Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996
You can spot first-time travelers to Bonaire by their dive knives--those Sea Hunt-style numbers that attach to your leg with rubber sheaths and straps. The polite Bonaireans won't say a word about it, but wearing a dive knife here is like donning brass knuckles for tea with Mother Teresa. The island's entire coastline is a protected marine park ("No Fishing! No Anchoring! No Collecting! No Dive Gloves! No Extra Lead!"), and rangers patrol it regularly to ensure that not a single lettuce slug is disturbed from its idyllic life.
Bonaire may, in fact, be the only island in the Caribbean where eating lobster, its population depleted by overtrapping, is regarded as politically incorrect. Hotels have been known to buy a day's catch and release it back into the sea. On the other hand, ribald tales, killer rum quaffs, and spit-grilled fish all enjoy hearty followings--as do Day-Glo green dive gear and shocking-pink scuba skins, which blend tastefully with Bonaire's electric undersea landscape. Certainly enough reasons to get you to this 111-square-mile speck of windswept desert 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela in the Netherlands Antilles, where you can dive, hike, birdwatch, or boardsail far from the madding crowds. If that's not all you're looking for, consider the more gregarious Antillean islands of Aruba and Curaçao: You'll probably land on one of them en route anyway. But for divers especially, Bonaire's the place.
Nearly 300 fish species and at least 84 coral species inhabit Bonaire's reefs, and you can reach 51 of the 82 marked dive sites with a few breaststrokes from shore. The water averages 80 degrees (about the same as the topside temperature), with 100-foot visibility year-round. Once you've shown your C-card and bought the $10 admission tag (good for a year) to the marine park, you're free to explore it on your own at any hour.
Captain Don's Habitat (doubles, $175; four-night dive packages, $455 for two; 800-327-6709), a beachfront lair five minutes by car from the low-key capital of Kralendijk on the island's west coast (population 1,500), provides tanks around the clock for its divers. Founded by dive-industry pioneer Don Stewart, Habitat has villas and cottage-style rooms as well as a decent restaurant, two amiable bars, a fleet of dive boats, and ace guides who emphatically teach the reef-preserving art of neutral buoyancy (using few or no lead weights); ask for Willem "The Body Glove" Semeleer.
Underwater photographers and fans of phones and air conditioning choose the Divi Flamingo Beach (doubles, $84- $150; 800-367-3484), a resort and casino closer to town. There's a sizable dive operation, and you can gamble at the ultra-casual casino while the photo shop turns around your E-6 and Cibachrome prints. No-frills types seeking little more than air fills and a few boat rides lodge at the plain but pleasant Carib Inn, down the road (doubles, $79-$99; 011-599-7-8819).
There's no such thing as a bad dive site here, but locals favor Karpata's coral-encrusted buttresses and canyons on the northwest coast. From Kralendijk, wide-angle shooters head west to Munk's Haven off Bonaire's neighboring islet, Klein Bonaire, the domain of otherworldly fluorescent vase sponges. La Machaca is the place for night-diving in the company of five-foot morays and tarpon. Snorkelers' meccas include Sharon's Serenity off Klein, a fine reef with a 35-degree drop-off, and Playa Funchi, a limpid cove in Washington-Slagbaai National Park.
The park itself--13,500 acres that span the entire northwestern end of the island--is a dusty maze of candle cacti and flamboyans that teems with wild donkeys, goats, iguanas, and 189 species of highly audible but often invisible birds. Bonaire serves as the sole nesting ground for the southern Caribbean's 15,000 flamingos; spot them at Goto Meer lagoon, along with ubiquitous bananaquits and black-necked stilts. Only luck will put you scope-to-eye with the yellow-winged loras and scaly-naped pigeons that gather at Pos Mangel Pond. Even if you've brought your Fielding's, consider hiring a guide through your hotel.
Rent a four-wheel-drive to maneuver the park's unpaved roads. (Rental agencies are at the airport and in Kralendijk.) Signs point you through the 22-mile "yellow route" or the 15-mile "green route." One wrong turn on the latter, though, and the choice becomes arbitrary. Figure on a half-day minimum so you can get lost, found, and out before the park closes at sundown.
While birders will also want to check out Pekelmeer, a 135-acre flamingo sanctuary and nesting ground on the southern end of the island, the south shore holds the most appeal for boardheads: Trades averaging 20 knots whip continuously over Bonaire, making a direct hit into Lac Bay on the southeast coast. Outside reefs break up most of the surf, but acrobats find plenty of action at the bay's north end. Windsurfing Bonaire at Jibe City (weekly rates, $225-$240; 800-748-8733) rents sailboards as well as sea kayaks ($30 per day, $100 per week). At day's end you can unwind over dominoes and Amstels at Lac's Cai Beach Bar.