A Craving For Curaçao


By Jen Karetnick

2Most travelers who enjoy soaking in the splendor of ancient synagogues—or churches and mosques, for that matter—head to Europe. In cities like Krakow, Budapest or Venice, where structures such as Tempel and Remuh in Kazimierz, the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street or the Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto have stood for many centuries, historians can admire the soaring architecture, the brilliant stained glass and the enduring nature of the religious art that adorns the temples. And, of course, marvel at the enduring nature of Jews themselves as they attend services in these still-active congregations.

Thus you might be surprised to discover that one of these historic synagogues lies much closer to home. But it is not situated in New York City, as you might have guessed. In fact, the oldest temple in the Western hemisphere is located on an island in the Caribbean called Curaçao, a part of the former Netherland Antilles, which were dissolved in 2010 and now exist as constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

One of three so-called “ABC” islands, neighboring Aruba and tiny Bonaire, Curaçao lies off the Venezuelan coast. Because of its Dutch heritage, evident in Papiamentu, the local Creole (a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and Arawak Indian) and the candy-hued, gabled-roofed buildings—designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site—that line Schottegat Harbor, the island was considered a welcome enclave. The tolerant Dutch Protestants gave safe harbor to the original Jewish settlers, also from Holland but with ten centuries of Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic roots, who emigrated in the 1650s. The Sephardim were able to immediately establish Synagogue Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, known colloquially as SNOA (from the Portuguese word for synagogue, esnoga), in downtown Willemstad, the island’s the capital city.

Comprising both the Sephardim and Reform Ashkenazics who arrived in the twentieth century, the congregation now considers itself Reconstructionist. But Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is just as notable for its architectural elements as it is for the fact that it has been in constant function since 1732. Painted a distinctive pale yellow and comprised of limestone and coral rock walls, the building is a pristine example of Dutch Colonial architecture. With vaulted ceilings, large columns, a distinctive organ and galleries, the interior is a visual homage to SNOA’s mother site in Amsterdam, the Great Synagogue of United Congregation Talmud TORAH. It also pays tribute to the Portuguese custom of muffling footsteps (to fool the Inquisitors) by casting sand on th tiles. Thus, SNOA has a sand floor that has included, until recently, particles imported from Israel.

SNOA’s sand floor is not the result of its island nature; rather, it harkens back to the Portuguese custom when Jews were required to muffle their footsteps in order to evade detection.

Complementary to SNOA, located just across the Cabana courtyard, the Jewish Historical Cultural Museum offers a fleshing out of this narrative by way of artifacts—including a Torah scroll that is believed to date back to 1942, when those first Sephardic families were forced out of Spain and into Amsterdam. Recently restored, the Museum occupies the Rabbi’s House and the Mikvah, which had been “lost” when the building was sold to non-Jews and then gone unidentified for scores of years.

If the Jewish Historical Museum only whets your desire for the past, head across the Queen Emma Bridge from SNOA in Willemstad’s Punda District to Otrobanda. The wooden pontoon bridge connects the government seat to “the other side,” where Museum Kurá Hulanda, an impressive collection of anthropological exhibits that document the slave trade and the relocation of Africans to the Caribbean, is located. The bridge is free and a quick, ten-minute walk, but you might want to first sit at a café along St. Anna Bay and watch the “Old Swinging Lady” move aside for boats while enjoying a piña colada spiked with blue (or orange) Curaçao, the regional liqueur made from the peel of the lahara, an inedible citrus fruit that smells like bitter oranges. Frankly, you might need a little fortification: the displays at Museum Kurá Hulanda, which include a fully replicated slave ship complete with manacles, are as disturbingly memorable as those at a Holocaust Memorial.

4Built by Dutch entrepreneur Jakob Gelt Dekker, Museum Kurá Hulanda is situated within the eight-block Project Kurá Hulanda. In addition to the Museum and a conference center where intellectuals from all over the globe convene, the complex includes Hotel Kurá Hulanda Spa & Casino. Built like a self-reliant village, the 80-room boutique resort offers stays in restored, historic buildings that are individualized with handcrafted teak, art and antiques, the most comfortable, high-end linens and the latest technology—and at the risk of sounding too authentic, some even come with their own ghost stories. In addition, the cobblestone paths lead to multiple, on-premise restaurants—have a crunchy cucumber-seaweed salad with sake-chili vinaigrette, followed by a superb tandoori lobster at Jaipur, the outdoor Asian restaurant next to the natural pool with a waterfall, or return to the Museum for a lunch or dinner of creamy banana soup and zesty mahi-mahi “dushi koursou” (pan-fried with Creole sauce). For other options, you can cross back into Punda for midday Krioyo (homestyle) fare at the Marsche Bieuw, or Old Market Food Court, or a 25-dish dinner feast at Rijsttafel Indonesia.

Kurá Hulanda also runs an all-inclusive seaside, Lodge Kurá Hulanda and Beach Club Curaçao, and you can arrange to split your stay between the two locales. So after spending a few days in the museums and attractions of Willemstad—shopping is some of the best in the Caribbean, with a mix of indigenous designers’ boutiques, art galleries featuring Caribbean artists, high-end jewelry stores and street market stalls—head west to this white sand beach resort, framed by coral cliffs and featuring a natural, offshore reef for nearby snorkeling, diving and fishing. While you’re based there, take soft adventure trips to Seaquarium, where you can swim with the dolphins and feed nurse and lemon sharks; go on a sunrise safari at Cristoffel Park, keeping your eyes peeled for the rare native barn owl or endangered white-tailed deer; or take a a tour of the Ostrich Farm, where you can balance on an ostrich egg—or eat one as a very large omelet.


Alternatively, the Curacao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino, captures the best of old Amsterdam charm with sun-drenched warmth.  Only three miles from downtown Willemstad, is also central to multiple attractions, including the synagogue. In addition, with access to the island’s white-sand beaches—the resort is situated on a private beach in Piscadera Bay–and recently renovated pool facilities, the Marriott features the only Glatt kosher kitchen on the island. Expert culinary and service team, offers the perfect combination of good quality and attentive service. The resort’s extra-large guestrooms are set just steps from the beach & feature Marriott’s ultra comfortable Revive Beds, flat screen TVs, mini fridge, balcony/patio & high-speed Internet access is available.


If you’re looking for a location to hold a destination wedding with kosher facilities, the resort’s tropically landscaped grounds and ocean views are the ideal backdrop—not to mention a luxurious spot to house your guests.


European cities may be able to offer you more than one synagogue to visit. But combined with your journey of curiosity, history and faith, you can only find this array of activities—and this level of relaxation—on Curaçao.