Three-Day Weekend: Curacao
"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 the Curaçao 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.
Greece 2015: What Every Traveler Must Know
In the wake of Greece's rejection of Europe's latest bailout offer, many travelers are asking if the beautiful Mediterranean nation belongs on the "to go" or the "not to go" list. The answer is a bit nuanced. First of all, crisis can mean opportunity, and in this case the opportunity comes from (a) the historically low euro-to-dollar exchange rate and (b) the fact that many Greek resorts and hotels have far fewer customers this year than usual. The crisis, of course, is that the banks have been closed for a week, lines at ATMS are long, credit cards may not be accepted, and public demonstrations (generally limited to Athens) always have the potential to turn dangerous. THE OPPORTUNITY: Lock in a great exchange rate. The euro is currently worth $1.10, which means that locking in your expenses by paying in advance will yield a great exchange rate and reduce the amount of cash you need to carry. (If Greece were to pull out of the Eurozone altogether, exchange rates are expected to fall even more, though most analysts don't expect Greece to go back to the drachma currency.) Have an awesome vacation. At the moment, hundreds of thousands of travelers are having the time of their lives visiting the Greek islands, the Acropolis in Athens, and enjoying great meals and a warm welcome from locals. Tourism is an important component of the Greek economy and your hosts will be especially interested in making your stay an uneventful one (in a good way!). Rest assured that Greece is ready for you. Anecdotal reports say that unless you're in Athens or watching TV, you'd never know there was a crisis. Tour operators report that their services are uninterrupted, and that tourism staples like food and ferry service to the islands will remain a priority. Bottom line: You won't go hungry and you won't be stranded. THE CRISIS: Avoid demonstrations. Public demonstrations always hold the potential to turn violent. Budget Travel follows the U.S. State Department's advice, which is to steer clear of demonstrations (we have a natural tendency to want to see what's going on, but demonstrations are not, after all, a spectator sport). You can follow the U.S. Embassy in Athens on Facebook for up-to-the-minute reports on public safety. To date, demonstrations have remained overwhelmingly peaceful. Bring cash. Lots of cash. Long lines at ATMs and the possibility that small hotels and restaurants may stop accepting credit cards (or, worst case, that banks will stop processing them) means you need to bring enough cash to cover all your expenses (and, as we suggest above, pay for as much of your trip in advance as possible). Know your insurance situation. If you book a trip through a tour operator, find out what kind of insurance they offer in the event of cancellations; if you're booking your trip on your own, find out what insurance your bank card offers. If you do decide to drop everything and take off to Greece this summer, we want to hear about it. Post a comment here, or share your Greece 2015 trip with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
What Music Is On Your Ultimate Summer Road Trip Playlist?
We've got road trips on the brain this summer, especially with the re-release of our Budget Travel Ultimate Road Trips App, available now in the App store and on Google Play. Whether you're dreaming up an epic cross-country road trip this summer, gearing up for a drive through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, or touring the amazing national parks and state parks of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, here are some of your favorite tunes to jam out to along the way. "Billy Joel's Vienna, especially when he says 'Don't you know that only fools are satisfied?' Makes me reassure why I'm still not satisfied and why I'm still wandering." —Ana Raspini "Always Don't Stop Believing for everyone in the car to sing with." —Hayden Pigott "The Motown Sound (Four Tops, Temptations, Aretha Franklin, etc). Sometimes stuff like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and John Denver. Sometimes 90's country, or stuff like Nat King Cole, Patsy Cline, Barry Manilow, and Sinatra. Finally, BB King, Clapton, Stones, and Kenny Wayne Shepard. Depends on mood one which I play." —Judi Ney White "On the Road Again by Willie Nelson, of course!" —Sandy Whitney "The theme song from Top Gun." —Carol Jackson Kerton "'America by Simon & Garfunkel." —Karen Klepsteen "The Muppets: Moving Right Along." —Shari Gestson "Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen." —Tina Schlagel "Good To Be Me by Uncle Kracker, and anything by Jimmy Buffett." —Ashlie Johnston "Eastbound and Down. Always the first song I play when I hit the road." —@BarnetteJason "We listen to anything by Butch Walker and Gin Blossoms. And some Lady Gaga for good measure." —@NTDtravelcast "Yep, love busting out all the classic boy band, punk rock, and teen icons, it's great! A little Xtina, Blink 182, and Backstreet Boys." —@ThatsVy "This summer, it's definitely the new Mumford and Sons album. Otherwise, I love anything 90s for road trips." —@holly_asbach "Give me the greatest hits of Jorge Ben Jor and a convertible and I am one happy girl!" —@arandomwalkatw "Maroon 5's first album, Michael Jackson, U2, and Stevie Wonder. It's a mix of a lot of stuff." —@SwankyTravel "Anything by the Gap Band for Mom and Dad. The kids? Who knows: Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Rob Thomas, and good old country." —@FRKMAHampton We want to know: what songs are on your playlist this summer? Sound off below!
Summer Festivals: Montréal & Québec City
We've got Canada on the brain, especially after hearing about these three festivals happening this summer just a 90-minute flight from NYC. Here's why they deserve a spot on your travel radar. Montréal International Jazz Festival When: Now thru July 5. Catch the tail end of the Montréal International Jazz Festival this weekend. The best part: all the outdoor music events are free while tickets for indoor shows are sold separately and range from $10 performances at the House of Jazz to concerts by artists like MIKA and Madeleine Peyroux (from $51 each). Visit this website for more info on special event packages with area hotels like the Hyatt Regency Montréal, Delta Montréal, Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, Residence Inn Montréal Downtown, and Travelodge Montréal. Québec City Summer Festival When: July 9-19. This could quite possibly be the most impressive—and affordable—music festival on earth. You'll have access to 300 shows on 10 stages over the course of 11 days for $98 per person. That's not all. This year's lineup includes The Rolling Stones, the Foo Fighters, Nickelback, Keith Urban, Iggy Azalea, Boston, The Doobie Brothers, Interpol, and Megadeath among a ton of other popular musicians. New France Festival When: Aug. 5-9 Talk about a blast from the past. For five days, experience the ultimate Renaissance-fest with a twist: here, everyone dresses up and reenacts how things were in Québec City back in the 17th-century, complete with parades, dances, street entertainment, and a grand costume ball. Feel like getting in on the fun? Rent a costume or create your own using these DIY tips. We want to know: have you ever been to one of these festivals? What are your favorite things to do in Montréal & Québec City? Sound off below!
Honeymoon Smackdown: Which Destination Will Reign Supreme?
Guys, I have a confession to make: My wedding is in three months, and my fiancé and I haven't planned our honeymoon. I know, I know. I'm a travel editor. I'm in the business of lovey-dovey, Instagram-worthy destinations. I wrote 10 Most Romantic Islands in the World. I wrote Honeymoon Paradise for Less, for crying out loud. And now I'm telling you that when it comes to my own ultimate romantic vacation, I've got nada. OK, not exactly "nada." There are five destinations that my fiancé and I have been kicking around, but both of us have been too busy to research nitty-gritty specifics for our trip (oh, the irony). We want a beach vacation—the fewer people on aforementioned beach the better. He wants an overwater bungalow. (That's negotiable.) I want a remote destination where Wi-Fi isn't a guarantee, because the last thing I want to be doing with my new husband is crafting witty Facebook posts for my high-school friends. My deepest vacation fantasy is re-enacting that oddly prescient Corona commercial from a few years ago: throwing my phone into the ocean, never to answer it again. So I need your help. I want your best memories, your horror stories, and your heartfelt recommendations to guide me. Our wedding is in October, and we'll be flying out of California, most likely LAX. My fiancé and I like chic properties at reasonable prices, beautiful beaches, and free-flowing drinks—and I want to learn how to surf. From a romance, value, activity, and style perspective, out of these five destinations, where should we go? 1. Fiji Pros: So many islands to choose from! Three hundred thirty-three, to be exact (not all of them inhabited). I dig the idea of having a picnic on a private beach, and the far-flung factor is there in spades. Cast Away was filmed here: That's the very definition of "getting away from it all." Cons: The flight is almost 11 hours—not a short trip. And there are only a handful of overwater bungalows, which doesn't bother me, but my fiancé might take issue. 2. Bora Bora Pros: Bora Bora is honeymoon central. Even Morello in Orange Is the New Black deeply understood the significance of "Bora Bora Bora." And as prevalance of overwater bungalows goes, Bora Bora has many, a fact my fiancé loves. Cons: Bora Bora isn't exactly cheap. And because we've waited so long, we might have priced ourselves out of any stellar deals. 3. Tahiti Pros: A lover of Paul Gaugin's art, I've always fantasized about the island of Tahiiti as an exotic destination (even though the his portrayal of the place didn't exactly mirror his experience). Birdwatching, gardenias, beaches... What more do you need? Cons: Is the island of Tahiti too populated? Maybe we should consider going to Moorea instead, or elsewhere in French Polynesia, rather than hang out on the island proper. 4. Fiji + New Zealand Pros: New Zealand is right there! Might as well hop over if we've gone all the way to Fiji, right? Cons: This plan might be ambitious if what we really desire is relaxtion. The worst thing to do to yourself as a traveler is force yourself to do something that, deep down, you don't really want to do. 5. Honolulu, Hawaii Pros: My fiancé and I are huge, unapologetic Mad Men fans, and ever since I wrote Mad Men Travel Destinations, I've been obsessed with the Royal Hawaiian, a.k.a. the "Pink Palace," the hotel Don and Megan Draper stayed at on their honeymoon. I hear it's just as fabulous as it was in the Drapers' heyday. Plus, the flights to Hawaii are cheaper than any other destination on our list. Cons: Even though neither of us has been to Hawaii, staying in the U.S. isn't as exotic as either of us had envisioned. Plus, crowded beaches might be a concern. Did you have a romantic experience on one of these islands that you'd recommend? Or am I totally missing an option I should be considering? I wanna hear from you! Vote in the poll below, and talk to me in the comments. But Lord knows I need to hear your advice fast...before time runs out. survey tools