This year, Team Manta found itself in Curacao for the January trip. It turned out to be the perfect escape from the below zero temperatures at home.
We left at 5:30am on Saturday, Jan. 11 from Chicago O’Hare airport, connected in Miami, and finally landed at Hato airport, Curacao, at 3:30pm local time, (two hours difference). The temperature was a perfect 82F! Most of our group took a shuttle to Lions Dive Resort, which was $38 US round trip. Though there is an island shuttle from the resort to the downtown, which is free, the rest of us opted to rent a car for the week, since we knew we would need to have the ability to whip into town for groceries when we had time, not when the shuttle was available. The transaction was smooth and we were soon on our way.
Check in at Lion’s dive was smooth and efficient. Each room had a small refrigerator and some of the rooms also had a small kitchenette. Through the French doors, there was a balcony or a patio with Adirondack chairs for relaxing between dives or in the evening, and some units even had a picnic table. The rooms were spacious and clean. The one thing to be aware if is that they do not accommodate US electricity. Guests need to bring converters or borrow one from the front desk.Free WI Fi was available, but most of the time I had to be on my balcony to connect, and even at that, I was frequently kicked off. (Meh! I didn't go to Curacao to surf the web.) I found the hotel staff to be friendly and helpful, but the front desk needed at least two requests before they would act. In the end, though, they took good care of us and our stay was wonderful.
To celebrate our arrival, our group rounded up for a dinner together at Hemingway, one of the resort’s open air restaurants, but they did not seem very welcoming. For example, I did not know how many group members were joining us for dinner, but assumed most of us and asked for table to accommodate that number. As the rest of the group wandered in and desired to join the group, I had to ask that tables be added. The manager, sounding a little miffed, told me to make reservations in the future, which I obviously would have done had we not just arrived a couple of hours earlier. Although the food was pretty good, we did not return for dinner a second time. We did give Hemingway another try for breakfast that next morning, but it was not at all worth the $20per person they charged, so we found other places to eat throughout the week.
At lunch time, we liked popping over to Augustos, just over the bridge, next to the Sea Aquarium. They offered huge plates of pasta, a nice selection of sandwiches or salads that ended up costing ~$17US. The grocery stores were well stocked with whatever you needed for quick lunches in your room, so we had sandwiches and cold cuts for breakfast and lunch most days. We preferred to save our money to go out for a nice dinner most nights.
Restaurant highlights for me were, Bollywood, and Indian restaurant in the Curacao Beach Boulevard, the Zambezi at the Ostrich Farm and El Gaucho Argentinian Steakhouse. Bollywood is the spot for very authentic (according to one of our very well-traveled companions) Indian food. Situated in the Curacao Beach Boulevard, an outing to Bollywood can incorporate some shopping in the clothing and accessory stores that comprise the mall. If Indian food is not your thing, the mall is also home to Italian, Latin, and Sushi restaurants, not to mention a Subway for those who are reluctant to step out of their comfort zone! On Thursday, we enjoyed a nice, informative tour of Curacao’s self-sustaining ostrich farm then stayed for dinner at Zambezi. Zambezi is an African themed restaurant that features fresh ostrich meat in their entrees. It had a nice ambiance with tables in the open air and a respectable wine list featuring selections from South Africa. Finally, El Gaucho, a must if you are a beef lover. Perched atop a hill overlooking Curacao, this was our destination our final night on the island. Though I was really expecting beef from Argentina, I found it a source of pride that they boasted US Black Angus beef. Prepared in the Argentinian style, the beef was juicy and flavorful. Each meal included a trip to the soup and salad bar.
Though we enjoyed our rooms and the restaurants, the purpose of this trip was to dive. Our daily boat dives were led by Pol and Tessa, ably skilled divemasters from Ocean Encounters. I had a few students to certify and Paul and Tessa went out of their way to accommodate my needs for the training. The seas were somewhat rough and it was a bit of a challenge to get back onto the boat, but our divemasters were there with us to help by handing up fins and cameras. The water, a consistent 80F, often had a fairly strong current. Paul or Tessa would check the environment when we got to our dive sites and then decide whether to do a drift dive, or to moor the boat. Even when we opted to do a drift dive, the current was manageable, allowing for stops for photo taking, unlike some of the rips I dove in Cozumel. It was a safe and wonderful experience builder for our new divers. Our dives averaged 60ft. max, with the deepest dive at Car Pile. It was nice to stay relatively shallow since the skies were somewhat overcast and the reefs looked nicer at shallower depths. All the dives were a multilevel profile, about 6ominutes long, with plenty of time to search out little critters in the corals and anemones. We saw plenty of yellow tail and spotted eels and several really enormous green morays. Tessa spotted two seahorses at my favorite dive site, “Tugboat,” It was our good luck that we saw more octopus on this trip than I have ever seen, and only two of them were spotted at night! Our trip package included 2 boat dives per day and unlimited shore diving. The shore dive off the resort beach was pretty nice, though it was a bit of a surface swim to the descent point.
I always encourage divers to do the night dive wherever they go, so it was a no-brainer that we did the night dive from our boat. The night dive produced all the stuff divers hope for when diving in the dark: spotted lobster, shrimps, basket stars and of course, octopus! Another great add-on was the afternoon lionfish dive with Ocean Encounters! Curacao’s response to the lionfish problem is an experience not to be missed. We attended an informational presentation on lionfish and the problems they cause, and then hit the reef. On the dive, we acted as spotters for the divemasters who were equipped with Hawaiian slings and an innovative lionfish collection tube. I personally had a wonderful dive, finding it hard to focus on finding lionfish when I was seeing eels, batwing crabs and juvenile trunkfish, to name a few. In spite of that, we managed to help dispatch 90 lionfish. To add value to the dive, each spotter received a voucher to eat fried lionfish at the Iguana Café. While sitting waterside in Willemstad near the swinging bridge, we could pat ourselves on the back for the good we did for the environment while enjoying the sights of the evening in Curacao and a delicious lionfish dinner. Does it get any better??
All too soon, our week was finished and we had to leave this island paradise for home. Since we flew American Airlines, we had to go through customs in Miami. This was a total nightmare and our two hour layover between flights was almost too short. I strongly encourage all travelers to avoid this route into the country at all costs!
In spite of the hassles in Miami, the trip was great and I heartily recommend Lions Dive Resort and Ocean Encounters. A great part of the success of this trip, though, was the group that I went with. All were conscientious divers, team players and fun lovers who set the tone for each dive and evening out. This was the perfect trip to take a break from Wisconsin’s harsh January cold. It was just what I needed to get through the rest of the days until spring when we can dive locally again!