WILLEMSTAD, Curacao -- Amongst Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- the three Dutch Caribbean islands that lie almost within shouting distance of the Venezuelan coast -- it was Aruba that first gained a large measure of independence from the Netherlands and which has successfully promoted its beaches and casino operations to cruise ship passengers and independent travellers alike.
Two decades on, and now similarly a largely independent part of the Kingdom of the Netherland, Curacao is fighting to earn the same high profile. But in fact Curacao is the largest and most populated of the three islands, and the one that offers the most variety. In addition to the beach resorts and dive sites offered by its neighbours, Curacao offers hundreds of historic colonial buildings, assorted wildlife attractions, and winding routes through wild countryside to remote plantation houses. It's the perfect destination for families -- comfortable, safe, varied, and even educational.
The beach resorts still make the best bases for wider exploration, although when every imaginable service is available at the wave of a hand, an effort has to be made to break free. The newest is the casino-free Hyatt Regency, nicely tucked away in a quiet corner of the island on a private estate south of the capital, Willemstad. Its solidly furnished rooms have balconies overlooking a pair of beaches and assorted swimming pools surrounded by palms, and it is well supplied with excellent restaurants, shopping, and a golf course, all designed to make it unnecessary and even unappealing to leave the resort for any reason.
But it's only a 20-minute drive to the appealing toy-town charm of World Heritage-listed Willemstad, a tiny tropical Amsterdam. Its tall, narrow, cheerfully pastel-painted houses with their stepped gables line both sides of the long and narrow canal-like mouth of the harbour with an artless quaintness like the illustration from the lid of a box of chocolates.
Hundreds of historic buildings as much as three centuries old form a tight grid with narrow streets linked by even narrower alleys, some leading to tiny, hidden squares. If this hide-and-seek quality wasn't already appealing enough to children and adults alike, these squares are sometimes home to counters serving the traditional Dutch snack of fries with peanut butter or mayonnaise sauces.
At street level the ancient and dignified buildings are often open as duty-free shops. One arm of the harbour is home to a floating market where Venezuelan traders display mountains of colourful tropical fruit in stalls next to their vessels, close to a lift bridge that seems straight out of a Van Gogh painting.
The population is made up of more than 50 ethnic groups, a reminder that Curacao was at different times a colony of Spain, Holland and Great Britain, and that it once made its money as one of the largest slave markets in the Caribbean. A triangle of trade routes took baubles from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and United States, and rice and sugar back to Europe with hefty profits on each leg.
Today Chinese, whose ancestors arrived via former Dutch possessions in Indonesia, run most convenience stores and many restaurants. People from formerly Dutch corners of India and Sri Lanka run the many electronics and jewelry shops. Conversation on the streets is a hubbub of Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento, the local Creole language.
Across the narrow harbour entrance on a gently swaying pontoon bridge of slatted wood dating from 1888 and overlooked by ancient cannons retrieved from sunken ships, the Kura Hulanda ("Dutch Courtyard") Museum illustrates Curacao's heritage with an extravagant exhibition of carvings from the various parts of West Africa that supplied slaves. Scary ceremonial masks, musical instruments and devotional items compete with Benin bronzes and the grim paraphernalia of the slave trade: Manacles, instruments of punishment, and a reconstruction of the cramped below-decks spaces in which they lived while crossing the Pacific.
More cheerfully, in perhaps the finest display of colonial architecture in the Caribbean, a warren of 62 original buildings including substantial mansions have been carefully restored and turned into a hotel and restaurants. Creaky external wooden staircases mount walls painted in bright blue or warm yellows and reds to higher floors with wrought-iron balconies overlooking courtyards flooded with sunlight. Tropical birds with calls like car alarms flit from tree to tree.
Another day away from the beach can be spent with some of Curacao's purpose-built pleasures. The Ostrich Farm, also about 20 minutes from the Hyatt, offers a safari around pens filled with these comically ungainly creatures, with entertaining commentary on their biology and habits.
With ostriches its the kick you have to fear, not the bite -- "It doesn't hurt," says the guide, "but it's not nice either."
Sinous necks reach over fences to inflict a staccato pecking on proffered bowls of dry horse food, which contains all the necessary vitimins. Ostriches typically live to 50 in the wild, but here can live up to 80. Eggs capable of taking the weight of a towering adult ostrich can easily withstand that of a mere human, and there's one provided to prove that for yourself.
Opportunities to feed wildlife continue at Curacao's substantial Sea Aquarium, not far west of the Hyatt, where in addition to watching dolphin shows and viewing a vast variety of tropical fish, children can hand-feed flamingoes, turtles and a pelican.
But the best of Curacao is perhaps the northern part of the island, where beyond the clutter of big box stores and shopping malls around the perimeter of Willemstad the road narrows and winds in a loop up one coast and back down the other, passing tucked away public beaches, assorted restaurants and several plantation houses.
Unlike the plantations of Jamaica, which brought great wealth to their owners, those of Curacao were largely unsuccessful and barely covered their own costs even before the 1863 emancipation of the slaves significantly raised costs. By the early 20th century labourers were moving to the docks, the oil refinery, or the mines, and agriculture was largely extinct. Not far north of Willemstad the countryside is already attractively wild and seemingly remote.
One of the earliest and largest plantations was Savonet, its "landhuis" built in 1662, now superbly restored and opened as Curacao's newest museum. It's a solid little house on high ground, neatly painted in yellow and white, the pitch of its red-tiled roof first shallow then suddenly steep in classic Dutch style. An exhibition describes life on the plantation and tells the island's history from the Spanish arrival in Curacao of 1499, to largely independent membership of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010.
From the rear terrace an orderly plantation would once have stretched away to nearby hills, filled with sorghum, grass for cattle, and orchards of the local bitter orange from which the famous Curacao liqueur is made. At different times everything from cotton to cochineal was tried, but never brought more than modest profit.
Now the land is a jungle with tall cacti sticking up through a tangle of other growth. Walks along narrow paths, footfalls deadened by fallen leaves, produce rustling everywhere in thick brush to either side as striped or brightly spotted lizards dart away, Large, orange-breasted orioles call out a warning at this unexpected and rare invasion.
The resort seems not an hour but a world away. But it is waiting, with its rustling palms and twinkling pools, to offer late-afternoon lazing about and an early cocktail.
IF YOU GO TO CURACAO
-- Full information about travel to and around Curacao can be found on the Curacao Tourist Board site at curacao.com. Air Canada, American Airlines, United Airlines and local carrier Insel Air all offer routes from North America. No visa is required for U.S. or Canadian citizens.
-- Details of accommodation and facilities at the Hyatt Regency Golf Resort, Marina and Spa can be found at curacao.hyatt.com. Hilton, Renaissance, and Marriott also have a presence (most with casinos). Details of the historic Hotel Kura Hulanda can be found at kurahulanda.com along with images from the museum.
-- For details of other attractions, see ostrichfarm.net, curacao-sea-aquarium.com, and savonetmuseum.com. Many of the surviving plantation houses are still private, but a list of others that may be visited can be found on the Tourist Board site.