The Caribbean is a classic destination for an affordable, short getaway during the summer. Prices have dropped, flights are aplenty, and the islands are close enough for an extended weekend trip. But as we get into July and especially August, rains get heavier and heavier -- unless you're outside the hurricane belt, of course.
Of the ABC islands -- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao -- Curacao arguably has the best mix between rugged adventure and urban offerings, so you can feel like you've truly escaped without the risk of getting bored. It's the biggest of the three islands in geographic size, and sun-seeking travelers visit for the diving, hiking, and nice touch of sophistication. The Dutch influence here is strong, so you'll rub elbows with European visitors and find colonial architecture among the humbler residences.
With JetBlue's new twice weekly direct flights from New York's JFK Airport, launched just this past December, there's never been a smarter, more convenient time to plan a trip. Here's a neighborhood overview.
This is the waterfront neighborhood that any mention of Curacao classically evokes, most iconically embodied by the bright buildings along Sint Anna Bay. Many tours about the island's 515-year-old Spanish and Dutch history abound, but we also love a good wander through the European architecture and cobblestoned plazas.
While the massive Renaissance Resort & Casino makes for a fun quick browse, given the second floor man-made beach and the concentration of shops, the west side of Willemstad can get rather crowded with cruisers. We prefer crossing the bridge and escaping to the calmer east side. Here, the 18th century Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue -- likely the only synagogue you'll come across with sand-filled floors -- introduces a fascinating facet of Curacao history, and Marche Bieu is the ultimate food hall for sampling traditional island fare like pumpkin pancakes, okra soup, and stewed papaya or meats. Plan your route to the market to pass by the floating market, so called because local vendors literally dock up to the harbor with their produce and goods. And take the time to admire the vibrant 3D street art by Nena Sanchez, leading to a storefront of Serena's Art Factory -- the company behind the popular chichi figurines you'll find in many gift shops.
When it's time for a little action, this sub-neighborhood in Willemstad is getting more than its share of new restaurants and shops. Popular culinary additions here include St. Tropez Restaurant, Brasserie Chapter, and Deja Vu. All of these are lively hotspots for dinner -- but don't call it a night before visiting one of the beach parties nearby and boogie-ing with the locals.
For the active traveler, Westpunt is where all the action's at, literally. While diehard divers always head to Bonaire, Curacao's northern west coast has its fair share of beautiful reef and fantastic wreck dives -- including a sunken airplane whose submerged cabin you can loop through. (Spooky, right?) If snorkeling's more your speed, don't miss the Blue Room, a cave area named after the brilliant hues created by the rays of sun that stream through its entrance. There's no shortage of operators in the area, but we had a great experience with Go West Diving, a 5-star IDC resort based right by the Alice in Wonderland reef dive. The company offers both shore and boat dives, snorkeling tours, lessons, and more.
While you're there, carve out some time to explore Shete Boka National Park, full of craggly hikes and dramatic vistas. Boka Tabla, on the north side, is an especially optimal vantage point for watching the sea spray crash up against the rocky shore.
A bit of a drive from downtown and many other attractions, the east end of Curacao is best for those seeking a peace and perhaps a little contemplation. In these parts of town, Dinah's Botanic and Historic Garden is a destination unto itself. For 35 years, Dinah Veeris has researched native healing traditions and the medicinal powers of the island's herbs, both to preserve Curacao heritage and to promote natural remedies, rather than reaching for the drugs. The lush garden that she's planted, enveloping more than 300 varieties of herbs, is thoroughly tranquil and infinitely magical -- especially when you take the time to learn how each plant soothes all sorts of ailments from earaches to asthma. A pamphlet in the shop and clear signage in the garden makes a self-guided tour easy, or you can call ahead to arrange a personally guided tour.
Nearby, you can also get educated about the ways in which aloe boosts your health at the CurAloe Plantation, home to more than 100,000 plants. Here, get a look at exactly what the inside of those pointy green leaves look like, what different parts of the plant are used for, and even have a small slice of aloe to taste. The eco-friendly toiletries in the shop make for great souvenirs, too. And, for a completely transformative experience, don't forget to hop on a 'safari' at the Curacao Ostrich Farm -- the largest ostrich farm outside of Africa.
Don't let anyone tell you that Curacao doesn't have lounge-worthy shores. Jan Thiel beach is especially popular for its soft sands -- and, yes, there are great dives around here, too. A trendy community has sprung up in the area, and with the handful of upscale condos and chic resorts come delicious seaside dining. The Papagayo Beach Club restaurant is but one example, with plenty of open-air tables and light fare featuring fresh catch. But be warned: The vibe in this area is more upper South Beach than Miami -- grown-up but laid-back, tasteful but not fussy. Don't arrive looking for a scene.