If in Doubt, the Answer is Usually ‘C’

Willemstadt, Curacao
Willemstadt, Curacao

Back in high school and junior high, most exams of any import were taken on a sheet called a Scantron. This was a narrow rectangle of paper with a grid of potential answers (A, B, C, and you guessed it – D) for each question that had to be completely filled in with a Number 2 pencil. Like many of my classmates, when unsure of an answer, or running out of time, the tradition was to simply fill in ‘C’ and hope the law of averages worked out in your favor.

The Caribbean has its own form of ABC represented by the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. While each has their own charms, if pressed to make a choice, once again my recommendation would be to choose ‘C’. Let me tell you why.

Topographically, all three islands are not what most envision when they think of the Caribbean. Despite lying only a hundred miles or less off the northern coast of South America, these are dry, semi-arid islands. The upside to that is a greater chance of sunshine during your visit, and low runoff means more vibrant coral reefs for snorkelers and divers, which is a primary objective on the itinerary for many.

Whether they like it or not, nearly all visitors to Curacao will pass through the colorful capital of Willemstad – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This bustling settlement is a whirlwind of color in a pastel palette split in two by Sint Anna Bay and connected by the pontoon-style Queen Emma Bridge and the large, arching Queen Juliana Bridge set a further bit inland. While it may look like a village right out of an amusement park, the banks, shops and businesses are all real, despite their cartoonish color scheme and gilded architecture. May I point out that color – the town’s most striking attribute – also starts with ‘C’. Just saying.

The pounding surf at Shete Boka National Park, Curcacao
The pounding surf at Shete Boka National Park, Curcacao

The island has a long, narrow shape, but despite its narrowness, there’s a tangible difference between the north and south coasts. While just about every square inch of Curacao is blessed (cursed?) with a constant breeze, the north coast is the one taking the brunt of the open sea, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at Shete Boka National Park at the far northwestern tip of the island. Here there’s a steady supply of powerful waves that mercilessly crash against the craggy cliffs scoured of any vegetation by the incessant beating. A natural arch attests to the erosion process and fury of the sometimes tempermental Caribbean. In this case the correct answers for ‘C” would be ‘crashing’, ‘crushing’, ‘current’ and ‘crazy if you decided to take a dip here’.

Playa Knip, Curacao
Playa Knip, Curacao

Also on the western side of the island but on the tranquil, leeward south shore, is perhaps Curacao’s finest beach – Playa Knip, alternately called Grote Knip. Here you’ll find more greenery than cacti and the scalloped crescent of sand forms a secluded bay of the bluest water this side of Bora Bora. There isn’t much in the way of facilities, but the correct answers for ‘C’ in this idyllic context are ‘coral’, ‘carefree’, and ‘can I stay here a little longer?’.

Besides a scattering of other smaller and even more secluded beaches on the south shore – which is also the main drag for all scuba and snorkeling activity – another popular attraction is located just to the southeast of Willemstad called the Curacao Seaquarium. If you haven’t already guessed, this is in actuality an aquarium-type complex which isn’t all that impressive until you see the dolphin or sea lion show, at which point the answers for ‘C’ are ‘cute’ cuddly’ and ‘can I have one?’.

Getting around Curacao is relatively straightforward. There are some vans/buses that will get you into town from one of the many resorts in the Willemstad area for a reasonable price – taxis are comparatively expensive ($10 US for a five minute ride). My advice is to rent a car – the roads are in good shape and since this is an island, there’s a limit to how lost you can get. Most people a visitor would likely come into contact with speak English in addition to the local Papiamento language, and if not, the merits of pointing and gesturing cannot be understated.

So now that I’ve given you all the overview you’ll need for a successful visit to Curacao, here’s your final question. If you need me to give you a hint, then maybe you should re-read this piece, because obviously you were not paying attention.

The reasons why a person would want to visit the Caribbean island of Curacao are:

a) Beer making and hula dancing lessons
b) Skiing and snowboarding
c) A colorful capital city, gorgeous beaches and great diving and snorkeling
d) All of the above

This concludes the quiz on worthwhile Caribbean islands to visit. Make sure you filled in your Scantron sheets correctly and pass them forward. If you left any blank, I trust that you now know what to do.

All Caribbean Islands Are Not Created Equal (Despite What The Beach Boys Imply)

Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI
Trunk Bay, St. Johns, USVI

 

“Aruba. Jamaica. Oooh I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama. Come on pretty mama…” Thanks a lot Beach Boys. Your song Kokomo just reinforces a stereotype that geographically-challenged Americans have about the Caribbean. Namely, that it’s all the same. Now it’s up to me, and others like me, to set matters straight, and I can do so in two words, not counting the contraction: It’s not.

 

Sure, I suppose there are some common elements—turquoise waters, coral reefs, a laid back lifestyle and such. But saying that the islands of the Caribbean are all the same is like saying all dogs are alike, or telling an Italian that any type of pasta will do. Not only is it blatantly wrong but also likely to raise the ire of those who know better (especially the Italians). So in the spirit of setting the record straight, here’s a brief overview of the Caribbean and the various flavors to be found within.

 

Bermuda & Bahamas

 

Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Turtle Cove, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Technically neither is a ‘tropical’ destination since both lie north of the Tropic of Cancer. And since we’re being technical, Bermuda isn’t even in the Caribbean Sea but rather due east of the Carolinas. Regardless, many lump these in with the Caribbean Islands so I’ve included them here. Bermuda, while enjoying much milder temperatures than the North American landmass to the west, is not a year-round destination if you’re looking for sand and sun. By October things are starting to cool down, and while there are still things to do and see, it is much more pleasant when you can lie comfortably on one of their famous pink sand beaches.

 

As for the Bahamas, this archipelago consists primarily of flat, sandy islands with green vegetation. Not much in the way of mountains or waterfalls here, but if it’s a pleasant beach or interesting dive spot you’re after, so long as you hit the weather right in the winter it is a nice destination if you can avoid the persistent vendors. Continuing to the southeast, the Turks & Caicos Islands are more of the same—flat, relatively featureless topography with azure waters on all sides. The only difference in my estimation is the political boundary.

 

Greater Antilles

 

Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica
Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

This term refers to the largest islands of the Caribbean: Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti & the D.R.), Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Forming the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, these islands have rugged, mountainous interiors, palm-fringed beaches and colorful colonial histories. With the exception of Cuba which is still pretty much off-limits to American tourists, and Haiti which has an underdeveloped infrastructure and relative political instability, tourism is alive and well. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are extremely popular all-inclusive destinations, though with the proper tour operator and/or a good head on your shoulders there’s plenty to see outside the resort’s grounds—especially Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios. You’ll have to run a gauntlet of vendors but it truly is a world-class site.

 

Lesser Antilles

 

Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica
Roadside Bar, Roseau, Dominica

The Lesser Antilles are basically all the islands starting from the U.S. & British Virgin Islands & curving down to Trinidad and the northern shores of South America. These islands are what most envision (erroneously) the entire Caribbean as being—mountainous, waterfall-strewn, jungle-clad jewels of green in a turquoise setting. And while they share the same general topography, the varied colonial heritage of each island makes the local flavor a bit different from the next. You have your former English colonies at Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados and Montserrat. You’ve got your French islands like Martinique & Guadeloupe. And you even have the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten that’s half French and half Dutch. Try telling them that it’s all the same.

 

The ABC Islands

 

Playa Knip, Curacao
Playa Knip, Curacao

This term refers to the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. In contrast to the Antilles both Greater and Lesser, you will not find lush rain forests, gushing waterfalls or emerald mountain ranges here. These islands are dry, windswept, & semi-desert-like. On the windward side of the islands waves batter & scour the jagged coastline, whereas on the leeward sides you’ll find tranquil clear waters and some great diving and snorkeling. Standards of living are a bit higher here and colonial towns such as Willemstad & Oranjestad offer charming architecture and plenty of shopping opportunities. All of this is fine—just know what you’re getting into.

 

I hope this brief overview clears up some of the common misconceptions about Caribbean islands, and may it serve as a lesson to those who accept songs at their word. For the sake of truth, knowledge, and geographical consciousness everywhere, before you lump an entire geographical region all together, consult a map, consult a professional, or even consult me. Just don’t ask the Beach Boys 🙂