Curacao lies just 35 miles north of the Venezuelan coast and is the largest of the Caribbean's six Dutch Antilles. The cruise ship pier is a short walk from the centre of Curacao's capital of Willemstad offering some of the best shopping in all the Caribbean. The curving gables and orange roof tiles of Willemstad's colourful Handelskade and the Dutch road-signs may remind you momentarily of Amsterdam, but then you'll hear the local creole language of Papiamento. At the foot of Queen Emma Bridge lies the well-preserved 18th century Fort Amsterdam. Nearby is the floating Shon Sha Capriles Kade Market, selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Also in town is the Jewish Historical and Cultural Museum and a good Maritime Museum. Just outside the city is the Curacao Museum displaying Caiquetio Indian relics and a colonial kitchen. Other sites include the Botanical Garden and Zoo, the Amstel Brewery and the Curacao Distillery.
Beyond the capital are the Hato Caves with their stalactite-filled grottoes and the nature reserve of Christoffel National Park. It is not a lush, tropical paradise - its climate is semi-arid and its vegetation mostly thorny scrub. The island's beaches range from snowy white sand to volcanic pebbles - closest to Willemstad are Blauwbaai, Santa Barbara and Kontiki, all charge a small fee. Free beaches are West Point, Klein Knip and Daaibooi. Some of the island's greatest beauty is offshore: one of the most well developed coral reefs in the Caribbean much of which can be reached direct from the shore. Try Playa Kalki to start.
Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda discovered Curacao in 1499, and the first Spanish settlers soon followed. The Dutch conquered the island in 1634, and it prospered under the rule of the Dutch West India Company. The British briefly controlled Curacao from the beginning of the 19th century, but in 1815, under the Treaty of Paris, the Dutch were assigned permanent rights. Today Curacao is considered a Member of the Netherland Antilles.
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