The Dutch island is best known for its blue liqueur, but that’s set to change with the arrival of the all-inclusive Sandals chain and its heart-shaped lounge chairs
WILLEMSTAD — Just like the famous blue holiday liqueur, Curaçao is a potent blend. True, it follows the recipe for a typical Caribbean island — beaches, bars, clear waters — yet there are off-menu ingredients that make Curaçao seductively surprising. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the landscape: no deep verdant Caribbean greens here — it is more arid — and instead of banana palms, tall, spiny cacti reach towards the bright blue sky. This is because Curaçao lies below the hurricane belt and escapes the rain that gives much of the Caribbean its lush vegetation (also meaning less chance of you being soaked off your lounge chair).
And although Curaçao feels Caribbean at heart, you can quickly tell it lies only 40 miles from the Venezuelan coast — cafés sell South American arepas and empanadas, and many locals speak Spanish (one of four languages taught in schools, alongside English, Dutch and Papiamento, the local creole language).
Then there’s the fact that Curaçao is one of the former Dutch Antilles and is still part of the Netherlands; there are clues everywhere, from the Dutch road signs to the huge wheels of gouda for sale at duty free. Curaçaoans are Dutch citizens, and it was the Netherlands government that supported the island through the coronavirus pandemic when its main industry, tourism, dropped away to nothing.
Now tourists are back and islanders are welcoming them with open arms. I stayed at the brand new Sandals resort — another surprise, it being the all-inclusive chain’s first opening in the Dutch Caribbean (though its 16th outpost in the Caribbean). Speaking to Curaçaoans, it’s clear that they live in the shadow of their more famous neighbour Aruba, a tourist hub. So they’re delighted that Curaçao was chosen for the latest Sandals resort, which sits on the 3,000-acre Santa Barbara estate, on the south coast.
Why Curaçao over Aruba? Sandals’ Jamaican CEO, Adam Stewart, tells me it’s all down to the family holidays he took here with his father, the Sandals founder, Gordon “Butch” Stewart. “Over the years we have come here and, you know, played here in our downtime. We just love the destination,” he says.
From the moment I arrive I am embraced by locals. On the short drive from the airport my driver tells us that Sandals is one of the best places to spot the island’s birdlife, and says that if I venture into town, I must try Curaçao’s delicacy, iguana soup.
My arrival at the resort takes me along a winding road with dramatic views of the hills and sea. I get to my room just as dusk is falling and — with a local Montana beer in hand — watch the sun slowly melt into the Caribbean Sea. Then it’s a dinner of king crab and Dover sole in Vincent, a modern European restaurant named after Van Gogh, perhaps the Netherlands’ most famous son — that Dutch pride coming to the fore again.
In the bright sunshine the next day I immediately make a beeline for the resort’s Dos Awa pool — a two-level infinity pool with views of Spanish Water Bay, and a swim-up bar where friendly bartenders generously free-pour the rum for your daiquiri — or, of course, the blue curaçao for your blue lagoon cocktail.
What’s also quickly apparent is that, like other Sandals resorts, this one suits couples: heart-shaped lounge chairs by the sea; rose petals scattered across the bedspread; romantic candlelit dinners for two on the beach (an optional extra). The resort is very much designed for people in love.
The priciest rooms offer the height of luxury — bungalows ten paces from the sea, each with its own infinity pool, or cabins set back from the bustle of the resort, around a private pool (heart-shaped, naturally). Many rooms have their own swim-up pools and come with butler service.
Yet another surprise at Sandals Curaçao is the food, which is not the all-inclusive buffet fare I was expecting. In the evening all eight restaurants are à la carte. The standout spot is Zuka, a Central and South American restaurant decked out in gold wallpaper patterned with monkeys and parrots, and a busy bar serving caipirinhas and pisco sours. The tuna tostada starter is so good that I finish it and immediately order it again, while my swordfish steak coated in crushed tortilla chips is top-notch. I’m also impressed by the on-site sushi restaurant, Gatsu Gatsu; the crispy rice and spicy tuna starter demands seconds here as well. As do the signature saké cruise cocktails.
Beyond the resort Curaçao may be small, but there is lots to do. The island feels incredibly safe and it’s easy to go exploring, not least because the swankier rooms at Sandals come with a convertible Mini Cooper to use for the duration of your stay. In the capital, Willemstad, houses are painted in a rainbow of colors — urban legend has it that the former governor of the town decreed houses could no longer be painted white, as it made them too blinding in the sunshine. But locals later found out that he also owned a paint factory. There may be no truth to the story, but it’s a fun tale nonetheless, in tune with Curaçao’s playful spirit.
Willemstad is made up of two towns — named Punta and Otrobanda in Papiamento — separated by the St Anna Bay and the swaying Queen Emma Bridge. Otrobanda is largely residential, while in Punta colorful murals line the streets, where shops sell handicrafts and locals sip coffee at pavement cafés.
For a small island Curaçao has an impressive food scene. I was encouraged to try this out because, even though Sandals is an all-inclusive resort, it runs an “island-inclusive” dining program; book a week in one of the best rooms and you get a $250 voucher per couple to spend at a choice of eight restaurants outside the resort. In Willemstad I dine at Nultwintig, which takes its name from the area code for Amsterdam. This modern and airy restaurant, which opens onto the sea, serves excellent food drawing on local and European cuisine.
Then there are the incredible beaches, the best of which are to be found on Curaçao’s second island: Klein, or “small”, Curaçao. The ride to Klein Curaçao is not for the faint-hearted — or weak of constitution — as the journey is often bumpy, with waves crashing onto the deck, soaking everyone. But it is so worth it. Even by Caribbean standards, the sea here is spectacular: a glittering shade of aquamarine that makes that blue liqueur look dull in comparison. Dolphins swim alongside our boat, while the snorkelling is sublime — I spot needlefish and black-and-white banded butterflyfish; I’m told to look out for turtles too.
I think back to something Marieke van Hamond, the manager at Nultinwing who has been here for 14 years, told me on my visit. “There’s so much beauty,” she said. “You see the beaches and you meet the people — they’re so friendly — and experience the culture. It has so much charm.” I couldn’t agree more.
Hannah Al-Othman was a guest of Sandals, which has seven nights’ all-inclusive from £2,475pp, including KLM flights from Heathrow via Amsterdam (sandals.co.uk)