"My Ship's Come In!
Bonaire, the "B" of the ABC Islands in the southern Caribbean, is part of the Netherlands, and just 50 miles north of Venezuela. It's a multi-cultural, multi-lingual island whose friendly residents make it easy for visitors. The sign at the airport is one of the first indications of their great hearts, "Once a Visitor, Always a Friend."
Airport Welcome Sign
Founded in 1499 by Spanish explorer Alonsa de Ojeda and Italian explorer Americo Vespucci, they claimed it for Spain. This is one explanation for why so many on the island speak Spanish.
Since 1636, the Netherlands has governed the island. Following the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, the BES Islands comprising Bonaire, St Eustatius, and Saba have been considered an "overseas island and territory."
They are not part of the European Union but otherwise have the rights of other Dutch citizens. This is one explanation for why so many on the island speak Dutch.
The majority of tourists and trade in Bonaire hails from either the United States or countries that use the U.S. Dollar (USD). As a result, the BES Islands made the decision to switch from Netherlands Antillean guilder to the U.S. dollar in 2011. There are no foreign transaction charges.
While the island is best known for its outstanding scuba diving, most visitors discover there's a lot more to see and do on Bonaire. Its six-day a week cruise-ship landings allow new visitors to see the colourful port filled with souvenir shops and rapidly growing restaurant selections.
Your Choice ... Oxygen or Nitrox
Diving has been the primary source of tourism since "Captain Don" Stewart's 1960s introduction of the first dive operation at the former Flamingo Beach Club. Originally a detainee camp in WWII, mostly for German POWs, it is now the beautiful Divi Flamingo Resort.
Captain Don's work didn't stop at getting divers to the area. After an early scolding for taking a piece of coral (in the '60s), Carel Steensma, a KLM executive on Curacao, and Captain Don combined their ideas and formed what is now the Bonaire National Marine Park. With 57 recorded types of coral and over 350 types of fish, it truly is a diver's paradise.
Captain Don was instrumental in the '70s in setting up the Council of Underwater Resort Operators (CURO)," says Roger Haug, Dive Operations Manager at Captain Don's Habitat. CURO's objective is to "improve the quality, safety, and environmental awareness of all divers on Bonaire." CURO remains active today.
Bonaire's National Marine Park currently offers 89 dive sites, most of which are accessible from the shore. Bonaire has won the Shore Diving category of Scuba Diving Magazine's Annual Readers' Choice Awards for 26 consecutive years.
If you're an experienced scuba diver, you can explore the island from any resort or Airbnb. At the Courtyard Marriott Dive Bonaire, they have no beach access but offer a dive package that includes "unlimited air" for your shore dives. Serviced by Dive Friends, they have six places on the island to stop and exchange your oxygen or nitrox tanks.
They also have flat-bottom boats that will take you on boat dives directly from the resort to dive sites on the west side of the island and Klein Bonaire. They have the only all-female crew we experienced on the island with the captain, divemaster, and divemaster in training.
If you prefer the comfort and ease of having an experienced divemaster with you to show you the best parts of each dive, check out Toucan Diving at Van der Valk Plaza Beach Resort. Their excellent dive team matches you with available divemasters based on personality and experience.
If you're in between, go for the Divi Flamingo Resort. They have three boats that accommodate a variety of group sizes. The resort offers standard rooms, handicapped accessible rooms (Wounded Warriors visit each year), and deluxe RCI reservation run suites with full kitchens. Although they tore out all the bathtubs with the last renovation, it's a beautiful resort with prime access and an excellent restaurant, spa, and even a casino.
Roger Haug says, "Once you've become a certified diver, you must have the right knowledge to plan your own dives and to execute those safely according to your training level. That way we don't need to babysit you and you can have diving freedom
All of these resorts are excellent. Airbnbs are available for the true a la carte method of diving. These resorts offer single day dives, based on availability, and people frequently join the Van der Valk's Thursday night dive. Bring your flashlights.
Another consideration to take into account is your rental car. Ensure you set up well in advance with an established company and buy windshield and tire insurance. They're right when they say, "Our roads are not the best." Their "total coverage" isn't total; it only includes collision, so talk it over with your insurance agent before you leave home.
One diver just shared this tip, "Go for a dawn dive. You'll need a torch to start. But as the sun comes up, the reef wakes up. It's magical."
I've seen a rainbow fish curl itself into a cocoon for the night. It looked like something right out of a Disney
movie. I'm definitely going for a dawn dive on my next trip.
Bonaire Donkeys in front of Marriott's Dive Resort
Whether speaking to coral and fish, flamingos, donkeys, or birds, the people of Bonaire become passionate speaking of protecting what's currently on the island. More than 350 bird species and 460 fish species have been identified on the island. Approximately one-third of all electricity is generated from solar panels. If you're interested in conservation and sustainability, this is a great island for you.
Bonaire has not only the best shore diving experience in the Caribbean. It's the best snorkelling, too. Van der Valk Plaza Beach Resort offers a class on fish identification, and there's an identification card in the lobby gift shop. Whether you go to become an unknowing expert on tropical fish or to make a game out of how many different fish you can spot or just for the beauty of the experience, you should definitely make time to snorkel on Bonaire.
Just outside Kralendijk on the road to Rincon, you'll spot a track with sails breezing by and feel like you're in a marina instead of the middle of a desert surrounded by cacti. Welcome to land sailing.
These enterprising people have embraced the adventure of attaching a sail to a surprisingly comfortable three-wheeled go-cart.
Complete with handlebars to steer, you must add tension to the rope to speed up and release to slow down. There's no other break needed. One safety and explanatory briefing is required but it only takes about a half turn around the track to get the hang of movement. Less if you have any actual sailing experience.
The top of the key is the place most people stall, the slowest part of the track. You have to forget to be afraid as you speed towards that turn; maintain tension on the rope and just lean into it. The speed is clocked at the bottom of the key, with the current record holder north of 30 mi/hr. After screaming through at about 20 mi/hr., you'll realize just how fast that really is.
Helmets are required and it feels quite safe. The cousins running the track the day we were there, Le and Guanio, were well prepared to lift tipped sails and to stop you when you were ready for a pit stop. There's even a sign on the track for when to release the rope.
It's an absolute blast and worth the trip out of town. Plan to spend about an hour for the safety briefing and the experience.
This port town has all the souvenir shops and seaside paths you'd expect. It also has a couple of excellent gelato shops (we like Luciano's flavours a little better, and Gio's only accepts cash). It's a great place to walk around, meet the locals, and shop at the pop-up market the artisans put up when the cruise ships are in town.
The restaurants improve as the number of tourists grow. Many recommend It Rains Fishes and Sebastian's, the Cuba Compagne (salsa dancing every week), and Patagonia (highly recommended steaks). Our favourite remains the Chibi Chibi Restaurant at the Divi Flamingo Resort. The variety and quality of items at this restaurant and the attentive service makes us want to return.
Visit the local churches. Bonaire is 75% Catholic, according to the Tourism Bureau, and has a lovely little church in town as well as several others on the island. The Dutch are predominantly Protestant, which accounts for the majority of the other houses of worship.
If you're fortunate enough to be in town during Carnaval, there's a weeklong celebration with parades and activities for kids and for adults. At the culmination of the kids' celebration, on Monday, there were fireworks. On Shrove Tuesday, "Mardi Gras," there is an adult parade, similar to the daytime parade on Sunday, but with lights that make everything that bit more magical.
Stop by the Tourism Bureau with any travel related questions. They're lovely people who know how to help. There is a two-hour self-guided walking tour of Kralendijk monuments. Ask them for more information.
The Cadushy Distillery (Rincon)
The Cadushy Distillery ... Where you can drink a 40 proof cactus!
Have you ever tried to drink a cactus? These people will happily show you how to do it.
We stopped for photos but were invited in and offered a taste of their green spirit. "Try it. If you like it, buy it."
There's a tour offered of the small distillery. And a movie available in the courtyard if you don't have quite enough time for the tour (or the line is too long).
Enter via a small courtyard that opens into a plaza with multiple seating areas, and restrooms in the upper right-hand corner. There are plenty of photo opportunities available with cute cactus signs and vignettes ready for your loved one to jump right in and pose.
The drink is 20% (40 proof) alcohol, so taste carefully. Some tell me you can acquire the taste, but the Distillery personnel tell me it really is more of a "You like it, or you don't. We're glad you try."
Washington National State Park
For a skeleton jarring, slow-motion roller-coaster experience, take your 4WD vehicle into the Washington National State Park. They've made it easy for you. Your Marine Park fee covers this State Park as well.
At the entrance, you will have to get out and register yourself and your car. They will take your passport or driver's license and you must sign a waiver of liability. They won't let you in without ID.
There are two routes; the long route (recommended four hours) and the short route (anticipate two hours). The first time through, they recommend taking the long route. Locals explain that you'll need to plan to have an entire day there. "It's four hours of driving. Bu you'll have to add any sightseeing, beach, dive, or snorkel time to that."
The roads are all one way, except entrances to view sights and on the "short route" path.
Forego the museum at first. Save that for the end of the day. Drive through the entry. Make sure your seatbelts are secure. Follow the well-posted road and turn off to the right for the long route (okay, or left for the short route).
I'd recommend stopping at the following:
A white sand beach whose strong waves and winds have formed sand dunes along the coast, it's the chilliest place on the island. The currents are too strong for safe snorkeling or swimming. But it is a great place for sunbathing. The beach is also a popular sea turtle nesting ground.
Suplado Blow Hole
Blow Holes, also known as marine geysers, form as sea caves grow landwards and upwards into vertical shafts and expose themselves towards the surface. The hydraulic compression of seawater released through a port from the top creates the eruptions. It's best seen when the surf is high.
On the left side of the road, to the west, you can see these "ancient boulders" for miles. Geologists say these enormous boulders have been heaved onto the flats by ancient tsunamis. Measured at 190 feet, the high terrace mostly consists of limestone and fossil remnants. The higher terrace is reportedly over a million years old with the middle terrace estimated at 210,000 years.
This bay, named for the Kokolishi shells that bejewel its sandy beach, is sandwiched between cliffs of fossilized conch shells. Man-made steps lead down to the beach where people frequently take picnic lunches and spend time wading in tide pools with little ones.
STINAPA Seru Bentana Lighthouse
This white, J-shaped lighthouse favored by lighthouse seekers, is the second most likely to be seen functioning lighthouse. Although you cannot enter any of them, the views are spectacular.
This set of ruins is described by STINAPA as "an important historical and geological site. Not only can you find geological evidence of past hurricanes and tsunamis, you may travel through time from the Amerindian camps in AD 800, to shipwrecks discovered sincethe15th century, to the use of the area in more recent times. You may also admire the ruins of the 19th century Malmok lighthouse, which was built, but never lit."
In the central section of the northern portion of the park, this is a great spot for birding. As important as fish and coral preservation is for the Marine Park, conservationists have identified more than 350 species of birds on this small island. Since fresh water can be found year-round, you're likely to spot the Tropical Mockingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Eared Dove among others.
"Feel the sound of nature." Identified as another fresh-water region, most of this area was closed off when we visited. They have a well-marked cactus and tree garden that remains open.
Look inland to see the highest peak on Bonaire. Hikers will enjoy the 784-foot peak of Mount Brandaris. It usually takes about 45 minutes to hike from the wooden gate that signals the trailhead to the peak. Start the hike before noon to ensure you can exit the park before closing time.
Highly recommended by the entrance staff as one of the best snorkel sites in Washington Park, plan to stay an hour or more. You'll frequently see French Angel fish and multiple parrotfish along the reef. There's a small cave to explore at the beach.
Boka Slagbaai and Salina Slagbaai
The Boka, or bay, was one of Bonaire's main ports. Slagbaai is derived from the Dutch for "slaughter bay" referencing the historic use of the port to slaughter and salt goats prior to exporting to Curacao. Those port buildings are now used for restrooms and picnic support areas. The Salina, or salt pan, has a perfectly positioned bench for flamingo watching.
When you're past Wayaka, and on the road to Slagbaai, you'll lose the road under the hood of your car. If you were steering in the right direction before, you'll probably hit the road when you pass the top of the hill you're on. We counted seven places around Slagbaai where you can't see the road over the hood of the car and one hairpin turn. Don't let that dissuade you from going—just be prepared.
Continue within the park's documented time recommendations towards the exit. It took us just over an hour to reach the exit from Slagbaai.
Bonaire is blessed with three romantic symbols of bygone eras, lighthouses. The historic lighthouses were each repaired or renovated in 2012.
Willemstoren Lighthouse, Bonaire's first lighthouse, was built in 1837. Just down the road past the slave huts, it's the easiest lighthouse to reach. And the one most people visit is at the southern tip of the island on the small "two way" highway that is one paved lane by the time you pass the yellow slave huts. You cannot enter the building.
There are two other light beacons in Kralendijk, one on the western coast you can see as you boat past, and one on Klein Bonaire.
STINAPA's Seru Bentana Lighthouse
This lighthouse within the Washington National State Park is a challenge to reach because of the roads. The steps are uneven, so mind yourself, but it's worth the effort to reach this white, J shaped lighthouse. The old lamp was donated to Museu Bonaire for their archives.
Make New Friends and Keep The Old
Bonaire Dive Buddies, Jackie & Oscar
We've been to Bonaire often enough that we have friends we love to see and dive with each trip.
That's one of the nicest things about travel, isn't it?
Visit the Slave Huts
Historic Slave Huts
Part of the dark history of the Caribbean Netherlands, slaves were used for the salt mines and lived in these tiny huts.
Bonaire Kayaks ... Ready for Use
When done with diving, we needed something to do before we flew the next day.
The kayak trip across the fast waters into the mangroves were just the ticket. We had a blast ... especially when we were fed stroopwaffel on the other side. Then, we knew we were in the Netherlands!
Kite Surfing - Bonaire
While I still haven't tried this sport due to a shoulder injury, I am sorely tempted. Doesn't it look wonderful to be out on the waves in the wind. They're very mindful of both and don't go out if it gets too rough.
When you make the time, you'll find many gems in Rincon, including the Cadushy Distillery and the Cemetery. Think New Orleans during the celebrations (like Mardi Gras) with families regularly visiting their deceased members.