Discover the Dutch Caribbean’s hottest new resort with a heart-shaped and luxury bungalows

As the motor coach pulled out of the airport headed for Sandals Royal Curaçao, couples on board started exchanging how long they’ve been married.

“Thirty-two years,” exclaimed one couple.

“Forty-four years,” boasted another, causing the bus to break out in applause.

“One day!” shouted a pair of newlyweds, garnering cheers all around.

It’s a fitting scene as Sandals Resorts has long garnered a reputation for providing luxury Caribbean vacations for couples and Executive Chairman Adam Stewart says the newly-opened west-facing resort is designed for couples eager to soak up the sunset.

“Sandals as a brand is about two people in love. Our tagline is, and has always been ‘Love is all you need’ — because everything else is included at Sandals,” he explains. “And the number one thing that customers are looking for to maintain romance, when they’re here in the Caribbean, is that sunset.”

New to Sandal’s sixteenth resort are the Kurason Island Suites, luxury bungalows set around a heart-shaped pool with an island at the centre, and the Awa Seaside Bungalows with private infinity pools overlooking the water. Guests staying in these upscale room categories also have complimentary access to MINI Coopers that let them hit the town and explore in style and comfort.

The suite life

The 351-room and suite property features 11 culinary concepts, including eight restaurants and three beachside gourmet food trucks, and 13 bars. Vincent pays homage to the famous Dutch painter with a European fusion menu; Gatsu Gatsu offers extravagent sushi creations and Zuka offers culinary traditions and flavours representative of Central America and South America.

As a first, Sandals Royal Curaçao offers a dine out program, where top tier guests can eat out at eight local restaurant partners in the capital city of Willemstad — included in the package price. 

“Our purpose is to share the four corners of the Caribbean with the world and the best of the Caribbean. I get the honour of running around the Caribbean all day long, flying on planes, scouting, looking and seeing what’s the best. As you look over here, it’s about as damn good as it gets anywhere on the planet,” Stewart says pointing out to the resort, which is located on 44 acres. 

On the island

Off the resort, the vibrant city of Willemstad is loaded with boutiques, street art, bars and restaurants to explore. Walking across Queen Emma Bridge, the floating bridge that connects the Punda and Otrobanda neighbourhoods, is a must. This is where visitors will find the colourful stretch of buildings that makes up the Handelskade — one of the most recognized views of the destination. 

Clarita Hagenaar, the 79-year-old founder of Clarita Food Trails, points out that the buildings used to be all white. 

“Legend has it that we had a governor who said stop painting the houses white because of the reflection of the bright sun,” she says. 

Fact or fiction, the historic figure is said to have ordered the change because the reflection caused him to suffer terrible migraines. Nowadays, the colourful pastel-honed hues of the buildings are part of the charm of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

With dishes influenced by Dutch and Afro-Caribbean cuisines, culinary tours with Clarita Food Trails end at Plasa Bieu, an old market that’s an authentic lunch spot for locals. The informal dining spot is a tasty way to indulge in fresh and homemade meals like salty pork stew, bòkel (salted mackerel), kabes ku higra (cup and liver stew), kadushi (cactus soup), bonchi kòra (red bean soup), and iguana soup.

For a relaxing way to spend the day, Island Routes runs catamaran and superyacht tours to Klein (little) Curaçao, a small uninhabited island with piercing blue water about 42 kilometres from the main island. Along with snorkelling for sea turtles and providing an idyllic backdrop for a scenic beach escape, there are some unique features to the flat, arid island like an iconic pink lighthouse and several shipwrecks. The most notable is that of the oil tanker ‘Maria Bianca Guidesman,’ which is eroding into the shoreline. 

The 1.7 square-kilometre island is divided into two starkly different sides, with the shipwreck coast being rough, rugged, rocky and dramatic, while the long stretch of sandy beach is picturesque with turquoise waters, and makes for a memorable day trip. 

For those with a sense of adventure, one of the most unique things to do in Curaçao is rappelling down the Queen Juliana Bridge, the tallest bridge in the Caribbean. The experience provides a remarkable vantage point of Willemstad from almost 150 feet up in the air. 

“My youngest client off the bridge was five years old and the oldest was two weeks away from turning 83 years old,” says climbing instructor, Albert Schoop of Vertical Fun Curaçao. 

A police officer by trade, Schoop originally got into rappelling through work, organizing training rappels as the local riot commander, becoming certified as a rappel master and gaining specialist training in tactical rappelling with a Dallas PD SWAT team. 

“Up to 1994 I used to watch rappelling on TV and think you must be very crazy to hang from such a thin rope at great heights,” he recalls. “I started doing it on my own with family and friends and there was always someone suggesting I should do this commercially.”

Along your travels you may hear the word Dushi, a Papiamentu word with multiple meanings. Unlike what it sounds like in English, it’s actually an endearing phrase meaning sweetie, honey, babe or even sexy. It can also be used to describe tasty food or the good things in life — so no matter where you find yourself in Curaçao, make sure it’s dushi.

Take a journey through Northern Spain aboard a luxury sleeper train

The scenery encompasses such sights like vivid blue lakes in a scene reminiscent of Switzerland, or the rock formations of Playa de las Catedrales, where during low tide, you can walk through the arches that line the beach. 

When it comes to pouring sidra — the hard cider originating from the Asturias region in Northern Spain — it’s best to leave it to a professional. That’s because in order to spark natural carbonation and release the flavours of the tart beverage, it’s meant to be poured at least three feet (or more) from above into a small drinking glass slightly tilted on the side, a feat that takes some practice to perfect without spilling too much. 

While I may not have mastered the art of the pouring technique during my journey along the northern coast of Spain, I was a natural at the tasting. With a freshly poured sidra in hand sitting on a bridge in the parish of Covadonga overlooking a waterfall to my left and a basilica next to a dramatic mountainscape to my right, I was struck by how different this part of the country was from cities like Barcelona and Madrid. In fact, northern Spain is known as Green Spain for its scenery, coastal landscapes and lush vegetation.

To get a sense of what the area offers, I’d boarded the Costa Verde Express, and was ready for a luxury adventure on the rails along with fellow travellers from Brazil, the U.S. (including Puerto Rico), South Africa and all across Europe. 

All aboard for the memories 

After a three course meal, a nightly ritual quickly developed on board. The trip director would appear to hand out the itinerary for the next day over post-supper drinks like port or schnapps. This got the group excited to take in some of the top sights in the region like Cangas de Onís’ famous roman bridge with five arches and a Victoria Cross in the middle, or the remarkable Covadonga Sanctuary, which is built into the side of a mountain. 

The coastal route features many notable stops like Picos de Europa, a stunning mountain range peeking out through the mist with cows roaming freely. The scenery encompasses such sights like vivid blue lakes in a scene reminiscent of Switzerland, or the rock formations of Playa de las Catedrales, where during low tide, you can walk through the arches that line the beach. 

There’s also free time built into the schedule at various stops along the route to allow for independent exploration, or like multiple women on the trip opted for, shopping. As the late Anthony Bourdain once said, “Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.”

For me, it was during these unscripted free moments that some of my favourite memories were made. This is how I found myself on a beach named Playa de Poo. What originated as a bit of a joke destination based on the name, wound up being a stunning secluded cove beach with gorgeous mountain views, a highly recommended stop during the free time portion in Llanes. Overall, there is no shortage of beaches to choose from in the city. A quick Google search of the top things to do in Llanes will list various beaches in the top 10 — you can’t go wrong. Another lovely option is Playa del Sablon, with views of the town’s medieval wall. 

As for the food, not all meals are served on the train. Several lunches were at Paradores, unique accommodations in castles and monuments around Spain complete with wine or beer for the table, as well as some Michelin-star restaurants. Dinners on board were elaborate affairs with multiple choices per course, including vegetarian options, served with wines from the region. Breakfast offered a buffet spread with made-to-order eggs. Several people in my departure group got off in Bilbao with the goal of carrying on to San Sebastian, a city with renowned beaches and innovative chefs.

Two roads diverged 

Costa Verde Express trips depart from either Santiago de Compostela or Bilbao, so travellers can select which end of the line to start from. I began my journey in Santiago de Compostela, where Anu Pitkanen from Santiago Tourism was quick to share that not everyone who visits is a pilgrim. The destination has, however, gained a reputation around the word as the end point for the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage that dates back to Medieval times to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 

In order to receive an official certificate, participants must walk at least 100 kilometres of the route. However, visitors can look for direction markers all around the city and walk a few humble steps along the route. While The Original Way is thought to be the first pilgrimage route starting off in Oviedo, there are now other popular ways like The French Way (or The Camino Frances), starting in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port; or The Portuguese Way, kicking off in Porto or Lisbon. 

Fresh off of walking for over a month along the French Way, one man on my trip was happy for the train to do the heavy lifting for him. About one million people visit Santiago each year, about 300,000 of which are pilgrims. A popular time to visit is during The Holy Hear, also called the Jacobean year, which happens when a holiday called the Feast of St. James, on July 25, falls on a Sunday. This happens every five, six or 11 years. It was extended from 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic. During this time, the Holy Doors of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela are open so worshipers can go inside to have their sins forgiven.

“Not if you killed someone,” Pitkanen says. “Only small sins.” There are plenty of nearby patios to enjoy views of the cathedral over snacks and pints. The Old Quarter can easily be explored by foot and features many shops, boutiques and restaurants. Foodies will want to visit Casa Marcelo, a Michelin star-rated restaurant with two set dinner times offering a creative tasting menu. Those who opt to start the trip from Santiago are encouraged to come a few days early to experience all that the city has to offer. 


 

Things to do in Bilbao beyond the Guggenheim 

Although the Guggenheim Museum helped put Bilbao on the tourism map, the cultural city offers loads of activities and experiences for travellers to discover. 

Forget tapas, it’s pintxos here! 

Eat your heart out sampling various pintxos dishes, which are small snacks typically eaten in bars across northern Spain. Bar El Globo, Cafe Iruna and Amaren — a slider bar — are just some of the many tasty options. Tour guide Flora Paradiso says it’s typical for locals to bar hop from one pintxos joint to the next. 

Follow in the footsteps of Game of Thrones 

Basque Country has been utilized to shoot multiple scenes from the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. One of the most stunning places to visit is the rocky islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, something to see whether or not you are a fan of the series. Other memorable filming locations are Zumaia (Gipuzkoa) and Muriola beach in Barrika (Bizkaia).

Witness geological phenomenons 

Another cool thing to experience is the Flysch of Biscay, which originally formed under the sea, a unique geological phenomenon that dates back more than 200 million years. The end result is unique layers of cliffs that line the coast of Basque Country. This makes coastal hikes extra interesting, but if lounging is more your style, there are also beaches like Arriatera and Atxabiribil surrounded by Flysch. It’s also possible to take in these sights from a different vantage point — while paragliding or surfing.

Dubbed the Little Basalt Giant’s Causeway of Fruiz, the area is also home to its own more modest version of the Giant’s Causeway (found in Northern Ireland), featuring unique columns of basalt. Finally, those who are into chasing waterfalls won’t want to miss out on Nervión Waterfall, located between Burgos and Bilbao, a stunning waterfall that plunges down from 222 metres. 

Enjoy the first underwater winery in the world 

Wine aficionados looking to experience wine with a twist can sample wine from Crusoe Treasure Underwater Winery, which is aged under the sea. Led by enologist Antonio Palacios, the team of master winemakers seek out and blend unique terroirs and then store the wines in the sea to “bring out their full potential.” The results are limited-edition underwater wines that make for an equally fun story to tell if you bring a bottle back home. The winery is located in the picturesque Plentzia Bay on the Basque Coast. 

Take in the sights from above 

For terrific views of the city from above, head to Mount Artxanda by funicular, bus or on foot. Along with posing alongside large Bilbao letters, visitors will be rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the city and a unique view of the Guggenheim. Fun fact, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, is largely set in the Basque Country.

—STORY BY ANN RUPPENSTEIN

Birding is back: see why avian spotting is now a global trend

Observing birds for personal enjoyment, photography, or checking them off a life list, has emerged as a growing (and to some, an addictive) pursuit. 

The act of birding has discarded its antiquated image of geeks and dowdy couples wearing floppy hats and rhyming off facts about the mating habits of a Wilson’s Snipe.

In fact, the quest to see birds in the wild has become a global, multi-generational obsession. According to the most recent survey conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), there are an estimated 16 million travelling birders (out of 45 million bird-friendly people) spending approximately $40 billion in the United States alone, proving that birding is here to stay. 

Birds are the most accessible form of wildlife to see, and birders want to see birds everywhere on the planet. The great news is that travellers can combine birding with almost everything else they do on vacation, whether that means relaxing on the beach, hiking a trail or exploring a new destination. For example, on a recent visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, my friend and I discovered that aside from the beauty of the city’s historic core, the trees throughout the area were brimming with Cinnamon hummingbirds. And in Antigua, I took photos of the bougainvillea, frangipani, and flamboyant foliage at Ffryes Beach, but it was really the blue-chinned sapphire hummingbirds that made this blissful, colourful scene even more enchanting.  

For some, birding equates to the pursuit of wellness; an avian equivalent of the Japanese term ‘Shinrinyoku’ (forest bathing). A string of song from an Eastern meadowlark in Ontario, Canada; a flash of colour from a vermilion flycatcher in San Blas, Mexico; a glimpse of a Scarlet ibis in Curaçao, or a close encounter with a Cuban tody in Cuba’s Zapata Peninsula, stimulate the endorphins and produce feelings of excitement and happiness. 

The ultimate reward

James Turland, a bird guide I met at the Point Pelee Bird Festival, referred to birding as the ultimate treasure hunt.  “When you wake up and listen to the ‘dawning chorus’, as the birds greet the sunrise, you never know what you might see and hear,” he mused. “Even at the same destination, every day is a new game, with new excitement and new challenges.”  And we know this to be true, having walked the famous Pipeline Road in Panama’s Soberania National Park many times. One day it’s White-tailed trogons, fasciated antshrikes and Crimson-crested woodpeckers, while the next day, along the same route, observers can find squirrel cuckoos, broad-billed motmots, and Purple-throated fruitcrows. 

Some birders pride themselves on owning ultra-expensive zoom lenses, cameras, binoculars and field scopes, while others are perfectly happy with simple equipment to capture the spirit of their adventure, and this includes point-and-shoot cameras and cell phones. In addition, birding apps can help to identify birds, and recognize birds by their songs: The “yoink-yoink” of the crested guan in Costa Rica; the “hear me, see me, here I am” call of Jamaica’s Blue-headed vireo; and the “chonk, chonk, chonk” call of a White-tailed nightjar in Antigua.

The common set of skills that unite all birders are listening, spotting, patience, a healthy dose of enthusiasm, a love of nature and good, old-fashioned luck. For Canadians, the Caribbean remains one of the top destination getaways and each island boasts an eyeful and earful of both migratory and endemic avian discoveries.

One of the largest frigate bird colonies in the world can be found in Barbuda. The tiny bee hummingbird, the smallest in the world, visits the flowers in Cuba. The Red-billed streamertail is a native of Jamaica, while the Barbados bullfinch can only be found on that island.  Travellers can meet hundreds of species throughout the region, including bananaquits, cuckoos, parrots, parakeets, snail kites, saltators, orioles, ospreys, hawks, herons, egrets, warblers, whistling ducks, woodpeckers, vireos, tanagers and more.

Some birders enjoy the camaraderie of travelling on a customized birding trip, while others may feel perfectly at home on a family vacation, where the informal opportunity to spot and hear birds takes the imagination to new heights.  

The mantra of the avian adventurer is that ‘birding is not a destination; it’s a journey’.  And that journey dovetails nicely into wonder, serendipity, colour, song, and ultimately, peace of mind.  

—BY STEVE GILLICK