Article & Photography by Susan Campbell
Any serious scuba fan has heard of Bonaire, it’s a tiny outpost off the coast of Venezuela and the “B” of the Dutch Caribbean ABC Islands. But you need not be a diver to enjoy a visit there.
Long touted as having the best shore diving in the world, Bonaire’s waters are teeming with an abundance of marine life and healthy coral due to its long-standing protection of the entire reef system. But though it’s also one of the best places to learn to dive you need not be PADI certified to really enjoy a visit there. There is a lot to do for non-divers as well. In fact, you need not even get wet to spot colorful big parrotfish! They are easily visible from land when you simply walk along the downtown boardwalk flanking the charming little capital.The fish are that plentiful and the waters that clear!
Cool & Quirly Kralendijk
It’s been about six years since I have been to “Playa” as locals call the tiny downtown region, ( Kralendijk means “coral dike” in Dutch), and it’s not changed much since my last visit save for a brand new block sized building in the middle of town called Terremar. It hosts a a modern new museum, and a high end luxury apartment rentals with some new shops and a fabulous modern café below.
We opted to stay there the first half of our trip; the sea view 3rd floor penthouse was the ideal location to easily explore every end of downtown on foot. (But to be clear, you can explore every inch of downtown on foot in half a day it’s that small!) There is a huge grocery store nearby- quite a surprise for such a small population- where you can shop for all you need should you intend to have some meals in. The penthouse is fully equipped with state-of-the art appliances and everything you need to cook in house. There are two massive tables- one inside and one on the deck- for dining and entertaining as well. It was far too big for just the two of us (I had brought my travel writing daughter to join me, as she had never been to Bonaire), though we really appreciated the space- 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms with showers, and lots of living and lounging nooks.
Terramar has a range of apartment sizes from junior to grand and all are sea view. And I must note that rates are ridiculously low for such a high-end spot, the sprawling penthouse that sleeps 6 goes for as low as $265 USD per night! Book through Sunrentals Bonaire, and they also have some stellar stand alone private luxury villa rentals elsewhere on the island as well.
Out and About
You will notice the streets downtown seem empty on weekdays and that’s because everyone is diving! Even at night! But come Friday or Saturday the town fills up again as the divers are forced to surface since they’re not allowed to dive 24 hours before flying. We dined around town- from fast food to upscale, and confirmed that there is a surprising array of really good food on this tiny island.
Some recommends are It Rains Fishes for yes, you guessed it- fresh fish dishes. And though surprisingly Cuba Compagnie doesn’t have even ONE Cuban item on their menu- their international selections are very tasty. For super healthy, Go Green has daily vegetarian/organic lunch specials, and for fast food decadent- WhattaBurger is the spot. Try your fries with a side of peanut sauce or mayo for Dutch style dipping! Delish!
For nightlife, there’s really very little- but Karel’s Beach Bar on a pier right downtown sometimes has karaoke nights. And Little Havana, also downtown, is the place to hear live bands occasionally. But basically, no one comes to Bonaire for the nightlife- they come for the marine life! And those who would like to see it up close without getting wet can board the cute new little red semi-submarine called Bon-Sea that leaves from Karel’s pier. It also does night runs with LED lights! But the best way for non-divers to see the fish is by snorkeling!
Bonaire has great snorkeling right offshore, but there are also operators that will take you to nearby Klein Bonaire (“little” Bonaire)- a pristine uninhabited satellite island where you might also spot sea turtles and sometimes dolphins! We went with new Epic Tours- an intimate highly personal service on a small yacht that only takes max 10 people. We really did have an epic time, and my daughter did see a sea turtle! (Sadly, I missed it.) They are wonderful hosts and we highly recommend them. They also do dinner and sunset snorkel tours. But there was another snorkel experience I wanted my daughter to witness and that was at Divi Flamingo’s beach bar!
Divi Flamingo Adds All-Inclusive
As most hotels on this island, Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino was designed primarily as a dive resort. (And yes, oddly, they have a small casino on site!) It’s a laid-back friendly expanse with their own dive shop and operator with charming cottage style suites on one end and modern little sea view rooms on the other and flanked by two pools with waterfalls. The resort has also just added an all-inclusive option to their offerings, and we opted to try it, though guests are welcome to stay without. There is a choice of two full-service dining spots for meals and a great beach bar with snacks. And that beach bar is also of my favorite snorkel spots on the planet!
I know it sounds weird, but let me explain how a beach bar can be such a divine snorkel spot. It has a manmade rocky pier where people sunbathe and drink, and just below it’s awash in coral and big tropical fish. It’s surreal when you can hear people laughing and talking out of the ear above water while at the same time hear the giant parrotfish loudly munching on coral out of the ear that’s underwater!
Our ritual was to have a tropical drink then snorkel around the entire pier and come up the other end to order another. It was such fun! Free use of snorkel gear is only one of the perks of all-inclusive at the Divi, my daughter also really enjoyed their sunset yoga by the sea with local yoga guru Lolymar Vandenberg– also complimentary for guests.
One of the best ways to explore on ground is via eco friendly Bon Tuk – an operator with little electric vehicles (tuk tuks) that does guided downtown and full-island tours. Must visits on land include the stunning pink salt lake and flamingo sanctuary at Pekelmeer, where the massive mountains of salt look like snow! Also you must visit Lac Bay/Sorbonne to watch the world class windsurfers and kite boarders. Hikers will also enjoy miles of rugged outback treks through their cacti-studded Washington- Slagbaai protected national park.
Drink A Cactus?
And finally I would be remiss if I did not mention Cadushy Distillery and their unique tasting garden out in Rincon. They make the world’s only liqueur from cadushy cactus, and they have also created some unique artisan rums and vodka. In fact, the rum they dedicated to the late, great Captain Don Stewart, the expat American who was responsible for bringing dive tourism to Bonaire, just won a world award!. They also conduct historical walking tours of Rincon; it was the island’s first capital founded by the Spanish before the Dutch took over and purposefully located in the interior of the island to avoid detection by pirates! Ask for Cadushy products in local bars and restaurants if you can’t get out to their distillery, they are really worth a try.
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