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Curious Curaçao

December 4, 2008 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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A country of water, wonders and Mikve Israel-Emanuel
When we arrived in Curaçao, palm trees swayed in the wind; warm, white sands beckoned; and friendly faces greeted us at every turn. This was definitely a welcome retreat from the Philadelphia chill.

And we knew we'd chosen even more wisely when we drove up to the Breezes Resort. Located on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, just minutes away from the capital city of Willemstad, the Breezes is a true family-friendly site, with enough activities and diversity of delicious foods to satisfy parents and children alike.

Just outside our window, we could see the rock-climbing wall, trampoline and trapeze contraptions. There were also all kinds of lessons available, like the salsa and reggae dance classes; fun-filled talent shows; scavenger hunts; a gala circus show and more. Many activities revolve around the children's and adult-size pools, where everything eventually spills out onto a massive and gorgeous private beach.

The sun shines almost all the time, and the average temperature year-round is 82 degrees.

But, should you choose to leave the resort, there is much to see on this island. For example, we were urged by friends who had been here before not to miss the sites of Jewish heritage in Curaçao, which happens to be the home of the oldest synagogue in continuous use in America: the Sephardic Congregation Mikve Israel (now known as Mikve Israel-Emanuel since a 1964 merger), established in 1651.

The beautifully constructed, two-story, yellow-colored building is particularly inviting. Step inside and onto a soft white-sand floor. Our tour guide said the sand symbolizes the 40 years the Jewish people spent wandering in the Sinai Desert after they fled from Egypt. Other people say the tradition dates from the Inquisition, when synagogues in Spain and Portugal were covered with sand to muffle the footsteps of Jews worshipping in secret.

The Sand Will Whisper to You
Whatever the reason, the sand, in combination with architecture and artifacts of extreme beauty inside the synagogue, is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression on all who venture there.

Before you leave, be sure to visit the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, which houses a small, but interesting, assortment of Jewish artifacts. In the courtyard, you will notice replicas of some of the most artistic headstones from the Beit Chaim Bleinheim Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery still in use in the Western Hemisphere. It is estimated that between 5,200 and 5,500 people are buried here.

If you have time, you might also choose to wander through "Scharloo," the Jewish Quarter of Willemstad. Once home to Italian-style mansions, the area is now slightly rundown, with still-beautiful structures (now mainly office buildings) existing beside less-elegant buildings.

Don't miss wandering through this rich capital even further, either by taking a trolley tour or simply strolling the winding streets on your own. Pastel-colored houses line the streets. Then there's the Floating Market, where dozens of schooners offer tropical fruits for sale; the governor's mansion; plantations; the fabulous Seaquarium; and so much more to stir your imagination.

Willemstad is cut in two by the Santa Ana Bay. Three bridges named after queens help everything come together. There's the Queen Emma, the largest floating bridge in existence, that swings open to allow tall ships to pass through; Queen Juliana, which stands 200 feet above the water, allowing for a panoramic view of Willemstad; and Queen Wilhemina, which used to be a drawbridge, but has since been modified as a fixed structure.

Of course, there's more to see on this island beside Willemstad. And there's absolutely no problem getting around, as almost everyone on the island speaks English, and the dollar is accepted everywhere. (Indeed, peak season is still a couple of weeks off, so enjoy the lower rates at hotels.)

Since the times of the first settlement on the island, Curaçao always has been known as a fine place to shop. So head for Punda, or just over the bridge to Otrabanda (meaning "the other side"), for some of the best shopping areas in the heart of Willemstad.

And remember Carnival, a main event in Curaçao, which usually takes place in late February. It's one of the busiest times on the island and one not to be missed, if at all possible.

For more information, go to: www.curaçao.com.

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