Lifting the venomous spikes, I carefully cut along the striped purple skin of the lionfish. When alive, these sharp spikes can deliver a string causing extreme pain and even paralysis. So catching this delicacy is no easy feat. They’re also notoriously difficult to find, hiding camouflaged in coral and impossible to catch in nets.
But here on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao – just as in some other Caribbean waters – these striking sea creatures are an invasive species, negatively impacting native fish colonies and reefs surrounding the island since 2009 after being introduced into Florida’s water. Culling efforts mean hunting these fish is now legal – and necessary.
Local chef, Helmi Smeulders, originally from The Netherlands (as 20% of the population are) lifts a huge wooden spear into the air, with a sharp metal end and a spring, pulling it back and sending it forward to show how she catches lionfish while diving. They sell for $10 each whole, and four times that filleted, so for divers able to find them, it’s lucrative. Plus, the fish is delicious pan-fried or deep fried in batter, she says. Today though, I’m making lionfish ceviche on Helmi’s Caribbean cookery course (helmismeulders.com; $99 USD/£82 including lunch and drinks).
“All the cuisines of the world have been hyped but Caribbean cuisine is still dormant,” Helmi believes, “and hardly any chefs in Curaçao are using local ingredients in a fine dining style.” So she’s on a mission to educate people about the local ingredients available here, like lionfish, coconut, papaya and okra.
Just 37 miles from the Venezuelan coastline, between Aruba and Bonaire – making up what’s known as the ABC islands – Curaçao, with its diverse cultural history (Dutch and English are spoken along with Papiamentu, a mixture of many languages including Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, Caribbean Indian, and various African languages) is the location of the new Sandals Royal Curaçao, which opened its doors in June.
A 25-minute drive from capital city Willemstad, the all-inclusive, couple’s-only resort boasts an open-air entrance lobby as grand as they come, leading out onto a view of the, not single but double, infinity pool – the first in the brand’s 17-strong collection across the Caribbean - pool-side gazebos, palm trees, and of course, the ocean.
“You can see Venezuela from here when the skies are clear,” says Selina Naddour, head of guest services. A hit for honeymooners, there’s a real air of exclusivity, without a hint of pretentiousness; the decor is minimalist luxe, service is warm and genuine, and drinking is plentiful (with the swim-up bar pumping out music morning till sundown).
On the hotel’s beach, crystal clear shallow water gently laps the sand and guests read books on floating platoons, leaving only perhaps to order a ‘dirty banana’ cocktail (rum, coffee liquor, banana and cream) or the world famous Blue Curaçao liqueur.
With unlimited a la carte dining, there are eight restaurants – from Japanese and beachfront seafood, to food trucks – and eight pools, including some guests can step straight into from their private terrace. The most exclusive rooms – like the Awa Seaside Bungalows – boast private pools and butler services. “If it’s legal we’ll make it happen,” says one butler.
As with any hotel catering to a mostly American market, space is everything; even the smallest bedrooms like mine are huge, and at 92% capacity when I travel in October, the resort doesn’t feel busy.
If you want even more space, 15 miles south of Curaçao, is the uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao just half a square mile in size. As we glide into the brightest of turquoise water on a catamaran tour with Island Routes (islandroutes.com, $138 USD/£114pp) before diving in to swim to the long stretch of empty sand, it’s postcard-perfect.
Turtle spotting is common here and reefs offer divers plenty to see, but a low, flat island is apparently difficult to spot from the bridge of a ship, and as a result a huge, rusting wreck of an ship from the 1980s and a dilapidated weather-beaten lighthouse stand like eerie beacons on the otherwise empty, small slice of Caribbean paradise.
Human history on this constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands can be traced back in picturesque world heritage site, Willemstad. Here I find striking coral stone buildings in European neoclassical style adorned in vibrant Caribbean colours. A governor once ordered all homes to be painted in bright colours because the white buildings were giving him a headache, our guide Maja Atalita Vervuurt says. It transpired he owned the island’s biggest paint company, but the colourful houses stuck and these days walls of the city come with a lot of beautiful street art too.
The 17th-century old town centre Punda with the picturesque Handelskade – a colourful stretch of waterfront buildings giving serious Amsterdam vibes – and the 19th century Otrobanda (meaning “the other side” in Dutch) are separated by the waters of Saint Anna Bay and its famous floating pontoon bridge. If you’re crossing when a boat needs to pass, it simply swings open into the channel, so pedestrians better hold on tight.
Museum Kura Hulanda, located at the city-centre harbour, documents the island’s devastating history of slave trading from 1660s to the revolt of 1795 famously led by national hero Tula, who Danny Glover portrayed in the 2013 film by the same name.
Dishes dating back to that time are still served at the Plasa Bieu market, where a long line of cooks stir huge pots of meat, fish or papaya stew, fried polenta and okra soup. I tuck into a rich, slow-cooked goat stew, rice and beans and plantain ($10USD/£8 – but that’s the cheapest you’ll eat out for here) and sip on tamarind juice – think apple with a savoury edge. Brave travellers can even try iguana soup in Curaçao, the huge lizards are everywhere.
And that classic liqueur that features in many holiday cocktails and has made this island famous? It’s named after the dried peel of the bitter orange laraha, a citrus fruit grown here. But I prefer to think it’s a reference to the sapphire seas and deeply blue skies.
How to plan your trip
Sandals (sandals.co.uk; 0800 597 0002) offer a seven night stay at the Sandals Royal Curacao from £3,299pp (two sharing) on an all-inclusive basis with unlimited a la carte dining, drinks and water sports (including up to two scuba dives a day for PADI certified divers) airport transfers and return economy flights with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines from London Heathrow via Amsterdam.