Having a Good Time in Willemstad, Curacao: Beach, Food and Music

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Last year, I visited Curacao, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, with a couple of friends after spending a few days in Trinidad and Tobago.  Curacao is an interesting place – the Netherlands in the Caribbean, for sure, but also an incredible melting pot – many folks speak Spanish due to its proximity to and semi-shared history with nearby South America.  Yet it also shares a lot with the other Dutch islands in the hood as well with Surinam, another former Dutch colony.

Curacao, license plate

Even the license plate shows off the beautiful architecture

There is much to write about this island.  I struggled with how to not write about it all in one long post.  So this post will focus on the food, fun and beach as I experienced in a very short visit.  I did not get to scratch the surface of what Curacao has to offer so I will, upfront, tell you that and then challenge you to discover Curacao yourself and perhaps share back with me what you discovered!

An upcoming post will focus more on the incredible charming architecture of this island.  Enjoy!

My hotel

First, Curacao’s capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has two sides along the canal that splits it:  Punda and Otrobanda.  Punda is the better known side with the pretty pictures folks normally see whenever Curacao is mentioned (more on this in the next post!).  Otrobanda is or was the poorer side though it contains some neat/charming architecture too.

I chose the Renaissance in Curacao (part of the Marriott family) as my hotel, located in Otrobanda right by the canal entrance.  While the hotel was not an all-around knock-out (e.g., the confusion at breakfast on what was included in my rate and what was not), there were a couple of things that hit it out of the ballpark.  One was the upgrade they welcomed me with.  A corner suite was definitely a great way to greet a Platinum guest.  Thank you for that!!  I wish I had had others sharing the room with me but that was not the case so the space was not taken advantage of.  But what I did greatly enjoy was the humongous bathroom!  Larger than my master bedroom at home!

A cruise ship passes my hotel room at the Renaissance in Willemstad, Curacao

The view from my room includes passing cruise ships!

But what really blew me away was the infinity pool.  Now you may say “seen one, seen them all” but, my friends, this was no ordinary infinity pool:  it was a beach on an infinity pool!  You walked into it as you would on a beach from the sand and the beach chairs.  It was huge and at the far end, the wall dropped down to the rocks by the sea.  When I first exited the hotel and looked at the pool, it seemed the sea was part of the water in the pool – I did not realize it was a pool at all!!   Bravo, Renaissance!

Infinity beach pool at the Renaissance hotel in Willemstad, Curacao

Heavenly!

Beach

Curacao has lots of beaches to choose from, 38 or so.  Some of the best are on the west end of the island.  Beaches in Curacao are not the typical long stretches of sand and surf that we typically envision.  Instead they are smaller, less obscenely huge places to enjoy the sun and surf!   We picked Mambo Beach just for being convenient to us as we were staying in Willemstad and had not rented a car.  I imagine it is far from the best beach but it was definitely enjoyable.

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Food and Entertainment

We ate at a couple of places that also doubled as entertainment with live music.  I could have kept returning to these places except I ran out of nights!

On our first night, we decided to watch sunset at a high vantage point on the fortress walls in Otrobanda at the entrance to the canal leading to the bay/port.  It was very near to the hotel and these places offered the right angle at sunset to look -or stare- at beautiful Punda!

View of Punda at sunset from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Beautiful Punda at sunset

Wine as we enjoy the view of Punda from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Wine sets the right mood…

Along the fortress wall in Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Along the city wall we were lounging at

Later that night, we went to Avila Blues Bar for both dinner and entertainment.  The hotel is well known for hosting the Dutch royal family (allegedly, the heir to the throne comes to play here, wink, wink).  The blues bar is on a pier by itself so you are sitting above the sea.  The band plays on a loft-like second story above the bar.  The food was great and so was the music.  More importantly:  great atmosphere!

Avila Hotel Blues Bar by the sea near Willemstad, Curacao

For lunch one day, we sat at one of the average cafés right by the canal that is the entrance to large bay (St. Anna Bay).  While the food was not spectacular, watching people, ships and the movable-floating bridge (aka, Queen Emma Bridge) was fascinating or, at least, entertaining (notice the mist in the picture below coming out under some umbrellas).

Waterfront cafes and restaurants in Willemstad in Curacao by the entrance to the bay

Curacao floating bridge in Willemstand

The floating bridge passes us by as we ate lunch

The Queen Emma "floating" bridge in Willemstand, Curacao is for pedestrians

When not pulled away to let boats pass, the Queen Emma “floating” bridge is for pedestrians

Another night, we went to a Cuban place near the old fortress walls in Willemstad called Mr. Congas.  Its owner is a friendly but serious Cuban guy – the music is authentic (take it from this son of Cubans!) and the food is decent (but I have had and can cook it better!).  The place has an indoor space built into the former fortress walls and an outdoor area where the live music plays.  It was a great evening to sit outside, listen to music (dance for those so inclined), eat, and have a few drinks!

Live Cuban music at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

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Curacao has a lot to offer – much beyond beaches.  Beautiful architecture, sun, surf, food and a lively entertainment scene.  It is a definite must-see in the Caribbean!

Couple enjoying the view of Punda across from Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Experiencing Good Food and Views in Trinidad and Tobago

It all started with a friend telling me: “I am going to visit my cousin in Trinidad & Tobago over Thanksgiving, do you want come?” Well, the answer to that question is always “yes” (it is like a genetic thing with me) though then I have to check: can I, really. My parents would be in the midst of a move. Work was not in a hectic period. I could use points for more than half of the hotel stay. But my hometown airline didn’t travel to/from the destinations. My friend told me the relative was a foreign diplomat in T&T and that Curacao was also being thrown into the plans for a couple of days. After checking out flight cost, with this other new info, I thought this would be a good opportunity to go to places not in my top 20 but worth checking out nevertheless.

So, following my gut, like I did with the Greece opportunity, I went for it with less than a month’s notice. Phenomenal!

Trinidad

The flight Port of Spain was about 3.5 hrs from Miami.  It was later in the evening so it was a mellow flight.  We landed and the airport was pretty straightforward and on we went.  I was dropped off at my hotel (my friend was staying with the relative) and deep sleep based on the late hour (around 1AM, if memory serves me right).  The plans were for me to be picked up around 2PM since said-relative had to work part of the day.  I did what came naturally to me: sleep in.  After that, I unpacked, grabbed coffee, and relaxed outdoors in the pool area.  I was picked up a little earlier (around 1PM) and we went for lunch.

Port of Spain in Trinidad & Tobago from the Marriott Courtyard

View inland from my room at the Marriott Courtyard

Before talking about lunch, let me say I loved the variety of architecture around town.  From old houses to modern office buildings, you can find a little bit of everything in Port of Spain!

Now to lunch… the place our local hostess picked offered local cuisine.  I guess I need to be more specific since some may say there are two types of local cuisines in T&T…  Stepping back, T&T had slaves brought over as most islands in the Caribbean.  But, after slavery was abolished, the Brits (so civilized…) brought Indians as INDENTURED workers (read, slaves with pay).  I will reserve further opinions on the topic… Anyhow, there is a more traditional Caribbean cuisine with fruit sauces, etc.  but there is also Indian cuisine that is fully Trini.  So, this first lunch place was more of the Caribbean cuisine but different than the Greater Antilles’ cuisine with which I am more familiar (rice and beans and some meat).  The place was called Veni Mangé (come eat in some sort of French) (http://www.venimange.com/)  My friend’s cousin (I will call her “the cousin” going forward!) has been there many times and rents a place from a sister of the owner.  The place is located in a former house so the architecture appealed to me.  The decor seems to be Haitian art (for sale).  And the food, oh, the food!  We ordered 3 dishes to share so we could try them all.  Oxtail with dumplings, fried flying fish, and creole beef with eggplant.  Plus side dishes and some tropical red juice from a fruit I didn’t recognize (even if I did grow up in the northern Caribbean…)

Lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Lunch at Veni Mangé

The rest of the day we drove around various parts of town.  Had some drinks by a yacht club a little north of town (I think by Diego Martin or past it, at least), hanging out at the Hilton outside terrace, and even a stop at a shopping mall (I could have been anywhere in ther U.S.)!

Maracas Bay

The beach to go to in Trinidad seems to be Maracas Bay.  It is a short drive from Port of Spain that includes driving through a beautiful forest and the views of the sea from up high.  However, due to some recent rains, the area of Maraval on the outskirts of Port of Spain had sustained high waters from the river and traffic moved slowly through part – however, we counted our blessings because the road had been closed earlier that day.

Flood damage in Maraval on the way to Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

The flood damage in Maraval

At some point we stopped on a roadside stand where among the things they sold as various fruits soaked in chadon beni, a delicious mix of cilantro and garlic (sometimes with black pepper too).  I tried the mango and it was outstanding (though at first it wasn’t appealing to me).

Me strongly studying my chadon beni options

Mango in chadon beni in Trinidad and Tobago

The mango in chadon beni

Maracas was very empty on this weekday and we thought it was due to people avoiding Maraval, not being sure if the road would be passable.  But after a little bit, people started appearing and the beach was a little more animated.  It was a beautiful setting, not as cove-like as the beaches we would see in Tobago.  Locals flock to this beach on the weekends and I can imagine it is a good place to be.

Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

Maracas Bay beach

Finally, the thing to do in Maracas is eat bake and shark, a sort of sandwich of shark topped with any number of toppings you self-serve on it.  Richard’s is the most famous and I hear they can have long lines.  Much to our chagrin, it was closed as they were tiling the floor of the table area (upgrade!  they must be doing well).  We ate at another one in the area and the bake and shark lived to its fame!

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

Tobago

Our hostess suggested we spend a day in Tobago, known for its beaches and more geared to tourism than Trinidad (they have not invested heavily in tourism since they have lots of oil – though you could be forgiven for thinking it is a poor country; where do oil profits go?!). A ferry would take a few hours so we decided to just fly over there in 20 mins.  Our flight over was at 8AM and the return was at 9PM.  We decided against staying overnight the night before or the night of because we had such limited time in Trinidad & Tobago.  Oh, and the day after, we had a 7AM flight to Curaçao!  We planned to rent a car and drive around and also our hostess got a hotel room so we could shower before heading back to Trinidad.

The Caribbean Airlines flight was efficient and quick.  Picking up the rental car at the Tobago airport was pretty straightforward.  Our hotel was pretty close to the airport so we stopped to check it out and have breakfast which was pretty nice.

Boarding our plane to Tobago!

Unfortunately, neither the car rental agency person nor the hotel clerk were terribly knowledgeable about which beaches were better to explore and our hostess only knew the one by the main resort.  The only nugget we got was that maybe Charlotteville and Englishman’s Bay were probably the ones to check out.  Charlotteville was on the other end of the island and, given the island is so small, I suggested we go and that we go there first to do the longer drive first and then make our way back to the hotel making stops anywhere we wanted based on the time left.

It took us about 1.5 hrs to make it to Charlotteville driving on a coastal road (the highway) which, though small, was in good condition (this was to be true almost everywhere!).  Right before getting to Charlotteville we passed a nice beach which the map had marked with many a SCUBA flag which must mean it has good snorkeling/diving going on.  However, it was the morning of a rainy weekday so we didn’t see anyone at the beach.

Charlotteville seemed like a quaint town or village facing the beach.  I was to learn many of the beaches here were in cove-like settings which were beautiful but which are very different from the expansive beaches in places like PR, Florida, etc.  Again, the weather was not favorable so it was empty.  I wish I had seen it with a little more life…

Beach in Charlottesville in Tobago

Charlottesville beach

From Charlotteville we started off to Englishman’s Bay halfway back to where we started from.  However, a piece of the road was sort of broken up due to rains, I suppose.  So, off the car I got to find rocks to cover up the mud.  With a deep step on the pedal and an almost empty car, the car passed and on we went.  We stopped at Bloody Bay where a school bus full of kids was playing at the beach.

After a quick stop, we kept on going back but somewhere missed a turn.  After driving through a beautiful forest-like area (it was a national park, we found out), we surfaced on the other side of the small island so we decided to just keep on going as we were starving.  We stopped at a place right before Scarborough called Café Havana.  It wasn’t really Cuban but was nice and open and just what we needed.  It was next to a beautiful hotel overlooking a small cove.  It would certainly be a place to stay at should there be a repeat visit.

Sea and sunset view in Tobago near Scarborough

Hotel view

So…

Trinidad and Tobago was not in my top 20 of places to go.  But this was a good opportunity that offered me seeing some of it through the eyes of a resident which is always better than just being a visitor.  And I liked what I saw!   I hope to return.  Who would have told me at the start of 2011 that I was to see Trinidad & Tobago and Greece in the year?  Living with spontaneity brings these happy surprises and new discoveries.  Do you have any similar travel destination surprises?

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