Curaçao has never been at the top of my list of places to visit, but a few things came together and that’s where we ended up for a few days in February 2020, before taking a short flight over to neighbouring island Bonaire for a few more days.
I did the research, hoping for a ferry from Curaçao to Bonaire. But all I found out was that there used to be one… and maybe there would be one again one day if they could just figure out who would pay!
But I did get a hit on a ferry that operated in the capital city, Willemstad. “Intermittently for the use of shoppers” the internet said. But it turns out the ferry is much more relevant than that description implies.
Willemstad developed around the mouth of one of the world's biggest inland ports (the Schottegat), and the channel (Sint Annabaai) connecting the port to the sea cuts the city in half. The city originally developed inside the walls of the fort in Punda, on the east side of the channel, but expanded into what is now Otrobanda (“the other side”) on the west side when space inside the walls had filled up. As the two sides of the city grew, so the need arose for something with more capacity than a ferry and in 1888 the Koningin Emmabrug (Queen Emma bridge) was opened. A modern 4 lane highway bridge (Koningin Julianabrug) opened 700
upstream in 1974. But the Koningin Emmabrug continues in operation, albeit after many rebuilds, and now pedestrian-only.
Most ferry stories end when a bridge is built, but not in this case. The Koningin Emmabrug is a pontoon bridge that must be swung sideways to open the channel to shipping. It’s 167long and supported on 16 pontoons. The port here is busy and this requires that the Koningin Emmabrug be opened upwards of 20 times a day to allow passage of ships and boats of all sizes.
Short of taking a long taxi ride over the highway bridge, the only way pedestrians can cross when the bridge is open is to use the ferry. If a smaller craft like a sailboat uses the channel, then the bridge is only opened a short distance, and for a few minutes, and the ferries do not run — people just have to wait. A large commercial vessel requires the bridge to be opened fully, for maybe 30 minutes or more, and in that case the ferry service goes into action. There are two boats in service, the Havendienst 1 and 2 (meaning "harbour service"), although I understand there is a third boat available.
The ferry is fun, free and fast, and allows good views. But in honesty the bridge is the star attraction here. As it floats on its pontoons it ripples slowly up and down in the swell as you cross it. A horn sounds when it is about to open, giving you time enough to reach the shore. But you can choose to stay on the bridge, marooned there until the ship traffic has passed and the bridge closes again. At night the bridge is decoratively lit and it’s a great place to stop and look at the colourful buildings on each side of the channel that have become the trademark of Curaçao.
What else in Willemstad? We spent quite a time in two museums, both because they were good and because the daytime sun is so fierce it is tough for fair skinned souls during the height of the day; save your wandering for the evening. The Curaçao Maritime Museum is compact and good; if things nautical and historical interest you then this is a must-visit. In the afternoon we visited the Kura Hulanda. This quirky museum’s focus is on African art, history and exhibits relating to the local slave trade, which it covers in depth. It is a surprise then that the first gallery contains a lot of Middle Eastern artifacts from around 2500 to 1000 BC. Surprises are good! When evening approached we joined a fascinating architectural walking tour of the historical parts of Otrobanda, led by a local architect.
Shopping and casinos are the other “things to do”, but they hold zero interest for us. But also eating, and we did enjoy an evening meal at the Gouverneur De Rouville restaurant, which is situated right by the Otrobanda ferry terminus. It has a balcony which is a great place to sit at night and watch the bridge opening and closing and the ferries plying back and forth, though we were late in booking a table so had to eat in the inner courtyard.
What of the rest of Curaçao? We enjoyed walking around the Jan Thiel salt pans and the wild desert coast of Shete Boka Park in the north west. There are resorts, diving is popular, but regular swimming not as easy as we expected. It’s fun place to visit for a few days and more Dutch than we expected (it is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).
This photo was taken from a Divi Divi Air Islander as we flew to Bonire. Front and centre is the Isla oil refinery complex which has been in operation for over 100 years, refining Venezualan crude and providing a significant contribution to Curaçao's economy. The inland harbour, the Schottegat, can be seen connecting to the sea through the Sint Annabaaie channel, which passes first under the Koningin Julianabrug road bridge and then under the Koningin Emmabrug pontoon bridge. The Punda district is to the left of the channel, and the Otrobanda district, with the cruise ship terminal to the right. The ferry can just be seen departing the Otrobanda terminus. Zoom the photo to see these details.