While I peruse the menu at Sal the Kitchen, a cacophony of languages surrounds my table of one. I’m in the Dutch Caribbean on the island of Curacao where it’s not uncommon for someone to speak the local dialect of Papiamento along with English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. I am immediately intrigued and make a mental note to re-download Duolingo.
At Sal, where the ingredients of each dish are as diverse as the atmosphere, you’ll find more locals than tourists satisfying their taste buds, but I’m here as part of an initiative at Sandals Royal Curacao called “Island Inclusive Dining,” where resort guests receive a voucher to use at their choice of eight area restaurants.
All-inclusive resorts often come with the assumption that guests will spend the majority of their vacation bopping between infinity pools, the beach, and on-site bars and restaurants. But here, the idea is to elevate the all-inclusive experience for travelers by making it easy to immerse in the island culture.
“We all know that one of the most captivating and irresistible ways we experience a destination is through its cuisine,” said Luke Mathot, vice president of product innovation and food and beverage at Sandals Resorts International.
Sal is in a hip but quiet neighborhood of the vibrant city, Willemstad, where a dynamic pair of second-generation restaurateurs brought their own dream to life in January 2022. Dimitri Nataf, 30, runs the front of the house, and his brother Mauro, 27, commands the kitchen. I had cauliflower baklava (walnut vinaigrette, rosewater, pistachio powder), sautéed mushroom (yoghurt ice cream, pumpkin puree, mine and chive oil) and habibeh ravioli (smoked eggplant, tahini-lemon sauce, carrot-cumin puree, tabouleh, fried pita).
Each bite, quite literally, made me smile. It wasn’t just the taste, but I could feel the creativity and thought that went into the dishes and presentation.
“For us, the partnership has meant we can showcase our cuisine and concept to a range of guests that maybe wouldn’t have found us otherwise,” Dimitri says, pointing out that Sandals was the first resort to take the initiative to establish a relationship with Sal. “It would be a shame if guests came to our beautiful island and didn’t get to taste the culture and see what’s outside of their hotel.”
Next door at MosaCana, another partner in the program, I am welcomed by bright yellow walls and eye-catching murals of peacocks and tropical flowers. The server tells me she advises two to three selections per person, so I order crab bao buns, short rib (thai green papaya salad, garlic-chili oil gochujang), and yuca fries.
As I wait for the food, I look around to find every table full with diners of all ages. When I did an e-bike tour through Willemstad, the guide showed us a mural depicting a naked chicken, which signifies Curacao’s desire for visitors to come as they are. I got the sense, while sitting at my table, that all are welcome.
“Through our visits prior to opening Sandals Royal Curacao, we came to know first-hand the immense culinary talent this island has to offer, which brought many opportunities to reimagine how our guests engage with the destination itself beyond the resort gates.” said Mathot. While the Curacao property is a test site of sorts for the “island-inclusive” program, the hope is to explore ways to expand local partnerships at other Sandals properties across the Caribbean.
Other restaurants collaborating with Sandals are a ‘90s hip-hop gastro bar called Bklyn; Soi95, an Asian-fusion spot with a rooftop terrace; Nultwintig, an oceanfront favorite; The Wine Cellar, a French staple in Curacao for 30 years; the daytime delight, Number Ten, serving breakfast and lunch al fresco; and Kome, a place for wood-fired meats and locally sourced ingredients.
Getting to and from the eateries is a breeze: Sandals provides round-trip transportation to each of the restaurants (or book a butler signature suite and receive the keys to a Mini Cooper convertible to cruise at your own pace).
“The main reason I travel is to eat,” Dimitri tells me. “I don’t think there’s a better way to experience a culture than through food, which I think is beautiful.”
There are two things I’ll do differently next time I visit Curacao: bring my family and plan even more of the trip around food. The only unknown: What language should I learn?