in-flight service: AA11879 (04/28/10), etc, see: Zaremblog
More blue -pool at The Avila Beach Hotel
Willemstad, April 30, 2010
It never rains in Curaçao. It was raining -quite hard. It was early morning Queen's Day, a national holiday in The Kingdom of The Netherlands (of which Curaçao is a part) and 'official' birthday of Queen Beatrix. 'Official' because her birthday is actually in January. However, she decreed that it should be celebrated every April 30th as this was the birthday of her mother, the beloved Queen Juliana.
No matter how Curaçaoans feel about The Netherlands, Queen Beatrix and the royal family seem to held in almost universal esteem on the island. Everyone was preparing to pour into downtown Willemstad to celebrate, donning articles of orange clothing in honor of The Royal House of Nassau-Orange. I would have gladly done the same, but wound up lamely explaining many times that I just didn't pack any orange-colored clothes for the trip. Of course, the next day I remembered my golf jacket -orange, intensely orange. I'm not Dutch, but I do like to participate.
Queens's Day: wearing the orange.
I had gotten really geared up for the festivities the night before. I was having a 'Polar' (the locally popular Venezuelan beer) and chatting with the staff at the bar of Baoase Resort (www.baoase.com), a Balinese-inspired boutique hotel with a private beach and villas clustered around a jungle-y swimming pool. Everyone was excited: there would be continuous DJs and live music at several locations in Willemstad. "Don't even try to get into town on Queen's Day!" I was warned. Most anticipated by the Baoase staff was to be an appearance by 'Golden Earring'. I couldn't have cared less for Golden Earring during their heyday (which was ...?), but the general enthusiasm was infectious. I couldn't remember any of their hits. On Queen's Day someone in a shop reminded me by singing a few bars of 'Radar Love'. Anyway, according to my official 'Wat is er te doen op Koninginnedag?' (What is there to doin' on Queen's Day?) program, what was really in store for Curaçao was 'Rockveteranen The Owners & Barry Hay van de Golden Earring' -a bit of self-explanatory Dutch that you can figure out as easily as I did. Now, as the rain persisted, someone from the hotel said they expected the intense showers to continue all morning. I started to think the weather might put a damper on the celebrations, but then the sun came out to stay. It doesn't rain much in Curaçao.
Baoase: entrance to pool from villa 4
Anyway, I've been sweating over a typically long-winded treatise on my observations on Curaçao and it's parallels with New York. You know, Peter Stuyvesent, guilders, the early 17th century explosion of Dutch energy as Holland's fleet sailed forth from Amsterdam with brooms lashed to the masts to 'sweep' the English from the seas and all that, but now I figure I'll just stick to some nice pictures and (long -ha ha!) captions:
Willemstad waterfront; 'Punda'
I had been fascinated with the idea of Curaçao ever since I saw a color photo of Willemstad's colorful Dutch-style buildings in my Golden Book Of The World, vol. North America, that I had badgered my mother into buying at the A&P check-out counter when I was six. My Dad explained that Curaçao was a Dutch island in the Caribbean that he had visited during his sailing days (no, not a yacht -the merchant marine). The largest of the Dutch 'ABC' Caribbean islands, Curaçao is about 37 miles long, or about the same distance from the island to the South American mainland. On a clear day they say you can see the mountain tops of Venezuela. You can more easily see and hear the Latin American influence, and that of more distant Africa, all round you in Curaçao's architecture, food, language and music. The island is best known for an orange-flavored liqueur, but I'll get to that later.
As I was saying, operations in New York (then New Amsterdam) and Curaçao were both set up by the Dutch at about the same time for different commercial purposes. Curaçao's moneymakers were salt (for herring) and slavery. New York's was fur. Manhattan has zero buildings to remind us of the city's Dutch roots. Curaçao has the entire city of Willemstad. Although often cited as a Dutch town transported to the Caribbean, Willemstad's languid tropical clime, marked South American influence and townhouses painted in striking, cotton-candy pastels, is quite unlike anything in the Netherlands. A UNESCO world heritage site, the historic city has proven such a signature tourist attraction that in very recent times smaller faux versions of it have materialized in other Dutch islands such as Aruba and St. Martin, where nothing of the sort had ever existed before.
Tall flemish-style buildings, like the Pehna Building (1708) line the busy streets and waterfront cafes snuggle under the ramparts of the sturdy forts that protected the entrance to the harbor. Another Willemstad landmark is the Queen Emma 'floating bridge' (circa 1888, re-constructed 1939) that spans Sint Annabaai channel separating the city's two sections of Punda and Otrobanda ('point' and 'other bank' or 'shore' in Papiamento, the island's Spanish-based creole). As ugly and intrusive as it is practical, the soaring Queen Juliana Bridge was opened Queen's Day, 1976, to relieve the massive tie-ups caused whenever the Queen Emma Bridge swings open for sea-going traffic (which is often). The only other positive thing about the new bridge: the view of Willemstad while crossing it is magnificent.
Queen Emma Bridge: 'closed'
I wasn't disappointed, the blue curaçao thing started happening right off the bat. Upon my arrival at Baoase, I was welcomed with a cocktail mixed with the stuff, although the addition of fresh orange and kiwi juices had turn the drink to a lovely, opaque green. I tried to have something mixed with blue curaçao each of the four days I was on the island -it's most popular use being in a 'blue lagoon' made with either gin or vodka.
The island's famous name-sake liqueur is made from the peels of locally-grown bitter orange. Faintly amber in its 'natural' state, Curaçao is then dyed red, orange or any other color you might want. It's the classic 'blue' that makes showy cocktails look like window-cleaner all around the world.
Cocktails at Baoase: Piper-Heidsieck, Blue Curaçao and a dash of grenadine -a sort of Baollini (Baoase +Bellini)
Most people familiar with the band know that The Fleshtones have a long and venerable relationship with this liqueur, going back to the legendary house -parties where the band got its start in Whitestone, Queens. Fueled by trash-cans full of lethal, Windex-hued 'Blue Whale' -the 'blue' was provided by blue curaçao. I remember it being my turn to answer the door one of the many times the police were called to the house by irate neighbors one night -a cop entered, and stepping over a girl passed out on the floor, wryly commented in New York cop fashion 'if that were my daughter, I'd put a bullet in her head...". Occasionally we still mix up a trash barrel full on request (special occasions!). Keith Streng first introduced the drink to the band, and although pretty much a teetotaler these days, remains the mix-meister. Invite him to your next soirée to insure the evening's ignition and rapid lift-off. Recipes for the cocktail even appear on at least one of our album jackets -I believe the sought-after 'Fleshtones Living Legend Series' on IRS records, as well as in the book 'Sweat' by Joe Bonomo (www.continuumbooks.com). Check out the Fleshtone's clip "Right Side Of A Good Thing' on Youtube for a gander at a pond -full of blue whale (and some glimpses of the young Bangles).
Willemstad's marvelous 'Floating Market', where schooners laden with tropical produce from nearby Venezuela tie up along the quay . The vendors sleep on board their boats.
Floating market: sapodilla
Queen's Day menu; Plasa Bieu
Plasa Bieu! -hot!!
Across the 'Waaigatplein' from the floating market is 'Marshe Bieuw' or 'Plasa Bieu!' (old market) an immense blue shed with yellow lattice walls, now an eatery catering to the market crowd. Inside, a counter runs the length of the shed, behind which kitchens with names like 'Zus di Plaza' and 'Gracia di Dios' dole out substantial servings of 'Kuminda Krioyo' from huge kettles simmering over hot coals. There was goat stew, grilled 'kabritu' (kid), sopa di coco (seafood in coconut soup), curries and satay. Our guide from the tourist office said that her little son had made her promise to bring home some arepa di pampuna (pumpkin pancakes) -greasy-good and better without the raisins -about NAf 5 (I didn't want to get into this, but the price is in Netherland Antilles 'florins' more popularly known as 'guilders' -the equivalent of about 67¢US each).
A Fung, Plasa Bieu: who says chow mein is boring?
Near the 'Plasa Bieu' or 'Marshe Bieuw' (old market) was 'Marshe Nobo' -a circular, concrete market crowded with cosmetic counters, 'botanicas' and Dominican herbalists with bottles of home-made tonics like 'mamajuana'. At the entrance, an organ grinder (kaha di orgel) struck up a old-fashioned air, with a lively latin beat loudly scraped out by a guy on a metal 'guiro'. I shot a nice 'video' with my pocket camera, then accidently erased it trying to shoot a second version 'just to be safe'. I later discovered I had neither. I also wound up not seeing Golden Earring. Probably for the better.
Soon after crossing the Queen Emma Bridge into Otrobanda, I heard that the police had closed the entire downtown to any more traffic.
Moon 'Beach Club' There's no beach to speak of -really a chic 'Miami' style pool/lounge in one of the old mansions that line the shore in Willemstad -the type of place where they spin cool sounds like 'Sade' -although I don't recall actually hearing Sade there. I had a 'blue lagoon' and wished I had brought my bathing suit, although the fabulous pool was really more of a focal point for stylish Curaçaoan's cocktails and conversation. I wonder what it's like during the day? (www.mooncuracao.com/)
Blue lagoon; Moon
The moon also rises: dinner, fit for a queen at Avila Beach Hotel (www.avilahotel.com). In fact the Queen of The Netherlands and the royal family stay here when visiting Curaçao, although for security reasons hotel director Tone Møller would not reveal which rooms. But I've got a good idea. We had keeshi yena, (from the Spanish 'queso 'relleno') formerly made by stuffing the discarded rinds of gouda or edam cheeses with piccadillo (spicy chopped meat).
Brian Spaeth (The Clock Stopped At A Strange And Savage Hour -www.seriousinkpress.com) was right, caves make me think of papier-mâché and the cheap horror movies that fascinated us as children -like 'World Of The Vampires' (starring Ramon Gay, Mexico,1960). Hato Caves make a nice diversion, soothing to sun-blasted eyes and with lots of toy-like little bats fluttering around. The pre-columbian (?) rock drawings however, are off limits.
Shastre Veeris, son of herbalist Dina Veeris, Dina Veeris Herb Garden
home-made soaps; Dina Veeris Herb Garden, one of the best tours of its kind (www.dinahveeris.com)
Aloe Vera Plantation (www.aloecuracao.com) I don't put much stock in natural cures and homeopathic medicine, but will personally attest to the efficacy of this spiny member of the lily family (I learned that here) -I had some persistent blisters on my knuckles caused by some noxious plant in our yard back home. I rubbed some fresh aloe vera on at the plantation, and forgot about it. The next morning, the blisters had healed.
Inside Kura Hulanda: 'street scene'
The Hotel Kura Hulanda preserves several of the oldest blocks of the 'Otrobanda' neighborhood. It may seem odd to book a hotel in the Caribbean with no beach, but you can always stay at their 'Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club', then make the in-town location your base to explore the city for a few nights. (www.kurahulanda.com).
Kura Hulanda Slave Museum: slave-ship hold, without the stench or misery.
Kura Hulanda's eight blocks also incorporates an extensive Slavery Museum (US$9), quite relevant as slavery was once Curaçao's main business. A bit of a house(s) of genuine horrors -our excellent guide's gripping explanations of the exhibits often departed considerably from their captions.
Iguana: Before, and after...
Occupying a rambling country house, Jaanchie's has been a roadside attraction for locals and tourists alike since 1936. As Tone of the Avila Beach Hotel pointed out, businesses on the island couldn't get by just on the tourist trade. This is a good thing, with restaurants and hotels more authentic (and lower priced) than on islands like Aruba. Local creole cooking is the attraction here, along with great, tall glasses of refreshing lemonade; buy a glass of cheap 'white' rum to spike them with and they're even better.
One of Jaanchie's specialties is iguana, which winds up stewed and in soup. Unfortunately (for the harmless lizard), iguana is considered an aphrodisiac by the men of the island. Yes, yes, it tastes like chicken, but with a heck of a lot more (smaller) bones -well, maybe better than chicken -bit more like rabbit, only with shorter legs and a much longer 'saddle'.
Despite what people (who haven't been to Curaçao) say, the island does have wonderful beaches, but they are concentrated at the island's western end, not in the city. Here the formidable cliffs are notched with beautiful sandy coves. Look for Captain Goodlife's wildly decorated headquarters on the extreme left hand side of Playa Santa Cruz. His orange frites (I'm guessing -annetto?) are famous across the island and the same goes for his shrimp, calamari, oysters and other seafood. As our group discovered, they sure can fry stuff on this island.
The intensely mystical Captain operates what might be the best boat tour on the island. For USD20 a person, he'll take you out to the renown 'Blue Room' -a long, (very) low 'swim-in' sea-cave who's interior reflects and amplifies the water's brilliant, deep cobalt color; snorkeling over the wreak of a ship sunk by his father; and a drop-off on a black sand beach. Because we'd be in and out of the water, the captain advised leaving cameras behind, which I gladly did. I wish had brought my camera. Now I really was seeing the intense 'Curaçao blue' waters that might have been the inspiration for the intense hue of blue curaçao. Peering over the side of the boat the Captain pointed saying "look, there it is! Can you see the small pyramid?" Through the rippling, deep blue water I could make out flashes of a small dark, cairn against the pale sand far below - the undersea resting place of the Captain's little daughter Antonella who had succumbed to leukemia two years ago.
Curaçao, blue and otherwise at Angelina's, a cooking school-restaurant in an old Otrobanda mansion where guests learn to prepare their own creole meal -including 'arepa di pampuna' with curaçao liqueur sauce (www.angelicas-kitchen.com)
Now, after all these years, I was finally heading for the Mansion Chobolobo Distillery (www.curacaoliqueur.com) creators and sole producers of genuine Curaçao liqueur. Housed in an old 'landhuis' (country house =plantation home) it's an attraction in itself. It was closed in observance of May Day (when most of the world marks Labor Day). My plane departed Curaçao 7AM the next morning.
Curaçao map insert -polished metal, floor near threshhold of villa 4, Baoase.
Back In Action: The Fleshtones return to the stage (or what passes for one) -
May 20; Minneapolis, MN -Lee's
May 21; Mankato MN, -The Sky Lounge w/ The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
May 22; Ossining NY ('A Thousand Years In SingSing'?) a birthday party (you'll know where if you are invited...)