-264-3106), which has some lovely accommodations.
There is no end to the beaches and outdoor activitiesyou can also enjoy on this island, but that's true of mostCaribbean destinations. What sets Curaçao apart inour minds is its dedication to preserving its cultural heritageand celebrating its diverse history through endlesspreservation efforts and educational attractions.