When you mention Curacao, most people think of a bright blue liquor that tastes like oranges—not a Caribbean island paradise. Often overshadowed by Aruba and Bonaire, the “C” of the Netherlands Antilles is a vibrant place teeming with incredible coral reefs and beautifully restored colonial architecture. After one visit, you’ll wonder why everyone hasn’t heard of it—but you’ll also want to keep the secret for yourself.

1. The revitalization is just beginning in Pietermaai Historic District. At the turn of the century, Pietermaai (pictured above) was a neighborhood of neglect: abandoned buildings, homeless squatters, dilapidated infrastructure. But just 15 years later, the district is being transformed with a fresh coat of colorful paint and an influx of trendy restaurants, boutique hotels and funky student bars, including Mondo Bizarro, a bar that’s furnished entirely with gems found in the rubble, like an antique soda machine and a broken tile mosaic.

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2. The Caribbean Sea has never looked better. The water is a stunning shade of turquoise, and the clarity is unbelievable. While it’s understandably a coveted snorkeling and scuba diving destination, stone shore breaks and natural coves make it a surprisingly lovely place to swim. The sandy lagoons are easy on the crashing waves and the temperature is just the right level of refreshing: perfect to float all your cares away. Although all of the beaches are beautiful, it’s hard to beat Kleine Knip—make sure to work a beach-hopping day into your itinerary.

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3. The local market floats. Unlike many Caribbean nations, Curacao is surprisingly dry: there’s no rainy season or hurricanes, and the interior is filled with more cacti than swaying palm trees. Because of that, there’s almost no agriculture on the island. Most locals head to the floating market to shop for fresh fish, fruits and vegetables from a colorful array of boats that sail over everyday from Venezuela.

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4. The street art comes off the walls. Nena Sanchez is a legend in the Curacao art world, inspired by the natural Caribbean color that surrounded her upbringing. Scattered around downtown Willemstad are a few of her 3D murals: iguanas, flowers and fish that literally pop off the wall in a burst of texture and color.

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5. There are iguanas everywhere. And they want to be your friend. Even if sometimes they’re a little too chilled out with humans—sitting on the chaise lounge next to you, eating apple slices out of your neighbor’s hand—the iguanas are pretty darn cute. Locals claim one of the best island specialties is iguana stew, but I was too enamored with the scaly specimen to sample it.

Christine Amorose writes about travel, lifestyle and living in NYC at CestChristine.com. Follow Christine’s adventures in Brooklyn and beyond on Instagram.

All photos by Christine Amorose