A Heady Cocktail; Curacao Is Famous for Its Startling Blue Liqueur, but Patrick Jephson Is Intoxicated by the Caribbean Island's Striking Beauty and Civilised, Laidback Charm

Article excerpt

Byline: PATRICK JEPHSON

CAPTAIN Good Life's shack nestles amid the manzanilla trees beside a flawless coral beach.

Proudly displayed beneath its frond thatch are the trophies of years of beachcombing.

The Captain himself - wearing swimming trunks, ingenious tattoos and a buccaneer's grin - presses a well chilled Amstel beer into my hand as he fires up the V6 Mercury engine on the dive boat. As he sets course out into the blue Caribbean at warp speed, I have to hold on tight - and not just to my beer.

Later, after he's shown me one of the natural wonders of the Caribbean, he cooks me a dish of the freshest fish I've ever eaten, in a style all his own, while his Venezuelan wife and laughing-young children complete the picture of island domestic bliss.

It's easy to love Curacao, especially at this time of year while the island is covered with spring blossom and the cool trade winds blow. This jewel of the Dutch Antilles is still the Caribbean's best-kept secret - it hasn't yet registered Pier and a thousand passengers then head for the quaint old streets of the capital in search of duty-free goods. Don't be put off by this invasion - the visitors keep the jewellers, fashion houses and souvenir-sellers on their competitive toes.

Cruise passengers are a choosy lot. They expect air-conditioned internet cafes, English-speaking locals and trustworthy taxidrivers. In Curacao they get them all. They also get great watersports, one of the best links golf courses in the world, a dolphinarium and tours of Christoffel National Park.

Then, as the tired and happy visitors sail away at dusk, the locals and hotel guests settle down to some serious nightlife. Curacaoans aren't big fans of steel bands and calypso - they'd rather get to know each other to the beat of tumba, an even sexier version of salsa.

THERE is no better example of what makes Curacao special than Dinah Veeris's lovingly tended herb garden. Recently honouredby Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands for her preservation of local traditions, Dinah has devoted herself to saving and sympathetically cultivating Curacao's unique range of medicinal plants. A place of tranquillity, her garden also honours the islanders' history of craftwork as well as song and dance. It's recommended even for those who, like me, do not usually get very enthusiastic about ethnic culture.

In fact, it's Curacao's simple, civilised friendliness that makes it such a delight. In the interests of thorough research, I walked after dark through some of the less salubrious parts of Willemstad and found only friendly greetings.

Unlike certain other Caribbean destinations, you won't be hassled for money, deafened by reggae or worried about pickpockets. That's perhaps because tourism has only recently found Curacao and the island authorities are determined not to repeat the mistakes that have blighted so many other former island paradises that let a lunge for tourist income tarnish the very magic that attracted visitors in the first place.

Despite lively local politics, Curacao feels like a place at ease with itself. There's a touching and justified pride in all that's been achieved by what they call their 'little dot on the map'. …