“You have to know how to read the wind,” says my native Curaçaoan guide, Eugene, while pointing to a flock of swiftly fleeting clouds. I’ve only been here an hour, but that wind sends us right into an omen of what lies ahead: laidback locals, great music, plush digs, ooh la-la food. The over-sea, open-air Avila Blues Bar—conveniently attached to a 66-year-old, 150-room landmark beach hotel—has a stage directly atop its bar, where the former Prime Minister and his band glide through their set. As the sun dips into the sea, I discover an entrenched local jazz scene that’s peppered with Latino grooves. However, I’m visiting this unexpectedly musical island to behold a new evolution of its live music muscle; the blues have arrived.
Eugene whisks me away from that gig to witness the debut of the International BlueSeas Festival in Willemstad’s colorful downtown streets and establishments. Within a block of each other in this otherwise serene town center is Serbian singer-guitarist-badass Ana Popovic and hard-country-blues fingerpicking Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. By day, delightful European architecture, the iconic, floating Queen Emma Bridge that links the city’s halves, and classic Carib swank draw tourists to this UNESCO World Heritage site. But now the blues own the night, and we’re off to a very good start. This place is on fire.
My first impression of the Dutch, instilled during my first Southeast Asian tour when President Reagan wasn’t exactly a hit in Holland, was Netherland backpackers all wearing John Lennon-style spectacles to study Nietzsche, condemn superpowers and question my brand of bravado—all with good reason. Well, nearly three decades later, I can see that although that “Dutch sophistication” influences this small island, the Caribbean calm and Latino zest remain undisturbed. While everyone seems to share the Netherlands’ liberal ethos, Eugene celebrates his homeland’s connection to the US, including Atlanta Braves Golden Glove star Andrelton Simmons. We pull over for a brew and toast the breezy island’s live-and-let-live attitude.
Debuting festivals usually have the blues and take years to become worthwhile. Yet, this one is incredibly organized and features mega talent, including three free sets by several downtown performers for the first two nights of this three-day fest. Every blues act that plays continues to pretty much constantly tour the world, another indication of the festival’s commitment to bringing in the best. The same brains that founded and annually recreate Curaçao’s heralded North Sea Jazz Festival (details below) made sure of this. Put either one of them on your hit list.
The third and final night of the festival, a ticketed event, is at a huge bayside venue where the Original Blues Brothers and Buddy Guy take charge. Buddy brings the festival full circle after a three-day musical wander of not only blues, but also country rock, traditional and gentrified jazz, and classic street performers that defy categorization.
While the blues dominate the nights, beachfront indulgence soothes my days. There’s just something matchless about a cocktail after a gourmet meal as you gaze at the sea with your posh quarters just steps away. Papagayo Design Hotel, in the predominantly Dutch Jan Thiel area, is one of Curaçao’s newer hip hotels. It’s at the head of a string of several perfectly hedonistic beachfront lairs including Zanzibar Lounge & Restaurant. Chic but relaxed, Papagayo and its white facades, seaside pools and breezy dining and drinking options leave little reason to leave. And the only reason I did was to go see Kat Riggins at the helm of her blues-fusion band playing on a downtown street for free.
Although the tourism scene here is dominated by Hollanders, Eugene describes the local makeup as “tutti-frutti,” an amalgam of cultures blending 150,000 locals from 60 nationalities—all speaking papiamentu (similar to papiamento in Aruba), a blend of languages. Thus, most of the multilingual locals speak (at least) papiamentu, Dutch, English, and Spanish. I didn’t meet any other Americans during my time here, and you probably won’t either, making Curaçao an even more intriguing choice.
The island’s other recommended dining options include bargains at Plasa Bieu, a local hangout where meals (and pumpkin pancakes) are doled out via side-by-side stalls. Landhuis Daniel, a circa-1700s former plantation house, serves up nouvelle Creole cuisine. The exclusive ocean-club outdoor settings of St. Tropez, with its authentic French cuisine, and Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort’s Shore Restaurant (open-air kitchen, honeymooners) will steal your breath—and your appetite.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Curaçao’s National Parks showcase beachy fishing villages, which are adored by locals who share a timeless offering of Caribbean cool. After visiting a few enchanting coves with colorful bobbing fishing boats mingled with kids on rafts, I head to the airport with Eugene. As I sling on my backpack, he wryly comments on my walking pace, gently shakes my shoulder, and smiles, “Bring some tutti-frutti to New York.”
On the North Sea Jazz Festival
As noted, this little-island-that-can was able to launch a successful blues festival on the shoulders of its already internationally acclaimed North Sea Jazz Festival. Now in its sixth year, the popular Labor Day weekend festival is back for another run September 3-5, 2015 in Willemstad’s bayside World Trade Center. A wide range of internationally renowned artists headlining this three-day party will include John Legend, Emeli Sande, Enrique Iglesias, the Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, Wyclef Jean, Randy Newman, Usher, and more.