Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Breezes Curacao

We took a recent trip to Curacao. It was quite an experience.

Fairly short flight from Miami, maybe 2 ½ hours. We stayed at Breezes Curacao, an all-inclusive resort. I describe the experience including a number of complaints below, but I should start out by noting that it seems pretty inexpensive. We paid $3500 for a week at the resort in a nicer room, including airfare, food, and a number of other things included for two adults and two kids. Figure $500 apiece for roundtrip airfare and it's only $1500 for a week including food, etc. We were right on the ocean.

The resort provides a shuttle from the airport. It was more complicated and took longer than it should have. We had to check in two different places, fill out a form that seemed completely unnecessary. The staff seemed confused that we didn’t have a voucher – we booked through Travelocity. The couple after us didn’t have a voucher either. This must have happened before. Why are they surprised? Bus ride took what seemed like a long time for what can’t be more than 6 miles.

Breezes Curacao is in a great location with a fantastic view and beach. We had an oceanfront room and it’s pretty good. I’m spoiled by our Costa Rica trip, where the rooms were much nicer. One gripe involves the internet. It's an “all-inclusive” resort. To me, the internet should be free at an all-inclusive. It was only $28 for a week of internet access, and it works well in the room. So not a big deal.

The food at Breezes, overall, was pretty good but not great. The main setting for food is “Jimmy’s Buffet”. There are many choices so you can find something you like. Nothing is spectacular. I liked the black beans for breakfast. The French Toast was great one day but average the rest. The fruit was marginal, a sharp contrast with our Costa Rica experience where the fruit was consistently excellent. But to be fair, Curacao is essentially a desert island while Costa Rica is one of the most fertile places on earth.

The resort has a “Japanese” restaurant named Munasan. The atmosphere is pretty nice – you essentially eat outside, but under a roof. The food is not very Japanese. The sushi is weak by my snobby standards. It’s disappointing that they haven’t figured out some interesting ways to use Caribbean fish. This, again, is a big difference with Costa Rica where they have their own “Ceviche” dishes that use raw local fish. Also a surprise that there was no dessert at Munasan. You can get dessert at Jimmy’s if you want. The coconut cake is good. There’s also an Italian place, Pastafari, but we were unable to get in.

Another nice feature of Breezes is the Kids Club. Seems like few families actually use it, but our kids saw it and wanted to go there. This gives parents a break from the kids and allows for couple time.

We went out for dinner one night to Villa Elisabeth, a top-notch French restaurant that happens to be across the street from Breezes. Villa Elisabeth has pleasant indoor seating but the garden dining area is exquisite, including a pond with a footbridge. The menu requires a bit of adventurousness. You can choose a 3, 4, 5 or even 6-course meal and you get surprised by what’s brought to you. We chose a different path – small plates where you choose the type and they bring out something without telling you what it will be. There are also a few straight-up items you can order. We did order a couple of well-defined appetizers just to be safe, but the surprise items were mostly great. This would easily be one of the best restaurants in Albany and it was less expensive than places like 677 Prime and Mezza Notte.

Overall, Breezes was good with some bad moments. One was the Carnaval (that’s not a misspelling), which is centered on a parade. A staff member sold us on a “package” for the kids event, the first of three. The event was completely inappropriate for us, and we were misled about a number of key details – like how long it would all take, what time it would start, and in particular that we would get transportation to the event included. What we thought would be 4 hours ended up being nearly 8 hours. After the parade ended we waited … and waited … and waited for our taxi to pick us up. It began to get dark and there we were, in a foreign country far from our resort with no way to get back. None of us (there was another couple) had a cell phone. If they had given us good information, we would not have gone to the event. Also, picking a location near the start of the parade route would probably have made more sense, and having a good plan for getting out afterward would be smart things.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed about traveling – tourists talk about how friendly the people are in a place. I’ve often heard criticism of New York City and France, yet I have generally found people in both places to be helpful. I also remember some rather helpful Italians in Ferrara. I didn’t find Curacao unfriendly, and we did meet some pleasant locals, but overall I felt resented as much as welcomed. I can’t help but compare to Costa Rica, where the resort staff were over-the-top nice. At Breezes Curacao it’s hit or miss. Some of the staff are great. Some are fair and some are grumpy. There are times when there’s not enough staff. Our last breakfast I set our own table and cleaned up a spill myself. There was one guy who was working vigorously, but at times it seemed like he was alone. This was the morning after Carnaval, so maybe that led to a number of people calling in sick?

The bars were often slow as well. Perhaps this is a consequence of the no-tipping policy. Most bartenders make more on tips by serving more drinks. The bartenders here are in no hurry. And at times there aren’t enough bartenders.

One fairly good part of the trip was Peter Trips – a Dutch guy named Peter who runs a business taking tourists on trips to see different parts of Curacao. On one trip we saw a cave and an ostrich thing. Hato Cave is nothing special. Our local Howe Caverns has a lot more going for it. The ostriches were pretty neat though. The other trip was to Christoffel Park, the national park. Also somewhat interesting – an even smaller cave, some Indian paintings, and some truly gorgeous coastline. You can really see the power of this part of the Caribbean on the north side of the island. The powerful surf at Boca Tabla is below.

There was another bad moment on our last day. My wife was supposed to get a spa treatment for her birthday. She arrived and was taken into a room, then waited 25 minutes. The staff bungled her appointment and even had trouble executing a refund – and it was odd that she had to pay for the treatment up front.

On the whole it was a decent trip, but I would not recommend Breezes after our experience. They dropped the ball too many times. There were other glitches. Our room needed a variety of minor repairs. For example the top latch on the door was loose. Since it’s for security that’s not inspiring. It was dated too. The bathroom sink was very small. The shower had an odd corner in it. Cleaning of the room varied from day to day. A “kayak” we used had a seal missing and it capsized on us, scaring my daughter.

There were a number of transportation issues. Breezes is advertised as being near the Sea Aquarium. It’s a bit too far for a walk with small children, and they don’t have a shuttle, so you end up paying $10 for a very short cab ride – each way. We got a surprise note that we had to sign up for the airport shuttle – an odd parallel to our initial experience with the shuttle and the voucher. Did they think we had made other plans? There’s supposed to be a shuttle into the city, but it’s far from easy to use it and we ended up paying for a cab. But the Sea Aquarium was pretty cool. Maybe worth a 2-hour visit or less. Picture from the dolphin show below.

And a last thing – Breezes blew the wake up call. Our shuttle leaves at 5:30 am. We asked for a 5 am wake up call. No call. The couple we were at Carnaval with were also on the same shuttle. They also did not get their wake up call, but did get one on an earlier day when they hadn't asked for one.

I should say more about the good things. Breezes has great pools, especially for kids. There's an area with three connected kiddie pools, a bar/grill, a playground, all with a great view of the beach. The Kids Club has a larger playground next to it. There is a main area with even more pools, and then at one end there's a larger pool we didn't even notice until someone told us about it. The beach is protected by a row of large rocks about 100 yards out. This makes for a safe and relaxing area for all kinds of things - kids wading, snorkeling in the deeper sections, water sports, etc. There was entertainment that was generally enjoyable. No one would win American Idol, but we all liked it, especially the kids. Food is available almost all the time, which is very helpful in dealing with small kids. There were pool tables, ping pong tables, shuffleboard, a game room, and more.

Another detail worth mentioning -- we took a taxi into the Punda area of Willemstad. It was very touristy but nice. Punda is home to the oldest Jewish synagogue in the western hemisphere, Mikve Israel, which made for an interesting stop. There is a pontoon bridge between Punda and Otrobanda. I've never seen anything like it. One end of the bridge disconnects to move out of the way for ships coming through into the harbor -- including large cruise ships, oil tankers (there's a refinery) and military ships.

Some final details about Curacao. It's an interesting place. A desert island that makes its economy out of tourism, a refinery, and commerce. It is near Aruba and Curacao, and not far off the coast of Venezuela (maybe 50 miles). The temperature is generally 80-85 degrees during the day with a refreshing breeze, and in the high 70s at night. I counted 20 mosquito bites on my legs by the end of the week. A woman we met at Carnaval who'd been there three weeks must have had 100 on her legs. I had almost none anywhere else even though I wore short sleeves. Our 4-year-old had no bites at all, while our 7-year-old had a few. Carnaval seemed to involve most of the island's population. The parade route is 10 miles long. Where we were the street was packed, so if that is true for the whole route it must be a lot of folks. You could name it the Island of Babel with all the languages. There's plenty of Dutch, quite a bit of Spanish, some English, and the natives speak Papiamento which seems to be a mix of the three.

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