Travel: Take the first left just after the coral reef

Claire Gervat is dazzled by the technicolour wildlife on a snorkelling trail off the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao

That Curacao is an island within a canoe ride of Venezuela will surprise many people. When I told friends where I was going most of them said that they thought it was a liqueur rather than a Dutch Caribbean island. It seemed only the keenest scuba divers had ever heard of it, and although they raved about its coral reefs, I wondered if non-divers would find anything to amuse them.

But, as it turned out, you don't have to be under it to enjoy the sea around Curacao. Even from the front of a big, red, flat-bottomed canoe, with our guide Edwin doing the serious paddling at the back, there was plenty of marine life to see. Crabs scuttled along the waterline, and every time the waves retreated they exposed red wall sponges clinging to the rocks. Looking up, I could see the ghostly forms of fossilised corals etched into the cliff face.

As we paddled on slowly towards Big Knip Bay, where our canoe safari would end, we disturbed a blue heron that flapped away out of the mouth of a small cave. If it was looking for food, it had come to the right place. From my vantage point at the front of the boat, I could see a long way down into the calm water, and there was obviously no shortage of fish darting among the sheet-coral. If I could spot that much from a canoe, the snorkelling was going to be stupendous.

I had the perfect chance to test out my prediction the next day at Playa Kalki at Westpunt, the undeveloped western end of the island. It's a typical Curacao beach, sheltering in a narrow cove, with fine but not powdery sand and, most importantly, coral-reef within striking distance. It was in a section of the reef that Hans van den Eeden, who runs the dive operation at Playa Kalki, was setting up a snorkelling trail.

There were four huge concrete hands on the shop's veranda, waiting to be put in place along the trail. Still, Hans said, there was plenty down there to see even now, and why didn't we put on our masks and snorkels and go and look at it.

We swam slowly until we saw the first of the giant hands on the seabed, pointing us on our way. Soon, each fist nestling in breaks in the reef would have an information placard in its grasp and snorkellers would be given waterproof maps and fish charts to guide them. For now, though, I would have to rely on Hans.

Not that I needed help to find the fish. They were everywhere, and in every imaginable mixture of colours. I knew that the big blue, green and yellow ones with a slash of bubble-gum pink by the gills were spotlight parrot-fish. But what, for instance, was the tiny bright blue fish covered with fluorescent turquoise spots like an attack of psychedelic measles? I wanted to ask Hans, but it is hard to get an answer from someone with a snorkel tube in their mouth.

Suddenly Hans grabbed hold of my arm and pointed to a large silvery fish hovering about in the water ahead of us. I didn't need to ask to know that it was a very impressive barracuda with a particularly unpleasant snarl.

A little further on, Hans drew my attention to a coral that resembled a clipped orange tree, a green ball resting improbably on a narrow stem. As his hands curved through the clear water to mime the shape, I felt as if I was snorkelling with Marcel Marceau.

Back on land, 30 relaxed minutes later, I hunted out all I had seen in a guide to Caribbean fish and corals. The names were wonderful: smooth trunkfish, redlip blenny, blue tang, yellowtail damselfish. Some had been hard to miss - the small shoals of almost luminous blue tang, for instance. Others had required a certain amount of patience to track down, like the redlip blenny I had hovered over for a while before I'd spotted it pouting in the coral. In a fit of train-spotterishness, I noted them all down for future reference.

All that fresh air and swimming had given me an appetite. As we were at Westpunt, the obvious place to head was Jaanchie's, loved island-wide for its delicious local food and relaxed atmosphere. After all, there are more ways to appreciate fish than by just looking at them.

Seafood wasn't the only thing on the menu, however. Jaanchie himself, eyes sparkling in a round face punctuated by a grey moustache and the smallest goatee in the world, suggested the iguana stew. "They say on this island, I don't know why, that iguana stew is good for the man," he told me, smiling mischievously. "Ahh," I said as knowingly as I could but, not being a man, I gave it a miss. I chose the absurdly named wahoo fish instead.

As we sat there, two equally soothing sounds competed for dominance: birdsong and a mariachi band. Grupo Impacto were strumming, tapping and singing their way through a selection of classic numbers in which broken- hearted lovers explained exactly how broken-hearted they were. In English it might have sounded like whingeing, but in Spanish it was soulful.

The birdsong came from a flock of tiny black-and-yellow sugarbirds jostling for position on coconut shell-style dishes hanging up outside the glassless windows. As long as the bowls were full they would carry on feeding and squabbling, but if the sugar was ever allowed to run out they flew into the restaurant for their fix. Hitchcock, I thought, would have felt at home here.

The rest of the afternoon drifted away lazily as we explored more of the local beaches. All too soon we were back in the jeep, driving through the dusk and the dry countryside towards the capital, Willemstad. As we travelled along roads lined with tall cactuses, rabbits skipped across our path.

In town, we found a place to park and walked up through narrow streets like those in a 17th-century Dutch painting. At the waterfront, we stopped for a drink at a cafe. I had been doing everything I could to show that you didn't need to be a diver to enjoy the sea around Curacao, but there was one more thing I just had to try: a cold beer.

This wasn't just any old beer, you understand, but locally brewed Amstel, the only lager in the world made from seawater. I sipped tentatively, just in case they had forgotten to take the salt out first, but I needn't have worried - it was delicious and completely salt-free. Lucky old Curacao, I thought: probably the best seawater in the world. CURACAO

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights to Curacao from the UK. Possible routes are via Amsterdam with KLM, Portugal and Caracas with Tap Air, and Miami with Air Aruba/ALM Antillean Airlines. The writer travelled with Caribbean specialist Harlequin Worldwide (tel: 01708 850300), one of the few holiday companies in this country to feature Curacao. Seven nights at the Avila Beach Hotel costs from pounds 1,028 per person, room only, based on two sharing, including return flights with KLM via Amsterdam.

WHEN TO GO

Curacao is south of the hurricane belt, and a good year-round destination. The sparse rainfall has left the landscape largely barren except for the cactus plants which grow up to 6 metres high. Average daily temperature is 28C. Visibility for snorkelling is usually excellent, averaging 30 metres.

ACTIVITIES FOR WATERLOVERS

A one-day canoe safari costs 90 Naf (pounds 35) with Dutch Dream Adventure (tel: 00 599 9465 3575; dutchdream @ibm.net). For information about snorkelling at Playa Kalki, contact All West Diving (tel: 00 599 9 864 0102; vandeneeden@ibm.net).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact Curacao Tourism Development Bureau, 421a Finchley Road, London NW3 6HJ (tel: 0171-431 4045). Two useful guides are Curacao Close Up (Heiligers pounds 4.50) and Diving and Snorkelling Guide to Curacao (Pisces Books/Lonely Planet, pounds 7.99).

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