The Caribbean is one of the most stunning corners of the Earth. It’s also mostly off-limits to LGBT travelers. From Jamaica to the Dominican Republic, the area is rife with homophobia and antigay violence that is often ignored, or even condoned, by officials. But there is a Caribbean island that actively seeks our business and is actually worthy of it.
While Curacao doesn’t yet offer much in the way of formalized gay rights—it’s an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands—the nation’s tourist board has operated an LGBT website for over a decade, and is helping promote the nascent Pride event (scheduled this year for late September and early October). Just this year, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association awarded Curacao its “Destination Pioneer” award for “exceptional efforts to develop the island as an all-welcoming destination for travelers.”
Leave it to the Dutch to impart their progressive values on this part of the formerly-named Netherlands Antilles, which they colonized in the 17th-century (though not a very progressive act, in retrospect). Though lacking a long-established queer culture seen in larger islands like Ibiza or Oahu, Curacao is indeed friendly and quite sophisticated; harboring a live-and-let-live credo (Bibi I laga Biba in the local language of Papiamento).
For being just north of Venezuela, the flight from the U.S. to Curacao is surprisingly swift; only two and half hours from Miami. Landing at Hato Airport takes planes over the narrow island, which encompasses 170 square miles of a flat, green landscape. The customs officials at the mostly bare bones airport were inundated with our plane’s crush of tourists, mostly blond Dutch folks who looked like they’d get second-degree burns walking to the taxi stand.
Busy as they were, the customs people were as friendly as nearly all people on Curacao; brightly smiling, exuding happiness. The staff at our hotel, the Curacao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino (part of the gay-friendly Marriott chain), kept the theme going. My group of travelers did our best to return the kind greetings, but the Atlantic, in plain view from the lobby and blue as the liqueur named for the island, hushed us. Staring at it after a day of traveling felt like the after-effects of a 90-minute yoga session.
Curacao is still an under-the-radar Caribbean destination, so rooms at mid-level hotels like the Marriott can be had for about $160 a night. Many of the Marriott's rooms offer spectacular ocean views, which make up for the dated décor. Upscale restaurants, beach bars, and an adorable casino are more than enough to keep someone busy if they need to be a hotel shut-in for a day or two.
Travelers would be doing themselves a disservice though, if they only swam in the hotel’s pristine beach or strolled along its tranquil walking path. The city’s capital and largest city, Willemstad, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and absolutely full of wonder. The curving, soaring Queen Juliana Bridge hovers over the city like a colorless rainbow. Driving over it, the colorful expanse of the city is visible; red-roofs spread far and wide, with homes painted white, red, orange, and Curacao blue. Another bridge, the Queen Emma, connects the two main districts of Willemstad, Punda and Otrabanda. Originally built in 1888, the Queen Emma is at the bustling center of the city, and charmingly swings open when boats are passing (free ferries can take you across the water if you’re in a rush). When all is clear, flocks of people hang out on the bridge, talking and flirting.
On both sides of the Queen Emma are clean, densely-packed streets. There are shops galore, mostly shilling touristy dood-dads and high-fashion knock-offs. Street food abounds, with baked plantains and stewed goat a-plenty. Don’t miss the Plaza Bieu, a barn filled with food stalls, where locals munch on friend snapper and sip on iguana soup at picnic tables. Don’t worry, like everywhere in Curacao, tourists are very welcome.
During your leisurely stroll through downtown, don’t miss a chance to pose at the city’s huge “Dushi” installation. That word is popular on the island, but it means “sweet,” not terrible.
There’s history to soak up, as well. The Western hemisphere’s oldest operating synagogue, established in the 1650s, is open for visits and contains a museum and gift shop. On the other end of the spectrum, the island's role in the colonial slave trade is explored at the Museum Kura Hulanda, which has artifacts and exhibits on slavery throughout the Caribbean, as well as art and achievements.
So after you've done your cultural diligence, head back to the beach. Every hotel sits on some pristine sand, but if you have access to a car, check out quiet Little Knip beach on the far north end of the island. During the evenings, try Willemstad's amenity-packed Rock Beach and Mambo Beach, which are known as LGBT-inclusive on Friday and Saturday evenings, respectively.