Curaçao. To many this word means little more than an untried bottle at the back of granny's liqueur cabinet. In fact, alongside Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is one of three former Dutch colonies in the Netherlands Antilles, close to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

While the other islands offer little more to non-diving visitors than visions of a defunct salt-raking industry, Curaçao is a rich island, thanks in part to a profitable oil-industry sector. Its capital and only city, Willemstad, is a small replica of Amsterdam, with Dutch-style bridges over the harbour entrances, including the longest pontoon bridge in the world, and tall terraced buildings. The architecture has an obvious Low Country influence.

The local language, Papiamientu, is a colourful combination of Dutch, Spanish, and Swahili, revealing the exact history of the people who live in the island. It was first settled by the Spanish, conquered by the Dutch, and populated with slaves from southern Africa. The beautiful mixed-race people who now live in Curaçao are the result of stirring that particular pot. Everyone seems to speak English if needed.

Curaçao is an island in two parts. At the eastern end is the modern-age port with its oil-refining industrial complexes and bustling city. In a particularly Dutch tradition, it boasts probably the finest dry-dock facilities in the Caribbean area.

At the other end you will find an island of low scrub that has been virtually untouched since Europeans first settled. A spectacularly arching motorway bridge links the two parts, and the wilder western section of the island is commonly referred to by the locals as 'The Other Side'.

The busy side has plenty of modern international hotels and a spectacular Seaquarium, with a shark channel in which visitors are allowed to dive and feed the nurse sharks and lemon sharks that are held captive. However, it's well worth the effort to rent a little pick-up truck and make the journey to the far side of the island to go diving.

The vast water desalination plant that supplies nearly all of Curaçao resembles the tortured imaginings of Salvador Dali. Just off the shore here lies the wreck of the Superior Producer. Navigating into Willemstad's harbour can be fraught with difficulties for the uninitiated and the helmsman of this 1500 tonne freighter got it wrong. Around 20 years ago she ran onto the rocks before slipping back into deeper water.

The hatch covers floated off and a cargo consisting mainly of clothing soon washed ashore. It is said that every garden in Curaçao was hung with washing as the locals restored to good condition this unexpected gift from the sea.

Ill-fortune for the vessel's insurers has been turned into continuing good fortune for visiting divers. The wreck is at 34m, on an even keel. Swept by a gentle current, it is covered in orange-coloured corals and sponges which make for a spectacular night dive.

Other sites have evocative names such as Mushroom Forest, Black Coral Gardens and Alice in Wonderland, but of the other 60 or more listed sites, the one called Seldom is far the best.

It has a steep wall that starts in as little as 7m and descends into deep water. It is covered in corals and sponges, washed by a gentle current, but there is no permanent mooring, so skippers have to drift and pick up divers where they surface.

This is not how they prefer to do it, which is the reason for the site's name! Dive it and you are almost guaranteed to see schooling barracuda, horse-eye jacks and rainbow runners, as well as giant green moray eels and hawksbill turtles hunting for a meal on the reef.

While the most visited dive sites are along Curaçao's protected western shore, it is possible to shore-dive from the windward coast as long as you are prepared to swim out through the surf. It can be something of a daunting prospect, but those who do it confirm that the diving makes it worthwhile.

This is a good place to spot lobsters and the large nurse sharks that predate on them. Few dive centres will bring their boats along this coast, because they find that most of their clients are not up to the rock 'n' roll provided during the journey. That means that the pick-up truck and shore-diving is the only way to approach it.

The Habitat Curaçao dive resort at this end of the island is a duplicate of the successful Captain Don's Habitat formula which has so influenced diving routines on the nearby island of Bonaire. Once they have undergone an official briefing and paid the annual marine park entrance fee, suitably certified divers are free to dive unescorted and at their own discretion. You can simply help yourself to tanks, sign them out, and go diving.

You can either shore-dive directly outside the resort or avail yourself of a rented pick-up truck and dive where and with whom you will. Entry points are marked by a system of numbered white stones similar to the yellow stones used for the same purpose on Bonaire. Of course, this doesn't disbar you from the option of guided dives, either from the shore or from one of the dive centre's day boats.

The south-eastern end of the island also has plenty of excellent dive sites, and there is also Klein Curaçao, a small, uninhabited island about two hours' boat ride away. Currents tend to be stronger at this end of Curaçao but the quality of the coral reefs here reflects the fact that the water brings a constant flow of nutrients to them.

Curaçao may not have the reputation for diving that has been attributed to its neighbour Bonaire, but that's only because its name has been associated with so very many other good things - which brings us back to your granny's liqueur cabinet.

'And this is Iggy...'

lemon sharks are well-adapted to shallow waters, and are not aggressive

on the wreck of the Curaçao outfitter otherwise known as Superior Producer


GETTING THERE: As the major island in the Netherlands Antilles, there are daily flights via Amsterdam as well as Miami.

DIVING AND ACCOMMODATION: Habitat Curaçao is a resort uniquely aimed at divers. It offers all levels of instruction, two 2-tank boat dives a day plus unlimited shore-diving and E6 photo facilities (011-5999-8648800, www.habitatdive resorts.com). You can stay at Habitat or in Willemstad, a modern industrialised city with a great variety of hotels.

WHEN TO GO: Any time. The climate is sub-tropical, with average air temperature 28?C. Usually, this area is unaffected by hurricanes.

WATER TEMPERATURE: 27?C year-round. A 3 or 5mm full-length wetsuit is recommended.

MONEY: Netherlands Antilles florins are pegged to the US dollar. Major credit cards.

LANGUAGE: Dutch, but most people also speak English, Spanish and Papiamientu.

FOR NON DIVERS: Good for outdoor people who may want to hike or take mountain bikes along the coastal trails. Other attractions include the Seaquarium, an ostrich farm and Boca Tabla Cave and Willemstadt itself.

COST: For£1188 Barefoot Traveller (020 8741 4319) can arrange flights, transfers, tax (except $20 Curacao departure tax), seven nights' accommodation and breakfast at Habitat Curaçao, five two-tank boat dives and unlimited shore-diving.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Curaçao Tourism Development Bureau 020 7431 4045, www.curacao-tourism.com