Curacao: The Best Gay Destination in the Caribbean. Period
You feel it as soon as you disembark from the plane -- or, if you’re really lucky, from a gay cruise. Curacao, the small semi-independent island in the Southern Caribbean, is different.
For one thing, this is not a tourist trap. You’re not going to see miles of beaches despoiled by giant chain hotels. The hotels in Curacao lean toward the small, out of the way and intimate. Many are guesthouses or a group of bungalows. There is only hotel that is larger than a few stories.
Secondly, this is a real, live nation. Although tourism is a huge part of the local economy, the people here do real work. There is a real, viable economy. The capital and main (pretty much only) city, Willemstad, has industry. The port is a major center for oil rigs. There are some small industries scattered about as well. People do real work. They make things.
This is a good thing. It means that people aren’t out to fleece you. On the contrary, they are hard working. It also means that when you are shopping or looking for that out-of-the-way restaurant or searching for native goods, you’re going to find the real thing -- not "Made in China" ersatz junk, or American-style cuisine in island drag.
Despite its small size, Curacao is virtually a micro-continent. The landscape varies from the metropolis of Willemstad to the unspoiled and largely unpopulated coves, beaches and parklands to the north. ("North" and "south" are relative terms here, as the island stretches southwest to northeast.)
The people are a reflection of the country’s ancient and amazing history.
Varied History, People - & Language
As with most of the region, the Spanish were the original owners, displacing the native tribe. The next to arrive were the Dutch, who named their capital after William of Orange (who ended up king of England, co-ruling with his wife Mary). The huge natural harbor quickly became a center of trade, especially slaves. (More of that below.)
Curacao lies several miles off the northern coast of Venezuela -- close enough so that every day, skiffs take Venezuelan farmers to Willemstad’s open-air market to sell their produce. (And more of that below.) The South American influence is also thus felt heavily in the local people.
The island changed hands between the British and French -- yet more cultural influences -- before finally ending up with the Dutch. Until 2010, the island was part of the Netherlands Antilles, a group of island that once included Aruba and Bonaire and St. Maarten. On the day known there as "10/10/10," Curacao became semi-independent, although it still maintains ties to the Netherlands.
The people reflect the multifarious history. Racially, they range from the many Dutch who continue to arrive to take advantage of the fabulous weather, job opportunities and easygoing atmosphere. In addition, there are people from elsewhere in the European Union, especially Dutch-speaking northern Belgium.
Many people speak English, especially those involved with the tourist trade. But the lingua franca is Papiamentu. Like the cuisine, culture and everything else here, this is a stewpot of nations. Although the basis is pigeon Dutch, it borrows from heavily from Spanish, with a bit of English and bits of French, native languages and African dialects brought over by the slaves.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Curacao’s polyglot and multi-ethnic history is that it is by far the most successfully racially integrated culture I have ever experienced. The people here are truly colorblind. This may be, in fact, the world’s first "post-racial" society. I never saw any kind of prejudice against anyone because of ethnicity, nor heard of any, while I was there. Everyone speaks Papiamentu -- there is no snobbery about a local language.
Profoundly Gay Friendly
One of the most notable aspects of Curacao is how gay-friendly it is. Unfortunately, the Caribbean has become better known as one of the worst hotbeds of international homophobia. We’ve all heard stories about the gay cruises facing Evangelical crowds screaming to get back on the boat at various ports-of-call. We’ve all read the horror stories about police backing up vigilantes beating and setting afire gay men.
When the first Atlantis cruise ship arrived in Willemstad, I was told that there was, indeed, a demonstration. Only this time, it was to welcome the boat. Apparently, practically the whole city shut down and had a huge party, complete with fireworks.
I went to Curacao during September to experience a gay party weekend that brought foreigners and natives together in a sort of mini-Circuit Party weekend.
The festivities began with a drag show in a suburb of Willemstadt. Now, I’ve been to more than my share of drag shows. But I have never seen anything like this. For one thing, the families of most of the participants showed up to cheer them on. Take that, "RuPaul’s Drag Show" contestants!
Secondly, the show went way beyond the Liza-Gaga spectrum. There were plenty of English-language dance songs, but also some Spanish and even a Papiamentu number that brought down the house. Talk about energetic. The contest was held in a crowded hall that was packed to the rafters -- literally -- with family, friends, tourists, gay men, straight couples and everything in between. Of all the drag shows I’ve ever attended, this was easily not only the most enjoyable but also the most comfortable.
After that, my posse proceeded to a pirate-themed dance party on a boat in one of Willemstadt’s harbor’s estuaries. The music was good, the crowd better: a mix of Europeans, Americans, Latin Americans, people who traveled from other Caribbean islands and locals.
One note: As stated above, most people in any way associated with the hospitality industry speak English language. But if you go off the beaten track, there’s a good chance you may not find English speakers. Also, although Curacao is increasingly becoming a popular destination for American travelers, especially since its location is outside of hurricane paths and its southerly position keeps it warmer longer, American tourists are far outnumbered by Europeans.
Personally, I loved this. But if you’re the kind of person who is only secure among our own kind and don’t like to step outside your personal box ... you have been warned.
A History of Religious Tolerance
I arrived in Curacao from Miami, although it’s worth noting that there are also flights from Newark, N.J.
One of the first things we did upon landing was take the requisite walking tour of Willemstad. And the highlight of that tour was the ancient synagogue.
Sitting in the heart of the Central Shopping District, this is actually one of two synagogues in town. Curacao was one of the first places in the New World to welcome Jews and that allowed them to practice their religion. This may be the only place where Jews, in fact, never faced social or official prejudice. Jews became major politicians, as well as businessmen.
Congregation Mikve Israsel Emanual was founded in 1732. The synagogue is famous for its sand floors. The beautiful inlaid wood of the pews, chandeliers and preacher’s pulpit stand out especially well in contrast to the rustic floor. I returned to visit the small museum attached to the synagogue and was treated not only to a history of how entrenched the Sephardic (Spanish-origination) Jews were here, but also a capsule glance of elegant Curacao society through the ages.
A History of Slavery
A sharp contrast to the tolerance demonstrated by the synagogue was the Kura Hulanda Museum, dedicated to preserving the memory of slavery in the New World.
Rather than shun its past as a major slave-trading port, the people here have embraced this legacy as a part of their history. Slavery brought many Africans here, along with their customs, which are commemorated and celebrated here.
My guide herself was the granddaughter of slaves, and she sat at their feet listening to stories, which gave the tour a special resonance.
There is much to be ashamed of here, certainly. You can see the instruments of "punishment" (torture, really), robes of Klan-type groups, recreations of the miserable existence of plantation slaves. But there are also beautiful artifacts from Africa and local recreations of African culture.
The museum, which is inside the Kura Hulanda Resort complex, is well worth a visit. Give yourself the better part of afternoon.
First of all, everyone accepts the Yankee dollar. I was very occasionally paid in change in the local currency, but that was unusual and was the equivalent of pennies.
I would give the better part of half a day to shop in the central area of Willemstad. Many of the stores are of the types that one can find in most cities these days with familiar brands But there are some items worth searching for.
Be sure to visit the open-air floating market that stretches along one side of the Da Ruyterkade. You can reach it via the Queen Emma pontoon bridge that connects the two areas of Willemstad, Punda and Otrobanda. There’s also a free ferry that crosses periodically.
The market features produce from nearby Venezuela that beggars anything you’re going to find in an American supermarket. Also worth trying: the local homemade treats, thick fudge and sweet hard candies made by hand. One local specialty is a praline-type concoction made with lots of coconut. Sweet and delicious.
There are also some very cool native crafts that reflect the island’s various origins, especially African. I ventured off to the side streets and found some pharmacies that sold great aloe products (more of that below!).