These three islands may be culturally related, but in the Lesser Antilles they couldn’t be more different.
You may not have even noticed, but the Dutch islands group formerly known as the Netherland Antilles is no more. These once included Saba, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius in the Leeward Islands, as well as three outcroppings just off the coast of Venezuela—Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, known as the ABC islands. Aruba went first, declaring independence in 1986. And as recently as 2011, the remaining islands made their decisions: whether to stay in the Kingdom of the Netherlands or secede and be independent. Curaçao and St. Maarten went their own way, while Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire stayed tied to the motherland.
Any time is a good time to check out the Lesser Antilles. The weather stays in the upper 80s most of the year, with trade winds providing welcome breezes. And each island offers something different, whether you’re in search of beaches, diving and snorkeling, or a little culture in a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A IS FOR AMAZING BEACHES
Aruba is known the world over for its sugary sand, and rightly so. The island is ringed with it. The resort area on the northwest shore has beautiful strands, but they’re often crowded. Just to the south lies Eagle Beach, a pristine stretch with far fewer people. For dinner, try Marina Pirata, a seafood restaurant near the south end, with tables out over the water. Beneath your feet, hundreds of fish swirl in the lights of the dock.
B IS FOR BEST DIVING
Aruba’s little sister, Bonaire, is just a puddle-jumper flight away, but you’ll feel as if you’ve entered another world—a much quieter one, with far fewer crowds. You might notice that the rental cars available at the airport are mostly small pickups, perfect for lugging scuba gear. Divers come from all over the world to explore the protected waters off Bonaire. An ideal spot is 1,000 Steps, a sliver of a beach just yards from amazing coral reefs that teem with fish. Afterwards, watch the sun set at Karel’s Beach Bar, a sweet little spot where Dutch expats and locals gather, on the main drag in the tiny capital, Kralendijk.
C IS FOR CULTURE
The cosmopolitan city of Willemstad, in Curaçao, is yet another world away. Here you can explore 17th-century cobblestone streets that wind up from the harbor in the Otrobanda neighborhood. The classic view of Willemstad is from Queen Emma, a pedestrian bridge that connects Otrobanda with Punda, across the harbor. Right by the water in Punda is the famous Handelskade, a waterfront row of shops that looks straight out of Holland, except for the cheery pastel hues. Speaking of cheery hues, Curaçao is famous for its blue (and green and orange) liqueur of the same name. Take a free tour of the factory where the spirits are crafted at Chobolobo Mansion. You’ll be surprised to find that the main ingredient is an unappetizing-looking brown-skinned citrus fruit. A bottle of Curaçao makes a great souvenir—a little bit of island color you can enjoy back home.