Where? I heard this question over and over again whenever anyone asked me where I was going next. In the beginning I would explain about the A-B-C Islands, “B being Bonaire,” but by the time I got back, I was just telling puzzled people “Aruba.” Maybe the fact that a lot of people don’t know where it’s located is a good thing!
Bonaire is one of the destinations that have been in the back of my mind for years, and I’m so glad I finally got there. Something tells me this was just the first of many trips to come.
For a snorkeler, and I would imagine a diver – Bonaire is paradise. Other than Lighthouse Atoll in Belize it was the best snorkeling I’ve ever done, and it surpasses Belize because of the numerous shore snorkeling options on the island.
The island also has friendly people, a good variety of restaurants, historical sights and a wide range of lodging options for every budget. In fact, the island is so appealing that the Freewinds – the “cruise ship” for top level Scientologists (including Tom Cruise) was docked in town most of the time I was on the island.
Why did I delay this perfect destination? The flights. For years every time I investigated Bonaire, it seemed difficult to get to, even for a person who tends to favor inaccessible locations. Most of the non-stop flights leave at midnight and arrive in the early morning. Finally, I figured the quality of the snorkeling was worth flying overnight and booked a frequent flyer First Class ticket on Continental. If I was considering another red eye the week after returning from Europe with an overnight flight fresh in my mind, I was doing it in comfort.
Unlike most trips, I did very little planning for this trip. Between the time I booked and went, I launched this site – by myself – so any research I did before the trip was forgotten. I arrived knowing only that I would be snorkeling daily; seeing slave huts, salt and Indian inscriptions; eating at places called Bobbyjeans and Bistro de Paris – and that was about it.
Picking a hotel was easy. Coral Paradise, the number one rated hotel on Tripadvisor, sounded perfect for me. A small hotel, a couple of kilometers from Kralendijk, the island’s primary town (and cruise ship hoards) but near 2 major dive resorts (Captain Don’s Habitat and Buddy Dive), where I knew there would be restaurants and an active bar scene.
Since I was traveling alone, it was suggested I stay in a studio apartment they owned in a building next door. This turned out to be a unit in the very nice Hamlet Oasis. If I was to go back, I would most likely stay at Coral Paradise, or possibly one of the waterfront Hamlet Oasis villas if I went back with friends. As I was soon to discover, the location is unsurpassed!
Coral Paradise makes it so easy to arrange the car rental, I didn’t even bother to price renting separately. It was such a pleasure to take an (included) cab to the hotel after the overnight flight without having to wait on line to deal with paperwork at the airport. And, because I needed an automatic, I figured booking through the hotel that has a strong relationship with the rental company would be more reliable than booking myself.
Brenda, who works at the front desk, showed me around my room, how best to access the waterfront, get to Captain Don’s and set me up with my rental car. She was in the office most days to answer any questions, provide landmarks for locating restaurants and snorkel sites, etc. She’s also a dive instructor, should you need one. I was tempted to take her 1 day familiarization course, but decided to stick to snorkeling. Kenny, one of the owners was also frequently available to answer questions, make restaurant recos (and in my case, reservations since my unit is the only one that didn’t come equipped with a cell phone). Even the short time I spent with him gave me a great feel for this wonderful guy. Unfortunately, Margaret, his wife and the other owner, was sick most of the time I was at the hotel and I only met her briefly.
The primary benefit of snorkeling in Bonaire, aside from the variety of marine life and reef condition, is the freedom offered by shore snorkeling. No need to arrange boat tours and worry about amateurs’ fins in your face – you can drive to any number of spots and jump in. Bonaire has 60+ dive sites (plus more on nearby Klein Bonaire) and a good number of these are good for snorkeling. Infobonaire.com has a map or you can buy the highly recommended book “Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy.”
After resting from the flight, I walked in to the house reef in front of Hamlet Oasis and Captain Don’s from “7 Body Beach.” Immediately, I spotted the very colorful male and female white spotted filefish and knew this was going to be good!
In the days that followed, I checked out 1000 Steps (too deep for good snorkeling, or I was missing something); Bari Beach (definitely missed something); the reef in front of the Plaza Resort (great, but I was on a Renee tour with 1 other snorkeler, who was in my face the entire time); the shallows in town (again on the tour with Renee).
The best snorkeling by far was in front of Hamlet/Captain Don’s. In one day I spotted a squid, 3 different types of eel, the scrawled filefish, the male and female white spotted filefish, the honeycomb cowfish – and the highlight – the 2 entwined octopi pictured.
Of course, I will have to go back to check out the numerous spots I couldn’t fit into a week. The one thing I missed that I will definitely have to go back to do is snorkel Klein Bonaire.
Since I brought a 1mm wet suit, I was able to stay in the water for 3-4 hours at a time without risking sunburn or bites by sea lice. It was also the perfect weight for the night snorkeling tour I did with Renee. It even dried during lunch so I rarely had to put on a damp wetsuit!
Having never night snorkeled, I was a little nervous, but it was so cool! Between the blooming coral, the bioluminescence, the preponderance of eels it was an experience I will never forget and something I will definitely do again.
The very diverse ethnic make up of Bonaire creates a large variety of food options for such a small island. The Dutch origins and colonialist nature, proximity to South America, and varied expat community provide visitors with a broad selection of restaurants. In a one week visit, I barely scratched the surface.
Bobbejan’s BBQ – only open on weekends, this was my first and last dinner on the island. The choices I recall are ribs, satay and chicken. Both times, I got the pork ribs with fries and salad, which is coleslaw. The 2nd time, there was peanut/satay sauce to dip the ribs – mmmm! The place was packed, with long lines and big tables of divers having final night dinners – I got take out and ate on a bench on the waterfront. Highly reco’d.
Rumrunners (at Captain Don’s) – good breakfasts, so-so lunch, OK dinner. Because my nearby hotel didn’t have a restaurant this was my spot when I didn’t feel like traveling far. The staff was friendly, and the setting is gorgeous. Visiting iguanas at lunch were a great photo op – and very entertaining for the small children around.
Bistro de Paris – had lunch and dinner at this highly regarded place. Both meals were great and the service was excellent. One could say a Caesar salad overpowers crabmeat, but it was a tasty combo so I made a reservation for dinner the next night. The very personable owner seated me, and took my order for dinner. When I couldn’t decide between the foie gras and the steak, my steak arrived with a piece of foie gras on top. Talk about satisfying a customer!
El Fogon – originally, I had a hard time finding this place but it was worth finding. Fresh seafood at moderate prices, on an island where food tends to be pricey. It was difficult to choose among the dishes on the menu. I opted for shrimp creole, which was very tangy. Very fast, friendly service.
City Café – if I had more time on the island, I probably would have had more meals at City Café. Everything I had was good, the service is friendly and the location is excellent for port/street watching. Pork was my theme here – and the pork is so good! More porky flavor than we get in the US. Pork satay one day for lunch was so huge I probably should have taken it back to my apartment. One night when I drove into town without a reservation, I ended up back at City Café for ribs.
Elle’s Deli – not sure what makes this place better than any other sandwich spot, but it was. And, it gets packed! The parking lot is a scene. Good coffee too.
Dragon City – the Chinese restaurant in Hato, next to the Zhung Kong supermarket served the purpose. When I was discussing post night snorkeling dinner options with Renee, she mentioned this place was open later. Although I usually eat only local food when I travel, I do like checking out each country’s version of Chinese food, so this was a good suggestion. Take-out across the street from my hotel was perfect for a night when I really didn’t feel like getting re-done to go out. Very fresh shrimp, vegetables with abundant and crispy cashews.
Cassis – not a restaurant, a drink. I was first turned on to Spa Cassis by a woman at the next table at an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, and have loved it since. Hard to find in the US, I didn’t even think of it, until I overheard a man order it my first night at dinner. After that, I stocked up at the supermarket. It’s just black currant flavored sparkling water, but I love it.
Having a car allowed me to see the island without having to take a tour. Every other day, I would go on an excursion that didn’t involve snorkeling or shopping. The day after I arrived, I decided to snorkel the famous 1000 Steps so headed “north” out of the driveway. For some reason, I thought I would be driving along the water, but the first part of the ride was inland. Since I had no idea where I was going, when I hit what seemed like a dirt road facing the sea, I had a sudden fear I was heading into the national park, where my little rental car was not allowed to go. Luckily there was a yellow rock (the marking for dive/snorkel spots around the island) marked Oil Slick, which I knew was close to 1000 Steps – I was no where near the park. I took a right up the seemingly dirt road, which was actually a paved road but more like a bicycle path.
There was a cruise ship in town that day, and it was necessary to maneuver around large buses that were taking passengers on what I later discovered was the northern loop tour around the island. The view from this road was amazing, and the buses were parked in tiny overlook spots for cruise passengers to take pictures. I vowed to return with my real camera.
A couple of days later, I did the southern loop, which encompasses the salt works and the noted slave huts. In 1633 the Dutch took over Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba and slavery soon followed. Slaves on Bonaire primarily harvested salt, and the remnants of this horrible history remain. The slave huts that housed somewhere between 9 and 30 men (depending where you read it) are a chilling reminder of the island’s past. Each group of huts is located near a large colorful obelisk that signaled to ships when the harvest was ready for pickup. These obelisks, the huts and the sea make for startling photos that make it easy to forget their grim origins. After seeing some phenomenal photos of the salt pyramids online, I was hoping to get some closer shots – and not sure how the photographer got access.
It took about an hour to do this loop with frequent stops for photos of the huts, the salt fields and windmills. Aside from anything else I learned on this trip was the importance of applying sunscreen before getting in a car!
The tourism board office in Kralendijk has a wall full of brochures, including one for a walking tour of town. Although town is full of historic buildings, including a fort with canons, I never did the formal tour with shopping to distract me.
As a lover of markets, I saved the trip to Rincon and its market for Saturday, but as I was warned there wasn’t much to see. Since I was advised by Margaret to go via Gotomeer, I got there a lot later than planned. Gotomeer is a beautiful green inland lake surrounded by hillsides of varying shades of green and cactus – it’s gorgeous! There is an overview area with tables for a picnic or view of the lake before driving down into the flamingo sanctuary. Luckily, there was no one behind me on the road, and I could stop to take pictures of the lake and flamingos as they became visible. This road leads into Rincon, which was not what I was expecting at all.
Rincon was sort of like a ghost town, maybe because it was lunch time?
After Rincon, I really planned to see the Indian inscriptions on my way back to Coral Paradise, but the only time I had a driver following too closely, with no place to pull over, was on that trip. I missed the turn-off completely.
Other than salt and salt related products, there was not a lot to buy on Bonaire. A group called Littman’s seems to own the Harborfront Mall – they have a home store, a jewelry store, etc. but I’ve seen too much similar stuff in too many stores. There are quite a few Tshirts/souvenir stores. One place, Bonaire Affair, had gorgeous sarongs with sea shells affixed, beautifully packaged bath salts and sauces. Bonaire Gift Shop has a huge supply of souvenirs and wines from around the world. They probably have the best wine selection and prices on the island.
I bought all my salt (for gifts) at the shop at the Hotel Rochaline, and from 1 of the various charitable organizations selling salt at the crafts market on Plaza Wilhelmina. The crafts market is there when the cruise ships come; lots of local food, underwater photography that made me jealous, a lot of jewelry, hand painted driftwood signs, tshirts and salt. People also set up tables in town to sell Delft souvenirs, tshirts and hats to cruise passengers when bigger ships are due.
Another great place to shop was at the Warehouse grocery store on Kaya Industria. Dutch mustard, Speculaas (cookies), Hazelnut chocolate paste, Cassis, Cactus liquor, Matouk’s hot sause are among the items I found there.
Most non-stop flights to/from Bonaire leave Saturday and Sunday, making it necessary to do a 7 or 14 night trip. You’d have to go through Aruba or Curacao to arrange a long weekend, or 10 day trip.
In October, 2010 Bonaire joined Sint Eustatius and Saba in a new constellation within the Netherlands, the BES Islands. As a result of this change, the US Dollar became the official currency of Bonaire.
Like the Dutch, the people of Bonaire have an unsurpassed skill for language. Most people who have contact with visitors speak Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiemento.
Yes, the Duty Free, souvenir/book/magazine/bottled water store and snack bar are open in the airport at 4am for departing passengers.
Costs – continental food in restaurants was pricy. Local food such as Bobbejan’s and El Fogon were more economical. Indonesian rice crackers at Warehouse were about $1. The small bag of Dirty chips I overpay $1.50 for in NYC are $6 at Cultimara! A great bargain of Bonaire – McVities digestives with milk chocolate were $2.99 at Zhung Kong. I don’t remember how much gas was, (the whole thing was so traumatic – the car usually had to be restarted 3-4 times before it caught, but at the gas station – 20!) but I filled ¾ a tank for $20.
Theft is an issue on the island. It is advised to never leave valuables in your car (or on shore), and to leave the car unlocked when at dive/snorkel spots. Considering all the broken car glass I saw on the ground at dive site parking lots, I would heed this advice. It does cause some logistical problems – you can’t spend the day relaxing on a beach with all your gear, or go straight to lunch after snorkeling/diving and it’s necessary to have a waterproof pouch for valuables.
InfoBonaire – comprehensive site for accommodations, restaurants, sights, snorkel and dive sites, maps and more.
Bonairetalk – a much more active, useful forum than the Bonaire forum on Tripadvisor.
Bonaire hotels on Booking.com
My Bonaire shots on Flickr
All of the underwater photographs were taken on my new Canon D10 – a great entry level point and shoot underwater camera.