Island Basics

Discover the ABCs -- Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- and the unique travel experience they offer

Special Caribbean Issue


KRALENDIJK, Bonaire, Dutch Antilles -- I was taking what seemed like a country back road, dodging wide puddles left by the previous day's downpour. The scenery included barbed wire, prickly pears and darned if there wasn't a windmill rising above the scrub. It was the typical springtime drive in Central Texas -- except that I was on Bonaire.

There was a similar moment on Curacao, where the rural vegetation coagulated in a weird coming-together of Baja cactus and Yucatan jungle so thick only lizards can penetrate it. Over on Aruba -- which is the most well-known of these three islands -- the landscape struck me very much like Southern Arizona, except for the brilliant blue of the Caribbean.

These, then, are the ABCs -- Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, the desert isles of the Dutch Antilles.

Straight south of the Dominican Republic.

So near Venezuela that they are sometimes absent from Caribbean maps.

Small and off-track to the point that Caribbean guidebooks struggle to fill three or four pages apiece on them.

Bonaire and Curacao are known mostly for excellent scuba diving. Aruba is known for its beaches. I'm going to assume that if you are a diver you know what to do in the water, and that if you are a sand hound you know what to do on the beach. I'm here to tell you what to do on solid ground.

Just getting there, and then traveling from one to another, is a feat of aerial timing worthy of the Flying Wallendas. Flights from Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland depart from different airports to different islands on different days of the week. Once you make it to one of the ABCs, you are dependent on the local airline, Bonaire Express, to reach the others -- and that's not easy either (see "If you go").

I went first to Curacao.


There are spots on Curacao that, if not for the roofline of red tiles, you would never know where the blue of the houses ends and the blue of the sky begins. Golden breasted birds flit through the foliage, but their plumage fades in comparison with the saturated pigment of historic buildings. Curacao, pronounced kur-a-SOW, is a bright and painted place.

Capital city Willemstad, a many-colored Amsterdam, straddles St. Annabaai, a long channel that accommodates cruise ships and guides freighters and oil tankers to the industrial docks of Schottegat Bay. Despite its traffic, the channel water is so clear that when I took the two-minute passenger ferry from one side of town to the other, I could easily see variegated fish swimming below. I suppose I probably could have seen fish equally well from the 700-foot-long Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, reputedly the largest floating pedestrian bridge in the world, but it was dismantled for repairs when I was there.

For Willemstad, skimpy guidebooks instruct visitors to do a walking tour of this, that and the other mossy old monument. But unless you came all this way especially to see the Curacao Postal Museum, I would recommend you just start walking.

On the Punda side of the channel, your feet will find their way to the floating fruit and vegetable market, waterfront karaoke cafes and duty-free perfume shops that characterize this neighborhood. Before you know it, you will come upon Mikve Israel, recognizable for its modest architecture in a neighborhood of painted hussies. Founded in 1732, Mikve Israel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas and displays religious items of even earlier vintage in the adjacent Jewish Historical Cultural Museum.

On the Otrabanda side of the channel, all foot traffic flows irresistibly to Breedestraat, where locals shop for discount clothing, cheap curtains and cut-rate washing machines among the mom-and-pop storefronts of Curacao's "mainest" street. In this area, you will want to stroll the grounds of Kura Hulanda, a place that takes some explaining.

Kura Hulanda is a historic neighborhood restored to its former glory - so well, in fact, that it has become a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. It's also a gated boutique-hotel village whose rooms occupy what were once shops and homes; I stayed four nights in one of them. And it's a complex of fine-dining restaurants. Best of all, it's home to one of the finest small museums I've ever visited, the African History Museum, where exhibits celebrate African art and graphically chronicle the Caribbean slave trade. I slipped my wrists into rusty manacles and descended into a re-created hold of a Middle Passage slave ship.

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