Fried whole snapper at Zus Di Plasa
Peter Frank Edwards

Best known for its namesake spirit, Curaçao is ready to take its place as one of the world's great gastronomic destinations.

By Chris Hughes

On Curaçao, sunset is an event. For locals, it's all about finding the ideal spot to watch the sun dip below the cerulean waters or behind the scrubby, cactus-studded landscape. But that's not the end of the party. In fact, it's just the beginning. Come nightfall, the whole island gets a collective second wind.

Even in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro—cities famous for their nocturnal tendencies—you'd be hard-pressed to find a barbershop open as late as the bars. But in Willemstad, Curaçao's buzzing capital city, revelers line up for last-minute trims before heading to places like Netto Bar, a 64-year-old hole-in-the-wall landmark shellacked in soccer memorabilia and photos.

There, they knock back shots of ròm bèrdè (green rum)—a house-made, neon green tipple that tastes like black licorice—and press close inside the bar's tight confines to dance to salsa and merengue. Or, freshly coiffed, they head to new-school watering holes in the trendy Pietermaai District, such as Luke's Cocktailbar, and post up for libations fashioned with craft spirits and cuttingedge techniques (think smoke from dehydrated grapefruit rinds).

Under the string lights at BBQ Express
Peter Frank Edwards

Whatever the choice that night, everyone ends up at a truki pan ("sandwich truck"): mobile smorgasbords spread all over the city that draw hungry crowds of every stripe. Under a canopy of red and green string lights at BBQ Express in the bar-rich Caracasbaai neighborhood, for example, European tourists rub elbows with local DJs and lawyers. American study-abroad teachers and Amsterdam expats share to-go containers of sizzling frites piled high with grilled chorizo and marinated pork chops. Like a culinary Tower of Babel, the languages mingling in the smoky air are mirrored in the truki pan's wide-ranging condiment bar: Surinamese peanut sauce, Dutch mayonnaise, Latin-American chimichurri, and Afro-Caribbean pika—a fiery pepper-onion relish that's a specialty of the country.

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With a population of 160,000 (roughly the same as Tempe, Arizona), Curaçao is home to 50 nationalities. It's this, along with the dozens of impeccable beaches, that's the island's secret: a culture rich with diversity and a vibrant culinary scene to match. Overshadowed by better-known Aruba and Bonaire in what are called the "ABC islands" of the southern Caribbean, Curaçao is a bona fide under-the-radar treasure.

To understand this sere, low-lying island that sits at an angle along the southwestern arc of the Lesser Netherlands Antilles, is to study a history of conquest, conflict, and trade. After one of Christopher Columbus's lieutenants landed on the island in 1499, Curaçao was variously fought over by the Spanish, French, British, and Dutch.

The Dutch West India Company founded Willemstad in 1634 and, although the capital city traded hands many times, eventually prevailed; today Curaçao remains a constituent country of the Netherlands. The influence is easy to see: Willemstad's line of candy-colored row houses along St. Ann Bay inlet is straight out of Amsterdam, and that Dutch penchant for fries and dips—not to mention a love of rijsttafel, a rice-based banquet of toppings—remains a cornerstone of traditional menus here.

Cliff diving is a thrilling draw at Curaçao beaches like Grote Knip and Playa Forti.
Peter Frank Edwards

But a new generation of Dutch-born locals is putting a second, more international stamp on Willemstad's cultural tapestry. Britt van Dijk's family came south from Utrecht in 2013 to open BijBlauw, a stylish boutique hotel and restaurant in the Pietermaai district along the southeast coast.

With its elemental design—Scandinavian minimalism set against the backdrop of the cobalt Caribbean—BijBlauw helped revive a neighborhood in decline. As did Micha Nijeboer and Cynthia Bakker, the husband-and-wife team behind Blessing, just two blocks away. Located in an early 20th-century monastery, the restaurant focuses on Continental-chic cuisine such as crispy tuna maki, beef tenderloin draped with prosciutto di Parma, and Nijeboer's house specialty, a smoked beef carpaccio.

Crispy tuna maki at Blessing
Peter Frank Edwards

Spend an hour strolling Willemstad's Floating Market, which is just what it sounds like—a waterfront tie-up of boats hawking produce and fresh catch—and you'll see another resonant influence on the scene. Fishermen and farmers from Venezuela, which lies only 37 miles south, motor their brightly colored wooden boats across the water every morning to hawk melons and line-caught snapper by 6:30 a.m. (Venezuelans are not the only South Americans influencing plates in Curaçao; Surinamese immigrants have brought fragrant curries and stir-fried noodles with them to the table, as well as those peanut sauces at the city's truki pans.)

BijBlauw's bright architecture
Peter Frank Edwards

But what may be the richest thread in Curaçao's culture is drawn from its darkest history. Willemstad was the late 17th-century center of the Atlantic slave trade. After abolition 200 years later, formerly enslaved Africans remained to work Curaçao's sorghum plantations and salt mines.

Today, in the desert and scrublands north of Willemstad, you can see the island's Afro-Caribbean roots in the remaining Kunuku homes, small wattle-and-daub dwellings that were occupied by emancipated slaves.

And you can taste that influence in the krioyo (Creole) food that lies at the heart of Curaçao's dining landscape. At Zus di Plasa, recently relocated inside Willemstad's Ronde Markt, Milaika Provence serves the same dishes that have been on the menu since her mother opened the restaurant 52 years ago: fried whole snapper, conch stew, and giambo, an okra-and-seafood soup similar to Louisiana gumbo.

All of Curaçao's beaches offer unique surroundings, like Grote Knip's white sands and cactus-studded hills.
Peter Frank Edwards

Up at the island's northwestern tip, the Westpunt area has an even higher density of great krioyo food thanks to Deborah Noordhof's Landhuis Misje and nearby Jaanchie's, a third-generation operation that's become a must for Curaçao first-timers. At the former, fresh and seasonal is a priority, which is never more apparent than in Noordhof's fish soup brimming with wahoo, and kabritu—braised goat leg laced with cumin, nutmeg, and fresh oregano.

Restaurant owner Jaanchie Christian in his signature white guayabera
Peter Frank Edwards

Jaanchie's, on the other hand, is all about the experience. Tucked beneath a wall of flowering bougainvillea, the open-air restaurant is alive with chirping yellow orioles and manic bananaquit bouncing around sugar-water feeders. Cats lounge beneath tables heaped with mahi mahi and iguana stew. Owner Jaanchie Christian saunters around the dining room in his signature white guayabera, reciting lunch specials as the self-proclaimed "walking, talking menu."

Iguana stew and other krioyo favorites
Peter Frank Edwards

At almost every table, ringed by decades worth of bric-a-brac, you're bound to see scuba divers and sunburned faces. That's because Jaanchie's is ideally situated 10 minutes from Curaçao's best beaches, and a reminder that while the flavors of the island call from every corner of its history, there is still some fine beaching to do before sunset.

Whether you find yourself drawn to the white sand, straw palapas, and translucent waters of Grote Knipp, or to Playa Piskado's resident sea turtles (given names like Tommy and Sharkbite by the locals), you cannot ignore the wildest—and perhaps most purely Curaçao—call of Playa Forti.

Lazy fishing boats might be bobbing in the distance, but on the 40-foot-high cliff that overlooks it all, it's pure adrenaline. As you sip icy cold Polar beers under the tin-roof shade of Playa Forti's snack bar, people are hustling past, stepping to the edge of the cliff, and vaulting into the tropical abyss. Like the lure of all the late-night music and bright green rum, it's crazy, but hard to resist. You stare into the glassy, undulating surf below and think: I could do that! And chances are, you will. That's the effect Curaçao has on everyone. You just want to dive right in.

Lounging on the cliffs of Playa Forti
Peter Frank Edwards

Get Here

JetBlue and American Airlines have direct flights to Curaçao International Airport in Willemstad out of Miami, Charlotte, and New York City.

Stay Here

BijBlauw is an intimate, design-forward boutique hotel right in the heart of the hip Pietermaai District. Take in a sunset on its picturesque seaside terrace with one of the many creative gin-and-tonics on the restaurant's cocktail menu. Rates start at $135.

For families: take advantage of the luxurious pool and beachfront views at the Avila Beach Hotel, just a 15-minute walk from downtown Willemstad. Rates start at $189.

A Willemstad mural by Curaçao artist Francis Sling
Peter Frank Edwards

Eat & Drink Here

Start the day like a local at Nini's Jhonny Cake, which specializes in golden fried cakes (similar to an empanada or arepa) stuffed with Dutch cheese, ham, or salt cod.

Along with kiosks selling fruit and island souvenirs, the Ronde Markt offers several great dining options, including Simone's Surinamese curries and noodles and Milaika Provence's legendary krioyo food at Zus di Plasa; 5/999/520-2294 or 5/999/ 461-1515.

Spicy Surinamese noodles at Simone, inside the Ronde Markt
Peter Frank Edwards

Before hitting one of Westpunt's many excellent beaches, do some birding inside Jaanchie's with a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade; 5/999/864-0126.

Then hit up Landhuis Misje for Curaçao's best pumpkin pancakes and kabritu; 5/999/522-9980.

Don't miss the smoked beef carpaccio at Blessing, located inside a former monastery in the Petermaai District.

Cerulean views at BijBlauw in the Pietermaal District of Willemstad
Peter Frank Edwards

Ròm bèrdè, or green rum, is unique to the island, and Netto Bar is widely regarded as the anisey spirit's creator. For a contemporary craft cocktail, head to Luke's Cocktailbar, which focuses on harder-to-find bourbons and amari; 5/999/522-8082.

No evening would be complete without a visit to a truki pan, such as BBQ Express, where fries and marinated meats help soak up the day's fill of cold beer; 5/999/682-7567.

Spring for a Guide

Almost everyone on Curaçao speaks English, but Dutch is still the predominate language. It would be worth investing in a guide just to navigate the street signs in Dutch. But the small expense also ensures a true insider's perspective: a local who can steer you toward the best beaches, historic landmarks, and hidden hot spots.