Bonaire may not ring a bell, but you may have heard of well-known Aruba – and more recently popular Curacao. Bonaire has it’s admirers, but they are often water sports enthusiasts – SCUBA divers, snorkelers or wind surfers. All three islands are part of the ABC chain – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. They make up the southern half of what is known as the Dutch Caribbean – islands discovered during colonial times by the Netherlands whose ownership changed hands several times and which now have varying degrees of independence.
Bonaire is just 50 miles north of Venezuela in South America, lies outside of the hurricane belt and is more of an arid “desert island” with cacti and iguanas. Though desert in the middle, its surrounded by tropical beach areas with palm trees and light blue water. Its reef system is now classified as a national marine park and because the island attracts more conservation-minded marine tourists, they are kept beautifully in tact. Bonaire is known as one of the most dive-friendly islands in the Caribbean, with well-marked beach dives all around its main shore.
We spent a week here in May, specifically for water sports. As the plane pulled up to the airport (open air disembarkation) I looked at the surrounding brown hills and questioned our decision to come here. It did not immediately scream “tropical paradise,” but I knew our mission was in the sea, not on land. We had come to practice diving, test our underwater cameras and get me an advanced rating for our September trip.
The waters surrounding Bonaire are a national marine park, you will have to buy a $25 pass to dive the island. Diving on Bonaire is almost effortless, particularly if you stay at a dive resort. You wander down the beach, walk down the dock stairs or take a short boat ride and descend. Expect to see an abundance of colorful coral and fish, eels and crab rather than large marine life. The entire island has been outfitted for easy diving – with rock signs by the side of the road labeling the major sites accompanied by easy parking.
Dive resorts include a pickup truck to drive your self around the island to the many dive sites and often have a drive through to pick up tanks. We stayed at Buddy Dive Resort and it was a great experience. Rooms were large and had patios to dry equipment on. It was not a five star luxury experience but from a diving point of view it was five stars. Make sure to sign up for any desired boat dives as early as possible as this missing out on desired, prepaid activities was the only negative. Restaurant facilities were good including the breakfast patio, the tiki bar and the higher end “Igridients” restaurant on the property. Captain Don’t Habitat, the property next door, was also a beautiful and convenient dive resort.
Downtown Kralendijk is a charming Dutch-themed street with restaurants and shops. We had our best meal on the island at Mona Lisa’s – a French restaurant – and we frequently enjoyed the gelato delights at Gio’s Gelateria & Caffe. Typical cuisine is European themed and not necessarily Dutch, although you will see french fry displays similar to those in Amsterdam and typical Dutch breaded appetizers are available at Karel’s Cappucino Bar on the town pier. Sunsets are phenomenal from this pier, plan at least one stop for cocktails (the “Sex with an Alligator” drink is great – that will get me some strange google search results) but eat elsewhere as the food is unremarkable here. There is an additional area of restaurants near the cruise ship pier.
A drive around the island will reveal more dive spots, the Washington Slagbaai National Park, the Cargill Company Salt Fields, the historic and repressive Slave Huts as well as the local town of Rincoin. You can see rugged coastlines, pink flamingoes and iguanas in the national park, although it is a long, bumpy dirt road throughout. The beaches in the park are covered in broken coral. Any swimming should include water shoes. Plan to spend a few hours there as the driving is slow. Wildlife on the island include goats, donkeys and lizards, with the occasional tropical parrot flying overhead.
If you are looking for more of a typical Dutch tropical island experience, try Aruba or Curacao which both offer more activities than their low key neighbor including high end resorts, casinos, bars and restaurants. They offer diving as well but their dive sites are not as easily accessed.
Food Choice: European themed Seafood
Drink: Sex with an Alligator
Music: Caribbean Steal Drum
Fashion: Dive Gear
Bonaire Tourism Video: