just published: double dutch

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not quite 20,000 leagues

My last day in Curaçao involved a real whiz-bang adventure under the sea.  Substation Curacao is a specially designed 3-person submarine which takes passengers down to a depth of 400+ feet.  The opportunity to view a pair of shipwrecks along with the island’s incredible undersea life at a depth I could never reach with a scuba – let alone snorkel – was pretty amazing. I’m thinking of what I could possibly compare it with but words, for a change, escape me.  Half kid in a candy shop, half James Bond in For Your Eyes Only, it isn’t a cheap experience – and emphatically not for the claustrophobic. But feeling like Jacques Cousteau for an afternoon?  That’s priceless, indeed.

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botanic bliss

Savvy sybarites know that spas flying the Hyatt flag boast of their anti-chain mentality.  Individual aesthetics and local flavors tend to be the rule.  So it naturally follows that Atabei Spa at the new Hyatt Regency Curacao is no exception.  The floors are whitewashed planks of reclaimed nautical wood – a nod to the island’s heritage, when the capital of Willemstad was the main port of call in the Dutch West Indies.  Gauze curtains billow everywhere, not unlike being onboard a sloop returning to harbor.  A safe harbor is what you’ll find on the menu, however, where healing herbs and extracts from the botanic garden of islander Dinah Veeris form the backbone of treatments like the laraha body scrub, incorporating the bitter orange used in making Curacao liqueur, an age defense facial tinged with sweet lupine and wild mango, or the setebibu recovery wrap, drenched in native aloe.  Most notable is the stemp massage, which uses a trio of large hand-tied poultices filled with rosemary, lavender, bergamot, yerba buena, and amarigue, also known as marjoram.  Soaked in warm oil it’s a deeply gratifying tonic for muscles not accustomed to swimming all day in clear Caribbean waters. (stemp, from the Flemish, “to stamp,” also translates as “to knead” in Papiamento, the local patois.)  Think of them as hot stones with handles.  Larger than what’s used in the poultice massages that were all the rage a few years ago, these vitamin-packed bundles have a secondary benefit as well:  take them home and drop them in the bath for a nourishing respite after a day spent soaking up too much sun.

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air conditioning in a bottle

One of the side benefits of touring Mansion Chobolobo was the discovery of another interesting product made by Senior Curaçao: alcolado glacial, commonly referred to as “air conditioning in a bottle” among the locals.  I’ll admit I was dubious at first – after all it does have the chemical appearance of floor cleaner, no?  Yet the mix of alcohol, mint, and herbs, has a surprisingly subtle, refreshing smell. Blot it on your skin with your hands or a handkerchief and the alcohol evaporates almost instantly, leaving you with the sensation of a cool breeze wafting across your formerly overheated self.  (Just don’t attempt to use it as aftershave – unless you want to reenact the shaving scene from Home Alone.) It’s hard to imagine the pavement melting in the middle of a New York City winter but I wisely picked up a few bottles in anticipation of the sweltering summer to come.  Come August, if you see me dabbling my neck with hankie you’ll know my secret: air conditioning in a bottle.

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ain’t nothing like the real thing

You might think you’ve swigged your share of blue Curaçao – Dirty Bong Water, Oral Sex on the Beach, Alien Urine Sample, anyone? – but unless you’re drinking the genuine Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, there’s an impostor in your glass.  Shortly after the Spanish arrived on the island in 1499 they attempted to plant their native Valencia oranges.  But the fruit didn’t take too well.  The island’s arid climate and dry soil changed the juicy orange into a bitter, inedible fruit. Abandoned and forgotten, the trees grew wild until a few hundred years later when the great-grandchild of the original fruit received it’s own botanical name:  Citrus Aurantium Currassuviensis or golden orange of Curaçao, though in the local tongue it was simply Laraha. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that the peels of this orange, when left to dry in the sun, leeched an oil with an extremely pleasing fragrance similar to the Valencia orange. After experimenting with the oils, the Senior family added various exotic spices until they were sure to have invented a unique liquor, which they dubbed … hold for it … Curaçao.

That original recipe is still produced on the island in small batches. You can witness the whole process at Chobolobo Mansion in Salinja, just outside Willemstad. What’s amazing is how small-scale the operation remains.  You half expect to find Senorita Senior in the kitchen stirring a big pot of laraha peels.  In fact, after 113 years of distilling, Senior Curaçao of Curaçao is still made in the original 1896 copper stills.

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rif fort

The Rif Fort was built at the head of Otrabanda at the beginning of the 19th century to provide additional defense for the entrance to Curaçao’s harbor.  At the time it had 56 cannons.  When danger threatened an iron chain was stretched between the formidable fortification and Fort Amsterdam across the water in Punda.  During the Second World War the chain was again used when German U-boats were spotted.  Currently, Rif Fort village is a part of the Renaissance Curaçao Resort and a UNESCO World Heritage site, housing a variety of shops, restaurants and an art gallery.  The view from the Fort’s ramparts over the Caribbean and the entrance to St. Anna Bay are spectacular, especially at night when the sky is littered with stars.

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prime parking

Apparently one of the prime perks afforded to the Prime Minister of Curaçao, Gerrit Shotte, is his very own parking spot inside Fort Amsterdam.

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museum kura hulanda

The forced relocation and enslavement of Africans to the Americas and Caribbean by Europeans in the 17th to 19th centuries changed the face of the world forever.  It built empires, created great wealth, and degraded human beings into mere chattel – the repercussions of which continue to reverberate in our society.  Museum Kura Hulanda impressively charts the trans-Atlantic slave trade in its totality from the  harbor of Willemstad, where Dutch entrepreneurs once traded Africans along with other “commercial goods.”  Initiated and developed by one man, Jacob Geld Dekker, the museum exhibits his vast collection of artifacts from continental Europe, showcasing the dynamic vitality of the great West African Empires alongside the tools that made their subjugation a dark reality.  Even more impressive is how the museum moves visitors beyond the painful memories of slavery, demonstrating how our African roots and diverse cultural heritage have influenced societies from Curaçao to the powers of today. That such a tiny country can boast such a movingly comprehensive experience is a major – and very welcome – achievement.

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video: queen emma’s pontoons

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double dutch

Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, was established by the Dutch in the mid-1600’s and recalls the quaint designs of Amsterdam, mixing traditional architectural styles with Caribbean accents and bright bold colors.  Divided by Santa Anna Bay, it’s a natural harbor, perfect for cruise ships and commerce – but not so great for anyone stranded across the water from each other in either Punda, “the point,” or Otrobanda, “the other side.”  Practical as ever, the Dutch solution to living on two sides of the bay was a bridge.  However to not obstruct the daily parade of merchant ships a little ingenuity was in order:  opened in 1888, the Queen Emma Bridge is the only floating pontoon bridge in the world.  Nicknamed “the swinging old lady,” check back tomorrow to see her in action.

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celebrating in curaçao

To combat February’s winter blues – and celebrate a very minor birthday – I’ve headed south.  Way south, off the coast of Venezuela to the world’s newest country, Curaçao.  You may have heard of it, if only for the famous blue liqueur with the same name; yet this small island – formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles – boasts a UNESCO-designated harbor and a rich history as the main port of the Dutch West India Company.  And then of course there’s all that lovely Caribbean sand.  And sun.  And sea. Happy Birthday to me.

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