A girl can only stomach so many tundra-like winds and 4 p.m. sunsets before she starts scouring the internet for island getaways. But before you book a stay with usual suspects like Aruba, Bermuda and the Bahamas, hear us out: There’s a Caribbean locale that’s just as dreamy, but it’s twice as inviting, less crowded and way cheaper than its tourist-ridden competitors. In case Curaçao isn’t on your to-visit list yet, read on for a slew of reasons that will make it your next vacation destination. (We’d pack a bag like, yesterday, if we were you.)
Cheaper, Less Crowded and Just As Gorgeous, Curaçao Is 2023’s Best Island Vacation
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What Is Curaçao?
One of six Dutch Caribbean islands and part of the ABC islands (the others being Aruba and Bonaire), Curaçao is located in the southern Caribbean Sea about 40 miles north of Venezuela. Its capital, Willemstad, became a Dutch colonial trading settlement in the 1630s after the Dutch West India Trading Company invaded the island and forced Spanish colonists to surrender. After the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, Curaçao became an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As a result, Curaçao’s food, culture and language are the definition of a melting pot.
Most locals speak English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamentu, which is the native tongue and a Creole amalgamation of those languages plus Portuguese and some African and indigenous languages. So, you won’t have trouble reading most signage, ordering food or chatting with locals while you’re there.
Why Visit Curaçao?
Curaçao delivers a less touristy experience than other Caribbean locales because it’s more of a hidden gem, especially for Americans. That means less crowds and tourist traps and lower prices. Nevertheless, you’ll still get to do all the beaching, exploring, eating and partying that you’d do at similar destinations.
“Each island has its own charms, but in my opinion, going to Aruba is like going to Miami in the Caribbean,” says Tirzah Statia, Curaçao native and experience curator for Curaçao Tourist Board. “When traveling, you would like some new experience; Aruba is more Americanized in [terms of] food and hotels. Curaçao protects its own identity.”
Upon arriving, you’ll notice that hotels and popular sites are right in the thick of the local culture, unlike in other countries where you’re pretty much limited to the resort. In other words, staying at a resort won’t keep you from seeing the real Curaçao; you’ll pass watering holes full of residents and tourists alike, as well as charming, lively neighborhoods bubbling with live music, colorful homes and late-night conversations.
“Traveling alone is safe, and you will be interacting with the locals,” explains Statia. “Locals are everywhere you go, which will make you feel at home. You won't be cut off from the community. The people here are really polite (or “dushi,” meaning sweet; you’ll see and hear this term all over the island, as it’s both a descriptor and a term of endearment) and always eager to help.”
You also won’t have to shell out more than desired to pay resort-caliber prices for food or activities. Being enmeshed in the local culture means eating, dancing and unwinding with the residential community at their price point.
“Curaçao is for every wallet. You can choose to stay at an Airbnb and cook or eat at local restaurants and bars that are very affordable,” says Statia. “Additionally, we are currently the best diving island in the Caribbean. On some islands, [scuba] diving requires a boat, but here, diving can be done by just walking to the shore. Due to this, [diving] is more affordable than [on] other Caribbean islands.”
Why Is Winter the Best Time to Book?
The weather in Curaçao is consistently warm and sunny, but heat and humidity peak from July through October. Come the winter months, temps are just right. “In Curaçao, winter is still summer, with temperatures averaging between 80 and 90°F [with] some rain and light winds,” Statia explains. “We claim that the constant wind or breeze we experience here is like the cherry on the cake.”
Curaçao is also outside the hurricane belt, so you won’t need to worry about your vacay being derailed by a natural disaster. (The only natural disaster that could taint your stay is a mean sunburn or a million mosquito bites, so be sure to pack plenty of reef-safe sunscreen and bug spray.)
Despite Americans’ general lack of knowledge about Curaçao, the island is far from a secret. Many Europeans, especially from the Netherlands, have been visiting for years, and popular hotel chains including Marriott, Sandals and Renaissance are now claiming their piece of the pie as Curaçao’s popularity continues to grow. “490,000 visitors came to Curaçao overall in 2022, breaking the previous record achieved in 2015. The new objective is to accumulate 500,000 before the end of this year,” states Statia.
In case you want to be one of those half-million visitors, you can currently fly direct to Curaçao from NYC, Newark, Charlotte and Miami, which is only a three-hour trip. Delta Airlines may also begin direct service from Atlanta in 2023. Canadians can also fly direct from Toronto and Montreal.
Unique Things to Do in Curaçao
With 34 distinct beaches, clear, warm waters rich with marine life and all the outdoor sites a tourist could ever want, it’s no surprise ecotourism is a major highlight of Curaçao. “We have national parks, hiking locations, yoga at the beach, paddleboarding yoga and much more,” says Statia.
If you’re eager to be in the water, jet ski to the famous Blue Room cave from Playa Kenepa Chikitu and snorkel the day away. You’ll see countless fish, crustaceans and even sea turtles if you’re lucky, who are more than happy to swim with a buddy. Then, put on your water shoes for the caverns at Boka Table in Shete Boka National Park. And if you really want to get your fins wet, consider lionfish hunting. The invasive species is detrimental to coral reefs throughout the Caribbean, so tourists and local conservationists alike can spearfish (and eat) them to benefit the island’s ecosystem.
If land activities are more your vibe, why not test your nerves by rappelling 185 feet off the Queen Juliana Bridge, the tallest bridge in the Caribbean? ATVs are also available for the daredevils of your group to explore the island’s desert terrain.
Above all though, Curaçao is beloved for its stunning capital of Willemstad, which is most famous for its Dutch-style, waterfront pastel buildings. (Statia calls the downtown area an open-air museum since most of the centuries-old buildings are classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.) Hop a Green Wheels scooter to take in murals by local artists, explore local galleries and hole-in-the-wall restaurants and to make the trip over the Queen Emma Floating Bridge that separates the downtown districts of Punda and Otrobanda, the only structure of its kind in the entire Caribbean.
What to Eat in Curaçao
Activities aside, we’d argue that Curaçao’s diverse culinary landscape alone is worth the trip. Save for their native language, the food is likely the clearest example of Curaçao’s blend of cultural influences. “Everywhere you turn, there is a different gastronomic experience, and on top of that they are using more and more local products, which is good for the farmers here,” explains Statia.
There’s no shortage of island favorites, like goat barbecue, fried conch, Antillean ice cream (called li), bòkel (salted mackerel) and iguana soup, to scarf down. If you want to taste the real Curaçao alongside locals, head to Plasa Bieu, a food court and market that offers classics like goat stew and funchi (polenta). As for freshly caught (and shockingly affordable) seafood, Statia recommends Purunchi Koredor. Food trucks are also a major part of the island’s culinary landscape, BBQ Express Caracasbaai being among the most beloved.
If it’s fusion, waterside cuisine you seek, look no further than Ceviche 91 Gastrobar, which boasts more than a dozen fresh seafood ceviches and a wide range of tapas and cocktails. For drinks, venture to Netto Bar, the oldest bar on the island since 1954 that’s famous for its unique green rum. For breakfast or lunch, Number Ten Curaçao’s sandwiches, waffles and espresso drinks won’t disappoint. And if you want to get in on the cooking yourself, book the pan sera workshop at Kas di Pal’I Maishi, where you’ll find a 130-year-old kunuku (plantation) house and learn to make bread as the rural Afro-Curaçaoan population did until about 1950.
Where to Stay in Curaçao
If you want to stay in downtown Willemstad (and aren’t toting kids with you), Kura Botanica is the perfect choice. It’s a new, adult-only boutique hotel located in one of the UNESCO World Heritage buildings. If you’re going for legacy and sea views, Avila Beach Hotel is the oldest stay on the island and close to both downtown and private beaches. But for a luxury feel and resort perks, Zoëtry Curaçao Resort & Spa is our top recommendation.
Firstly, the accommodations are positively stunning, and only ten minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from downtown. There are multiple places to hang outside, including a roomy pool neighboring an outdoor eatery and bar. The lobby bar is manned by friendly, personable mixologists and it’s delightfully breezy, thanks to open doorways on either side, so even when you’re chilling indoors, you’ll somehow still feel immersed in nature. The onsite restaurant, Bloom, is also an excellent place to enjoy a meal. (Think Curaçaoan fare with international flair, largely Latin.)
Best of all, your stay at Zoëtry also grants you full access to Dreams Curaçao Resort, Spa & Casino, which is just a brief golf cart ride across the street away. With both hotels at your disposal, you can experience the intimate, luxury accommodations of Zoëtry, along with the casino and beach off Piscadera Bay at Dreams.
Wherever you crash in Curaçao, expect a one-of-a-kind island getaway that will likely outshine all the Caribbean vacays of your past. In Statia’s words, “Curaçao will always be your one truly authentic island, full of lovely surprises, historically significant and culturally alive.”
Taryn Pire is PureWow’s associate food editor. A former bartender and barista, she’s been writing about all things delicious since 2016, developing recipes, reviewing restaurants and investigating food trends at Food52, New Jersey Family Magazine and Taste Talks. When she isn’t testing TikTok’s latest viral recipe, she’s having popcorn for dinner and posting about it on Instagram @cookingwithpire.