The Netherlands Antilles currently consist of five main islands. Two of them, Curaçao and Bonaire, are off the coast of Venezuela and the three others, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, are located southeast of the British Virgin Islands. Curaçao and Bonaire are considered part of the Leeward Islands whereas Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba are considered part of the Windward Islands.
The Netherlands Antilles is an autonomous region of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which means while it governs itself, its ruling monarch is the Netherlands. The Netherlands Antilles will disband in December, 2008 with Bonaire, Saba, and Sin Eustatius becoming part of the Netherlands as municipalities, and Curaçao and Sint Maarten becoming independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba are volcanic and hilly and subject to more hurricanes during the summer. Curaçao and Bonaire, on the other hand, are characterized more by coral reefs. All of the islands have well-developed tourist infrastructures. Each of the islands, however, have a distinct culture and features its own set of attractions.
The first Europeans to discover the Netherlands Antilles was Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. The Spanish were the first to settle on the islands, but they were conquered by the Dutch in the 17th century. From this time until slavery was abolished in 1863, the Netherlands Antilles served as a center of the slave trade. In the 20th century, the islands flourished as centers of oil refineries from oil extracted from Venezuela. Today, tourism plays an integral role in the economies of the islands.