It's Love, Bonaire Style

On this arid isle, the crush isn't on lush

Dec 14, 2004
Outside Magazine
Access & Resources

GETTING THERE: Air Jamaica (800-523-5585, flies to Bonaire via Jamaica from numerous U.S. cities (about $600 round-trip from New York).
WHERE TO STAY: The 30 deluxe accommodations at Harbour Village Beach Club (doubles from $315; 011-599-717-7500, range from hotel rooms to beachfront suites. Buddy Dive Resort (doubles, $125–$165; 011-599-717-5080, has 46 seaside units, from basic rooms to apartments.
WHAT TO DO: Great Adventures Bonaire, at Harbour Village Beach Club, and Buddy Dive offer scuba boat trips, night diving, and certification. Div...


Bonaire-Style Bliss

IT'S MORE THAN JUST STANDARD island-time slo-mo that turns a one-hour mountain-bike ride through the scrubby outback of Bonaire's north end into an all-morning affair. It's the exuberance and knowledge of your guide, naturalist Jerry Ligon, and the profusion of the weird and wonderful on this 24-mile-long, boomerang-shaped island in the southern Caribbean that keeps the pace many notches below breakneck. There's just so much worth stopping for: the whiptail lizards darting across the rocky trail, the dusty-gray feral donkeys picking their way around giant kadushi cactuses. There are castor bean pods to pop, yellow-shouldered parrots to listen for, plump aloe leaves to palpate. Ligon has a story for nearly everything you see, and it becomes clear that he doesn't merely hope you learn a thing or two on this outing; he wants you to fall deeply, madly in love. No need to work so hard, Jerry, you feel like saying. You were gone on the place an hour ago.

About 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire is the "B" in the "ABC islands" of the Netherlands Antilles—along with Aruba, known for its long white beaches and accompanying strip of hotels and casinos, and Curaçao, with its busy international port. Bonaire is the least developed and, with just 13,000 residents, the least populated of the three.

The mostly flat, semi-arid island has few natural beaches, so it may not fit conventional fantasies of the perfect tropical isle, but after a few days you'll very likely be rewriting your definition of paradise. The day-in, day-out sunshine, the cooling trade winds, the limpid 80-degree water, and the painted-dollhouse Dutch-Caribbean architecture of tiny downtown Kralendijk—not to mention the way local brew Amstel Bright tastes, very cold, with a slice of lime, after a long bike ride—are more than enough to win you over. Add to that the island's ahead-of-its-time commitment to environmental preservation and its warm, welcoming, ethnically diverse population—including native islanders (descended from Arawak Indians or African slaves), Dutch transplants, and American and Venezuelan expats—and you, too, may find yourself thinking that swaying palms and thundering waterfalls are way, way overrated.

Bonaire's unique charms have long been known to scuba divers, who consistently rank it among the best destinations in the world. More than half of the island's 87 marked dive sites are accessible from shore. So plentiful and diverse is the marine life that it's possible for a fish freak to log a dream "century"—identifying 100 species during a one-tank dive. The vitality of the reefs owes much to the creation, in 1979, of the Bonaire National Marine Park, which prohibits commercial fishing, anchoring, or collecting anything—dead or alive—in the waters around the island.

On the leeward coast is a string of low-key scuba-focused resorts, including the well-regarded Buddy Dive Resort, which has sunny, balconied rooms and spacious apartments on the edge of a coral bluff. The place to stay, though, if you want a less diving-intensive environment and can splurge a bit, is the Harbour Village Beach Club, set on a peninsula at the entrance to a small but lively harbor. The cluster of artfully landscaped ocher-colored Spanish-Dutch colonial villas, which recently underwent a $4.5 million renovation, are decorated plantation style, with teak furniture and tile floors; some have patios with hammocks overlooking a powdery, big-for-Bonaire beach and the nearby uninhabited isle of Klein Bonaire. The beach club has a new full-service spa, a pretty swimming pool, an open-to-the-breezes bar positioned perfectly for sunset cocktails, and, just off the beach, the wreck of a 60-foot merchant ship to explore.

As good as the diving is, though, you'd be missing the soul of Bonaire if you didn't spend some time topside. Hike and bike the island's dramatic north, including the black- and red-rock wilds of Washington Slagbaai National Park, and stop to see one of the few flamingo breeding grounds in the world at a nearby lake called Goto Meer. Head south to the flatlands and past the salt pans to the ridiculously blue, 1.5-square-mile Lac Bay and some of the best windsurfing conditions in the Caribbean. You can rent a board or take lessons at one of two windsurf centers on Sorobon Beach—or hang out and watch the amazing "Bonaire Kids," a group of young local hotshots who clean up on the international freestyle circuit.

Lac Bay is also famous for its Sunday-afternoon parties. Every week, locals and visitors gather at Lac Cai, amid mounds of sun-bleached conch shells, to picnic, swim, drink, and dance to bands playing the kind of island music irresistible to even the most rhythm-challenged. When the shadows get longer and the bay begins to turn silver, look up; you may see a line of carnation-pink flamingos, made pinker by the setting sun, heading toward South America in search of dinner. Now, really, who needs lush?

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