When Bridget Merker and her husband Dave first visited Curaçao in 2012, they immediately felt at home. “I could live here,” Dave said. So, in 2017, when a job became available at the desalination plant in Curaçao, it was not surprising that Dave, an industrial engineer, decided to apply. After extensive negotiations, the job seemed like a reality.
They were so sure Dave was going to get the job that they prepared their Virginia home to be put on the market. Then the company sold the division and the job disappeared.
However, they already scheduled a vacation to Curaçao and decided to go anyway. During their time on the island, they looked into the practical aspects of moving there. They rented a car explored the island, looked at real estate options and determined what it would take to live there.
After “crunching the numbers” they knew completely retiring was not an option. Bridget was only 48 at this time. However, a semi-retirement was definitely feasible. “We always wanted to retire early, but not as early as we did,” she said. “It was doable.” But they had to think of what they could do part-time.
Bridget, who had always been in the hospitality business, thought about getting a job at a hotel, but that would have required her to be fluent in both Dutch and Papiamentu, a Spanish and Portuguese-based creole language spoken in the Dutch Caribbean.
Then, they remembered that during their previous visits, the island had almost everything except Italian Ice. There were no cool, refreshing, dairy free treats for tourists to enjoy like the treats from their childhood summers. They knew they had a winner of an idea. The only issue was whether to call it Italian ice like they did in Bridget’s native New Jersey or water ice like they did in Dave’s home town of Philly. They decided on “Caribbean Breeze Italian Ice.”
Moving to Curaçao
Although it was terrible time to sell a house in 2017 in Charlottesville, VA, they got an offer on their house. So, they packed up their stuff and moved to Curaçao to develop their Italian ice business.
First, they contacted a service to help them with the immigration paperwork. They decided to use an immigration attorney to help them navigate the process. Bridget said it was worth it to use the service. “They were so thorough,” Bridget said. Her permanent residency status was approved in 8 days and her husband’s was approved in 20.
However, since they weren’t buying property, Bridget and Dave had to show a specific amount of money in the bank.
Overall, it was easy. ”It’s very simple. Americans are treated like Dutch who want to move to the island,” Bridget said.
Finding a New Home
Bridget and Dave were open to many options as long as it was within their price range. Sometimes, convincing realtors that they weren’t Americans where price was no object was a challenge.
Initially, they ended up moving to a residential area on the East side of the island. They had a king size bed, couches, dresser, etc. in a shipping container headed to Curaçao and needed a place to fit it all.
“If I had to do any thing different,” Bridget said. “I wouldn’t have brought my stuff. I would have rented a furnished apartment here.”
Although the house was nice and affordable, it had no view of the water and there was too much traffic on their way to work. “After almost 2 years of living here and having dreamt about living here for years, I wanted to have a nicer view ,” Bridget said. They ended up moving to a much smaller condo closer to downtown that had a view of the Caribbean Sea and ended up selling much of their furniture. Now they have a beautiful view and have a 10 minute drive to work.
Caribbean Breeze Italian Ice
Bridget and Dave began Caribbean Breeze Italian Ice with a stand that Dave build himself. “At first, it was challenging because people didn’t know the product,” Bridget said. But that didn’t deter them.
They moved from the stand to a cart in order to be more mobile. They decided against a store front because they didn’t want to work all the time. Also, since their target audience is mostly tourists, they worked when the cruise ships were in port.
They take their cart into Punda, Curaçao’s historic downtown, near the Queen Emma floating bridge. “I work in a UNESCO World Heritage site,” Bridget said. (The whole downtown area of Curaçao is a UNESCO World Heritage site.)
They operate their cart when the cruise ships are in port. There are six flavors of this cool tasty treat: Piña Colada, Blue Raspberry, Watermelon, Mango, Cherry and Lemon. Piña Colada is the most popular flavor. It’s a bargain at $3 American dollars apiece or $5 Guilders (the local currency in Curaçao).
Free Time on Curaçao
When not working, Bridget loves exploring the island, visiting with friends and running typical errands like grocery shopping. Every Sunday, they go to the beach with friends. There are over 45 beaches on Curacao and they have been to most of them. But they have a special local beach they like the best. ”It is not the most photographed beach, but we love it there,” Bridget said.
Bridget also likes spending time at the 28 museums on the island. “If there is one thing, I miss about the United States it’s the museums,” Bridget said. However, in addition to the museums, there is amazing street art that is popping up all over town.
The biggest change for Bridget is that she was a type A person and still is, but she has now dialed it back. She feels healthier being outside all the time and is enjoying the warm weather. She always imagined herself on an island when she was working in the corporate world, saving for that seven-day vacation. “But now I never want to go back to working for someone else,” Bridget said. “We’re outside so much. It’s a healthier lifestyle.” They also spend a lot of their time in the sea, snorkeling and swimming. “I’d rather be in the sea than the pool and I hate the gym,” Bridget said.
Another big change since moving to the island is that they now don’t hang out at touristy places. “When we first moved here, we went where the tourist went. Then a friend showed us a little hole in the wall with great food. We loved it,” Bridget said. Bridget and Dave have met locals who have shown them all the best local places: shopping, restaurants, bars and beaches.
Challenges in Paradise
When COVID hit in March 2020, their business was shut down for about 16 months. They had to spend a lot of time together in their little apartment. Bridget said she reached out to other ex-pats on the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao). That’s where she connected with Bill Horton from my first blog.
It was challenging, but luckily they had money in the bank. She was glad they had emergency fund saved before moving down to Curaçao because “you never know when something like a pandemic might happen.”
Eventually, they got back to business and then got hit again. In late December 2021, Curaçao got hit with COVID again, but they didn’t stress, they just decided to take a month off.
The other challenge besides COVID was leaving family and friends back in the states.
The Best Part of Making a Big Move
Bridget and Dave are happy with their decision in spite of the fact that there have been some challenges. “We love working for ourselves,” Bridget said.
The best part of semi-retirement on Curacao? “Freedom,” Bridget and Dave said together. “If we want to go somewhere we go. If we want to sleep in we do,” Bridget said.
However, Bridget said their life might not be for everyone. If you’re thinking about a big move Bridget said, “Go for it, but do the research,” she said.
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