Freedom at last, after centuries of Dutch rule
This island has just cut its colonial ties with the Netherlands. But the legacy will live on in this colourful part of the Caribbean. Adrian Mourby reports
Sunday 17 October 2010
We have a half-empty bottle of it in the drinks cabinet at home.
The label has come off, but from the colour it can be only one thing: Blue Curacao. Melle, the barman at my Amsterdam hotel, tells me it's still used in cocktails and has become popular among young women out on the town. "They drink it like a shot," he says. I can tell Melle doesn't think much of Blue Curacao, but he pours me a measure anyway. "That blue," he says. "You can see it in the dark." I take a sip and am hit by toxic sweetness. No wonder we never finished the bottle.
The next morning Amsterdam is damp and black as I take a taxi to Schiphol airport.
"I'm going to Curacao," I tell the driver. "I had to come via Amsterdam."
"Curacao," he says with a sniff. "That place costs us a lot of money. Aren't they independent yet?"
"As of 10 October."
"Good. Nobody works over there."
So, here I am, flying out to the Caribbean in search of a Dutch island whose main claim to fame is a dodgy drink – and the fact that earlier this month it sundered ties with the mother country.
Nine hours later I'm in colonial Willemstad, one of the most colourful capital cities you'll ever see. Willemstad was built on both sides of a narrow channel that lets shipping into Curacao's huge natural harbour, the reason Spanish, French, Dutch and British navies fought over this strategic island for centuries. In 1816 it passed back to Holland for the final time after the Congress of Vienna.
The newly appointed Dutch governor, Albert Kikkert, had weak eyes and therefore a problem looking at all these white buildings in the bright Caribbean sunlight, so he decreed that they should be repainted in a range of pastels – pinks, creams, ochres, greens, light blues. The result is just about the prettiest thing you ever saw.
Fortunately, just about every new building added since Kikkert has continued the practice, the only exception being the monstrous disgrace of the Plaza Hotel, a 19-storey 1950s eyesore whacked down next to the Governor's Palace in some misguided attempt to turn this delicate low-rise 17th-century Dutch Bermuda into Miami.
When I visit the Governor's Palace I am shown a cannonball wedged into the exterior wall of its church. "Your English Captain Bligh, he fired that from the Bounty during the Napoleonic wars," says Eugene my guide.
"He should have aimed for the Plaza," I reply.
We walk down behind the quayside, streets so full of baroque flourishes that the tourist board has published a free booklet to guide you round the architecture. At the bottom of Herrenstraat I come across a row of stalls selling rainbow-coloured artwork brought over from Haiti and a floating market of boats from Venezuela that offer fruit and vegetables. It takes them 10 or 12 hours to get here and they stay until everything is sold. That can be a week, maybe 10 days.
"We are an island," says Eugene. "Everything has to be imported."
Eugene has agreed that tomorrow we will seek out the landhuises of Curacao. A landhuis is a country residence built by Curacao's gentry who, I learn, were usually Spanish, Dutch or Sephardic Jews – or sometimes a combination of all three. There are more than 100 landhuises dotted round the island, but first I have to tour the hotel. Normally, that's the kind of polite thing that travel journalists do to say thank you to their hosts, but Kura Hulanda is no ordinary hotel and Jacob Gelt Dekker no ordinary host.
Born in Amsterdam, Mr Dekker made the first of his several fortunes with One Hour Photo. By the late 1990s, he had just decided to sell or give away most of his businesses when he was approached by the island of Curacao to help with reconstruction of Willemstad's western quayside, the area known as Otrobanda.
At first, Mr Dekker resisted. When you are as wealthy as he, islands often come knocking at your door. "But then I found a derelict square where African slaves would have been unloaded and taught their trades," he tells me as we wander round. "So, I decided to build a museum of slavery and next to it a house for myself."
Mr Dekker looks like an older Bruce Chatwin and was probably a contemporary. He shares Chatwin's love of travel but he also has an enthusiasm that sometimes gets out of hand. On this occasion he ended up buying most of the hillside around the slave market and restoring 30 old buildings. "Then what to do? They were too small to live in by today's standards, so I created a hotel." Each building is a room or suite, each painted in a different Willemstad pastel. "It was the biggest and best mistake I ever made," he tells me as we study his formidable collection of African artwork in the slave museum.
Mr Dekker has to leave me now because he has a film crew from the UK arriving. I wander back to reception, an imposing building that reminds me of where No 2 lived in the original series of The Prisoner. Eugene is waiting for me outside with his little car whose radio is permanently tuned to Cuban jazz, and we set off.
Curacao is not a big island. You can get from west to east in little over an hour. It's a low limestone block but pretty and green at this time of year thanks to the rainy season. Ten-foot cacti abound and so do houses built at all angles to the road, their asymmetry curiously harmonised by a riot of Willemstad colours. We pass several landhuises that are now restaurants.
There are two distinct colour schemes for a landhuis: red and white or ochre and white, both with green and white shutters. The word "colourful" is often overused, but not about Curacao.
On the way to Landhuis Papaya, Eugene asks me what I knew about his island before I arrived and I tell him about Blue Curacao.
"Do you know that it is made from the laraha fruit? And do you know that the laraha is a kind of orange and that only the skin is used?"
I have to admit I knew none of these things.
"Did you know there is also a Green Curacao and a Red Curacao and an Orange Curacao, too?
"What do they taste of?" I ask.
"We shall see."
Most landhuises are named after the area where they were built or after the family that built them. Papaya is an exception. We pull in briefly and I see that it is a private "Senta Rehabilitashun" (sic) for drug addicts and not open to the public. Next, we come upon Landhuis Savonat marking the entrance to the Christoffel National Park, where Curacao has its own mini-mountain (1,250ft). The landhuis has recently been restored and there's an exhibition devoted to Shon (Master) Jacob van der Linde Schotbourgh and his plantation slaves. Savonat was originally built by Matthias Beck, director of the Dutch West Indies Company on Curacao between 1659 and 1668. Beck was an enlightened man – for his time. He allowed the island's Jewish population to ride horses and keep slaves. I discover this, and the fact that Captain Bligh did not fire his cannonballs in vain, as I tour the museum on my own. Eugene has gone off to see some friends. Everywhere we go he disappears. I think Eugene knows the entire island but what Eugene may not know is that between 1807 and 1816 Curacao was British and the red, white and blue flew over Willemstad.
Next, we turn east in search of Landhuis Bloemhof.
"So are people excited about independence?" I ask.
"Oh yes," he smiles. "They call it the Big 10.10.10."
At Bloemhof we meet Nicole Henriquez who has turned her family's landhuis into a busy arts centre. She has also preserved her mother's studio as if May Henriquez, a formidable Curacaon sculptor who wore horn-rimmed glasses, were still working here.
Finally, we come to Landhuis Chobolobo, which is now the factory in which Senior & Co produce the definitive Curacao of Curacao. Seniors began marketing this island's liqueur internationally in 1896 but found it couldn't patent it because, as Eugene tells me, you can't patent a place name.
The landhuis looks like all the others, if a little bigger. It's open to catch the breezes, so we walk into the main hall where the original copper boiler from 1896 still functions. On a table are samples of the four liqueurs: red, orange, green, blue. I sample each one and find to my surprise that they taste exactly the same, like alcoholic candied orange peel. Eugene nods. There is no difference between the legendary Blue Curacao and all the others.
I feel ever so slightly conned, but then I decide to blame Governor Kikkert. Everything is multicoloured on this island. You can't expect Curacao just to be blue.
How to get there
KLM (0871 231 0000, klm.com) flies to Curacao via Amsterdam from £724 return. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies via Miami from £991. Adrian Mourby stayed at Kura Hulanda (00 599 9 434 7700; kurahulanda.com ), which offers doubles from $160 (£101) room only.
Curacao Tourist Board (curacao.com).
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