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Exclusive | Top picks: Best of Cura�ao

Exclusive | Top picks: Best of Cura�ao

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A short drive from Willemstad, gay and lesbian-popular Avila Beach Hotel (Penstraat 130; +599-9-461-4377 or 800-747-8162; www.avilahotel.com; from $210, suites from $320) offers the perfect combination of quiet escape and urban convenience. With two restaurants, three bars, and a gay-friendly, laid-back elegance, it's a prime choice.

An historical attraction and accommodations in one, Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino (Langestraat 8, Otrobanda, Willemstad; +599-9-434-7700 or 877-264-3106; www.kurahulanda.com; from $170) is composed of 65 multi-colored 17th- and 18th-century buildings, which have been meticulously restored. No two suites are exactly alike, making it the island's most character-driven property.

For a good gay-friendly hotel with diving on its doorstep, IGLTA-member Lions Dive and Beach Resort (Bapor Kibra z/n; +599-9-434-8888 or 866-LIONSDIVE; www.lionsdive.com; from $138) has low-key Dutch Caribbean style rooms and apartments and the excellent Ocean Encounters PADI facility on-site, which coordinates boat trips and shore dives.

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The ambience is marvelous and the service top rate at Bistro Le Clochard (Riffort, Otrabanda; +599-9-462-5666; www.bistroleclochard.com; $28-40). French dishes are served in rooms built into the fort's stone walls. The outdoor terrace tables are right by the sea; the waiters have to hop onto the old fort wall to reach the settings, which they do without hesitation.

Second-story Restaurant & Café Gouverneur (De Rouvilleweg 9-F, Otrabanda; +599-9-462-5999; www.de-gouverneur.com; $14-26) faces the waterfront, offering prime harbor views from its open-air patio. The banana soup is a dream.

La Pergola (Waterfort Arches 47, Willemstad; +599-9-461-3482; $18-25) is a top choice for fine Italian dining under the Waterfort's curving archways or on the breezy deck; traditional preparations have a touch of island panache in dishes such as seafood-stuffed ravioli and red snapper in an olive/tomato sauce.

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If you want a totally gay bar, then the choice is easy: Lyrics (Waterfort Arches; look for the rainbow flag) in Punda is the only one on the island and draws men and women for a mix of Curaçao, Latin, and English dance music. Friday and Saturday nights are best. Don't go before midnight.

Saturday night at Mambo Beach (Seaquarium Beach; +599-9-461-8999), a brightly colored seaside bar, is one of the biggest, drawing a gay-friendly mix of locals and tourists. It's also a hip place to spend an afternoon lounging on a beach bed and people-watching.

Sundays feature a complicated routine at the mixed, gay-friendly spots on Sea Aquarium Beach, beginning with happy hour at Mambo Beach and proceeding down the boardwalk to popular Wet and Wild (Sea Aquarium Beach; +599-9-465-3464; www.wetandwildbeachclub.com) for a hour or so, then back to Mambo Beach before continuing to the in-town clubs.

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Curaçao's beaches occupy isolated coves, each with a distinct personality. There are more than 35 beaches to choose from, but the best spots hug the northwestern end of the island (Banda Abou). As you head west, you'll see Daaibooi with its barbecue pits and liquor stand; Porto Marie, where a rainbow boardwalk leads to soft white sands; and the island's nicest, Knip, which opens onto a large bay of luminously blue water among a crescent of cactus-covered cliffs.

The island is a scuba diving and snorkeling paradise, with more than 60 sites just off the western coast that are sprinkled with shipwrecks, coral forests, caves, and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish. Alice in Wonderland and the Mushroom Forest are among the most picturesque. Dive operations line the shores, making it a breeze for certified divers to rent gear and slip right onto a reef.

Walking is the only way to explore Historic Willemstad. With a suave European aspect overlaid with West Indian vibrancy, Curaçao's capital -- named to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1997 -- is perhaps the Caribbean's most pleasant town: built for strolling, charming in appearance, and filled with offbeat pleasures. It's as if a crayon box burst open along the city's deep-water harbor to reveal rows of multi-hued 17th- and 18th-century buildings.

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