By Pam Hobbs

The story goes that a certain governor of Curacao suffered migraine headaches, made worse by the sun's glare on sparkling water and dazzling white buildings around him. He couldn't do much about the sea, but could order all white buildings to be painted over. And that's why Curacao, largest and most populous link in the Netherlands Antilles chain, is so very pretty today.

Willemstad, the island's capital, is crammed with colourful buildings dating from the 1700s. They have fancy gables and dormers, popular with Dutch architects of the period. Red tiled roofs were first introduced when the tiles arrived as ballast in sailing ships. And walls are painted in pretty pastels, usually with enough white trim to create a little interest but not enough to cause a headache.

Actually, I can't think of anything that will give a person a headache in Curacao these days, because this is a lively, prosperous and hospitable island. Its checkered history has resulted in a very cosmopolitan country where people of 50 nationalities and various religions live in harmony. Interesting for visitors is that evidence of the past is highly visible, not in stuffy museums, but in old sites put to use in everyday life.

When one of Columbus's lieutenants, Alonso de Ojeda, discovered this island in June 1499, he reported finding unusually tall Arawak Indians housed in caves, fishing and trading for life's necessities. A governor was appointed, but because there was no gold Curacao was listed as one of the islas inutiles, or useless islands, and left pretty much unchanged from one century to the next, while the rest of the Caribbean was in turmoil.

The Dutch didn't think Curacao so useless. With an eye on its deep-water harbour as a way to facilitate trading, they came in 1654 with six ships and a handful of soldiers and met little resistance to their takeover. Peter Stuyvesant became governor then, and it was he who set up a depot where slaves were restored to health, following their journey from Africa and before shipment to other islands. Since there were no sizeable plantations, Curacao had little need for slaves. In consequence their emancipation in 1863 was no great blow to this island's economy, and few slave descendants live here now.

Tourism is big business here now. As trading capital of the Caribbean, its port among the world's busiest. For the 200,000 cruise passengers docking here annually, Curacao means Willemstad and, more specifically, the historic punda, the shopping district spread over five square blocks on St. Anna Bay. Low import duties and the absence of a sales tax result in bargain prices, especially on quality merchandise from Europe.

Originally the punda was a residential area, founded by 50 Jews who arrived from Amsterdam in 1651, and some more from brazil three years later. This is why the Mikve Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue is smack in its centre. Claimed to be the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and Curacao's most visited attraction, its eighteenth-century archirecture is outstanding. More than that, comments in the visitors' book show that it has very special meaning to Jews all over the world. There are other noteworthy churches in town. The very modern Brievengat Roman Catholic Church, and Fort Amsterdam's Dutch Reformed Church with a cannon ball embedded in an outer wall since Captain Bligh put it there in 1804.

Eighteenth-century Fort Amsterdam is as pretty a fort as you will ever see. Attractively estored and used now as a governor's palace and government offices, it is yellow and white instead of the usual sombre grey. Uniformed guards stand at the foot of stairs on each side of the arched entrance, trees grow in the former parade square, and on the far side you can make out the bulge of that cannon ball in the church wall.

The first thing the Dutch did following their takeover was to build a water fort to guard the entrance to St. Anna Bay. Like Fort Amsterdam, it has been put to work all these years later; casemates have been converted into shops and a tourist information office while the Curacao Plaza Hotel is built into the original fort walls. Guests now stroll along the ramparts where cannons point out to sea.

In the mid-nineteenth century Willemstad spread to the otrabunda across St. Anna Bay, and for a while dozens of little ferry boats zipped back and forth between the city's two sectors. Then in 1888 the Queen Emma pontoon bridge was installed. Swinging open 25 to 30 times a day to allow ships in and out of the harbour, it is strictly a pedestrian bridge now. At first there was a two-cent charge for people walking across in shoes, the idea being that anyone who could afford shoes could manage to pay a toll. However, such is human nature, poorer citizens would borrow sandals for the prestige of paying, while the wealthy carried theirs across in order to save a couple of cents.

The Curacao Museum, in the otrabunda, documents information about the pontoon bridge, and its designer, U.S. consul Leonard Burlington Smith, who personally received those tolls and is said to have got rich from them.

Curacao's famous waterfront scene of coloured buildings lining the bay is taken from the pontoon bridge. Another that keeps photographers snapping away is the floating market. Fresh produce and handicrafts brought up from Venezuala are sold directly from schooners by the wharf.

Willemstad's European sophistication and old world charm are captivating, for sure, but for the Caribbean beat you must get out into the country. You can see it all in a day; half a day if you don't dally in fishing hamlets and sea food restaurants and stop for every glorious view in the national park.

Highest point on the island is St. Christoffel Mountain (375 metres) in the national park. Established twenty years ago to preserve an area of unusual natural beauty, the park is delightfully untamed. Roads cut through the hills lead to eye-popping views. They take you past rare palms and orchids, every variety of cacti, wildflowers and resident birds. And wild donkeys whose great-granddaddies worked on neighbourhood plantations before being turned loose to fend for themselves.

The west coast is the cosy setting of lovely old plantation homes nestled in the hills, and sleepy little fishing villages. There are enough sandy coves that you could have one to yourself, and stretches of beach where walking is pleasant. At West Point a seascape favoured by artists and photographers is best viewed from the Playa Forti Restaurant's deck. You can lunch here on North American style hamburgers, but that would be a mistake, because there is fresh seafood and goat stew and a delectable something called Ayaca. (So far as I could make out it consists of beef and chicken mixed with raisins, nuts, olives and spices, wrapped in corndough and cooked in banana leaves.) It lingers in memory. The sun was hot, the Amstel beer cold and my Ayaca just spicy enough. I watched a turtle surface in the ocean below, and was told the water is so clear here one can see the fish while standing in it only knee deep. I must confess that much as I enjoyed Willemstad earlier, I didn't hurry back.