Just 56km (35 miles) north of Venezuela and a 30-minute flight from Aruba, Curaçao, the "C" of the Dutch ABC islands, is the largest, most populous, and most cosmopolitan of the Netherlands Antilles. Its beaches and resorts cater more to the European tourist, and lack the flashy opulence of the big resorts found in Aruba, but its distinctive cultural offerings are superior, and it too boasts warm people, rich culture and history, shopping, and watersports. It's the least known of the ABCs, but well worth the effort to get there.
Curaçao is 60km (37 miles) long and 11km (6 3/4 miles) across at its widest point. Cacti, spiny-leafed aloe, mesquite, and divi divi trees stud the arid landscape of the desertlike countryside. The charming Dutch colonial waterfront area of Willemstad, the capital, featuring centuries-old forts, mansions, and shops, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and perhaps the most picturesque colonial city in the Caribbean.
Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci spotted Curaçao in 1499. The Spaniards exterminated all but 75 members of a branch of the peaceful Arawaks. However, they in turn were ousted by the Dutch in 1634, who also had to fight off French and English invasions.
The Dutch made the island a tropical Holland in miniature. Peter Stuyvesant ruled Curaçao in 1644. The island was turned into a Dutch Gibraltar, bristling with forts. Thick ramparts guarded the harbor's narrow entrance; the hilltop forts protected the coastal approaches. Today many of these historic buildings have been converted into restaurants, shops, or hotels.
In the 20th century, Curaçao remained sleepy until 1915, when the Royal Dutch/Shell Company built one of the world's largest oil refineries here to process crude oil from Venezuela. Workers from some 50 countries poured onto the island, turning Curaçao into a multicultural, cosmopolitan community of about 171,000. Curaçao has its own governmental authority, relying on the Netherlands only for defense and foreign affairs.
Curaçao, along with Bonaire, St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten, and Saba, make up the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Curaçaons are Dutch nationals and carry European Union passports. The island's 171,000 people have roots in more than 50 countries around the world.