Known as part of the ABC island chain (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), for years this former Dutch colony took a back seat to its rival islets.

But that changed in 2011, when this Caribbean sleeper won its independence from the Netherlands Antilles. The island is bustling with tourism, and cruise liners arrive along with snowbirds from northern climates in search of a taste of the Caribbean with a European flair and a distinct Latin-Caribbean vibe.

Named after a Portuguese word meaning "for the heart," Curacao is a curious place. Its Dutch colonial buildings painted in shades of yellow, orange and blue are reminiscent of Amsterdam, yet the dry climate, barren soil and cacti are more akin to the southwestern U.S. But Curacao's greatest natural beauty lies offshore—around the island's coral reefs, which are drawing an increasing number of divers and snorkelers.

Some of the things that set Curacao apart have little to do with tourism. With its unique buildings and natural harbor, the capital Willemstad became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. The town is a big, bustling port (and the largest dry dock in the region). Huge ships sail right through downtown, and the Queen Emma Bridge creates a unique sight when it turns sideways to let them pass.

Much of the shipping traffic revolves around the island's large oil refinery, second only to tourism as an economic factor for the island. When Shell Oil ran the refinery, Curacao became one of the more prosperous parts of the Caribbean. Shell left in 1987, and the government now leases the facilities to a Venezuela company that runs it on a much smaller scale. When winds are high, the refinery can emit an unpleasant odor and pollutants around the immediate area and downwind; a filter tower has been installed in an attempt to combat the problem.

With a mixture of 55 different nationalities on the island, Curacao has a fascinating multicultural aspect. It also has a cosmopolitan character: The majority of residents speak at least four languages—English, Spanish, Dutch and their own Papiamento.

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