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June 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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All West Apartments and Diving, Curacao

good diving on the island’s remote west end

from the June, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

“Hey, did you see the seahorse?” That’s the question all divers and snorkelers asked each other during my March stay in Curacao’s Westpunt region. A five-inch-long brown seahorse had attached itself to the mooring line of a fishing rowboat in the small bay of Playa Piscado, the house reef of All West Apartments and Diving. I called him Seabiscuit. Nearly every day, I geared up in front of my room, and, after checking to see if Seabiscuit was still curled around his rope, swam out over the sandy bottom to the reef, which sloped down at 20 feet and gave way to a sandy bottom at 75 feet. The reef was dominated by healthy, forest-like mushroom coral formations in both directions, and I saw octopuses, turtles, reef squid, eels, many species of anemone and a large variety of juvenile fish.

Curacao diving is similar to next-door neighbor Bonaire, with easy shore access and abundance of marine life, and the topography is just as arid and covered in cactus. But I keep returning to this Caribbean island because it also boasts beaches in small, secluded inlets. My shore dives had very easy entries -- all I had to do was walk down the beach into the 80-degree water. Beaches put the reef further out but the surface swims are easy and they do offer better exits, compared to Bonaire’s many rocky, slippery sites. The best beaches and the majority of dive sites are on Curacao’s west end, or “Westpunt.”

All West Apartments

All West Apartments

Farther up the coast from Habitat Curacao and Sunset Water Beach Resort, Westpunt is a good place for divers who don’t want the crowds and casinos in Willemstad but want a sense of civilization. Dive shops and beach bars are near most dive sites. After laying out on a beach towel on Playa Piscado’s soft sand, I could go someplace for dinner where the chef and wait staff called out hello, and end the evening drinking and chatting with local fishermen and a mix of American and European divers. All West Apartments and Diving, CuracaoIt’s known as the wild west end, but Westpunt is relaxed and gracious. No wonder Seabiscuit chose to hang out here.

After a three-hour flight from Miami,I picked up a rental car after landing at the airport, stopped at the nearby Centrum supermarket for groceries, and made the half-hour drive to Westpunt. The well-paved road runs northwest from Willemsted through the hilly, desert heart of Curacao. The closer to Westpunt, the more rugged and mountainous it gets, with the 1,240-foot peak of Christoffelberg, the island’s highest point, looming ahead.

I had done boat dives on past trips so I focused on shore dives this time, but the majority of sites are shore-accessible anyway. All West offers airport transfers and rents Suzuki compact cars and pickups on-site. I drove to the Tugboat site early because masses of snorkelers can be swarming later in the day. The small tugboat sits in just 10 feet of water, overgrown with tube sponges and brain corals and festooned with bright-colored nudibranchs. Drum fish and a pair of French angelfish hovered as I spent my safety stop exploring the pier, where a startled octopus under an iron pipe ejected a puff of ink. Then heading for shore, I followed seven squid for a few minutes, and encountered a sharp-tailed eel that quickly buried himself in the sandy bottom. A snack bar was located on the beach, perfect for a quick tosti sandwich of ham and cheese and a cold soda between dives.

Despite being remote, Westpunt can still be pricey. Instead of the upscale Lodge Kura Hulanda and Marazul Dive Resort, I chose All West Apartments for its under-$100 room rates. Louis Lopez Ramirez, All West’s smiling owner, checked me in. The sunny yellow complex of 13 units sits on a cliff 30 feet above the small public beach. Units, all with well-equipped kitchens and oceanfront views, range from studios and junior one-bedrooms to large one-bedrooms. I rented the latter, which had an airy, tiled living room/kitchen combo, a king-size bed and two air-conditioning units. Furnishings were simple but clean, and hot water was never lacking. Although daytime temperatures reached the upper 80’s, the trade winds let me keep the windows and sliding doors open, although mosquitoes were pesky at night. All West Apartments and Diving, CuracaoA sliding door in the living room led to a spacious balcony, from where I could watch fishermen tie up their rowboats and unload their catches as the sun set.

All West has its own branch of Ocean Encounters Dive Shop (five more are scattered around the island). A large room with both beach and street access had plenty of racks and bins to store my gear, plus a fill station, rinse tanks and freshwater shower. No Nitrox but aluminum 80s with DIN and yolk valves, as well as 60s and 72s, were always at the ready. Andreas Kaufmann, a German divemaster who spoke fluent English, was quick to give suggestions and briefings on dive sites. The Ocean Encounters shop just down the shore at Playa Kalki is larger and runs two-tank boat trips to sites like Mushroom Forest, Watamula and Klein Curacao. The Luhrs with two 240-HP Volvo engines carries 10 divers while the Eduardońo with two Yamaha 100-HP engines carries 16; both fiberglass boats carry radios, oxygen, life jackets and spare gear. On past trips, I went with boat captain/divemaster Tuki, a laughing, corkscrew-curled Curacao native who’s always willing to tell a “fish story” and pull a light-hearted prank that will have every diver laughing. After returning used tanks from a day’s worth of diving, Andreas and Bea, a Dutch divemaster with Ocean Encounters, joined me and my dive buddy to swap stories and recommend places to go for the next dive trip.

The drive to Porto Marie took me past a lake thronged with coral flamingos. I dropped my tanks and gear at the beachfront dive shop, then parked a short block away in its guarded parking lot. The beach here is pure white sand, and the site is unique because it has a double reef. A short swim over the white sand bottom and I was on the first reef at a depth of 20 feet. Marine life was sparse so I crossed over the sand channel to the deeper second reef at 40 feet, where several cleaning stations were filled with large snapper waiting their turns. The reef is in good condition with multiple corals but, as in most Curacao sites, juvenile and small angelfish, damselfish and butterflyfish abound while larger fish are absent. The dive shop manager who let me store my gear told me that a frog fish was photographed here the day before, but I missed it on my dive. Lounge chairs and an upscale beach bar make this a place for relaxed divers to enjoy a few tanks with lunch and snoozes in between. Like in Bonaire, car theft is an issue so don’t leave items visible in the car, but sites with dive shops or beach bars usually had lockers or storage areas.

I took advantage of the kitchen and All West’s beachfront BBQ grills, charcoal and lighter fluid and cooked up a few dinners to eat on my balcony, intermixing them with visits to Westpunt’s restaurants. A block away is Jaanchie’s Restaurant, a roadside shack specializing in local Papamiento fixings like curried goat, heaping platters of shrimp, dirty rice and beans and even iguana, which locals consider a potent aphrodisiac. Jaanchie’s is far from fancy but the fare is tasty and comes with a great view of bats sampling the bird feeders at night. A hearty dinner for two was just under $40. Sol is a new, alfresco restaurant run by New Hampshire expats David and Sunshine Livingston (they also rent out a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor) open only on weekends. David makes the tasty $10 pizzas while Sunshine offers up delicious entrees like grilled snapper for $16, and chicken Marbella and Asian pork roast for $14. After cooking, the two sat down with me and other guests for good conversations over post-dinner drinks. I splurged at Watamula, the main restaurant at the upscale Lodge Kura Hulanda on Playa Kalki, and stuffed myself at the $25 buffet they serve every Saturday night – this one was an Asian theme complete with sushi and shrimp. Sit-down meals on the other nights are mainland priced --tempura shrimp appetizer for $10, blackened local swordfish for $21.

I drove south to the fishing village of Lagun to dive Playa Lagun, a small, horseshoe-shaped bay with steep walls and a sandy bottom at 25 feet. My buddy and I had planned to swim out to the reef and go down to 80 feet but when we hit a strong current, we headed back into the bay and explored the wall’s nooks and crannies and the rocky coral rubble at its base. I poked through large sponges and photographed cleaner shrimp, arrow crabs and banded coral shrimp.

During surface intervals, I hiked the Southwestern-style hills of Christoffel Park and did some birdwatching, but I skipped the casinos to focus on night dives. Starting out from All West’s house reef, I was greeted by tube-dwelling anemones protruding from their daytime hideouts on the sandy bottom. They were willing photo subjects as their tentacles searched the water for food. The reef was more lit up than any casino in Willemstad -- orange cup corals, brain corals and flower corals were all fully extended and feeding. Also on the prowl were crabs, shrimps and eels.

On my last day, I made a final visit to Seabiscuit at Playa Piscado, which never ceased to produce new sightings for me. Spying a juvenile drum fish swimming under a small ledge, I looked closer in and found a coral-banded shrimp hanging upside down. An anemone perched below the overhang played host to a dozen squat anemone shrimp and a spotted cleaner shrimp. On top of the ledge was a hydroid sheltering an arrow crab. Nearby were Pederson cleaning shrimp waiting for their next cleaning appointment to arrive. A wave of brown chromis moved along the reef while a school of shimmering blue tangs headed in the other direction.

Curacao will always be a runner-up to Bonaire, but Westpunt is a find for divers who like their lodgings away from the crowds. Big fish are hard to come by but the easy access to beaches, reefs in good condition and abundant macro life are nothing to sneeze at. Seahorses are pretty picky about where they choose to reside, so because Seabiscuit decided on Westpunt, divers should follow suit.

-- A.J.

All West Apartments and Diving, CuracaoDiver’s Compass: All West offers studios for $66, junior one-bedrooms for $88, and large one-bedrooms for $99 . . . A six-day dive package of tanks and weights is $132, and two-tank boat dives are $74; All West offers cheaper multi-day package prices for rooms, diving and car rental . . . Airport transfers are $20 per person . . . American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami with average fares of $550 on the East Coast to $950 on the West Coast; Continental flies nonstop from Newark every Saturday for around $425 . . . Dutch is the official language, but English is spoken everywhere . . . Electricity is 110-130 volts, similar but not identical to the U.S. standard, so bring an adapter and a surge regulator for electronics . . . The nearest supermarket is 15 minutes away, but prices and offerings are better near Willemstad . . . Restaurants typically add a 10 percent service charge to the bill, while hotels add 12 percent . . . All West’s Web Site: www.allwestcuracao.com

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