mbranesf (mbranesf) wrote,

Some Notes on Our Visit to Curacao (including hotel, food, driving)

J and I returned Monday from four days in Curacao, an island of the former Netherlands Antilles (now an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands). It's been eleven years since he and I vacationed anywhere very far away together. I want to make a few notes on what we saw and did there.

ARRIVAL, AIRPORT, TAXI: Airports stress me out generally, but as airports go, I like these small ones that are typical in the Caribbean and some places in Mexico. We'd hoped to exit the plane by stairs as we did many years ago in Mexico, but here they did have that exit tunnel thing like at most American airports. But the exit tunnel and the arrival/immigration/customs area was open to the air, not air-conditioned, kind of sultry because it was hot that day. We liked this, being immediately exposed to the climate.Just a few minutes after arrival, we were outside the airport. It looked like this:


The taxi to the airport was a mildly beat-up Toyota van, and the driver kind of scared us by driving at what seemed to us too fast a speed and nearly getting us into (what seemed to us) a couple of wrecks. (More about driving in Curacao later in this log.) But I liked the whole "feel" of it, the van's open windows, the noise of a local radio station, the glimpses of the sea and the island's big oil refinery, and, quite soon, a view down into the bay straddled by the city of Willemstad. The taxi crossed the Queen Julia Bridge, the freakishly high span over the bay, and as we rode down the  bridge on our final approach to the city, we easily spotted our hotel and its surrounding neighborhood (which we'd also studied on Google Earth the day before). The view of the place from the bridge was just like that in the pictures we'd been looking at for weeks since we booked the trip, an old little city of pink and green and yellow and blue buildings lined up along the water, clay-tiled roofs, the boats that make up the "floating market," the Queen Emma pontoon bridge at the bay's entrance. It was exciting to see that it was real, and of a scale that is easily graspable for first-time visitors.


THE HOTEL SCHARLOO: Pronounced skar-LOO and not SHAR-loo as we'd been thinking before we got there. The taxi driver corrected us on that right away. SKAR-loo, I said, trying to learn the correct way. No, skar-LOO. We got it right after that. The owner and small staff of this hotel are so friendly, so helpful. We felt properly at home right away. But this is not a "resort" hotel for tourists who whose idea of a vacation in the Caribbean is a lot about lolling around in a full-service compound. It does have housekeeping service, you can order breakfast if you want, it does have a small courtyard with a small but very nice swimming pool, but it is not a place with all the amenities and add-ons of a corporate resort place. But for travelers like J and me, who intend to spend most of the time out and about and learning about a country they haven't been to before, it's perfectly good enough. We enjoyed our second-story room, described as the "Queen Suite", which included a kitchen area with a stove and a refrigerator. I think there's possibly only one such suite in the place, but we're not sure about that. It was spacious and it exceeded my expectations in that we had an enormous private balcony, tiled in white with a table and chairs and lounges. The online description of the room when we booked it did promise a private balcony but for some reason I seriously doubted that there would really be a truly private balcony. I imagined that we'd have a door that opened to a small sitting area adjacent to the courtyard. But no: we had a huge private balcony! The bathroom is utilitarian but clean and comfortable. The shower might strike Americans as a bit odd at first glance. It's simply a corner of the room, with the floor tiles set slightly lower than the rest of floor, a curtain to pull around it. In here, the window has no glass, just shutters, which lent some of the feel of an open-air shower, which I love (and a nice window ledge to rest my drink while showering!). Also, I found use of the hot water totally unnecessary. The tap temperature of cold water in Curacao tends to not be much less than body temperature, so it was quite refreshing to just take a "cold" shower, which I did in the morning and again in the evening before going out to dinner. The temperature in general was perfect for us in this breezy room with the open windows and shutters. The landlady asked us to please, when running the air-conditioner, keep windows and doors closed because electricity is very expensive there. But we never even turned the AC on once. With the windows and the door to our balcony open at night and the ceiling fan on, we slept in total comfort on a huge bed, neither hot nor cold. I didn't even cover up with the sheets.



MULTILINGUAL, MULTIETHNIC: Because all my attempts at learning foreign languages never worked out for me, I am always impressed when someone has easy multilingual fluency. Curacao is a whole country of such people. Though Dutch and English are "official" languages of the island, Spanish is also heard a lot and most locals speak among themselves Papiamento, a creole of various languages including Dutch, Portuguese, English, and Spanish with ingredients from native American and African languages. I was fascinated to hear servers at cafes speak in this language to locals, then switch to English when talking to us and then switch to Dutch when talking to Dutch tourists. The locals' facility with English may have varied a bit from person to person, but no one seemed to have ever any trouble communicating with our monolingual selves the whole time we were there. The island is also the kind of multiethnic sort of place I like to be in. I suppose it probably has, like most societies, some kind of ugly underbelly of bigotry and racism somewhere, but it's hard to picture it from my limited, brief and outsider perspective.

THE QUEEN EMMA BRIDGE: A major landmark of the center of Willemstad, this is an old pontoon bridge that swings fully open and closed periodically through the day and night to let boats and even quite large ships like oil tankers into the harbor. It crosses the narrow part of the bay, linking the Punda and Otrobanda sides of town (more stuff to do/see in the former than the latter, by the way), and serves foot traffic, not cars. But when the bridge is open for boats, one can still get across on a free ferry service. You just hop on and go. A pair of these ferries cross back and forth during bridge openings, so it's pretty fast. The station on the Punda side is close to the bridge near the Iguana Cafe.


MONEY: If you are coming from the US, you really don't need change money into the local currency, the Netherlands Antillean guilder. Dollars circulate freely and are accepted for payment everywhere (though don't be too insistent on getting back exact change if you use cash; the vendors may not have the correct dollar change in the registers or they may ask you to accept change in guilders. Be cool about that because you are, after all, using foreign money in their country). Visa debit/credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, so cash is not needed in huge amounts (very little acceptance of American Express, however; we don't have an AMEX card anyway, but we were told that Visa and Mastercard are pretty much what they want to see there). When you get your bill at a restaurant (and they do call it a "bill" rather than a "check" as we usually do here in Saint Louis), the price is always stated in guilders and dollars, and your credit card receipt will be stated in dollars. One thing you may want local money for, however, is if your hotel has a beer vending machine. Yes, a beer vending machine. People outside the US may not find this to be a novelty but I haven't seen one since I was last in Europe almost twenty years ago, so I was excited. We bought Heinekens from ours and we needed guilder coins to do it. To get guilders, you do not necessarily need to exchange your own cash currency for them. You can go to any ATM (Bankomatico) and do a cash withdrawal with your Visa debit card. It will ask you which currency you want, select guilders, etc. Then start spending the notes in order to break them down into coins for your beer machine later that night!


FOOD: My profession is chef, and I am also an adventurous and curious foodie. J is as well, so naturally what we were going to eat in Curacao was a major mission of our visit. It would be too generous to say that this country is some kind of mecca of awesome culinary magic, because it's not. But it would far too harsh to say that the food was not good, because it was for the most part. But I had to quickly get rid of the assumption that we were going to spend all our meal times indulging in some kind of particularly Curacao-ish island cuisine and decide to just accept what was available. We had been forewarned somewhere on the web that getting "local" food in restaurants is not that easy to do there. But I figured it was kind of like in resort towns in Mexico where, once you leave the hotel compound, you can find "real" Mexican food all over the place without much hunting. But Curacao is a little different. Dishes that are considered to be "local" tend to be at-home preparations and not easily found in restaurants (with a notable exception below). These are the basic categories into which the food we ate seemed to fall:

"General interest" restaurants: You'll find seafood/meat grill type places, some Italian food, some random "international" food in the restaurants on the Punda side near the run of hotels along the ocean front. We dined in two of these places. One was a seafood and steak-oriented place right on the water where I did have a dish called that looked and tasted to me of "real" Caribbean cooking. It was a simple saute of chopped assorted "local shellfish" (I think clams and conch were represented) with onions, peppers and lots of garlic; a huge portion of that with a side of French fries accompanied with mayo in the Dutch fashion (more on that below). Jeffy had a mixed grill with beef filet, chorizo, barbecued ribs and chicken. Both dinners were elegantly plated and garnished with fried plantain strips. The other of these ocean side places was the first joint's neighbor (these were actually in a sort of "food court" of several adjoining full-service restaurants facing the water), and there we had Italian food. J had "ravioli carbonara" and I had a calzone. Both were tasty but involved such a huge quantity of cheese that we wondered if cheese was somehow government-subsidized. Nothing seemed exactly inexpensive in Curacao, but they sure were lavish with cheese which I would think would be a pricy commodity in a country without its own dairy sector and which imports nearly all of its food.


Dutch-style food: We had most of this kind of cuisine at the Pleincafe Wilhemina, at which we became something of regulars, sometimes eating and sometimes just drinking. This is a relaxing street cafe in the center of the action in the Punda district. We had both dinner and brunch there. The dinner menu followed a plan that reminded me of restaurants that I ate at in the Dominican Republic many years ago, where one basically picks a protein main item and then selects some sort of potato-based side dish, and it comes with a salad. In the Dominican, every restaurant seemed to have essentially the same menu: pick your fish or meat item, pick its method of preparation, automatically get French fries and a side salad with it. The Wilhelmina was kind of like this but its main items are mostly Dutch meat preparations with some influence from Holland's former colonies, such as the chicken satay that J had for dinner and the island-influenced beef stew that I ate. Both of our dinners came with a huge pile of fries (with mayo, of course). We broke our many weeks of carb-reduction with this dinner. The fries were so effing delicious that night! I'd been dreaming of potatoes for weeks. The food was good but not necessarily "fancy" or innovative. But it had an old-time charm to it that kind of reminded of the Wisconsin supper clubs from my childhood, where one also always ordered dinner by picking a meat, fish or chicken preparation ("broasted" chicken, anyone?), selecting a potato iteration and auto-receiving the little salad.

But the brunch was something really special, and I think the favorite meal I had on the island. On Thursday night when we were eating dinner, I noticed that the card in the table tent on our table promoted the fact that Sunday is pancake day, with many varieties of sweet and savory. I pleased myself by translating this information on my own from the Dutch. But then again, I know English and I tried to learn German for a couple years, and Dutch is basically halfway in between those. Written Dutch kind of looks to my eyes like English but with German-like spellings. It's really basically the same language, so not too great a linguistic feat for me. But still. Anyway, we ended up back at the Wilhelmina around lunch time on Sunday in part because it was one of the few businesses open at that time of day on sleepy Sunday in Curacao but also because we liked the place. And there I got the pancake of my dreams. Huge in diameter, it was rather like a French crepe in texture with perfectly crispy edges, but thicker and fluffier in the center. I ordered mine topped with ham and melted cheese (the generous cheese again!), and I added drizzles of pancake syrup to it as I ate it, alternating syruped bites with non-syruped bites, unable to decide which I liked best. It was a very simple thing, but perfectly executed and totally satisfying. After we were done eating, our server, a Dutch dude, asked how the pancake was. I told him it was awesome, I loved it, and he told us that he had been trying to talk the management into serving the pancakes everyday instead of just Sunday. They totally should! At this same meal, J got his cheese dosage in the form of a croque madame with three layers of bread, lots of ham, an egg and gobs of melted cheese. The old homeland must be dumping gouda and edam in the Antilles because they spare no cheese ever there.


Real local food at the Old Market: Somebody in a review on Trip Advisor or some site like that negatively reviewed the food court of the Plaza Bieu (the historic "Old Market" of Willemstad) by complaining that it was "hot" and "dark" and that the foods were prepared with a lot of oil, and that it's a place that "the locals should eat at." As if that's a bad thing. And, wouldn't you know it, the locals do eat lunch there. Inside the Old Market building there is a row of food concessions open for lunch, and it is mostly frequented by locals but it also draws tourists like J and me who really wanted to find at least one authentic example of the "local" food while we were there. Once inside, we were immediately  greeted by the owner of the first stall. Since her place is by an entrance, she has an advantage and she took it with us. We never did scan all the available options, instead settling rather quickly on having what she was serving. She offered us tastes on plastic spoons to entice us to place an order. As a cook with some experience with this kind of food concession, I was fascinated by their set-up: big pots and rondeaux full of aromatic stews and rice dishes sitting over a big charcoal grill. It's one thing that I wish I would have taken pictures of but I didn't want to seem like too huge a douche while we were navigating our way toward an unfamiliar lunch. J and I had already imagined that one of the purposes of going to this place was to sample goat stew, and our hostess had that for us. We also ordered paella, laden with oysters and mussels. I hadn't expected this place to be as full-service as it was, but we placed our order and then were ushered to a picnic table to wait for it. The portions were enormous. The goat stew was sided with a mountain of rice and beans and a generous amount of fried plantains. The seafood rice also came with a lot of plantains and some shredded lettuce salad. Part of trying new things in a new country is the chance that maybe one might not like something so well. This was, sadly, the case with the goat. I tried a bite or two, liked it fine, good flavor, and passed it off to Jeffy. He also liked its flavor...but then started finding the downside of some goat preparations, such as a fair amount of gristle and bone chunks. I'd warned him to watch for bones, but the gristle problem probably would have not been there so much had the meat spent maybe another two hours braising. I tried some more of it and ended up agreeing with him that it was not entirely palatable. Which was a shame because we probably would have a happier memory of the food itself at the Old Market, but it was still a great thing to do and if I ever go to Curacao again I will be eating there again, just maybe passing on the goat.


GAY GAZE: Yeah, there were pretty many hot dudes for us to notice there and about, locals and tourists as well. A visit to the Netherlands during my college years somehow imprinted me with an enduring (if possibly inaccurate) impression that there exists a number of Dutch male cuties that is entirely out of proportion with their numbers as a whole. The first one I saw on Curacao--by way of a glimpse through the taxi window right after arrival--was a soldier driving a military vehicle, and I was taken back twenty years to this impression. Because of the tourist trade with the imperial homeland, Willemstad is rampant with these unlikely creatures.

Also, it's worth noting for any other gay people who might be looking for a Caribbean vacation destination, that Curacao is very "live and let live" culturally and that their government tourism entity has actively encouraged LGBT people to vacation there. This is in great contrast to a number of other countries in the region, such as Jamaica, where maintaining homophobia remains more important than economics.

DRIVING: Since we'd planned to rent a car for a day during our stay so that we could see some of the rest of the country outside of Willemstad, I researched before we left the driving rules, road signs, the general driving culture. One site, penned by a local, made such assertions as that driving on the island is unhurried, that it is the norm to take it easy, that roads are as likely to be shared with goats and donkeys as with cars. And even that it is prohibited to stop to photograph and feed donkeys, that overtaking ("passing" in US lingo) is seldom possible, and that speeding is generally frowned upon. It was advised to drop one's hurried expectations of city life, relax into the island groove, and not be in too much a hurry to get anywhere because hurrying around like a maniacal asshole is just not the Curacao way. Well...let me reveal that this is all complete bullshit. The norm is, in fact, speeding, horn-honking, dangerous overtaking on hair-pin turns, the occasional deadly-looking uncontrolled intersection and a generally lax attitude about rules and customs as pertain to driving in general. And, in the city, there was an active cult of boys on bikes dedicated to dodging in an out among moving cars, doing hair-raising wheelies and generally trying to defy their own imminent deaths in traffic. There is, in some aspects of life there, a prevailing "island time" that seems slower and less urgent than where I am from, but driving ain't one of those aspects. Despite all that, I do recommend getting a car for at least part of one's visit so that one can see the island outside Willemstad. The drive is usually very nice out in the rural areas. But don't believe for a second that these Curacao people are some kind of chillaxed islanders in no hurry for anything in life, happily trundling down their roads alongside livestock. False! And we didn't see one damned donkey on the road! I was soooo hoping to break the law and photograph one! We did see a few goats off to the side and one chicken, but none of them were actually using the road.


One other minor driving inconvenience is that one is obliged to refuel a rental car before returning it or risk a steep fuel charge later, and Curacao doesn't have a ton of gas stations and what we saw of them seemed to be all full-service. While this may sound nice to older Americans who may still have fond memories of full-service gasoline in the US, I have never in my driving life been to such a station and I found it to be a total pain in the ass. If you know how much gas you're getting, you can prepay at a drive-thru window (this was the case at the station we stopped at), but I just needed to fill up all the way, so I didn't know how much. So I went ahead to the pump, a dude filled the tank, told me it was a cash-only place but that he himself couldn't take the money. I had to go back to the pay window, a glass or plexi cubical so tinted as to be nearly opaque. I wasn't even sure anyone was in there at first. A drawer slid open to accept money, but I still didn't know how much to pay. So I yelled in, "How much was that in dollars, please!" Then a hand pressed a slip of paper against the inside of the window and through the murk I could read "$15." While I don't really dig  it, when traveling abroad, to see a lot of American corporate imperialism (like the KFC, Subway and McDonald's on the island), I really think a Quik Trip should open up there, with pay-at-the-pump credit card self-service, and a store full of cold beer and wine. I think it would be a big hit.

But despite all this, I really recommend getting a car and going to see the rest of the island, including the amazing, albeit occasionally terrifying, Christoffel National Park. Unless you're lizard-phobic, because the place is swarming with little lizards that run off into the brush when you get out of the car at the various look-out points. The pic above is a view of a beach accessed by descending a harrowing stone staircase into what looks like a bottomless pit, but which actually goes to a path that eventually opens into that cove. Below is me being somewhat scared by the descent and by the long deadly drop-off to my left. You can't see that in the pic, but it was there.


PROVISIONING: If you are staying in Willemstad and you have a room like ours with a big refrigerator, it may occur to you to pick up some stuff to drink to bring back to the hotel so you can lounge on the balcony between outings with some cold beer or white wine. We found this to be a struggle. Nowhere in the central part of town where we were staying did we find a single shop that sold any kind of package beer. It was simply not possible to grab a six-pack or twelve-pack anywhere. We went into a small general store on the first day to get some coffee to brew in the morning (yeah, the room had a coffee maker but oddly no coffee supplied for it) and there also bought six loose Amstel Brights out of a refrigerator of soda and beer. Kind of a rip-off price-wise, but whatever. The next day, we found a store that more closely resembled a supermarket across the street from the Old Market, but they also had no package drinks. There I dug into the bottom of a reach-in cooler and scored ten loose Polars (Venezuelan brew in little 8 oz. bottles). and paid about twenty bucks for them. The one solution to this problem is to get yourself to Centrum Supermarket. It's a large grocery store that would look very familiar to Americans and there one can buy twelve-packs of beer and bottles of wine at a reasonable price. The only problem is that this store's two locations are both rather far-flung, not in walking distance of where we were at all. So when you have a car there, you need to go to Centrum. We went to the Piscadera location which was easy to find on the way back into Willemstad from our journey to Westpunt.


FLYING HOME: This was the only part of the trip that I hated. Whenever I have been lucky enough to travel somewhere, I tend to get a little melancholy for a few minutes on the last night there because it's all suddenly almost over. But at the same time, I do like to get back home, and I was missing the kitties badly, too. But in between the end-of-trip wistfulness and the happy return home, there is the huge fucking pain in the ass that is re-entering the United States of America. It was worse in Miami than I recall it from past travels years ago when entering elsewhere, maybe because all the steps of it (passport control, customs inspection, security re-screening for the next flight, eventually being permitted to find your next gate) are so far-flung through the compound. We landed thinking we had what seemed like a fairly long layover between flights, but by the time all this was done and we had found our next gate, there was barely time for lunch.

The above doesn't really cover all the specific stuff we saw and did there, but it hits some important points about the place, so I offer it into the online literature about traveling to Curacao and hope that someone planning such a trip will hit upon it someday and learn something (especially about the slow-driving/donkeys fraud!).
Tags: curacao, gay, jeff, personal life, travel

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