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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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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