Curaçao is one of five island nations in the Caribbean known as the Dutch Antilles, making it a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch occupied the island in 1634 and have literally been vacationing here ever since. They’ve managed, over the centuries, to create an isle paradise that remarkably resembles the old country. The multicolored buildings along Willemstad harbor are the originals built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries . Their rainbow edifices, coupled with their gabled roof lines and their placement along the banks of the harbor, uncannily resemble the Old Town Center and the grachtengordel (canal banks) in Amsterdam. The similarities between Curaçao and Amsterdam are noticeable even down to the roads and bridges. Curaçao’s Queen Emma Bridge — built in 1888 as a series of 16 pontoon boats suspending wooden planks and connecting the Punda and Otrobanda districts — is a ringer for the famous Magere Brug, or “Skinny Bridge,” over the River Amstel in Amsterdam.
Likenesses aside, the island remains a tourism paradox. It’s only 40 miles from Venezuela (which is why Stijn’s parents sip Venezuelan coffee at first light), yet there is little evidence of a Venezuelan presence, save for the copious amount of Venezuelan-brewed Polar Beer. More peculiar still are the nationalities of the tourists. Most of them meander along the shoreline and congregate on restaurant patios speaking Dutch, German and Papiamentu. There’s English spoken on the island, too, but with a decidedly Canadian dialect. There are scarcely any Americans vacationing here. The Dutch and Germans flew for 10 hours to get to this 171-square-mile island that’s only three hours from Miami. “I always found it a little strange, too,” says Jozef Oniel, a Curaçao native. “Curaçao doesn’t have the attention or the popularity that Aruba has. It seems that’s where most Americans go to vacation when they consider travel to the ABC islands.”
Undoubtedly true, since the looks of confusion in the States when the name “Curaçao” is mentioned are the same looks of confusion the scant few Americans give when they hear people speaking Papiamentu for the first time. “Inevitably, Curaçao will gain in popularity,” Oniel says. “That’s just how these things work. But until that time, we’re quite happy with our number of visitors, and we do enjoy our little island secret.”
His little island secret won’t be so quiet for much longer. Already, signs of progressive growth and change are everywhere. For starters, the new Hyatt Regency Curaçao opened in April, and its propensity for a pampering has many in-the-know luxe travelers talking and flocking. The Old Quarry golf course conceived by Pete Dye has already been heralded in golfing circles as a must-play. The legendary golf-course designer set up a resort in Curaçao because of the naturally stunning vistas and wide-open spaces — which is somewhat of a contradiction for an island that’s only 38 miles long and between two and seven miles wide, depending on where you are. Another lure is the Atabei Spa, which is a holistic retreat in extremis. The spa draws its influence from the Arawak Amerindians, the first inhabitants of the island, and particular attention was paid to every stone, every tile, every piece of marble in the 4,500-square-foot space.
Photo: The multicolored buildings along Willemstad harbor seen from the Queen Emma Bridge
Inset: “Dutch” in his Royal-Dutch-Navy-ship-turned-office at the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort
But if the new Hyatt Regency is the catalyst to start the Curaçao conversation, the real draw lies across the island at the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort and the “Magic Kingdom effect” it has cultivated. Something unbelievable is happening over at the Royal, and it’s all thanks to the vision of a man simply and affectionately (and appropriately) known around the island as “Dutch.”
Adriaan “Dutch” Schrier sits behind his cluttered wraparound desk inside a giant boat that, in its heyday, served as a Royal Dutch Navy minesweeper . The schooner has a legendary presence here at the Royal Resort: It’s two stories tall, 150 feet long and almost 60 years old. And it’s sitting in the middle of a garden. Like the man himself, the boat is an anomaly. It’s a reminder to all who visit the Royal that just because something is weathered, it still can serve a very practical purpose.
Photo: A view of St. Anna Bay and the Queen Juliana Bridge; lounging poolside at the Hyatt Regency
Dutch Schrier purchased the boat from the Royal Dutch Navy when the ship was decommissioned in 1991. “It was just a beautiful boat, and so well preserved,” he says. “I knew it still had some life in it; I knew I could make use of it.” So Dutch had the boat placed in a beautiful garden, where it took on a second life as his office and as an apartment for interns and visiting researchers. He let the sun dry it out, and then he went to work restoring it. These days, all the larger-than- life projects he conjures up begin from inside the landlocked ship.
Projects like the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, which he built in 1984. Although it’s been 26 years since Dutch literally built the first sea turtle exhibit, the aquarium continues to be an informative and entertaining stop. Visitors can watch and — under close supervision — touch many of the animals indigenous to these parts of the subtropics. Truth is, the aquarium is impressive enough to draw people from 10 hours away. But a guy like Dutch never stops. This was only the preamble to his empire.