Snorkeling and diving in the crystal-clear water off the shores of Curacao are certainly worthy endeavors during a stay on this small island just a few degrees north of the Equator (read: it's hot and dry here). But when you're ready to take a break from water fun – or peel yourself off that chaise lounge on the beach – consider these sightseeing suggestions in the capital city of Willemstad.
Queen Emma Bridge
Dubbed “Pontoon Bridge” by the locals, this wide, wooden pedestrian walkway offers brilliant vistas of the pastel-colored buildings that make up Willemstad. It crosses St. Anne Quay and connects the two sections of the city: Punda and Otrobanda. The footbridge swings open to allow boats to pass, and it's worth a walk across, not only for the great city views but to feel a nifty bounce in your step as you walk over the 16 pontoons that support it.
Even if you're not on the hunt for fresh produce, it's fun to browse the colorful stalls of the floating market, where Venezuelans sell fruit, fish, and other wares. Perhaps at one time, business was transacted from their boats, but these days, sellers set up at stands on land. Regardless, it's vibrant and bustling, and its a neat place to hear the chatter of multiple tongues – Dutch, Spanish, English, and Papiamentu, a Creole mix of several languages.
Viewfinder Tip: Locals speak Papiamentu on Curacao; “danki” is the word for “thank you.”
Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue
The oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas dates back to 1651. The community's place of worship, built in 1732, is significant because it is the oldest synagogue still standing and in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond these superlatives, the building is notable for its 19th-century pipe organ and its floor of sand. Next door is a Jewish Historical Museum filled with artifacts including a Torah that is believed to be from the 15th century. I don't practice Judaism, but found the cultural and historical significance of the site and its contents fascinating (I am a history buff).
Kura Hulanda Museum
Sobering and shocking, the Kura Hulanda Musuem traces slavery from forced relocation of Africans in the Caribbean in the 1600s to abolition in the United States in the 1800s to worldwide slavery conditions today. Original slave-trade contracts, first-hand testimonials, and dozens of old shackles and restraining devices tell the stories of the thousands of men and women affected by this practice over centuries. The entrance fee is minimal at this poignant and well-done exhibit.
When you see a stream of locals exiting a ramshackle building at lunch time, all carrying to-go containers with savory smells emitting from them, you know you've stumbled on the place to go for an authentic, cheap meal on the island. Different vendors at Plasa Bieu serve up goat stew, paella, and fried fish, often accompanied by fresh homemade bread (roti, bami) or funchi, a tamale- or polenta-like side dish. I'd just eaten when I'd come across this locals' joint, so I didn't eat here, but I enjoyed trying to translate the menus that were written in Dutch and Papiamentu (I think). Next time, I'll plan to sample local specialties, and sit inside in the shade at the communal picnic tables under lazily rotating ceiling fans – did I mention it's really hot in Curacao?
What are your favorite land-based activities to enjoy in the Caribbean?