By Cat Andersen
“Hello,” “Good bye” and “Thank you.” Those are usually the first words the locals teach you to say in their native language when you arrive in a foreign country. It makes sense. These phrases are the bare essentials needed to navigate politely through the day in most countries. Not in Curacao. On this island, tucked between Aruba and Bonaire in the southwestern Caribbean, the first words our tour guide taught us in Papiamento (one of Curacao’s official languages) were sunchi which means “kiss” and mi dushi which means “my sweetheart.”
My first instinct was to treat those words like cotton candy; enjoy their airy sweetness on my tongue as I tried to pronounce them, but knowing they would melt away and disappear in seconds. These words would not last any longer than that in my memory bank because, let’s face it, when would I use them again? I couldn’t go running around a foreign country saying, “kiss” and calling random strangers “my sweetheart.” Can you imagine?
C’mon, teach me how to say “thank you” in Papiamento. That’s a phrase I could use. Let’s prioritize here. Those were my thoughts at the start of the trip. But, by the end, I realized our tour guides’ word choice was no mistake.
You’re probably wondering where “Papiamento” comes from. It’s a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and African dialects. The island changed hands quite a few times over the course of history as various European explorers claimed to “discover” it, and it’s location made it prime real estate for the Atlantic Slave Trade until slavery was abolished in the 1860’s. It’s a grim history that most people in Curacao seem to acknowledge as a part of their past but would rather focus on the present and the positive. Perfect example: In Curacao’s capital city, Willemstad, there is a massive stone prison that was built along the coast to hold all the slaves as they were shipped in and traded out. When you see the old prison from the street, it’s a haunting sight; thick, wrought iron gates and rusty chains scarring each entryway. But as you walk in, you see a slice of paradise awaits you on the other side; one continuous boardwalk of outdoor restaurants and tiki bars that serve frozen fruity concoctions and fresh seafood along the water. The prison itself now houses the kitchens, coolers, and offices of these establishments. It was re-purposed instead of torn down as if to say, on behalf of Curacaoans, the suffering that happened here cannot be undone, and out of respect, should not be forgotten, but as we move forward, let’s enjoy what’s ahead.
The people of Curacao are lovers of life and apparently part of this philosophy means prioritizing things like sweethearts and kisses. Fostering romance is a value held in high esteem. Hyatt executives must have caught on to this powerful local sentiment because every inch of the Hyatt Regency Curacao is built around this central theme. It’s no wonder the resort has become a magnet for couples around the world who are planning destination weddings. In fact, they have to keep a full-time wedding planner on staff. A bride’s only dilemma is deciding where to walk down the aisle. The options are endless. To name a few, there’s Shaman Beach, for those who want to leave footprints in the sand and have the bright blue backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. Brides craving more of a formal event can book one of the elegant ballrooms on site. For couples looking for something in between, the picturesque Caneye Pavilion sits near the water’s edge and has it’s own extended catwalk, giving it distance from the rest of the resort and the feeling of being almost on it’s own island altogether. A place where so many people are deciding to hold one of the most monumental occasions of their life was a place I had to experience for myself, so I checked in.
Turns out, what ended up impressing me the most was not the number of couples getting married or booking their honeymoons there. I was astounded by the number of couples I met who had been married for many years and found themselves falling back into their “Newlywed-Honeymoon Phase” at the resort. I witnessed it over and over again; the transformation in their eyes from stressed-out squinting to dreamy gazing and their arms uncrossing to reach out and hold their spouse’s hand. It was as if they were being hypnotized, but by whom or what? One word: sunchi.
You know that feeling of being kissed all over? That is what it felt like in Curacao every day, all day. The island is constantly kissing you with sunshine interrupted only by the occasional, quick, wet smooch of a refreshing sun shower. It’s white sand beaches playfully blow you kisses throughout the day in the form of warm breezes carrying the harmony of chirping birds. Inside the resort, you are kissed over and over again with the warm smiles of the staff.
And the food at the Hyatt Regency Curacao is one long slow kiss after another, tantalizing your tongue with every bite. Tangine Chicken Flatbread, Pizza Margherita, and Moroccan Spiced Skirt Steak are highlights on the menu at Medi, the Hyatt’s casual Mediterranean Restaurant, but my favorite was the Lemon Oil Poached Tuna served with squid ink pasta, fennel, asparagus and cured lemon. The fresh fish and citrus flavors infused with the earthy tones of the asparagus and creamy purple pasta kept my taste buds singing from the first forkful to the last. Master Chef Norbert Roesch designed the resort’s menus around food that is locally grown, raised and harvested on the island, adding a sense of story and identity to each dish.
As I floated out of the restaurant, I found myself drawn to the beds-by-the-pool. I know, they’re called “cabanas,” but I call them beds-by-the-pool, because what could be more luxurious than being in bed by the pool? You’re lying down on a cushion the size of a king mattress, a pillow beneath your head, four bedposts at each corner and every time you look up, you realize the sky is your canopy, your blanket is the warm, steady sea breeze enveloping you and your décor is a sparkling pool. Why cloud that image with an obscure word like cabana? Not me. I’m calling it a bed-by-the-pool and enjoying the warm indulgent flashback I get every time I say it.
Little by little, I was falling deeper and deeper into a trance, but what sealed me into a dream-like state was the Atabei Spa. Their treatments are inspired by the ancient culture of Curacao’s first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, whose rituals focused on the heat of the sun, the rhythm of the water, the goodness of the earth and the pull of the moon. Open the door and you are greeted with the soft whisper of a flowing fountain before you’re escorted to a relaxation room that’s filled with soft candlelight and an arrangement of sweet pastries and fruits. Your masseuse meets you, asks you which areas she should focus on and leads you to a room that opens up to a private veranda where you lounge luxuriously after your massage to fully savor it. Absolutely hypnotic.
I was fully transformed just like everyone else; fluttering inside with the giddiness of a honeymooner. Now a believer, I asked the lady at the front desk to refresh my memory on how to say “kiss” and “my sweetheart” in Papiamento so I could really learn the words this time. As she pronounced them for me, a big, knowing smile spread across her face. At that moment, I realized my eagerness to learn sunchi and mi dushi showed my appreciation for Curacao more than the phrase “thank you” ever could. The tour guide knew it all along.