Published On: Fri, Sep 12th, 2014

Blog: “The ABCs of Island Hopping”

CuracaoIsland-hopping Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao in the Caribbean is not quite as easy as ABC, but is well worth the planning and effort.

The trio of neighbouring "ABC" islands made up the Dutch Antilles until that administrative unit was disbanded in 2010. Some of the ferries that linked them in the past have foundered due to competition from the air, so visitors who wish to visit all three will likely get very familiar with regional airlines such as Curaçaobased Insel Air and its Fokker 50s.

The three islands share some history as Dutch colonies, fine weather (below the hurricane belt), a language (Papiamento) and burgeoning interest by travellers; but they couldn't be more different.

Aruba has what seems like a kilometre of soft white sand for each of the honeymooning couples who have made the island the best known of the three. Shopping, resorts, casinos and other touches of island glitz abound.

Bonaire is wilder and more sparse, offering a more one-sided travel experience. About 80 per cent of visitors come for what is considered the best diving in the Caribbean.

Curaçao is the biggest of the islands at more than 60 kilometres long and (at most) 28 kilometres wide. It's where I based myself so I could have a multi-dimensional Caribbean experience. Curaçao is easily the most cosmopolitan of the ABCs, rich in history, cuisine, colour, architecture and art.

It's also evolved into a melting pot of Indian, Dutch, African, Jewish, Latin American and other cultures. The Dutch supermarkets have outposts here, where big wheels of Gouda cheese are on display.

To my friends in Canada, Curaçao is "that blue liqueur place," but the island is definitely more multi-hued than its most famous export.

Pink flamingos hover near an azure sea. The Handelskade, the waterfront main drag in Willemstad, is a row of narrow painted Dutch houses lined up like coloured pencils in a box. (It has UNESCO world heritage status.)

I whiled away one long afternoon on the veranda of the colonial style Le Gouverneur restaurant, facing the Handelskade, eating local dishes like keshi yena, a stew cooked in rinds of Edam cheese, and watching the mesmerizing Queen Emma pontoon bridge, locally known as the Singing Old Lady, open and close over the harbour.

Other days, I explored the fine art scene on the island. I sampled more local cuisine at the Marshe Bieuw (old market), a kind of Curaçao food court, with communal tables and specialties like pika hasa (a spicy dish with red snapper) all cooked in giant pots over coals.

I also got to know Curaçao's fascinating Jewish history, part and parcel of Curacao's history and prosperity. The 1792 elegant Mikve-Israel Emmanuel synagogue is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

Curaçao's wealth, it has to be said, is also due to its history as a slave-trading port. The must-see Kuru Hulanda museum tells this terrible story with chilling artifacts and detail.

Subaquatic Curaçao followed, as I join snorkellers and divers for day excursions to outlying Klein Curaçao or to the west side of the island, where the beaches are intimate pocket coves rather than long stretches.

The familiar Caribbean refrain of "we're on island time" also applies to plane schedules. Setting out for my day trip to Aruba, I'd been told the flight was 20 minutes. An Insel attendant told me sheepishly: "There are sometimes delays, landing." Still the trip was too quick an upand-down to be scary.

Aruba felt much less exotic. With its rows of resorts, familiar retail shops, and throngs of day-tripping cruise passengers, it seemed downright North American. Its draws are: safety, ease of getting around, what locals brag is the sunniest weather and cooling trade winds.

Eagle and Palm beaches are long, lovely white-sand stretches choked with enough tourists to provide a spring break vibe. If you like that scene, grab a bottle of local Balashi beer and join the crowd. One alternative is renting a four-wheel drive and exploring the island's terrain such as the windswept scrubland of Arikok National Park, where cave walking is popular. The Conchi natural pool, formed out of volcanic stone, is a great place to snorkel or just chill in water kept pristine by constant waves.

My next stop was at wilder, emptier Bonaire - another "20-minute flight from Curaçao." It offers stretches of white-sand beach, which seamlessly give way to aquamarine water, but also mud boulders strewn on sand, small cliffs, swaths of tropical vegetation, and wild donkeys in scrubby desert.

Here, too, a decidedly Dutch flavour permeates.

Signs in Dutch dot the roadways. Salt flats line the island; Bonaire's salt has for centuries salted the famous Dutch herring. Still, what most people come for is under the water: Bonaire's 86 marked dive sights, a protected ringed-reef shore and the Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire marine park; a benchmark for other Caribbean nations for conservationism.

I also had time (it doesn't take much) to wander the two or three main streets of the capital, Kraneldijk, where I ogled beautiful handmade pieces at Elements, South African-native Charlene Bosch's store.

There's a real community feel among locals and Dutch second-homers, in town and at beach bars, where I had a glass of liqueur made from cactus with the regulars before heading back to the airport, passing Bonaire's donkey sanctuary on the way.

By Karen Burshtein, Postmedia News


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