Curacao Part One: The Island

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Curacao is not what I had expected. I am not saying that in an entirely negative way, there are things that I have enjoyed and things that I wish I had known before coming here. Not much is written about this diverse and colorful island for the indie traveler. And that is why I write this blog, to not only keep in touch with all my family and friends throughout the world, but also to help fellow travelers along their journey.

There is not much written on Curacao as a vacation destination unless you are staying on a resort. Curacao is the largest island of the Dutch Antilles or the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). The islands were originally “discovered” by the Spanish (there was a group of natives called the Arawaks that were here first) in the 1500’s and by 1815 belonged to the Dutch. The Dutch settled the island and started plantations, and the port of Willemstad became a stopping point for ships from all countries on their way to deliver their wares. You can still see this with all the many cruise ships (one or two a day) that stop here to drop off their guests on land for the day.

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Cruise Ship in Willemstad Harbor

When we decided to go make this the first out of the USA stop on our long journey, it was because we were looking for beautiful beaches, good food, frosty drinks, and just an all around relaxing time. Also I love to be tan (yes, I do still use sunscreen, don’t worry) and wanted a fresh tan before we ventured on to Europe.

We felt there were three different choices for us: Curacao, Costa Rica, and Belize. Chad We looked at all the information available both online and in book form (I know, kicking it old school!). Our main desire was for beaches that were clean and accessible, where I could sunbathe and Chad and Zoë could swim and play in the water. I, of course, also looked into the food of the region, the shopping and other amenities (do you really want to see how long my underarm hair gets if I can’t get it waxed-not pretty to say the least).

We decided on Curacao, the beaches looked beautiful and easy to get to, the amenities and shopping all seemed good, as it looked like a resort-y sort of island. Belize was out because everything we read said their beaches weren’t really conducive to sunbathing or swimming. And Costa Rica was out because Chad had been there before and wanted to see somewhere new, and because the beach towns take buses to get to from the airport, and we just weren’t ready to put Zoë through long bus trips quite yet.

So we arrived at the tiny airport terminal in Curacao (finally! see my last post for story on flights) and were greeted by a taxi driver holding a sign with my name on it, it was very exciting, I felt like royalty. I know, it’s almost sad how easy it can be to make me excited. Our new landlord had arranged for a taxi for us. It was great, cost about $35 US dollars and gave us a chance to look around the island a little bit on our way to Willemstad, the capital city of Curacao, and the place we would be staying for the next couple weeks. I was enamored with the quaint little dutch colonial houses in all their bright colors, and was surprised to see, on the more inland area of Willemstad, huge oil refineries, with tall smoke stacks and oil tankers sitting in the bay. They don’t show you that in the tourism sites. It was visible but not too close to the main part of town though and was easy to forget about unless you were driving right past them.

We booked a house through airbnb.com, a two bedroom, one bathroom house with a full kitchen and a back yard area that looked, well…simply tropical. The house, owned by a local husband and wife team, was everything and more than we had imagined! Huge really, and clean and well stocked with linens and kitchen utensils. It had air-conditioning (only to be used through the night) and fans to keep us from getting too spoiled and to feel like real locals. And all of this for under $70 a night, I felt like we had won the lottery.

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Zoë Checking Out Our New Place

After arriving to the house from the airport, getting settled in and trying to get used to the heat, 86 degrees and about 80% humidity-not bad really but it does take some adjusting, we decided to find something to eat. Lucille, the lady renting us the house, told us about all the “American” food places in the area, including McDonalds, (insert very sarcastic hooray here) when we got to the house. We decided to try the old Applebee’s that was now called “Larry’s”  right down the street from our new home, and it turned out to be just that, an Applebee’s. Not exactly the most exciting food, but not the worst either. This was the first time that we noticed that the prices of food here are relatively the same as the prices in northern California, about $10-15 a person, plus drinks.

THE FOOD

Photo Taken by Chad R. Mitchell

Zoë Enjoying Some Stewed Fish at the Old Market            Photo Taken by Chad

(Are you surprised that I started with the food? I feel so predictable…oh well. )

I had thought from what I had read, that the food was going to be creole food, not one of my favorites, but something new and different so I was excited. This turned out to be hard to find. Local food for us foreigners is only easily available in the Old Market in the Punda area of Willemstad. Old Market is where locals and tourists can eat alike (although the tourists are charged much more, about $11 a plate). I fell in love with the stewed goat and stewed fish platters that included beans and rice, and savory plantains. Best food I have had on the island, hands down. There are many restaurants and eateries along the beaches and in town that offer other food, mostly Dutch, Chinese, or American dishes though. There are also a ton of rib places, one of them two doors down from our house, called The Rib Factory which we were very pleased to find out does have delicious ribs, tex-mex dishes, sides and cocktails.

Just a side note, there are many other restaurants that I have seen in the more locals areas, but for a tourist, there are not many that are accessible. So all in all, the food has been rather disappointing and expensive. Luckily we have our own kitchen, so we have been making most of our breakfasts and lunches at home. Which brings me to my next topic…shopping.

THE SHOPPING

There is much shopping to do here, and for someone just coming for a vacation and heading back home, it would be fun. But for us, who us continuing on after this and already have 75 pounds of luggage to handle, shopping is not really smart or feasible.

There is a huge contrast in shopping here, next door to the United Colors of Benetton store is a mom and pop shop filled with cheap souvenirs and bottles of every color of curacao liqueur known to man for sale. There is a Victorias Secret and the next block over is a shop selling lingerie with Victoria Secret Bags in the window, so I guess we will think that store is the real Victorias Secret (I saw through their clever ruse though). They seem to all buy their souvenir wears from the same manufacturer so you could pretty much go into any store and find the same knick knacks and post cards. The clothing stores look like they have some cute clothing actually (in normal sizes even) so if I was here on vacation I probably would have done some clothes shopping.

Pretty much, the only type of shopping I have done while here, is grocery shopping. I know, even on a tropical island, I lead a very routine exciting life. We have a supermarket a block away from our house here, called Best Buy, which I have grown to dislike immensely. It’s a large, dark warehouse that smells a little like rotting meat. They have all the normal wares (although I stopped buying their produce because it was always rotten inside when I got home) and it was convenient and buying food to make is much cheaper than eating out every meal. Every time I would go into the store though, the ladies that work there were so rude (I think it was because they don’t speak English and maybe were nervous?) that I gave up. I stopped shopping at their mildly disgusting fine establishment and now make Chad drive me to a supermarket about 15 minutes away in a suburb of Willemstad.

And that is a good segue to my next topic…

TRANSPORTATION

I truly love to use public transportation as much as possible. Wait… let me rephrase that- I truly love to use public transportation as much as possible, except in California (most people I know would agree with me, California’s public transportation is severely lacking). In every other country I have visited, the buses, trains, subways, etc. were a great way to get where you were going while rubbing elbows (sometimes literally) with the locals and seeing parts of a place that you probably wouldn’t unless someone else was driving you.

I also love to walk (city walk that is, I’m definitely not a hiker), in fact my mother and I used to walk miles around our town just to get some exercise and visit. This is why I thought that we should be able to walk everywhere from our house in Curacao. The landlord had said in her description of the house we were subletting, that the beach was 10 minutes away, and so Chad and I decided that we would walk to the closest beach our second day here. Well, she must have meant by car, because it took much longer than 10 minutes.

We were pushing Zoë in a city stroller, not an off-road stroller, and it was very hot outside. I love heat, but direct sunlight while walking on pavement mixed with the exhaust from cars passing by, make for an uncomfortable walk. Not only that, but there were no sidewalks and pushing the stroller with a 26 pound toddler and all of our bags, made for a difficult slow pace. We kept thinking the beach was just over the next hill and pressed on. The whole time I was worried that Zoë, now sound asleep, was going to get sunburnt and be miserable so I kept reapplying sunscreen to her exposed knees (we had a light blanket shading the rest of her) and praying that the beach was close. About an hour later, we arrived at a resort called the Lions Dive and Beach Resort and stole our way onto their beach after having a snack at their beachfront restaurant, Hemingway’s. We finally were able to go in the beautiful aquamarine water! All three of us had a great time!

When it was time for us to leave the stolen beach, we quickly decided to take a taxi anywhere else we were going that day. Lucky for us there was a taxi stand about a 10 minute walk from the resort. Taxi’s here on the island do not have meters, they all give a set price for the place you want to go, for example, from Lions Dive Resort to downtown Willemstad (Punda) was $15 US (you can use either Dutch Guilders or US dollars for everything here, the conversion is 1.75 Guilders= $1) and there is no negotiation on the prices. After walking around Punda for a bit, we decided that we would need to rent a car. It was a tough decision because we really didn’t want to spend another big chunk of money, but figured that after using taxis every day, we would be spending around the same amount. Our house was not in walking range of any beaches, such a bummer. My advice, look at the map closely when choosing a place to stay, don’t take the owners word for it.

We rented a car from a car rental agency down the street from our house, Boric Car Rental. We were able to negotiate the price with the helpful gentleman there and left the parking lot with a very small economy car that suited our needs perfectly. (For those with children needing car seats, most car rental agencies will rent them to you.)

Only after we rented the car, did we notice all the signs on the side of the road saying “Bushalte”. They were everywhere and we learned they were the bus stops. We could have taken a cheap bus around the island…oops. On the bright side, we were now able to explore the island on our own terms and hopefully find some amazing beaches, which we did! I want to devote a whole article to the beaches that we have visited here, there is just too much to write about in this one. So stay tuned for next weeks post!

LODGING

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Our Place in Curacao

We rented a roomy house off of airbnb.com that we love, although the location is a bit out of the way. There were other houses nearer the beach (I assume) that were far more expensive. We chose this one for the size and price. We are quite happy with the house itself and love the people renting it to us (you can see where we stayed by clicking here). There are many resorts on the island that have beach fronts and seemed much more expensive when we were planning this part of our trip. I now realize that we probably would have spent near the same amount money if we had just stayed on a resort, after having to rent a car and paying to get on beaches and such.

 FINAL THOUGHTS

So what are my thoughts on making Curacao a stop on your round the world trip? They are simply this: If you choose to come here, don’t try to be an indie traveler. Buy in, stay at a resort, and relax on a beach right outside your door. The island has some things to see outside of a resort, but there is not much in the way of cultural spots for a tourist to see that you can’t get to from a resort.

Also, make sure that your budget reflects that the prices here are similar, or sometimes more (they sell 7 ounce beers in restaurants here for $5!!!!) than they are in the some of the more expensive areas of the US.

All-in-all, I am happy that we have experienced the island of Curacao, mostly so that I can now share the information with all of you fellow travelers. And why not see every part of this amazing Earth we live on?

Stay tuned for next weeks post “Willemstad, Curacao Part Two-The Beaches!” You will want this information if you choose to come to Curacao!

Review: The OGIO Doppler Toiletry Kit

A Well Fitted Bag:

Welcome to our second product review. This is a short take on an essential item. As mentioned in the previous post we will be using the “Baby Thumbs”™ system to rate our products. 5 thumbs up being something we found to be excellent in all areas and 1 being something we would urge against purchasing.

The OGIO Doppler Toiletry Kit: Small, fitting, and tightly built.

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When we were going through our baggage from previous journeys, one of the things we pulled out was our old REI bathroom bags. Despite being washed, cleaned, and scrubbed, they were entirely the worse for wear.  And my other half let it be known just how much she despised these hanging bags, and left no question that we would not be purchasing the same ones again. They were unwieldy, hard to clean, and bulky. They were made well, but that was not enough to save them from the garage sale pile.

As usual, I insisted on purchasing new ones as soon as possible, despite the fact that there were much more important things to be doing, and that our trip was still several months away. As I have said before, I love to shop, research, research, shop, agonize over the purchase, research, research, and then, with much consternation, purchase… And then occasionally return after agonizing I made the wrong decision.

We went to REI once again, but decided that even the lightweight bags were far too bulky. In my opinion the perfect toiletry bag is compact, lies as flat as can be, has a hangar, and several individual pockets to sort the necessary items. I also deemed it necessary that it be a solidly constructed bag that has a well constructed zipper. It is funny how much thought can go into such a small item. But this is one that is useful to  store on a carry on, readily available wherever one may be. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have pulled these bags out to freshen up after a long bus, boat, train, or plane ride. And if you are a contact wearing individual like myself you will know that it is especially convenient if you can easily remove them when sleeping during long legs of the journey.

These sorts of bags can range in price from 10-50 dollars and there are really only a handful of styles to choose from. The OGIO bag that we finally settled on was the only one that seemed to fit the bill when it came to our desired amenities. It has 5 small pockets in the front and two main compartments laying behind them. Up top, below the attached hanger, are two horizontal compartments that lie flat but still have adequate room. For example I was able to put my contact solution and case in the sealed upper compartment with plenty of room left over. In total on a recent trip I was able to carry the following items without any bulge whatsoever: Hair Brush, Comb, Deodorant stick, Hair product, Contacts/Solution, Glasses in case, Toothbrush, Toothpaste and a complete set of soaps and shampoo.

It really was impressive just how nicely it compartmentalized everything without bulging out.  

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The main reason that the bag keeps it’s shape, even when loaded, is that it has a nice, solid outer shell that doesn’t flex but a little. It will give only slightly, and hold a decent amount of stuff, but not so much that it will be a hindrance to pack by growing beyond it’s original shape.

The outer construction is solid, with a strong oversized zipper that gives it a quality feel. The interior is thin polyester, mesh, and nylon. The liner material is thin, and cheap, but it is easy to clean and suits its purpose. I don’t really see the need for anything higher quality as I don’t anticipate stretching those compartments out too much.

The only negative aspect of this bag is that it lacks a mirror. Many of the other, even cheaper, bags come with one. I would have preferred one, but J preferred the extra compartment where one would have been.

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In summary this is a quality bag, and one that is perfect for our needs. Both of us got the same one, and are pleased with our purchase. The most appealing part of the bag, and the final compelling feature is the excellent price. It is currently $18 on Amazon. A steal at that price, and one I can gladly give 4 out of 5 thumbs up. If you are looking for a simple, roomy, durable toiletry bag we highly recommend it!

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