May 10, 2011
Curaçao’s Sea Change
The island’s rich history and Jewish roots elevate its allure as a Caribbean honeymoon destination
Although most islands in the Caribbean have been an easy sell for honeymooners, Curaçao for years was a diamond in the rough, lost in the destination shuffle. However, in recent years, that diamond has been polished to such a brilliant shine that it has become as much of a paradise for foodie and culture-vulture couples as it is for beachcombers.
Besides scenic waterfronts and a variety of resorts that suit every definition of romance, from traditional tropical luxury to sleek boutique, Curaçao offers Willemstad — the candy-colored capital whose package of Dutch-flavored architecture holds all sorts of surprises for travelers, and Jewish travelers in particular.
While any Caribbean island qualifies as paradise, what broadens the appeal of Curaçao is its special regard for the Jewish people who shaped its life and times.
A popular cruise-ship stop, Curaçao was once a literal port in a storm for successful Jewish entrepreneurs and Amsterdam’s poorer Jewish populations. Between 1730 and 1820, Curaçao was 58 percent Jewish, and this legacy is treated with love and respect. This year marks the 360th anniversary of the Jewish presence on the island.
The oldest operational congregation in the Western hemisphere is said to have taken root in 1651 when the Dutch West India Co. made an appeal on behalf of Jan de Illan (Joao d’Yllan), a successful Jewish Portuguese businessman, to set up a trade post on the remote Caribbean island. Although he recruited only 12 families, they steadfastly sailed to Curaçao in the summer of 1651 and put down roots for the first incarnation of Mikvé Israel (Hope of Israel). However, new immigration from Holland, Portugal, France and even other Caribbean islands expanded the community and led to the necessity for a larger temple.
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The inviting yellow Dutch colonial building, erected in 1732, houses the present-day Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation referred to locally as The Snoa, which is now widely touted as one of the island’s “must do” attractions and, naturally, is ideal for a destination wedding ceremony. The main sanctuary is held up by four pillars named for the four matriarchs of the Jewish people: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The spare but elegant room is also outfitted with carved mahogany pews, bimah and ark; copper chandeliers; and white sand, which covers the floor for symbolic reasons: a reminder of the great Exodus as well as a means to muffle footsteps of those who practiced their Jewish faith in secret during the Inquisition.
The adjacent Jewish Cultural Historical Museum reinforces its enduring beauty and significance with items from Jewish island life and priceless artifacts from Europe. Among the museum’s Torah scrolls is one brought by the first Jewish settlers to Curaçao, believed to be from the time of their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Curaçao’s Jewish community was exclusively Sephardi prior to the 1920s. Since then there has been a steady influx of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews to the island. Their synagogue, in contrast to Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, is modern and soaring. Built in 2006, Shaarei Tsedek Synagogue, which is an hour’s walk from Willemstad in suburban Mahaai, was brought to fruition under the leadership of Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun. Since then, the 34-year-old rabbi has redoubled his efforts to bring Jewish couples to the island for honeymoons and destination weddings, which are at once achingly romantic and profoundly meaningful.
The plush Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort and Emerald Casino has established itself as the first resort on the island with a dedicated kosher kitchen. The kitchen staff trained with Yeshurun for three months, and the hotel invested $100,000 in new equipment and a variety of fine china, glasses and silverware. The hotel can host glatt kosher events for 20 to 200 guests.
The Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino, conceived by global entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker, balances five-star luxury with the preservation of Curaçao’s history. At first glance, this boutique village complex on the Otrabanda side of Willemstad looks almost like a set from a 1950s Cary Grant movie. The grounds constitute a maze yielding surprises at every turn: impeccably cultivated courtyards, a waterfall, gorgeously situated sculptures and hidden galleries with meticulously arranged historic artifacts and paintings. Dekker’s visionary village is also home to the Astrolabe and Jaipur restaurants, each with its own distinct flavor capturing the island’s essence as a world crossroads. The Kura Hulanda Museum, anchoring the hotel, is an enormously moving look at the Caribbean slave trade and African culture.
In Curaçao’s southeast, the newly opened Hyatt Regency Curaçao has everything one needs for a destination wedding or stand-alone honeymoon — unusual terrain, golf, hiking, biking, tennis, a marina and chic room décor. Clement Hugeot’s cocktail creations for the open-air kitchen Medi are among the best on the island, while the American seafood grill Shor features the Caribbean as your backdrop. Its Atabei Spa is inspired, thanks to its innovative use of space. Instead of common waiting rooms that give way to treatment areas, each guest or couple gets a customized suite complete with multi-jet shower, treatment area and dressing area.
Couples preferring their honeymoon to be a sensual jaunt into paradise, meanwhile, will not be disappointed. Christoffel Park, Curaçao’s largest national park, has an abundance of hiking trails, featuring a rich variety of local flora and fauna. The island’s southern coast features numerous beaches, from the intimate Playa Jeremi and Playa Lagun to full-service beaches like Cas Abao and Kontiki. The more adventurous might consider diving with dolphins at either the Curaçao Sea Aquarium or the Dolphin Academy, and popular dive spots include the tugboat wreck in Caracas Bay or the Blue Room sea cave in Westpunt.
If you don’t swim but want to embrace your inner Jacques Cousteau, Substation Curaçao takes guests nearly 1,000 feet below sea level to experience the wonders of the deep in its Curasub.
Speaking of the sea, local fish are served in interesting ways and unusual environments. Though there are dockside grills similar to those found in every tropical port from Oahu to Bali, local Curaçao eateries have gotten creative in ways that not only transform local ingredients but neighborhoods as well. Mundo Bizarro is the culinary and cultural hub of Pietermaai Smal, now in the midst of a Latin Quarter-style renaissance. The area is also home to MOON, a trendy beach club, lounge and restaurant. In the northwest of the island, Jaanchies delights with its playful Amsterdam café-meets-Caribbean hideaway décor and hearty stews.
Like other spots in the Caribbean, Willemstad is a shopper’s paradise. The Floating Market is a great place to shoot photos and get souvenirs on the fly. You will find landmark store Penha, Little Switzerland and Freeport Jewelers stocking most every major international brand of fine jewelry as well as a handful of Caribbean-produced lines. However, if you want truly one-of-a-kind wedding jewelry, seek out Different Design Jewelry, Jolanta Pawlak and Ffolio in Punda.
Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort and Emerald Casino
Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino
Hyatt Regency Curaçao
Christoffel National Park
Cas Abao Beach
Curacao Sea Aquarium
Different Design Jewelry
For more information on travel to Curaçao, visit curacao.com or ctb.an.