"You are now visiting the country of Curacao," said Eveline Van Arkel, the phrase still new to the Dutch native's tongue.
This was crucial information, and not as obvious as you might think. You see, six months ago, Van Arkel was welcoming guests to an entirely different nation: the Netherlands Antilles.
Standing in the empty parking spot of the new prime minister, Van Arkel pointed to the flag of Curacao flapping solo above the walls of Fort Amsterdam, the old Dutch stronghold that now houses government offices. On Oct. 10, 2010, she explained, the island lowered its other flag sprinkled with stars representing the Antilles Five: Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba. (The sixth original member, Aruba, fled in 1986; St. Maarten left the fold at the same time as Curacao.) The action marked the dissolution of the Antilles and the island's rise to nation status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Fly, Curacao, fly.
"We are a country autonomous under the flag of the Netherlands," said Van Arkel, a longtime resident. "It's a step toward independence." I looked at her, puzzled, as mental images of wooden clog burnings and Edam cheese meltings disappeared. "Don't worry," she added comfortingly. "I recently had to explain it to some Dutch visitors who didn't understand it either."
Last month, I arrived in Curacao naively expecting a country drunk on independence, as if the faucets gushed a cocktail of the local liqueur, Blue Curacao, and liberation. I misjudged, but not entirely. The Caribbean island with the rich past is a frequent celebrant of freedoms. And though I didn't see flags draped over shoulders superhero-style, I did discover a land infused with an indefatigable indie spirit.
One image of Curacao has launched a thousand T-shirts, notecards, postcards, paintings, mugs and magnets: Willemstad's lineup of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch architecture dipped in Easter egg colors. (An omission from this scene is the massive oil refinery on the city's harbor, with fiery, pluming stacks.) The scenery has not been doctored -- the roof tiles really are as red as ripe tomatoes, the gables curlicued like a gentleman's script -- nor will it ever be allowed to be.
In 1997, UNESCO designated a large swath of the capital a World Heritage site, including Punda and Otrobanda, the two halves of town divided by St. Anna Bay, and the old Jewish quarter of Scharloo.
"The history is amazing for this little piece of rock," said Van Arkel. "We are on the same level as the pyramids."
Curacao's diary is long, dense and sometimes dark. In 1634, the Dutch wrested control of the island from the Spaniards, who had previously grabbed it from the first inhabitants, the Arawaks. Because of the island's appealing location 35 miles off the coast of Venezuela, the Dutch West India Co. established one of the largest slave markets here.
At the Kura Hulanda Museum, this chapter is given its own public reading. The anthropological institute on the site of a slave-holding yard dedicates an entire building to the slave trade. Placards describe in painful detail the roundup and sale of Africans, while rows of metal shackles contribute an air of verisimilitude. On a replica slave ship, visitors crawl into its belly and imagine the worst.
A wall outside the exhibit brandishes the words of a local poet: "Let not woes of old enslave you anew." The phrase is written in three languages, including Papiamento, a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, Arawak and a smattering of African tongues that the slaves used as a form of communication. (Dutch and Papiamento are the official languages.)
Every story, especially the most despairing and dehumanizing, needs a hero. Curacao had Tula, a slave who led a monumental uprising in 1795 at Landhuis Kenepa, a former plantation that now contains the Tula Museum. But the conversation that sparked the movement began at the landhouse at PortoMari.
At Playa PortoMari, a cove with water so clear you can see the grains of white sand between your toes, it's easy to forget that life here was not always so good. At the beach near the old plantation you can rent diving and snorkeling equipment or settle into the open-air restaurant for some "broccoli soep" and "Cajun friet." But to pay tribute to the hundreds of freedoms won on Curacao, I shook myself from my sun-baked stupor and hiked up the Seru Mateo Trail.
The short, hilly route was named after Matthew, a freed slave who remained at the plantation after his emancipation in 1850. I trekked by cactus and divi-divi trees camouflaging birds whose chirps filled the air. At the top of the trail, I peered over the cliff at a vast panorama that knew no bounds.
Curacao is aflutter with wings; the bird-watch count numbers more than 168 varieties. On the drive to PortoMari, I passed a flock of flamingos; at Zambezi Restaurant, a yellow-bellied troupial patiently perched on the bar counter.
But the ostriches are not free to roam the island. In the 1990s, the Curacao Ostrich Farm started importing the big birds from Africa as a form of novel entertainment. Jeep tours of the property begin and end at the restaurant, in case viewing the birds whets your appetite for a plate of ostrich prepared jerky-style or in a spicy herb or apricot sauce.
The farm also offers ostrich rides.
"Ostriches are very stupid and scared animals," said Bob Smink, a staff member. "He wants what's on his back off. If the handlers let go of that beast, he will not stop. He does not know that the fence is a fence and will hit it and you will fly."
That's why I had to sign a waiver acknowledging that this activity could cause "serious and grievous injuries."
The excursion takes place on a short dirt road lined with ostriches watching the folly. A man who spoke little English drove me there in a pickup. Once parked, he and his assistant selected a bird and placed a black sock over its head. I later learned that "turning off the lights" calms the bird, which thinks that it's night and bedtime.
The men steered the bird over to the truck and backed it in. I threw a leg over its flanks and grabbed its wings. I had barely settled in before the ostrich's beanpole legs started moving. I gripped its wings, which were surprisingly strong and muscled. The feathers tickled my wrist, but I didn't loosen my grip. I was in no mood for grievous injuries.
We galloped awkwardly for a short stretch, then stopped so the assistants could remove the sock. Free to see, the bird headed straight for the truck and its pen. When we reached the truck, it tried to break free. I prepared to be carted off into the horizon -- or at least the nearest fence.
Luckily, the men regained control. I hopped back into the truck and looked up to see a tour vehicle full of visitors clapping at my feat. I bowed, then plucked some stray feathers off my legs and tossed them into the breeze.
Surrounded by the bay and the harbor, Willemstad is, by necessity, a city of bridges. Without these connections, Punda and Otrobanda, and Scharloo and Punda, would forever be star-crossed lovers. Of the city's three, one bridge in particular -- the Queen Emma -- is the object of deep affection.
"This is our pride and joy," said Van Arkel, the tour guide. "We call her the Swinging Old Lady."
Opened in 1888, the 548-foot-long African wood bridge was designed by an American and is supported by 16 pontoons. When ships need to pass, an alarm sounds and the bridge unhinges from the Punda side, sweeps across the bay and lines up parallel to Otrobanda. To inform pedestrians mulling a crossing, the bridge's caretaker flies colored flags that denote the wait: orange means partial opening that will last 20 minutes or so; blue translates to fully open for up to 40 minutes. When the bridge is unavailable, pedestrians can take a free ferry.
>If you go:
Where to stay: Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa & Casino, Langestraat 8, Otrobanda (877-264-3106; www.kurahulanda.com). Sleep inside a centuries-old Dutch colonial building. From $160 a night.
Academy Hotel, Prinsenstraat 80, Punda (011-5999-461-9319; www.academyhotelcuracao.com). The basic hotel in the center of town is a training facility for hospitality students. From $83, including breakfast.
For more information, www.curacao.com.