Take a short flight to Curaçao, a tropical paradise below the hurricane belt where the skies are blue, the sea is beckoning, and the weather is perennially warm and placid.
"Are you ready? 1.. 2.. 3.. NOW!" our diving instructor shouted as the eight of us took a deep breath and swam beneath the waves that roared and crashed above our heads onto the walls of the entrance to the underwater cave. I remember thinking as I swam: How much farther until we can come up for air? What happens if I come up too soon? What if there's a shark swimming around in there?
Ten seconds later, those fleeting thoughts disappeared as I spotted my fellow swimmers shooting to the surface, laughing, and saying this was one of the craziest things they'd ever done. I couldn't agree more.
The sight before us was almost psychedelic. We had entered an underwater cave named the Blue Room, appropriately dubbed for the different hues that surrounded us as the light reverberated around the chamber, bounced off the walls, and illuminated the water below. We took turns snapping silly underwater photos of each other on someone's GoPro camera as we explored the cave and swam around the coral reef that lay 20 feet below.
One thing I'll say about Curaçao: You're in for a real treat if you're willing to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Slightly off the beaten path and throroughly gorgeous, this Dutch Caribbean island paradise is located in the southern Caribbean safely beneath the hurricane belt, ensuring a warm, tropical climate all year long. The best part: It's super-affordable.
Wander through colorful, dreamlike Willemstad
The multi-hued Dutch buildings that line St. Anna Bay in Willemstad are so quaint and picturesque, they're like a 3-D postcard. Take your perfect, trip-defining photo with the giant CURAÇAO and DUSHI signs in Queen Wilhelmina Park, the Dutch Caribbean counterpart to the famous "I Amsterdam" signs in Europe. Visit the Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon bridge that locals call the Swinging Old Lady because it swivels open and runs parallel to the land to allow boats to pass by. Watch for the flags and clear the bridge when the alarm sounds to avoid being trapped on the bridge until it closes again, or catch a free ferry nearby to get to the other side if you're suddenly stuck across the water.
Eat island cuisine right alongside the locals
You're bound to work up an appetite walking around downtown Willemstad. Stop by the Old Market, or Marsche Bieuw, for a taste of island cuisine with generous portions and affordable prices. Sit among the locals in this first-come-first-served cafeteria-like setting and sample local favorites like fried plantains, stobá (stew), funchi (polenta), and pumpkin pancakes, and wash it all down with a deliciously fruity batido smoothie ($7 for a plate with stobá, funchi, fried plantains, beans, and rice; three pumpkin pancakes for $1; batidos are $3 each). If you're into steak and seafood, check out The Grill King in downtown Willemstad, known for its grilled surf and turf dishes and overwater dining (entrées from $20), or for a bit of fine dining, try the St. Tropez Oceanclub in the trendy Pietermaai district, where you can feast on dishes like salmon sashimi tapas in a swanky club-like atmosphere while a lounge singer roams the crowd belting out everything from Whitney Houston to Katy Perry (tapas from $7, entrées from $29).
Hang with new feathered friends
When you think of the Caribbean, what comes to mind? Palm trees, sure, but how about the majestic ostrich? Curaçao is home to the largest ostrich farm outside Africa. The island's year-round warm, dry climate makes the ideal atmosphere for these birds to flourish. Spend some time touring theCuraçao Ostrich Farm on one of their hourly Safari Tours ($16 per person). You'll see other animals like emu, potbellied pigs, and Nile crocodiles, but the big birds are the main event: Hold a real ostrich egg, watch the young chicks running around in the wild, and try your hand at feeding the adults—a photo op so terrifically bizarre you'll want to make it your Facebook profile pic immediately.
Swim in coral reefs and hidden underwater caves
Most of the island's attractions are located in and around Willemstad, but it's worth taking a 40-minute car ride to explore the scenery along the north and west coasts. Check out awe-inspiring views from Shete Boka National Park, where you can hike to a large underground cavern and watch as the waves roll in from the top of the hill at Boka Tabla (admission is $5.50). Book a snorkeling trip with Go West Diving for a chance to visit the Black Sand Reef and Curaçao's famous Blue Room, a secret underwater cave you can only reach by holding your breath and swimming under the crashing waves at the entrance to the cavern. Don't worry; it's perfectly safe thanks to the help and direction of your trusty tour guide. Just make sure you dive down deep enough so you don't bump your head on the roof of the cave ($40 per person for a 2.5-hour tour).
Go green with a visit to an herb garden and an aloe plantation
Meeting Dinah Veeris, the island's legendary herbalist and healer, and touring her precious Den Paradera Herb Garden, was worth the trip in itself. Veeris, the friendly, soft-spoken owner, eagerly shows visitors around her garden, teaching the importance of preservation, explaining how to cure common ailments using plants, and occasionally bursting into songs and chants used during the healing process. She started this adorable one-acre botanical garden plant by plant in the 1990s after interviewing the island's elders about natural ways to cure ailments, and it continues to be a resource for local botanists with its 300-plus species of plants. You can purchase natural herbal teas and soaps made from the garden's ingredients in the gift shop: Try the "love tea," rumored to be the best love potion on the island ($4 for a bag of tea leaves). Beauty junkies will want to stop by the Aloe Vera Plantation in the St. Joris area to learn about the aloe plant's health and immune system benefits. For a local souvenir, the plantation's Curaloe natural beauty products—including body gel, aloe shampoo, and pure aloe vera juice—are top-sellers (from $16).
Bask without guilt: Curaçao luxury is affordable luxury
Stay near all the nightlife and historic sites in downtown Willemstad, like Fort Amsterdam and the Mikve Israel-Emanuel synagogue, the oldest continually used synagogue in the western hemisphere, at the Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino(from $145 per night). If it's seclusion you're seeking, opt for the Santa Barbara Beach and Golf Resort, a lush property located on 27 acres of natural preserve on the eastern side of the island (from $229 per night, check website for more affordable packages). For the best of both worlds, the Floris Suite Hotel and Spa gives guests a taste of luxury closer to the action—the 72 sleek modern-meets-Caribbean-style suites at this adults-only, LGBT-friendly hotel come with private balconies, kitchenettes, and lots of room to spread out and relax, perfect for a girlfriend getaway or romantic escape with your S.O. (suites from $129 per night). If you're traveling from the New York City area, JetBlue's Curaçao vacation packages start at only $669 per person for a flight from JFK and three nights' accommodations at the Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort and Emerald Casino.
Always, always use mosquito repellent
At Budget Travel, we believe it's always better to be prepared. Throughout the Caribbean and other places around the world known for their warm, tropical climates, you might encounter chikungunya, a flu-like mosquito-borne illness characterized by joint pain, fever, and a rash. The virus isn't fatal, but it is painful and can be avoided if you take the proper precautions. Pack your favorite mosquito repellent products, apply them liberally before going out at night, and slather them on again after swimming.