November 11 to 18 2015
Another November and I’m off on another solo dive trip. Every November my wife has twenty female friends and relatives to our house for their annual Christmas shopping get together.
Since 2006 I’ve gone diving somewhere in the Yucatan every November. The only exceptions is when I went to Key West in 2007.
I started out in Isla Mujeres. I liked Isla but when it rains, and it did, you are trapped in your room walking Mexican TV.
I went to Cancun in 2011 for my November dive trip. It was nice but it wasn’t convenient for diving. It’s a forty minute boat ride through the lagoon to the dive site.
The next year I moved down the coast to Playa del Carmen. I liked Play so much that I’ve gone there the last three years. My wife and I even went to Playa in June in 2014 to celebrate my birthday. Last year I split my vacation between Tulum and Playa. I liked Tulum but the diving wasn’t great.
I’d had my share of rain in November so this year I decided to go outside of the hurricane belt. The ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) seemed to make sense. From what I’ve read, Aruba’s diving is just okay. Bonaire is supposed to have great diving but there isn’t anything to do in the evening. Curacao is supposed to have good diving and nightlife.
I originally was going to book a room at Atlanta Beach Hotel but I found a great deal at Sunscape all inclusive. The resort also has Ocean Encounters dive shop on site. I paid about $1000 for seven nights including food, drink and airfare out of Miami. I used Delta frequent flier miles to get me for MSP into Miami.
My only option both going to and returning from Curacao was to have a long layover in Miami. I left Minneapolis at 10 am going to Curacao and did not get to my room until midnight. On the return trip I left the hotel at 6:30 am and did not get into Minneapolis until 6:30 pm.
As usual, I used Trip Advisor to research my trip. One of the red flags for Curacao was the fact that there is an oil refinery on the island and it’s near Willemstad. I passed it on the way to the resort. It was not a problem, I never smelled any foul refinery odors.
All the comments on Trip Advisor say to rent a car in Curacao and to get a GPS because navigating the street that have long Dutch names can be challenging. Also, the island is beautiful and you need a car to get to the best beaches and snorkeling.
I generally don’t like to drive in foreign countries, so I didn’t rent a car. I took a cab to and from the airport and rode the local collectivos (not sure what they are called in Curacao) to get into Willemstad and back. The only areas of Curacao that I explored were Willemstad and Mambo Beach where Sunscape was located.
On Thursday I went to Willemstad. The city is split in two by St Anna Bay. The eastern half is called Punda and the western side is called Otrobanda which literally translates to “other side”.
It is easy to get to Willemstad from Sunscape. All I did was walk across the street to the bus stop. Willemstad has city buses but I never saw one running.
While I was waiting at the bus stop the Curacao equivalent of a Mexican collectivo pulled up and I took it to Punda for $2.00. I took the collectivo back to Sunscape too. A collectivo is a privately owned van that drives around the city and picks people up.
Cruise ships stop at Willemstad daily so there are many stores for tourists to buy anything from jewelry to t-shirts. There is a row of brightly colored classic Dutch buildings lining the eastern shore of St Anna Bay. Many tourism photos you see of Curacao will be of these buildings.
One of the tourist draws in Willemstad is the Queen Emma bridge. It is a floating pedestrian bridge that spans St Anna bay. The bridge can be pulled to one side to allow boat traffic to pass. There are ferries that will shuttle you across the bay when the bridge is not in use.
I went into Willemstad three times during my stay. I didn’t dislike Willemstad but in the future I wouldn’t go back. Parts of it are picturesque but some parts are dirty. I didn’t go to any bars or restaurants that I would recommend.
Initially I was going to book a room at Atlanta Beach Hotel. It’s located near Sunscape. It looked basic when I rode past it in the cab. I don’t think I would have liked staying there. There weren’t any restaurants close by and there isn’t any direct beach access. I was glad that I stayed at Sunscape.
Sunscape resort is located on the eastern end of the Curacao. The lobby area was nice for an older resort. My room was large. Everything was in good shape but starting to show a little wear. The room was kept clean but not nearly as spotless as our room at Club Med in Turks and Caicos. I was on the main floor so the room had a patio area that I never used. The upper floors had balconies.
I had breakfast every morning at the Word Café at the resort. It is the resort’s buffet restaurant. They had a large selection of fruit, they also had eggs, black beans, and many other breakfast goodies. There was an omelet bar too. Since I had to be on the dive boat by 8 am and I’m a late riser I didn’t get a chance to try the omelet bar until the last day of my vacation.
I had lunch at the Blue Water Grill four times. It’s located right on the beach. Your choices are limited. You can have hot dogs, chicken or hamburgers. All three options come with fries.
Getting lunch was slow. You had to stand in line at the bar, give your order to the chef who would then cook your burger or hot dog, put it on a plate, add fries and hand it to you. It was hot, smoky work and several of the chefs did not seem very happy that they had to do it.
Special orders were a challenge for the chef. I always ordered my hamburger plain, no lettuce and tomato but I received it with lettuce and a tomato every time. It didn’t matter to me but the chef seemed to be flustered by any changes.
I had most of my dinners at the buffet. Traveling solo I didn’t see a need to eat at the upscale restaurants at the resort.
I did eat at the Da Mario one night. As you could guess from the name it is an Italian restaurant. I had the frutti de mare. It had mussels, calamari and local fish with fresh pasta.
I joined Bob my dive partner and his wife at the Blue Water Grill for dinner one night. The restaurant switches from a burger and hot dog joint during the day to a steakhouse at night. All three of us had filet mignon. It was decent steak for a restaurant at an all inclusive.
The beach at Sunscape was beautiful. It was the classic white sand beach with azure water. Palapas and lounge chairs lined the beach. The snorkeling was good. I saw half a dozen squid and many fish.
Ocean Encounters Dive Shop
They had the nicest, friendliest dive masters I’ve encountered. They went out of the way to help Bob and me with our night shore dive. Since the shop would be closed they put our tanks and dive gear in a locked room and gave us the key. They gave me recommendations where to go on days that I wasn’t diving. The dive masters always talked to us on the boat rides to and from the dive sites.
I took a snorkel trip on my last day in Curacao with Ocean Encounters. They also had beginner divers on the boat. I am a snorkel fiend. I was one of the first people in the water and I was free diving (if you consider fifteen to twenty feet free diving) on the tug boat.
Since I was one of the last snorkelers left in the water Benjamin the dive master swam over to make sure I was okay. He picked up on the fact that I wasn’t ready to go back. He was a free diver and genuinely appeared to like snorkeling.
We were still diving on the tug boat so he showed me where part of the hull had been cut out so you can see all of the fish swimming inside the tug.
Everyone had gone back to the boat except Benjamin and me. I had explored everything in the immediate area so he asked if I wanted to snorkel the pier which was about 120 yards away. We swam over and explored around the pier.
He was a real free diver, unlike me, so he dived down to about 50 feet to the ocean floor. He said he could go seventy five feet or deeper. I was impressed but he was modest, stating that other people can go far deeper.
We were out for another half an hour. By the time we got back to the boat the scuba divers had returned. When I got on the boat some of the snorkelers gave me a puzzled look, maybe wondering where I came from. They don’t know what it’s like to be part fish. I would spend half my day snorkeling or diving if I lived by the ocean.
We dived mostly on the east end of the island. The dives were easy, not a lot of current. The visibility was good except for one of the dives that was a little murky.
There was much more coral and sponges than in Mexico. I saw a lot of brown spotted eels. One day I excitedly told the dive masters that I had seen a white spotted eel. I had never seen one before. They gave me an odd look and didn’t really saw much. I later found out that they are common in Curacao. It would be like me telling a Mexican dive master that I had seen a green eel (which are very common in Mexico). I’m sure they would give me the same muted response.
I have been diving nineteen years and I had only seen three octopi. I saw two more just on this trip. One of them was tucked into a crevice on the ocean floor and turned colors as I stuck my camera in the crevice to photograph it
The other octopus was a ham. Bob spotted it as it ducked into a small coral head. I swam to the other side just in time to see it crawl out from under the coral. Luckily my GoPro was rolling.
The two octopus were by far the best things I saw on my dives. As I mentioned before we saw white spotted eels. I also saw brown spotted eels and a couple of green eels. The reefs were alive with sergeant majors, tangs, file fish, cow fish, trunk fish and more.
Unfortunately I also saw a lot of lion fish. If you are not aware, they are the bane of the Caribbean. They breed and eat like crazy. They eat all of the small fish on the reef. These are the fish that clean the reef so if there are enough lion fish they will decimate the reef fish and the reef will die.
The conditions were good in Curacao; good visibility and not a lot of current. My one complaint is I didn’t see any large sea life. In other parts of the world I would usually see southern rays, eagle rays, sharks and turtles but I saw none on this dive trip.
The three days that I dove I did two boat dives in the morning and then I met Bob and did a shore dive in the afternoon. My last day diving we did a night dive instead of an afternoon dive.
The shore dives were simple. We grabbed a couple of tanks from Ocean Encounters, set up our equipment, giant strided off the pier and swam along the man made breaker wall that protected the beach.
The dive profile was the same for every dive including the night dive. We followed the wall east for twenty five minutes. At that point we would encounter a submerged barge with I-beams and other construction debris scattered around. The barge was at roughly 100 feet which is too deep for a third dive of the day so we never swam all the way down to the barge.
On the swim out we were between forty to sixty feet. On the way back we were at twenty to thirty feet so we had not problems with decompression.
There was a lot of small sea life, especially considering the man made breaker wall that was only one hundred yards off shore.
Below is a compilation of some of the sea life I saw while diving.
The Night Dive
The night dive was wasn’t very good. We expected to see nocturnal creatures like eels, lobsters, crabs and maybe even an octopus. We saw none of them. We only saw regular reef fish.
Bob came well prepared for the night dive. He had two underwater strobes to mark our way. Our plan was to tie one of the strobes to the concrete block where the channel marker buoy was anchored and the other strobe a little further down the slope if needed so we would be sure not to overshoot the channel back to the pier.
We followed the same dive profile as the previous dives. It took us less than twenty minutes to get to the wreckage. We were apparently swimming a little faster or there was a little less current. Once we turned around we it only took us about eighteen minutes to return.
At eighteen minutes I saw the strobe in the distance. Bob’s plan worked perfectly. We swam over and Bob retrieved it. All we had to do to get to the pier was go straight for about twenty feet until we hit the stone breaker, go right for about ten feet, take a left and swim about twenty yards to the pier.
That was the plan but for some reason it didn’t work out that way. II swam until I hit the breaker wall and I took a right, followed the wall until I would go left and I swam toward the pier.
Bob noticed something was wrong first. He noticed that the water was getting deeper rather than shallower. I noticed that we were swimming for much longer than it should have taken to get to the pier.
I ffinallysurfaced and saw that we were about a hundred yard in the wrong direction from the harbor entrance. Somehow in the dark I had done a complete 180 and swam the wrong way. I still had 1000 psi left (1/3 of a tank) and I am sure Bob did too. Even if we were low on air we could have inflated our BCs and did a surface swim to shore.
I submerged and indicated to Bob the direction we should swim. I surfaced several times on the way in to the pier so make sure we didn’t get turned around again.
Bob’s wife was waiting for us at the pier. She saw our flash lights in the water and noticed that we were going the wrong direction and started to panic a little. Some divers on the pier calmed her and told we had probably just seen something interesting. We had to fess up and let he know we were directionally challenged.
I have a compass and I’m Advanced Open Water certified so I should be able to use it. I didn’t bring it because I snorkeled the same route once and we followed the same route twice during our afternoon dives. It should have been simple. Next time I’ll bring my compass.
Mambo Beach/Mambo Beach Boulevard
The stretch of beach between Sunscape and the Curacao Aquarium is called Mambo Beach. It is beautiful white sand beach that dissolves into turquoise water. The beach is lined with restaurants, resorts and bars.
I could not directly access Mambo Beach from the Sunscape. The Ocean Encounters office blocks direct access, so I had to walk to the road in front of Sunscape, go east for several blocks and take a short walk to the entrance of The Cabanas.
Wet and Wild is a beach bar on Mambo beach. It is the number one bar for Curacao on Trip Advisor. I went there Friday night. They had a DJ spinning records. The bass was turned up high enough to shake your brain in your head. That is either a good or bad thing, depending… the majority of the crowd was in their twenties and thirties but there were some older folks like me.
There is a new shopping center called The Boulevard on Mambo beach. They have everything from a car Rental office to a flip flop store. There are also many Restaurants. I missed having Mexican food on vacation, since I usually go to Mexico, so I went to El Mexicano in the Boulevard on my last night.
I was a little disappointed in the food. It wasn’t very spicy. They used different peppers for the heat so everything tasted slightly different than what I was used to in Mexico.
That’s okay, the ambiance was word class. I was seated along the railing overlooking the beach and volleyball courts. The sun had set and the temperature was in the low 80s with a slight breeze. Perfect conditions to enjoy dinner.
It is a full day traveling going to and returning from Curacao. Willemstaad is picturesque but I didn’t think the people were overly friendly. It might have been me, we all have off days.
I liked Sunscape. It reminded me of Club Med in Turks and Caicos but the buildings and rooms were nicer than Turks and Caicos. I liked the food at Club Med better.
The dive shop was wonderful. All of the staff were friendly and helpful. The diving was easy, not much current and good visibility. There were many coral, sponge and small reef fish but I really missed seeing anything large like rays, sharks or eels.
I really liked the Mambo beach area. The restaurants, shops and bars were good. The beach is beautiful, a little crowded, but beautiful.
I didn’t rent a car so I missed the nicest beaches and snorkeling areas on the island.
Would I come back? I don’t plan on it. There is a lot I liked about the island. I didn’t get rained on once which is a nice change of pace for my November dive vacations. But the diving was average and I didn’t think Willemstad was that special.
Where to next November? I’m not sure. I was thinking of spending some time diving in Thailand after I retire. Maybe I need a short vacation to check it out first.