WILLEMSTAD, Curacao -- The Dutch island of Curacao is better known for its colorful buildings and rich history than its golf courses.
That's because up until a few years ago the only course on the island was the Curacao Golf and Squash Club, a 10-hole layout with sand greens patronized by the locals.
This seems rather strange considering this island is one of the most prosperous in the Caribbean and there is certainly plenty of money to support the sport.
However, what there is not a lot of on Curacao (pronounced cure-a-sow) is water. Along with Aruba and Bonaire, known collectively as the "ABC Islands," it is extremely arid with less than 20 inches a rainfall per year.
So anyone putting in a golf course is going to be highly challenged to keep it irrigated. And such is the case with the island's newest course, Blue Bay.
Designed by William "Rocky" Rocquemore of Atlanta and opened nearly three years ago, this par-72 18-hole championship layout is a welcome addition to the island's attractions. Rocquemore designed a number of courses in Portugal and so was familiar with this kind of terrain. The course is the centerpiece of the Blue Bay Curacao Golf and Beach Resort, a fairly new development just a few miles from the island's two biggest hotels, the Curacao Marriott Beach Resort and the Hilton Curacao.
So I've heard about this new course and visited its Web site and I'm anxious to play it. So it was rather odd to show up and discover that there are virtually no tee times as its only gets about 20 rounds of play a day.
Can this be? The pro, Agripna Arrindell, says indeed it is so. The course is really not promoted as a tourism product and only determined golfers find their way here. No golfers means no revenues. As a result, the course is not in the greatest condition. It is straw dry in many areas and the greens are particularly uneven.
Am I to be disappointed? Playing with me are Nicole Merkx, general manager of the 78-room Trupial Inn Hotel, and Richard Bourke, general manager of Breezes, a popular 340-room all-inclusive resort. Merkx belongs to Blue Bay and plays here frequently. Bourke admits it is his first time on the course. He has never even been invited to check it out. I have drafted both of them to go out with me to take a look.
The first hole is deceptive. A par-4, it plays straight. Too easy, we think. And brown almost all of the way. And then, hole by hole, it keeps getting better. By hole No. 3, I realize that Rocquemore has a great design here. It goes up, down and around. Winding along the Caribbean Sea and through the "old plantation Blaauw," a former Dutch estate.
At the signature hole, No. 5, a par-3 with a forced carry over a cliff, we know we are onto something special. Pretty soon the dryness does not bother me so much as I'm challenged with playing off this kind of grass.
Plus, there's the wind factor. On Curacao, there is a constant breeze. While this helps moderate high temperatures, we discover it can wreak havoc on our high shots and it makes the course even trickier.
There are spectacular views, a blind shot or two, interesting vegetation (notably very large cactus) and some extremely pretty holes. It turns out that the back nine is much greener than the front.
We encounter some interesting wildlife along the way: large iguana, flamingos, ducks, white heron and numerous small birds. We even come across some donkeys and cows penned near one of the final holes. "To be honest, you don't see many of those critters on Curacao," Bourke observes.
No. 17 is particularly notable. You have a blind shot off the tee, with your second shot to a downhill green backed by the ocean. We all par it and are extremely smug with the result. As we tip our beers after (Amstel, of course), we marvel at the fact that the owners are not promoting this course. With more rounds, obviously there would be more money for upkeep.
"Those of us who live here understand the lack of water," Merkx explains. "It is a fact of life for us, so it does not bother us so much." Bourke observes: "I could send at least 30 rounds a day here, if they would provide transportation."
All that said, the course is open to the public and the next time you visit Curacao you should play it. If you visit on a cruise ship, you can hop in a cab, be at the course in about 20 minutes and finished with your round in time to hit a few stores in the historic Punta district before the ship sails.
There are four sets of tees. It plays 6,735 from the tips, 6,355 from the blue tees, 5,710 from the white tees and 5,200 from the forward tees (making it very women-friendly). A round costs about $80, depending on the time of day and season. Callaway club rentals go for $35. There's little doubt that this could be one of the prettiest courses in the Caribbean with enough water and TLC.
We can only hope that conditions will improve as demand increases. These owners also own Tierra del Sol on Aruba, which gets a lot more play. As for the island of Curacao, it is very charming and quite cosmopolitan. It is located just off the coast of Venezuela, just 12 degrees north of the Equator, and so it a bit unknown to many Americans. Its visitors come from Europe, South America and North America, making an interesting mix.
The locals speak four languages. Discovered in 1499 by the Spanish, it was conquered by the Dutch in 1634 and became a key depot in the international slave trade. Over the centuries, it fell into French and British hands and it wasn't until 1815 that the Dutch regained control. Since 1954, Curacao has been a commonwealth within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Dutch is the official language.
But today the island is truly a melting pot with a rich mix of Indian, European, African, Asian and Arabic cultures, a rarity in the Caribbean. Downtown Willemstad is divided into two parts: The Punda is the old city, home to Mikve Israel-Emanual, the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and Fort Amsterdam, which now houses the government. The Punda is bursting with narrow streets and colorful buildings, most of which have been restored to their 18th century designs. In 1997, this area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the other side of the river is Otrabanda. This area, which used to be warehouses and was the center of slave trading, is reached either by a free ferry or by walking across the Queen Emma bridge, a pontoon bridge which opens several times a day to allow cruise ships, freighters and sailboats access to the inner port. In recent years Otrabanda has undergone a massive renovation. There are now a number of hotels, restaurants and shops. Most prominent is Kura Hulanda, a complex built by Dutch philantropist Jacob Gelt Dekker. It consists of an exquisite boutique hotel, several shops and an unusual museum, all built from restored 18th and 19th century Dutch Colonial buildings.
The museum is anthropological, focusing on the predominant cultures of Curacao. It is home to the largest African collection in the Caribbean. Plan on spending a couple of hours; it is that fascinating. Other attractions on the island include the Sea Aquarium, home to an excellent swim-with-the-dolphins program; the Floating Market, where boats from South America sell produce along the wharf in Willemstad; Den Paradera, an unusual herb garden; Hato Caves; an ostrich farm and restaurant, and the Senior Curacao Liqueur Factory. Divers and snorkelers will particularly appreciate the 68 dive sites near Curacao and the 38 beaches on the island. The island's "Mushroom Forest" has been recognized as one of the top 15 dives in the world. And you always want to have your snorkeling gear with you, because there are reefs and walls off almost all of the beaches, waiting to be explored.
Just the facts: Curacao is located in the southwestern Caribbean, between Aruba and Bonaire, just 35 miles north of Venezuela. It is 38 miles long and two to 7.5 miles wide. It is just outside of the hurricane belt.
For tourism information, go to www.curacao-tourism.com
Blue Bay Golf Resort
Phone: (599-9) 868 1755
Fax: (599-9) 869 0212
Or, if you want to cut costs you can play at the 71-year-old Curacao Golf and Squash Club where the greens fees are $30 for 18 holes. This is a walking only course. Club rentals are $10, and $5 for a push-cart. This is a busy course for locals so call ahead for availability. Phone (599-9) 737-3590 or e-mail email@example.com. (By the way, the two remaining sand greens will be gone by the end of the year, promises golf pro Bertie Con.)
There is a nice selection of properties on this island. Most of the larger properties have casinos and dive shops.
Hotel Kura Hulanda, a 67-room luxury hotel located in Willemstad (not on the beach). Reservations: (888) 660-2225 www.kurahulanda.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Floris Suite Hotel, an intimate upscale hotel, 72 suites, several miles from the city (not on the beach, but has a private beach). Reservations: (800) 781-1011. www.florissuitehotel.com email@example.com
Curacao Marriott Beach Resort, 247 rooms, across from Floris Suites, on the beach Reservations: (800) 223-6388 www.marriotthotels.com/curmc
Avila Beach Hotel, a family-owned hotel on the beach east of the city, 110 rooms. Reservations: (800) 747-8162 www.avilahotel.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Breezes Curacao, an all-inclusive resort on the beach operated by SuperClubs, 340 rooms. Reservations: (800) 467-8737 www.superclubs.com/brand_breezes/resort_curacao email@example.com
Trupial Inn Hotel & Casino, a 78-room mid-priced hotel near the city, but not on the beach. Reservations: (599- 9) 737-8200 www.trupialinn.com firstname.lastname@example.org
March 11, 2003
Cynthia Boal Janssens is a former newspaper writer and editor turned freelance writer. She is the former travel editor and Sunday magazine editor of The Detroit News. In addition, she has worked for newspapers in California, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Ohio University.
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