As my plane soars over Haiti's westernmost point, I look down at the Caribbean Sea and grin. While explorers of every century have scoured these waters, perpetually searching for their tropical utopia, I found mine four trips ago. Now, I am heading back for my fifth. Next stop? Curaçao.
My love affair with this nirvana just 40 miles north of Venezuela always begins with its capital city, Willemstad. At a glimpse, it's Holland during the Golden Age; the geometric, gabled rooflines flanking the banks of Saint Anna Bay uncannily resemble those lining the canals of Amsterdam's Old Town Center. The palette here, though, is resplendently Caribbean: The edifices favor Easter egg tones, and the harbor's hues play back and forth among indigo, turquoise, and cerulean.
Even more international is the street scene in Willemstad. While newbies arriving here might head straight for the sand of Curaçao's more than 30 admittedly glorious beaches, I always go for a city walk first just to hear conversations in Dutch, Spanish, and the native dialect, Papiamentu, bounce down the narrow, curving streets.
Curaçao's rainbow effect is even more evident when you look around. With more than 60 nationalities having made a home here since the island's discovery in 1499, these residents look as diverse as their forebears; even after four visits, I can't tell a tourist from a local. "I often get asked how I am a local, if I have fair skin and blue eyes," Danielle Dueñas-Ernandes, managing director of Turaçao Tourism Services, tells me.
We're standing in front of the elegant, pale yellow Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest synagogue in continuous active use in the Americas. Dueñas-Ernandes describes the Curaçao of the 17th century: a Dutch colonial outpost that welcomed persecuted Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil, setting a standard of tolerance that's carried to the present day. And while I am no refugee, I feel the quiet, gentle echo of that precedent every time I arrive.
Time for a swim? Almost. My next stop is to check in with "Dutch." Because when you're a Dutchman on an island in the Dutch Caribbean, and everyone calls you "Dutch," then you are definitely The Man. Adriaan "Dutch" Schrier is that entrepreneur at the center of the action, and I've heard he has a new venture that's going to blow me away. It won't be the first time.
Wiry, sun-kissed, and relentlessly energetic, Schrier founded both the Curaçao Sea Aquarium and the Curaçao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center, an institute that pairs dolphins and children with disabilities for in-water therapy. This time, though, his project is less Flipper and more Jules Verne. Schrier's new baby is Substation Curaçao—a high-tech, pint-size submarine that can take four passengers down 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. That's deep, I think to myself. Really deep.
Back at sea level, I face the best problem on Curaçao: choosing a beach. One of my favorites, Knip Beach (below), is a sweet white crescent backed by lush vegetation at the island's southwest tip (and about an hour's drive), so I'll save that one for tomorrow. Now, I grab a quick dip near my sub adventure and my bed this trip: the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort, just south of Willemstad. This cluster of bright-orange villas is renowned for its untrammeled ocean views and easy walking to shopping, restaurants, and taverns.
And as it must be 5 o'clock somewhere, I take a two-minute walk to Hemingway Beach Bar & Restaurant, which uses fine, white Caribbean sand as its floor and has a shoes-optional policy. It also puts out the island's finest bloody Mary with fresh lime.
As I'm strolling on the beachfront at Hemingway's, I pass a guy who looks familiar. Football-player physique, shaved head … I spin my mental Rolodex, finally coming up with his name. "Jozef!" I blurt, and he turns and takes me in. "Adam!" he hollers. "What's it been? Three years?" It's another Curaçao reunion, and we plan to meet up that evening to christen it with beer at Augusto's Restaurant.
Italy-born chef Augusto Ceccotti puts out a crabmeat-infused onion brûlée with ingredients sourced right from the area, and joins us for a chat on his patio that overlooks a meandering canal. Reunions are rarely this warm, this scenic, and this delicious.
And this is what I always come back to. Yes, I love the beaches, the water, and the anachronism of old-world architecture in the subtropics. I love the entrepreneurial dynamism of dolphins and submarines. But that's not why I keep coming back.
It's what Jozef says to me, when our night at Augusto's draws to a close. "It was so good to see you, my friend," he says. "It's also good to know that I'm sure I'll see you again next year." It's that expectation of return. A place that knows you belong to it, and you'll surely find your way back.
Photos, from top: Paul Souders/World Foto, Julien Capmeil (2)