The world seems a more dangerous place to travel for everyone, but maybe especially for Jews. Fig Tree & Vine is publishing an occasional series of the top destinations where Jewish travelers can feel completely comfortable snapping selfies and visiting major sites. To determine these, we’ve relied on a number of sources to determine the safety factor of any given place, including the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent Global 100 Anti-Semitism Survey Index. Destinations so far include Tokyo, Portugal, and London. This week’s pick is Caribbean destination, Curacao. See also our companion coverage: a recipe for Red Snapper Caribbean-Style.
By Vac Verikaitis
Curacao is widely known as a garishly blue liqueur derived from dried peels of bitter oranges grown on the Caribbean island of the same name. What many don’t know that it was invented by a Jewish descendent of a Sephardic family that fled Spain to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
Edgar Senior, whose last name adorns the original and most famous brand of the liqueur, began producing Curacao in 1896. His family, however, arrived on the tropical island in the early 1600s, along with many other Jews seeking refuge from persecution in their homeland. It’s one of the many factors that makes Curacao a fascinating tourist destination for modern-day Jews.
The island is located just north of Venezuela, in the ABC chain of islands known as the Netherlands Antilles. One of the many attractions of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao is that they lie outside the Caribbean hurricane belt and boast warm, sunny climates year-round. Furthermore, while these islands are safe destinations for everyone according to our indexes, Jews can feel completely at home in Curacao in particular.
The island was once the hub of all Jewish cultural life in the colonial Caribbean era, the mother of the Jewish community in the New World. Spanish and Portuguese Jews escaping the Inquisition started arriving in the 1630s. In 1651, the first congregation was established — the Mikveh Israel Congregation in the capital of Willemstad –which still exists today. These early settlers had hoped to farm but found the soil too arid. Instead they opened up the island to trade, and eventually became involved in all aspects of the island’s shipping, commerce, and banking industries. At its peak in the late 19th century, there were 2,000 Jews living on the island; many of the 200 Jewish families that remain on Curacao today can trace their ancestry back many generations.
Curacao’s Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, exterior and interior.
Of historical interest to Jewish tourists is the Willemstad’s Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, consecrated in 1732: The jewel-like shul, with its tropical sand floors, is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. It boasts a Torah scroll that settlers in the 1860s brought from Amsterdam. The services are performed in Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew, as per the traditions of the community’s ancestry. (There is also Shaarei Tsadek, the synagogue founded by Curacao’s Ashkenazi community in the 1930s but re-built in 2003.) Both face declining memberships as their children go off to post secondary education in the US or Holland and decide to seek their futures abroad. But the minyans increase when cruise ships come to the island.
One of the main reasons for Curacao’s safety lies in its high levels of local education and employment in contrast to other islands in the Caribbean. According to Jacob Gelt Dekker, mastermind behind the award-winning Kura Hulanda luxury boutique hotel and museum project in Curacao, “Unemployment on Curacao is about 3 percent of the adult work force . These numbers compare very favorably to the rest of the Caribbean, where unemployment of the adult work force is on average 15-25 percent.”
Local unemployment is low because the education is ingrained in the local culture and heavily backed by the government: “Education laws make schooling obligatory up to the age of 18 years, and soon to be extended to 21,” Dekker explains. “We expect crime to be even less in the near future, as the schooling laws come in to play.”
What to Do
Clockwise from left to right: Beach and private villa at Baoase Resort; the underwater “Mushroom Forest”; the Hato Caves.
Curacao’s unique mix of inspired architecture and tourist facilities reveals a savoir faire found rarely on a Caribbean island. The colorful Dutch Colonial buildings of Willemsted — named one of the Caribbean’s few UNESCO World Heritage cities — surround the harbor like a jeweled bracelet. It’s a charming tropical city to explore, filled with all types of shops, galleries, and new culinary restaurants that source local food with menus abundant with fresh fish.
Outside the city, the island’s beaches are scattered along the sheltered and calm southwestern coast. The calm, clear waters won’t please surfers, but they will please sunbathers as well as divers. The island is a recipient of Scuba Diving Magazine’s Reader’s Choice awards. A favorite deep sea destination is Curacao’s “Mushroom Forest” — described as “an underwater jungle of 10-foot mushroom-shaped star coral.”
If you prefer exploring land instead of water, In the very core of the island is the Hato Caves, a subterranean realm of stalactites and stalagmites carved by the sea itself. It’s an eerie, alien-like world, and even features cave drawings more than 1,500 years old. Outside the capital city are the old Dutch forts, built back in the 17th century to keep pirates and foreign invaders out. For nature lovers, there’s also the 4,446-acre Christoffel National Park to hike through.
And of course there’s the Curacao distillery itself, still in operation after more than 120 years, and now producing the liqueur in five different colors. The colors derive from artificial food dye; the liqueur is actually made from the peel of the Laraha citrus fruit, a non-native plant developed from the Valencia orange that arrived with the Spanish in 1527. The fruit of the plant itself is inedible but the peel is aromatic, as Edgar Senor discovered; hence the Blue Curacao that mixologists use when an orange bite is called for but additional tropical drama is needed. The distillery is open to visitors: You can book a tour here.
The Senior Curacao distillery. Photo courtesy of Senior.
Where to Stay
For luxury and location, you can’t beat the Baoase Resort , which has everything ranging from hotel suites to private villas. It’s on Conde Nast’s Hot List as well as winner of TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Award for Top 10 hotels for Romance in the Caribbean and Mexico. That being said, there’s a wide choice of lodgings listed on the Curacao’s helpful tourism website.
If you need to keep kosher, while there are no kashrut restaurants in Curacao, the many well stocked supermarkets in Willemstad carry kosher products imported from the U.S. and Holland. If going strictly kosher is important, renting a luxury villa with a fully equipped kosher kitchen is in fact an option.
Where to Eat
There are a number of sophisticated choices but among the more interesting is the Bistro Clochard, located on the rooftop terrace of the Riffort, an old Dutch Fort that overlooks the entire harbour, and, for some thematic fun, L’Aldea Steakhouse. The latter is described by Fodor’s as “a very unique installation on such an arid island …. in a small rain-forest reserve, replete with lizards, animals, fish, and birds that you would find typically in lusher climes. But what is most impressive here is the hand-crafted design of absolutely everything including faux Mayan and other ancient culture recreations, caves and tropical atmospheres by local craftsmen (some of whom are the owners) using wood and cement to recreate a ‘lost world’ in the middle of nowhere.”
Vac Verikaitis is a connoisseur of fine living and freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada.