CURACAO; Colorful and Cultural Sites Welcome You to This Lovely Caribbean Island, but There Are Some Spots for Free-Wheeling Fun, Too

Article excerpt

Byline: JUDY WELLS

WILLEMSTAD, Curacao - "Biker chick! Did you know you were on only two wheels back there?"

I hadn't and was glad no one said so until I had maneuvered the bright yellow ATV up the steep, rocky hill and onto the coral top of Watomula, a former sea floor bluff on Curacao's west end.

Sunburned, windblown and covered head-to-toe in red dust like blushing raccoons, our group of five looked at one another and laughed; after three ever-so-civilized days on this Dutch island we were ever so not civilized. The rough and, thank you little ATV, not tumble tour of Westpunt, the lightly developed and mini-mountainous west end, was a good break from the history- and culture-rich environs of the capitol, Willemstad.

Curacao is becoming a favorite cruise ship stop on southern Caribbean itineraries because it has more to offer than just pretty beaches. The largest island in the Netherlands Antilles, it is one of the ABC island group, with neighbors Aruba and Bonaire, 35 miles north of Venezuela. And outside the hurricane zone, as its publicists proclaim.

Peter Stuyvesant, who later became the governor of New Amsterdam (New York), honed his skills as this island's governor in 1642. He established the foundations for the island's plantation system, which soon made it a hub for slavery. Captives from West Africa were brought here to recuperate from their journey and to be trained at one of 102 island plantations in the ways of slave life before being shipped to Cuba and America.

As if in an unacknowledged act of atonement, today's residents seem totally devoid of racial tension; 55 different cultures are represented in the 130,000 inhabitants. Tolerance and acceptance are a way of life. Only visitors notice that Curacaoans come in every shade. The hardest challenge this Southerner faced assimilating was using the name of our cafe au lait-toned driver: "Boy."

There is prejudice, but it is focused on which of the 38 beaches is best. Of the 12 or so we saw between Willemstad and Westpunt, the Marriott, Avila and Lodge Kura Hulanda had inviting stretches; Playa Lagun, Playa Forti, Playa Kalki and Playa Knip on the west end are well worth the effort to reach. All beaches here are public, even those attached to hotels. Buy a snack or a drink and most will welcome your use of their facilities.

We never found a spot where visitors weren't welcome. Bon bini! - Welcome - is the universal greeting in Papiamentu, the commonly used Creole language that merges English, Spanish and Dutch. It's even on the license plates.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Most Americans come here on cruises and spend - at most - a day in port, which is a shame. You could enjoy weeks peeling back Curacao's onion-like layers.

Start with the classic view of Willemstad's Punda harborfront: 18th and 19th century Dutch architecture painted in Caribbean pastels. The tourist story is that a governor with eye trouble banned the use of white paint on buildings because glare from the sun set off his migraines.

The story under the tourist version adds that upon his death, it was discovered that the governor and his partner in Holland owned a paint factory.

The story under that, told by Leo Helms, director of Museum Kura Hulanda, the world's largest museum on slavery, is that to the slaves who did the painting, white attracted dead ghosts but colors reminded them of buildings in their African homeland.

Whatever the reason, the combination of colors and architecture charms and attracts visitors to the old city streets beyond. …