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Shy pink flamingoes, gentle sad-eyed donkeys and elusive sea horses all share something quite rare in today's world. They flourish on or around Bonaire, one of the ABC isles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) deep in the Southern Caribbean. Each lives in sanctuaries set up by island residents who boast an awareness and level of conservation that few countries can match.
Though ecotourism is one of the latest buzzwords in the travel world, Bonaire, just 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, was a world leader in the field of ecology long before the term was even coined. The isle's greatest claim to fame is proudly touted on its license plates -- "Diver's Paradise." This is no tourist-bureau puffery, although many believe that the license plates should read "Nature Lovers' Paradise." Beyond the diving and snorkeling, there's windsurfing, kayaking, bird watching, kite boarding, fishing, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Many Caribbean islands brag about their underwater worlds, but Bonaire has set the standard by which everywhere else in the world is measured -- it led the way by protecting sea turtles back in 1961, banning spear-fishing in 1971, making it illegal to remove live coral in 1975 and establishing the first marine park in 1979. It also helps that the island is outside the traditional hurricane zone and is a desert island with no river runoff into the sea.
It has been called "Arizona by the Sea" for its climate and abundance of cacti. There is no rainy season and temperatures are consistently pleasant with lows in the 70's and highs in the 80's. Unlike its better-known neighbors, Aruba and Curacao, this isle of 14,000 residents is quiet and laid-back. There are no flashy Las Vegas-type casinos as in Aruba or a showy pastel-colored capital city as in Curacao.
The first recorded Bonaire scuba diving began back in 1962 when Don Stewart, a would-be California actor, dropped anchor on this small, arid boomerang of an island. Considered the father of Bonaire diving, he was the first to use fixed moorings to prevent coral damage and helped set up the Caribbean's first island-wide underwater park. He has received numerous international awards for his conservation efforts. The park is a United Nations Environmental Program Model Marine Protected Area.
"By the mid 70's I developed the belief that divers are entitled to unrestricted use of the world's seas for pleasure, knowledge and economic advantage, but must leave no mark," Stewart said. "I like to think of Bonaire as the universal center of reef ecology. We're like Greenwich, England: small and unknown, but everyone is setting their watches by us."
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Most everyone speaks English, Spanish and Dutch, as well as Papiamento, the local language of the ABC islands. "Bon bini" means welcome in Papiamento.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The U.S. dollar is the island's official currency. ATM's are available at local banks downtown, the supermarket, Harborside Mall and several resorts.
Cultimara Supermarket, the biggest supermarket on the island, is just a few blocks from the cruise pier. It's a must-visit for Dutch cheese, chocolates and other treats. (Bring your own shopping bag -- none are supplied.) Captain Don's book "Adventures of Captain Don: Tales of Bonaire Diving (Guaranteed 85% True)" is for sale and would make a fun keepsake, as would "Island Adrift," a DVD about the exploits of Captain Don. They are available at Captain Don's Habitat north of town.
Try a Mudslide made up of Kahlua, Ponche (made in neighboring Curacao of rum, cream liquor, vanilla, eggs and spices) and vodka. It slides down very easily and it's hard to sample just one. It's served at Rum Runners overlooking the sea about a mile and a half outside town at Captain Don's Habitat (Kaya Gob. N. Debrot 103).
Where You're Docked
You'll be docked in downtown Kralendijk, the capital of Bonaire.
Shopping, dining, bar hopping and even snorkeling and diving are within walking distance of the dock.
On Foot: Across from the pier is Wilhelmina Square. On cruise days it becomes the Cruise Market Place with local artisans offering native foods, handmade wares, original art and clothing for sale. Cultural dance shows, concerts and other entertainment are held here during the day.
It is an easy walk of just a few minutes to shops and restaurants along the Waterfront Promenade and Kaya Grandi, one block inland. The Harborside Mall features two Littman's stores with jewelry and gifts. There are a number of popular restaurants along the Waterfront Promenade within a couple blocks of the ship pier. They include Karel's Beach Bar, Zeezicht, It Rains Fishes and Amadeus Restaurant. Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino, where diving and snorkeling can be arranged, is just a few minutes' walk from the pier.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available. Rates are set to various destinations. For example, it's $7 to the Sand Dollar Resort (minimum $7 for any taxi), $10 to the Donkey Sanctuary, $20 to Lac Bay and $25 per hour for island tours.
Renting a Car: There are a number of car rental companies in Bonaire, and driving is easy. Roads are well paved and well marked. However, if you will be driving in Washington Slagbaai National Park you will need a truck or a Jeep since conditions are rough on unpaved roads. Daily rates range from $32 for a car to $40 for a pickup truck. Pickup can be arranged at the dock. Rental car agencies include Budget, Alamo and Avis. Motor scooters and motorcycles are also available for rent as well as bicycles ($15 for a day).
Shopping won't take long because there aren't many shops in Kralendijk, but there are handmade ornaments, paintings and artwork from local artists; try the Bonaire Gift Shop. For unique jewelry, including works made from black coral and undersea creations, try Atlantis or Littman's. Littman's also has the best collection of resort wear, T-shirts, fine watches and custom-designed gold and silver jewelry. All are downtown at Harborside Mall and along Kaya Grandi, the main street.
Flamingoes can be spotted in the north at Goto Meer, a saltwater lagoon, and a popular flamingo hangout. Bonaire is one of the few places in the Caribbean where flamingoes nest. At the southern end of the island is one of the more unusual preserves -- a flamingo sanctuary in the midst of the solar salt works. Massive mounds of blindingly white salt -- ironically waiting to be loaded on ships to melt ice on northern roads -- are next to the 135-acre sanctuary for the delicate pink birds. There were only 1,500 flamingoes in Bonaire 25 years ago. Today, thanks to careful conservation efforts the colony is flourishing and their numbers are estimated at 10,000 - 15,000.
The waters surrounding Bonaire and nearby Klein Bonaire (a five-minute boat ride from the capital) are all part of Bonaire National Marine Park. Everyone who will be using the park, whether diving or snorkeling, needs a Marine Park Tag. It is available at all dive shops and includes admission to Washington Slagbaai National Park. There are 86 marked dive sites. Many sites are also excellent for snorkeling and the majority are accessible from shore -- look for the yellow painted rocks with dive site names. If you are lucky you will spot a seahorse or a sea turtle. Guided diving and snorkeling can be arranged through dive shops. Try Buddy Dive Resort, Captain Don's Habitat, Divi Flamingo Resort or Plaza Resort. For a unique experience take a guided dive or snorkel with Dee Scarr, who offers an opportunity to interact with reef creatures through Touch the Sea. If you don't want to get wet, there are glass-bottom boat tours.
The Donkey Sanctuary is just five minutes from Kralendijk near the airport. It is the brainchild of Marina Melis, a Dutch woman who has had a lifelong love affair with donkeys. Distressed to learn that many donkeys had been abandoned, she set up the refuge where more than 300 donkeys now live -- all have been named and receive loving care. There are usually a couple of babies on hand, and visitors can help feed the donkeys. Bring fruit or bread for a special treat for the animals. "They are very intelligent and each one has a unique personality," Melis explained as she petted the ear of one donkey. Open Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Donations welcome. The Donkey Paradise Safari Park opened in March 2006. This is a drive-through park connected to the sanctuary.
Been There, Done That
Go reef, deep sea or bone fishing with Captain Chris Morkos, who has been fishing Bonaire for more than 25 years. Half- and full-day trips available. Everything is supplied including tackle and bait. Pickup at ship pier is included.
Washington Slagbaai National Park occupies the northern tip of the island and is a wild, undeveloped park with diving and snorkeling sites, the highest peak on Bonaire (784 ft.), a lighthouse, and bird watching (including flamingoes). Pickups, vans and Jeeps are best for driving on the rough roads. Open 8 a.m until 5 p.m. Entry must be before 2:45 pm.
Lac Bay, a protected cove on the east coast, is ideal for windsurfing. Novices will find it especially comforting since there is no way to be blown out to sea. Lessons and rentals are available. Sea kayaking is also here and guided tours of the mangroves are offered through Windsurfing Bonaire.
The Riding Academy Club (firstname.lastname@example.org) at Kunuku Warahama offers two trails for horseback riding: one goes to the beach with a stop for swimming, while the other goes to the mangroves and flamingoes with a stop at the caves.
Don't expect Aruban-style stretches of wide dazzling white sand. Bonaire's beaches are small; the shore is mostly coral and rock outcroppings. The best hotel beach is at Harbour Village Bonaire with a small beach at Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. Take the southern scenic route to Pink Beach with good snorkeling and scuba diving. Lac Bay Beach is the windsurfing beach. No-name Beach on Klein Bonaire is accessible via water taxi. There is no shade, so be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat and water. There is good snorkeling from the beach and turtles are often spotted.
Great for Families: Chibi Chibi at Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino boasts a nice small beach and the island's only casino. Sit seaside and admire the underwater world while dining on casual fare and seafood. J.A. Abraham Blvd. 40. Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Another good option is The Lion's Den at Lions Dive Resort, which offers a wide range of fare including burgers, fish and chips, seafood, and a children's menu. Kaya Gob. N. Debrot 91 at the Lion's Dive Resort. Open 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner.
Great for a Romantic Meal: For sea views, Zeezicht, Dutch is one of the oldest restaurants in Bonaire and serves local specialties including iguana soup, conch cocktail and fresh fish. It is along the waterfront and one of the closest to the ship pier. Kaya J.E. Craane, Waterfront Promenade. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Great for Everyone: For Indonesian food, visit the Old Inn. The famous "Rijsttafel," or rice table, is a selection of sweet and moderately spicy dishes prepared by an Indonesian chef. Also available are steak, fresh local fish and a children's menu. Abraham Blvd., next to Tropical Inn Bonaire. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. There is a children's play area.
Best Overall: For scenery and flamingoes, take the two-hour tour north to Goto Lake or Goto Meer, a favorite spot for flamingo viewing. Travel through Rincon, a small village that was once home to slaves who worked the plantations and salt flats. Or for the unusual take the southern tour to visit the lighthouse, slave huts that seem too small for humans, huge mounds of white salt (taken for the salt flats and awaiting shipping to the north for melting ice on U.S. highways) and more flamingoes.
Best for Families: Take the water taxi or Robinson Cruise to visit the uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire, half a mile from town. Klein Bonaire offers great snorkeling and beachcombing. Bring water shoes, sunscreen, hats and water.
Best for Active Travelers: The mangrove forest is part of the National Marine Park and a nursery for the coral reefs. Daily kayak, snorkel and solarboat tours at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Just follow the signs to Lac Cai. Free pickup service.
Staying in Touch
Sea Horse Cyber Cafe, Kaya Grandi 6, a few minutes walk from the cruise dock. Enjoy a wide range of foods while checking your e-mail including a variety of Latin American dishes, tropical cocktails and homemade desserts.
Chat n' Browse, Sand Dollar Shopping Mall.
Eden Beach Resort has three beach cams and even an underwater video camera 60 feet underwater. Tell the folks back home what time you will be at the beach cam and they can visit at www.bonairewebcams.com.
For More Information
On the Web: www.infobonaire.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Bonaire
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Bargains and Features
--By Deborah Williams
All photos appear courtesy of Deborah Williams.