When researching cruise excursions that were available during our visit to Willemstad, Curaçao, we came across Irie Tours. For $25, the East Side Island Tour boasted a narrated island tour with stops at the Curaçao distillery and Mambo Beach, as well as scenic views along the way. The excursion included free beer and soda during the tour — which others we looked at didn’t — making this seems like a real bargain.
While you don’t need to make reservations for the tour, they do recommend doing so, as the buses fill up pretty quickly. Once you make a reservation, the operators will send you a confirmation. It’s important to note that you do not pre-pay for the excursion. Instead, you’ll pay them — cash or credit — at the time of the tour. It’s also important to show up at least 15 minutes before your reservation to guarantee your spot! Like I said, their tours are very popular, so it’s likely that if you’re not there, they’ll easily find someone to fill your seat on the bus!
The East Side Tour
After disembarking from the cruise ship, we walked over to the big white tents at the Curaçao cruise terminal and quickly found someone holding up a sign that said “Irie Tours.” Our names were checked off the list, we were given a sticker and told which bus to board. (This is important, since the company operates several different tours!) And from the moment you see the buses, you get the impression that it’s going to be a very fun day. Because this is not your ordinary school bus, but rather a multi-colored party on wheels. The windows have been removed, and a cooler of drinks (including water, beer and soda) is ready to be raided, free of charge.
At this point, we still hadn’t paid and, when we asked, were told to pay the driver at the end of the tour. (I took this as a sign that they know you’re going to enjoy yourself… after all, it’s probably difficult to get people who have a lousy time to pay up after the fact!) They accept most major credit cards (and don’t charge processing fees) or cash, and the fee is a flat $25 per person.
After about 15 minutes, the bus was loaded and we were off on our guided tour, which began with a drive past some of the iconic pastel buildings which line the Willemstad waterfront. While we didn’t get off the bus here, the driver stopped so that we could snap pictures. And it was then, while leaning out taking those photos, that you realized why there were no windows on the bus. Well, in addition to the breeze that helped cool down the hot day!)
Next, we drove over the (very high!) Queen Juliana Bridge, which offers a breathtaking overview of the city and the cruise ships. On a nice day, this is an absolutely incredible spot from which to take a picture of the harbor.
First Stop: Curaçao Distillery
After 15 minutes of driving– touring which our drive offered up lots of interesting facts and tidbits about the island he clearly knows well — we stopped at the distillery to see how the world-famous Curaçao liquor is made. It’s a self-guided tour at the end of which there’s a tasting station with three different types of liquor for you to sample.
Just like every attraction at Walt Disney World, the tour of course empties out into a gift show. And needless to say, you can also purchase a bottle if you like what you taste. (Just be aware that once you get back to the ship, they’ll take it from you until the last night of the sailing!) You can also hit the bar outside for a Blue Curaçao drink that runs $8. We were at the distillery for around 30 minutes.
Touring the Wealthy Neighborhoods
Once back on the bus, we made our way through a really wealthy neighborhood called Spanish Water Way where the houses start at $350,000 and go up from there. It was fascinating to see the lack of security fences… which were instead “replaced” by huge eight-foot tall cacti, planted close to one another to form a natural border. We were told they work great when it comes to keeping out both people… and goats! (Apparently, there are a lot of them running around the island!)
The neighborhood was beautiful, and we were surprised by how modern many of the houses were. In downtown Willemstad, there are rules about the architectural styles in order to preserve the areas historic look and feel, but in these more residential areas, anything goes. The eclectic and varied styles chosen by the people lucky enough to build their houses here are something to see.
Stopping at Curaçao Mambo Beach and Boulevard
Our final stop on the tour was the beach and shopping district, where we had about 90 minutes to do our own thing. (Before getting off the bus, the driver asked how many of us wanted to stay at the beach for two hours, and how many preferred we only stay for one hour. Since the vote was pretty even, he split the difference and let us have an hour and a half.)
The beach itself wasn’t anything spectacular, but it wasn’t bad either. A horseshoe-shaped beach with rock jetties, the water starts ankle deep and gradually gets deeper the further you move from shore. It’s a nice, gentle drop-off. If you’re a swimmer, there’s a floating diving platform in the middle of the horseshoe where you can jump into the water and maybe show off your flipping abilities.
READ MORE: Carnival Vista Trip Report: Curaçao
The beach charges $3.50 fee for a beach chair but it didn’t seem to be strictly enforced. We were told someone would come around to collect the fee, but no one ever did. There was a bar on the beach where the drinks ran about $10 each. It was pretty packed, so I was never able to determine if the bar takes credit cards. It’s always safe just to assume that on Caribbean excursions cash is the best option.
Because our ship didn’t dock until 1 p.m., our four-hour tour was scheduled from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. This meant we were still at the beach for the 5 p.m. sunset, which was perfect (although it’s important to note that each tour is different, depending on various factors, including ship schedules). Make sure to check with your cruise itinerary before booking the tour.
The End of the Tour
At the end of the tour, we were given the option of being dropped off by the floating bridge downtown — which, when crossed, would put us into the waterfront area — or back at the cruise ship. And it is at this point that we paid for the tour. (A representative from the company is there with a portable scanner for those wishing to pay by credit card.)
The walk from the shopping area back to the ship takes about 15 minutes and follows a well-lit path along the waterfront and through the fort. This is also a great opportunity to get a shot of the ship you arrived on before boarding.
I’ll admit that heading into the tour, the $25 per person fee left me with very low expectations. But almost from the moment it began, I knew we’d lucked into a great tour at a bargain price… especially considering the fact that comparable tours on the island run $69 per person or more, And while those other tours might be in an air-conditioned vehicle, they don’t offer anywhere near the experience. The East Side Tour will give you a bit of history about Curaçao, a visit to a distillery and time to shop or hit the beach. In other words, pretty much everything you could want from a shore excursion!