Ty Sawyer
Divers drift over the slumbering sponge and coral garden that once was the Superior Producer.
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updated 4/17/2007 6:44:37 PM ET 2007-04-17T22:44:37

I have a measuring stick for dive destinations. I call it the flyaway disease. It's what happens when I'm on the airplane, taking off after a week or two of diving and exploring and feel like I never got to the pulse of a place. That I didn't get to experience enough of a destination to feel like I understand it. That slight panic that if asked I'm not going to be able to describe what it was like with anything close to clarity. This is not a bad feeling. In fact, I get a great deal of satisfaction from places like this. There's a tingle of thrill that rides the coattails of flyaway disease. This feeling comes about when a destination offers more, or much more, than can be experienced within the confines of a trip. Truly, these places are getting harder to find. Which is why we've decided to feature the truly great getaways. The dive destinations that ripple with enough adventure to fill an epic journey, not just the typical span of a holiday.

Places with so much to see and do and discover that unless you try to bite off only small chunks at a time, you'll get a little dizzy. In the Caribbean, Curaçao heads a small list of destinations that exceed expectations. Curaçao evokes envy in its neighbors. And, traveling there will give you flyaway disease.

All Over Experience
Ocean Encounters
What I'd love to do one day is to just yell "Stop!" on the dive boat, come to a screeching halt and jump in to see what hidden treasures await on the reef below. I don't have this little fantasy about every destination. No, far from it. But, I'm pretty sure I could get Christian Ambrosi, one of the co-owners of the family-owned PADI 5-Star Ocean Encounters, to jump at the chance. They've certainly made numerous discoveries since they arrived on Curaçao more than five years ago, such as the wreck of the Stella Maris last year. But, more than that, I know I'd be nicely surprised at what we'd find because Curaçao is only just becoming a big-time dive destination. There's plenty left to discover.

The east end of Curaçao, the area nearest the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Willemstad, is littered with dives - wall dives, wreck dives, shore dives, lush coral gardens - that have quickly become not only Curaçao icons, but also some of the top dives in the Caribbean. Dives that beg to be repeated. This is especially true of the wreck of the Superior Producer, which sits just outside the entrance to Willemstad harbor. With so much commerce defining the history of Curaçao, it's no surprise that there are a few shipwrecks off its coast.

Besides the Superior Producer, there are several tugboats idling their time at permanent anchor. But the Superior Producer rules the seafloor, as it were, and Ocean Encounters tries to include this on every diver's schedule for the week. This 200-foot wreck was cause for celebration when it foundered just outside the harbor in 1977 and sank in 120 feet of water. Not that shipwrecks are normally cause for celebration, but this particular wreck sank with a full cargo of T-shirts, jeans and rum - much of which washed ashore or was repatriated, as it were, by the local populace according to the unwritten rules of shipwreck salvage. It sank just before the Christmas holidays, so the rum especially helped jumpstart the season. Occasionally someone finds a bottle tucked in the sand around the ship or on shore after a storm. But no matter how tall the tale, it never matches the actual experience of diving the Superior Producer.

Ty Sawyer
Playa Lagun on Curacao’s extreme west end basks in the afternoon sun.

When you dive the Superior Producer, the hustle and bustle of Willemstad looms closely in the distance. Boats come in and out of the harbor, and people walk along the shore. And despite the sudden silence when you begin your descent, the sight of the Superior Producer on the sand will evoke an inner dialogue that will lead you from the coral-encrusted bow to the wheelhouse to the debris on the sand. It would take months of dedication to fully appreciate the variety of creatures and habitat and drama that this artificial reef has created. Because of its depth, I'm always torn between a slow, inch-by-inch discovery of the critters hidden among the lush growth and taking in the panorama and grand vista of the ship. The first thing to do, though, is to drop to the sand, kneel and look up at the bow's profile against the surface. It's majestic. Then lift up and fin close to the hull. You'll find a galaxy of marine life. As cosmopolitan as Willemstad is, life on the Superior Producer is full of the nonstop energy of the greatest cities on the planet. In one sweep, I found arrow crabs, fire worms, eels, Peterson shrimp and several species of nudibranch.

The Shore Thing
Habitat Curacao
At some resorts, people reserve way in advance for Christmas. At others, it's for New Year's Eve, Thanksgiving or Easter break. But at Habitat Curaçao Resort, the times that veteran visitors have blocked out on their calendars this year are September 15-21 and October 14-20. And the draw is two weeks of raucous, all-night sex.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground No, it's not what you're thinking. Two to four days after the full moon in September and October, it's the coral that gets busy in a seemingly choreographed frenzy that looks as if the whole reef is doing its version of an upside-down ticker-tape parade. A dozen different species of corals get in on the act, as do sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, fire worms, Christmas-tree worms and the touch-me-not sponge.

You know those little plastic pellets that your annoying young nephew was shooting everyone with last Christmas? Well, take a few million of those down to the sea bed, release them over a period of several hours and add a touch of liquid smoke. That's what coral spawning looks like: The "pellets" are sperm-coated egg clusters (eggs are fertilized, not by the sperm they carry, but by that carried on other eggs rising to the surface), and the smoke is the sponges getting in on the act. It's a phenomenon that had never been observed just a few decades ago, but now the coral spawns with such uncanny regularity that divemasters can usually tell you what species will be spawning at what time on any given evening of the spawning season.

This event can be observed all around Curaçao during the spawning season, but Habitat is something of a "Spawning Central" because of its location. Sitting about 25 minutes up the coast from Willemstad, Habitat is no more than one hour by boat from any of the island's most regularly visited dive sites. And its house reef, Nos Kas, is considered by many reef divers to be Curaçao's best shore dive.

Habitat capitalizes on its location through a policy that it calls "24/7 diving freedom." Guests who are certified divers are welcome to stroll from their rooms at any hour (day or night, weekday or weekend), pick up a filled tank on the dive dock, gear up and jump in. It's a great way to discover a basic truth of diving: The same reef is not the same reef during the night that it is during the day - the cast of characters changes around the clock.

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The resort also operates two custom-built 42-foot dive boats, and does two-tank trips (nitrox available) to 35 different sites, reaching the best of Curaçao's diving, including Mushroom Forest.

Curaçao is also one of those destinations that a diver can bring a non-diver to in full confidence that both sides of the relationship are going to have a ball, and Habitat is again set up well to accommodate such "mixed marriages." The resort has a fitness center, spa, art gallery and boutique on premises, as well as a pool and other recreation facilities. A trail leads from Habitat to a cliffside ocean blowhole (an hour and a half walk), and another goes to a historic plantation (a two and a half hour walk). And after a nature refresher, Habitat offers shoppers a complimentary shuttle into Willemstad, or friends can go anywhere on the island cheaply thanks to Curaçao's taxi-fare policies, under which four people can ride for the price of one.

Curaçao is a popular destination any time of year, not just during the coral spawning. The island has high-density reefs - the kind that you can spend half an hour on just exploring a dozen feet of reef. And with nearly 12 dozen species of marine life, it's sort of a fish-ID heaven. The nonstop sex is just the icing on the cake. - Tom Morrisey

West End Refuge
Sunset Divers
I try to get to Curaçao at least once a year. Not because I'm comfortable with this corner of the world. Just the opposite. I'm intrigued. And I almost always get out of the water feeling ready for more. Especially on the West End of the island, which has managed to retain its authentic edge. This side of the island is almost purely local.

Ty Sawyer
Tube sponges decorate a piling at Discover Bay.
If I have a Curaçao refuge, it's Sunset Waters, which overlooks the Caribbean at the end of a quiet, windy road on the bucolic West End of the island. It's usually the first place I head when I land, generally after dark. I like to wind down the window allowing the cool edge of evening to swirl in, then go there directly from the airport. The silence and the stars and the cactus-lined road of that end of the island ground me. By the time I round down the road to the resort, I'm finally feeling like myself again, and back somewhere in the oblivion of night is the stress of my job, commitments and schedule. After I check in, I'll wander down to the beach, sit down and watch the passage of the moon and its silvery reflection on the water.

At Sunset Waters it's all about easy access. The on-site PADI dive shop, Sunset Divers, is a short run from some of the island's most hallowed dive sites. Mushroom Forest, Hell's Corner and Harry's Hole, for example, which could each easily be an island's most famous dive site, battle it out to impress divers. Get on a Sunset Divers boat any day of the week and you'll hear guests begging to repeat any of them. Not that there aren't a plethora of other sites; it's just that most of the West End sites are so packed with diversity they leave divers wanting more and more.

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life

Still, one of my favorite experiences awaits within shouting distance of the bar. I like to wade out of the man-made on-site bay to dive the reef visible from my balcony. The best time to explore the house reef is at dusk, to see the change from the day shift to the night shift. I always go slow, because even the break wall harbors secret marine societies that completely transform your experience, almost as you gaze, when darkness falls. Blink and suddenly you see arrow crabs that weren't there a microsecond ago. Interesting critters crawl out of their daylight redoubts to graze under cover of darkness. Blennies, with their electric movements, dart and dash before your dive light; and a dozen species of shrimp suddenly raise their pincers at me as if they could, indeed, take me out. What was a cleaning station one moment before becomes a nudibranch battle ground. And all this takes place a few feet offshore.

Every time I go to Sunset Waters, I go out to this reef and explore, sometimes the shallows, sometimes the deeper parts of the reef. Doesn't matter. Even after dozens of dives there, I encounter surprise after surprise. What tops off the dive is meandering my way back to the shallow bay, ascending through a surface that reflects the stars and the moon, and rising into the warm wind that seems to hang out at that time of night just to wrap around a diver's shoulders. – TS

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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