When I packed my bags for Curaçao, I was expecting to spend a long, relaxing weekend in a bikini, sipping cocktails. I was not expecting to eat iguana, or hold an ostrich egg, or visit a healing herb garden, or interact with people from more than 50 different cultures.
To me, the Caribbean is like a better version of Florida, where I grew up. The water is bluer, clearer, more gentle. The days feel slower, longer and always more relaxed.
So of course, I was prepared to find beauty and serenity in Curaçao. The adventure, camaraderie and color that came with it, though, were pleasant surprises.
One of the travelers from our crew put it perfectly when she compared the way we experienced Curaçao to the way Anthony Bourdain would – we experimented with trying the local fare, listened to the stories of locals, browsed the markets, and got up and close with a few ostriches along the way.
I couldn’t have imagined a better introduction to the island’s beauty than my first glimpse of the view from the Avila Hotel. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of Travel + Leisure. The beachfront resort is the most historic on the island. The center of the resort is an 18th-century Dutch mansion, the former residence of British and Dutch governors. The mansion opened as a hotel in 1949, and since has added three sections and 150 guest rooms. The hotel is romantic and pure, old-fashioned luxury. My favorite section was the Blues wing, comprised of all-wood buildings on a long pier extending out to the ocean. (Interesting note about Curaçao – it’s outside the hurricane belt and a direct hit of a hurricane on the island has never been reported. Rain is rare and weather is usually sunny and warm.)
I also spent a few nights at the Papagayo Beach & Lounge Resort, a contemporary hotel with clean lines, modern art and the most stunning infinity pool I’ve ever seen. The saltwater pool overlooks the ocean. I spent hours floating in the pool, listening to the waves crash on the beach, and watching in fascination as crabs scurried along the large rocks that separate the pool and the beach. It was actually hard for me to tear myself away to the pool to go enjoy meals or activities on the island.
But when I did pull myself away from the infinity pool to eat, the cuisine made my little foodie heart sing. Curacao is a true melting pot – Arawak, Dutch, Spanish, West Indian, Latin and African people make up most of the population. Such cultural diversity means there is a huge variety of interesting dishes on the island.
The first night I arrived on the island, we went to Equus, a former horse stable converted into a restaurant. The restaurant is only open on Friday nights, so locals know to arrive early in order to claim a table. The rustic, no-frills restaurant does just one thing: skewered meat. And it does it well.
There isn’t a menu at Equus, and there aren’t any forks or knives, just long, sharp skewers with thick, juicy chunks of meat and veggies hanging over the tables. We pulled off the meat with our bare hands. (I was glad I didn’t dress up or wear white – I definitely got messy here.) The meal was served with sauces to dip the meats in, along with a basket of bread. Paired with a couple bottles of wine, this is a spot to linger at. We spent at least two to three hours at the restaurant, indulging on the food and drinks, and having great conversation.
I tried bitterballen for the first time at Papagayo Beach & Lounge Resort’s specialty restaurant. The Dutch appetizer is a fried mixture of beef or veal, beef broth, butter, flour and seasonings, usually served with mustard for dipping. This little treat was a serious hit among our group – we ordered it at lunch, dinner, as a late-night snack, as a lounging-by-the-pool snack. We probably would’ve ordered it at breakfast too, if we could’ve.
But it was Jaanchies Restaurant that offered an experience truly worth traveling for. If you told me a few years ago, I would ever put iguana in my mouth, I would’ve laughed in your face. Hard.
I was actually really nervous when I learned trying iguana was on our group’s itinerary, but as soon as I saw the atmosphere at Jaanchies I felt more at ease. The restaurant is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the US. The building doesn’t have windows and is completely open, with pretty little birds flying in and out between the restaurant and its outdoor garden. Because there isn’t air conditioning, it gets hot, but I barely noticed noticed how hot it was because I was so entranced by the experience. The restaurant is beautiful.
Jaanchie, who opened the restaurant himself more than 60 years ago, personally took our order. I chose chicken with rice and fries, and we got a plate of iguana to share for the table. The chicken was so good that I decided to trust the restaurant and forgot how nervous I’d been about trying iguana.
The iguana, which heavily seasoned and cooked in a delicious sauce, tasted like chicken. Selecting which part of the meat to eat was tricky, because iguanas have a lot of tiny little bones. I had a couple bites before digging back into my own chicken platter, feeling satisfied that I had been brave enough to try eating a reptile.
Den Paradera Herb Garden
There was plenty of adventure to be had on the island beyond eating iguana. Our crew did a short hike to the edge of the island’s north coast at Shete Boka National Park, where I witnessed the loudest, most violent waves I’ve ever seen. The enormous waves slammed into an underground cavern. Slippery, rocky steps led us into the mouth of the cavern. Signs warned us not to go too far into the cavern – Shete Boka’s waves are so powerful that if you’re caught in them, there is little chance of ever reaching land again. Later that day, we headed to Playa Knip on the west coast for much tamer waves.
At The Curaçao Ostrich Farm, we went on a safari-style tour and had a chance to feed the ostrich. I held a giant bucket full of food while several of them rapidly jutted their heads quickly in and out to grab food. Ostrich eggs are so tough that you can stand on them, and our group took turns doing just that. The farm also offers brave guests the chance to ride an ostrich, though our hilarious tour guide told us, in so many words, that he did not recommend it. The ostrich are actually blindfolded when humans ride them so they won’t freak out and throw the human off. And for those with an adventurous palate, the connecting restaurant serves both ostrich meat and ostrich eggs.
At Den Paradera herbal healing garden, the brilliant owner, Dinah Veeris, took us on a tour of Curaçao’s gifts from nature. We learned that topical eucalyptus can heal arthritis, aloe capsules can help you lose weight, and cat’s claw can heal eczema and strengthen hair. Before we left, Dinah gave us each a cup of her signature “love tea,” a delicious tea made from flowers in her garden. She told us if we drank the tea, it would help us find love.
While the tea was amazing, I was pretty sure I didn’t need it: I had already fallen in love with the island of Curaçao.