Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The art and architecture in Willemstad,
Curaçao's capital city, makes the island one of the most exciting
destinations in the Caribbean.
It's fitting that Curaçao's name is a derivative of
coração, the Portuguese word for heart.
For centuries the Caribbean island
was the pulsing center of European trade in the region and a melting pot for
Dutch, Iberian, South American, African, tropical, and even Sephardic Jewish
influences (one of the oldest and most popular buildings on the island is
400-year-old sand-floored temple Mikva Israel-Emanuel).
Colonized by the
Netherlands after its independence from Spain in 1634, Curaçao's capital,
Willemstad, has a distinct architectural tradition kept alive by its
designation as a UNESCO World Heritage City.
In recent years the city has also
fostered a nascent design scene with global reach.
Courtesy of the
Curacao Tourism Board At first glance Willemstad looks a little
like a candy-coated version of Amsterdam.
The main canal is lined with the
bright pink, yellow, and teal buildings that run along Handelskade Street in
the Punda District; the law requires that they be kept in a vibrant color
palette and repainted every two years.
Nearby, the Otrobanda District is
better known for its numerous cobblestone alleyways, reminiscent of
17th-century Dutch provincial towns.
The area also contains several
European-style open-air plazas, most notably the Floating Market, which sells
fresh fish caught off the coast of Venezuela, local fruits and vegetables, and
artisanal crafts and jewelry.
The most contemporary thing about the island is its dedication to
Over the last 20 years this practice has been integral to the
renovation of many of the city's decaying colonial structures, turning them
into stunning hotels, restaurants, and homes.
Arguably one of the most
interesting neighborhoods is Pietermaai, a former slum that in six years went
from being the most dangerous to the most desirable district.
It is now home
to trendy bars, restaurants, vivid street murals, and luxury apartments, and
has an atmosphere that Marijke Hoos, a lifelong Curaçao resident and the
marketing and PR manager for Pietermaai, compares to New York City's
Meatpacking District. To walk through is to visit a tropical version of Cape
Town's brightly hued Bo-Kaap District, mixed with the old-world elegance of
New Orleans.
The area even has a New Orleans–themed restaurant, Mundo
Bizarro, that features a sexy, shabby-chic "House of the Rising Sun" vibe
complete with vintage upholstered sofas, smoky mirrors, a specialty cocktail
menu, and a charming cobblestone open-air eating section.
"The Dutch like to
be outside," jokes Hoos.
"Our windows are always open." Nearby, the Saint
Tropez Ocean Club is an art deco masterpiece.
By far the sleekest design on
the island, it was conceptualized entirely by owner Michel Oliemuller and is a
little slice of white-walled Ibiza in the Caribbean.
Just a little further is
the Miles Jazz Café, home to many of the island's most popular murals.
Across the iconic floating Queen Emma Bridge on the other side of the river
is Kura Hulanda—another former slum given new life.
Renovated by Dutch
entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker in 1998 and turned into a resort and museum,
Kura Hulanda features 67 hand-painted guest rooms (decorated with carved
mahogany and teak), two pools, five restaurants, a sculpture garden featuring
the work of local artist Hortense Brouwn, and more design installations than
you can shake a guidebook at.
There is also a museum on premises featuring
rare African art and chronicles the island's history of slavery.
Just outside
the gates of Kura Hulanda is De Gouverneur, a Dutch-Caribbean restaurant built
inside the former governor's house.
Large wooden windows overlooking the
river create the perfect evening ambiance, but a light lunch in the indoor
cobblestone garden is ideal for the romantic traveler.
Courtesy of
Berber van Beek Kura Hulanda and Pietermaai weren't the only
spots to receive recent makeovers.
For years over 100 Curaçao
Landhuizen—plantations from the 18th and 19th centuries—sat abandoned or
in disrepair.
In the last few decades they have been turned into restaurants
(Dokterstuin), distilleries (Chobolob), and hotels, including the Santa
Barbara, which is now a sprawling, haute hacienda–style complex that houses
one of the most pristine beaches on the island.
Another spot given a face-lift was the Avila Hotel and Blues Bar, one of the
oldest establishments on the island, whose interior was revamped in 1996 by
Florida architect Dan Duckham.
Its famous Octagon hotel wing, one of the
island's best design treasures, was renovated by Mike Koch at IMD Design
around the same time, and Peter Kletzenbauer renewed the hotel's La Belle
Alliance rooms in 2012.
Paintings by local artist José Maria Capricorne adorn
the walls of the property.
The island also features cutting-edge luxury designs. Located in the Jan
Thiel area, Papagayo Hotel, Resort and Spa is one of the most design-centric
hotels on Curaçao.
With a tucked-away, minimalist white facade facing the
island's iconic blue waters, it's literally a hideaway with cosmopolitan
You don't have to be a guest to enjoy the resort or its restaurants,
including the Papagayo Specialty Restaurant.
Nestled among the resort's
thatched roofs and palm trees, this fine-dining space serves everything from
Caribbean lobster—a slightly buttery, meatier counterpart to its northern
cousins—to fusion dishes like Wagyu tenderloin with potato mousseline,
haricot verts, truffle shavings, and Pedro Ximenez. Another on-premise eatery
is Zest Mediterranean—a beach bar that features light Greek fare and views
of the water.
Courtesy of
Berber van Beek The real soul of Curaçao, however, is its
To see more of their work, rent a car and drive to Jan Kok, an
18th-century plantation house that is now home to the studio, gallery, and
store of former beauty-queen-turned-painter Nena Sanchez, one of the
island's most celebrated creators.
Sanchez's pueblo-style split-level
ranch is reminiscent of Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul with its jutting organ
cactus and eclectic folk designs.
Jan Kok is rumored to be haunted—there's
a delightful eeriness to the space.
Walk through the sculpture garden and
you'll feel like you've stepped onto the set of a Jodorowsky film, as
tarot-style paintings sidle up next to larger-than-life sculptures of
indigenous women.
You can also visit the studio of Yubi Kirindongo, another
established artist on the island, where you can interact with works created
from recycled materials like plastic, paint chips, and car bumpers.
island artists gaining recognition include Avantia Damberg and Herman Van
Bergen, whose works you can read about on Curaçao's official arts page.
Courtesy of
Chris O' Coin There are also several galleries and museums not to
be missed, including the contemporary art center Instituto Buena Bista and the
Alma Blou, the oldest and largest gallery on Curaçao.
The Landhuis Bloemhof
also offers exhibitions, lectures, and creative workshops in a renovated space
filled with antique furniture.
Walk through the wing that formerly housed
stables and barns and soak in their archives, library, and reading room, which
was the former studio of sculptor May Henriquez.
Best known for its beaches, wildlife, and thriving music scene, Curaçao
also boasts a design scene that is not be missed.
Just four hours from JFK
with the rollout of a new JetBlue flight, the island is the perfect spot for
those seeking a quick tropical vacation with a bit of culture on the side.
Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, offers eclectic
architecture and a budding design scene.
Find out what art lovers should look
for on their next trip.

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