Well-known among divers for its reef and aqua waters, Curacao is also a sophisticated commercial center, thanks to its strategic location between North and South America and a harbor that is the fourth-largest port in the world. Now this beautiful island is stepping up its profile in the meetings and incentive market, and what a story it has to tell.
Five meeting planners came to Curacao to hear that story on a recent site-inspection Showcase sponsored by Adams/Laux Publishing. "One of the amazing things about Curacao is that it is a new destination for many planners, and yet it has so much to offer, including a well-developed infrastructure for doing business," remarked Lee J. Pickles, a planner in the continuing medical education department of the University of Tennessee and one of the Showcase attendees.
Curacao lies 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela, part of the dry, windy ABC islands with Aruba and Bonaire. It is a crossroads of cultures: the Dutch captured it from the Spanish in 1634 and today it is an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the largest of the Netherlands Antilles. The average citizen on this 180-square-mile island of 150,000 people speaks four languages: Dutch (the official language), English, Spanish, and Papiamento-the local patois. You'll have no trouble being understood on this friendly island-where, by the way, U.S. currency is accepted as readily as the guilder.
One of the island's major charms is its capital, Willemstad. This historic city, with its colorful Dutch Colonial architecture, is certainly one of the Caribbean's prettiest for walking, dining, and shopping-for everything from French perfumes to Dutch cheese, Thailand rubies, and Curacao's hand-embroidered linens. The century-old Queen Emma pontoon bridge spans the picturesque harbor and connects the Punda and the Otrobanda sections of the capital. In Punda, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere can be found-a gabled structure that dates back to 1732.
No visit to Curacao would be complete without a tasting of the eponymous liqueur, which our group undertook at the place where it is distilled-Landhouse Chobolobo. Better known on the island as "landhuizen," these country houses for the island's wealthy, built between 1600 and 1800, are found all over Curacao. Many have been restored and are attractive examples of Dutch Colonial architecture, with its red-tiled roofs, white gables, and mustard-colored limestone walls. Many are perfect venues for special events.
Another stop on our itinerary was Seaquarium-not your everyday aquarium. It is built into the shoreline and, in addition to its underwater observatory and 45 aquariums containing everything from sea lions to sea turtles, you can actually get in the water and feed the fish. Skilled scuba divers take small groups (no scuba experience necessary) in wet suits and oxygen tanks into a 15-foot-deep salt lake where they can feed schools of fish-and sharks. The sharks are behind Plexiglas with small openings or food hatches. The encounter makes for some very good (if somewhat deceptive) photo opportunities.
Our evening entertainment included a sunset cruise along the coast of Curacao and past the stunning homes of Spanish Waters aboard the Kristel-Ann II, a luxury motor yacht that comfortably accommodates up to 25 for catered cruises. Dinner highlighted another of the island's choice venues: Fort Nassau Restaurant, named after the Royal House of Orange and dating back to 1797, provided a great late evening meal and hilltop view of the island.
We capped one evening with a visit to Landhouse Brievengat, where every Friday night two local bands play the salsa and the merengue and the crowds turn out to dance and mingle on the open-air terrace of this beautiful plantation house.
A different kind of adventure awaited us the next day as we boarded jeeps and headed for a tour of the west side of the island led by Ed Grane, owner of Dutch Dreams. The company offers groups island adventures by canoe, mountain bike, or jeep. We climbed the hills and dunes along the rugged, lunar-like Atlantic Coast of the island, visiting spots like the haunting Boka Tabla, where huge waves pound an underground cavern. This is all part of Curacao's newest national park, Christoffel, a natural wonderland for group adventure. A few more dust-raising turns later, we found ourselves at a little oasis: cold drinks and sandwiches awaited us at Kadushi Cliffs Resort, a tranquil seaside resort.
Another of the island's natural wonders is Hato Caves, a series of aboveground limestone caves, discretely lit along an easy walking path, with 1,500-year-old petroglyphs and active stalagmites and stalactites. Cocktail parties can be held in the thatched-covered veranda outside the caves.
Tabor Tours, in operation on the island since 1961 and thoroughly knowledgeable and imaginative when it comes to meeting and incentive business, provided our guide and ground transportation throughout our stay.
We bid our farewell to the island at a gala dinner at the Sonesta Hotel, hosted by general manager John Murtha, with opening comments from Lou Roelofsen, general manager of the Princess Beach Hotel and president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. We dined on an impeccably served, multicourse meal under the moonlight outside the Portofino restaurant. It was a more-than-fitting finale to our visit to an island that can offer it all: adventure, elegance, sun and surf, charm, history, business sophistication, and fun.
Getting There Curacao is served with daily flights out of Miami on Air Aruba, American, and ALM Antillean (the national carrier) airlines. ALM also has direct service to Curacao from Atlanta, and Guyana Airways has flights to Curacao out of New York's JFK, while United Airlines has daily service Curacao out of Chicago and New York's La Guardia.
Business Workshop At a workshop of planners and suppliers at the International Trade Center, independent planner M.A. Ansare, president of Doyens, Inc., Oakbrook, IL, said he was impressed with the safety and cleanliness of the island, as well as its delicious drinking water. (Curacao has one of the world's largest desalination plants.) Kim Jennings of Evidence Photographers wanted to see more of the downtown area's possibilities for dine-arounds and shopping. University of Tennessee's Lee Pickles inquired whether the island had any plans for a golf course. Rajendra Merien of the Curacao Convention Bureau announced the news that construction of a championship, 18-hole golf course and hotel on the island's west side would begin next year.
For More Information Rajendra Merien, manager Curacao Convention Bureau, Curacao Phone: 599 9 616 000 Fax: 599 9 615 017
Sari Schwartz,consultant Curacao Tourist Board, New York City Phone: (212) 683-7660 Fax: (212) 683-9337
* Our host hotel for the Curacao Showcase was the Sonesta Beach Resort & Casino, a four-diamond, beachside hotel that tastefully blends Caribbean and Old Amsterdam architecture. Its open-air lobby features a graceful, white-columned stairway leading down to the large free-form pool and sandy beach. There are 248 guest rooms (all with balconies or terraces), several pretty outdoor areas suited for private group functions, plus a 3,000-foot ballroom.
* The Crowne Plaza Princess Beach Resort & Casino has a new 3,000-foot conference center. Complete with built-in video projection system, the center is divisible into three, accommodates up to 350 people, and complements the high standards of the rest of this 341-room, oceanside hotel.
* The Holiday Beach Hotel & Casino is a beachfront resort with 200 guest rooms and four meeting rooms, the largest accommodating up to 600 people.
* Formerly an 18th-century governor's mansion, the Avila Beach Hotel is an 80-room property, which includes 40 "classic" rooms in the original building and 40 in a newer wing. Later this year, 20 deluxe rooms, all with a private terrace or balcony, are set to open. The Avila's new conference center features a ballroom seating 120 persons, a prefunction area, several smaller rooms, and a large terrace accommodating 500 people-all built in the style of the old mansions of Willemstad.
* The 181-room Curacao Caribbean Hotel & Casino has three restaurants, two bars, water sports facilities, a scuba diving center, tennis courts, casino, and two conference rooms (seating 350 and 90 theater-style).
* The state-of-the-art International Trade Center (ITC) features tiered seating for 325, each seat with a built-in swivel desktop and armrest with simultaneous translation equipment. The 23,380-square-foot ITC exhibition hall was remodeled this summer in order to give the hall a more "ballroom-like" feel: improved lighting, a new ceiling, a more spacious lobby, and better acoustics.