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Caribbean cruise vacation dealsThe Caribbean Islands - Curacao
Curaçao has its own brand of island spirit and style: friendly people, lively casinos and warm breezes mix with a Dutch flavor and a dry landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest.

A charming capital city rich in architectural style and a diverse national park brimming with flora and fauna further enhance this intriguing island.

Curaçao is located 35 miles north of Venezuela, and, at roughly 180 square miles, is the largest of the Netherlands Antilles; it is also the most populous. The island has all the amenities of a Caribbean paradise, plus one of the region’s most distinctive cities, Willemstad.

The logical place to begin a tour of Willemstad is at the Queen Emma Bridge, at the corner of Breedestraat and Handelskade. This floating pedestrian bridge swings open several times per day to admit ships to the harbor.

Directly across from the pontoon bridge entrance is Penha & Sons, dating from 1708, the oldest existing merchant house in Willemstad. Strolling up Handelskade, you’ll see the row of colorful Dutch buildings--originally constructed as offices and storehouses for wealthy merchants who longed for Holland--that has become famous around the world.

In the distance, spanning the bay, is the Queen Juliana Bridge, which cost $30 million and is known as the highest bridge in the Caribbean: vehicles cross the harbor 193 feet above the water. Tours of the harbor depart regularly from the bay side of Handelskade.

The picturesque Floating Market, on Sha Caprileskade, is where schooners and sailboats from Venezuela tie up to sell produce, meat and fish. At the end of the market is the Wilhelmina Drawbridge, which connects the shopping district called Punda with the oldest residential section of the city, Scharloo, once home to Curaçao’s Jewish merchants.

East of the bridge is the circular public market, opened in 1973, and the post office, where you can buy colorful stamps. The monument across the street near the water’s edge commemorates those Netherlands Antilleans who were killed in World War II.

Returning to the drawbridge, head down Columbusstraat and you’ll come to the stately Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue, at the corner of Hanchi Snoa. It is the oldest activesynagogue in the Western Hemisphere: the congregation was founded in 1651 by several Jewish families from Amsterdam, and this synagogue was consecrated in 1732.

Like its facade, the interior of the synagogue reflects the distinguished style of old Amsterdam, from its brass chandeliers to its intricately carved mahogany ritual appointments inlaid with silver. A thick carpet of sand on the floor symbolizes the desert where the Israelites camped on their long journey to freedom. The synagogue’s museum displays a valuable collection of ritual objects and memorabilia from Curaçao’s Jewish community.

Columbusstraat is a main shopping artery, second only to Breedestraat, so you will be surrounded by busy shoppers and bargaining merchants. Where Columbusstraat meets Breedestraat, you’ll find Wilhelmina Plein, a small park complete with a regal statue of Queen Wilhelmina. Huge Fort Amsterdam, whose mustard-colored walls once protected the harbor entrance, was the town center from 1648 through the early 1860s.

It is currently the central seat of government for the Netherlands Antilles. Outside the main entrance to the fort, which faces the pontoon bridge, is the Horn of Plenty Monument, donated by the Dutch royal family in appreciation of the support offered by the residents of the Antilles during World War II.

The yellow-and-white section of the fort, just inside the main entrance, is the Governor’s Palace, noted for its striking double staircase. Across the courtyard is the renovated Dutch Reformed Church. Although there has been a church on the site since 1635, the present structure was built in 1742 and restored in 1763, 1903 and 1991. Because space within the fort walls was limited, part of the church was built over a military magazine, which at the beginning of this century was being used, ironically, as a government-bonded rum warehouse.

To visit the other part of Willemstad--the Otrobanda, which literally means the “other side”--you must cross the pontoon bridge. At the foot of the bridge, you will come upon a small park with a statue of Curaçao’s best-known war hero, Pedro Luis Brion, who led Curaçao’s militia against the British in several battles, forcing a British withdrawal in 1803.

To the left of the bridge is the Riffort, a fortress that once served to protect the harbor entrance. West of Willemstad is the Curaçao Museum, on van Leeuwenhoekstraat just north of the Holiday Beach Hotel & Casino. Constructed in 1853 as a hospital, it was restored almost 100 years later and is a fine example of 19th-century Dutch architecture. The museum houses an interesting collection of antiques, Caiquetio and Dutch colonial artifacts and more.

On the coast east of town, on Penstraat, is Octagon House, where Simón Bolívar used to visit his two sisters during the wars for South American independence. The mansion, restored and furnished with antiques and some of Bolívar’s memorabilia, is now a museum. Farther east is the Curaçao Seaquarium, on Bapor Kibra next to the Lions Dive Hotel, where you can see over 400 varieties of exotic marine life--including sharks, stingrays, turtles, sponges and corals--all raised in their natural environment.

On the greener northern side of the island, the lovely Christoffel National Park, covering 4,500 acres on the western end of the island, serves as Curaçao’s ecological showplace. The hilly landscape is dominated by majestic Mount Christoffel. Twenty miles of roads, divided into several routes, traverse the park; although the terrain is a bit rough in spots, you can tour the park by car. There are also several walking trails.

Scenic lookout points are scattered throughout the park. There are also several caves, located along the northern coast of the island. The Visitors’ Center has books, brochures and information about guided tours and bird watching, as well as souvenirs and refreshments.

Before you leave this end of Curaçao, stop by Boca Tabla, situated just beyond the entrance to the national park. This magnificent cove is an excellent place to stop for photos of the island’s rugged north coast; you can climb among the rocks and cliffs for a variety of perspectives. On the western side of the cove, you’ll be able to see and hear waves crashing into a stunning grotto.

Another Curaçao attraction is the Hato Caves, just east of the airport. A walkway leads through the various “rooms” of these impressive limestone caverns, which are formed of fossilized coral. Inside, you’ll see stalactites, stalagmites and, of course, bats. The caves are open daily; the small admission fee includes a tour. There’s also a souvenir shop, and food and refreshments are available on the terrace.

Curaçao has 38 public and private shores. Most of the public beaches, while they are excellent for swimming, have no facilities. Private beaches may charge a modest fee. Situated at the very western end of the island, West Point Bay is one of its best-known public strands.

There are two small restaurants nearby, offering refreshments and pleasant views of the coast and the small fishing boats that dot the bay. If you follow the road around from West Point Bay toward Willemstad, you’ll see a sign for Knip Bay. Two tiny coves comprise this public beach, each reached by a divergent trail from the main road.

Either branch will lead you to a wonderful setting, but if you try the trail that curves to the left, you’ll end up in an intimate, simply magnificent spot--Klein Knip, or Little Knip Bay. The area around the base of the cliffs abounds with colorful marine creatures that are easily seen through the shallow, transparent waters. Little Knip has virtually no shade or facilities; but there are changing rooms and refreshments available at the other cove.

If diving is your passion, the Curaçao Underwater Park is the place to visit. This series of protected reefs offers divers a chance to investigate miles of beautiful coral beds, steep walls and two shallow wrecks. The park is offshore from the Curaçao Seaquarium.

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