Cruisers might be familiar with the ABC Islands, but Bonaire, that middle island, is often missing from Southern Caribbean cruise itineraries. Found on just a handful of sailings each season, Bonaire is the second-largest island in the Netherlands Antilles, but it isn't as commercialized as siblings Aruba and Curacao. It also isn't as well known for its beaches, which better serve as rocky outcrops for getting in the water than for lounging on the sand. Whereas you might be lucky enough to spend 12 hours in the historic downtown of Willemstad, Curacao, or soaking up some nightlife in Oranjestad, Aruba, the capital of Kralendijk -- where you're docked in Bonaire -- is a bit sleepier, and port calls will fall a few hours shorter.
Still, there's something special about Bonaire that makes you feel as if you'll find yourself there again someday. Here are five reasons why Bonaire should make it on your next cruise itinerary.
Over-the-Top Underwater Experiences
While the shoreline of Bonaire doesn't offer the same wide swaths of white sand as the other ports on your cruise, its snorkeling and diving can't be beat. There are 86 registered dive sites around the island, which give Bonaire its nickname, "Divers Paradise." Sites like 1,000 Steps, Alice in Wonderland and even No Name give divers the chance to see Bonaire's 57 types of coral and more than 350 species of fish. Salty sea (easier to float) and a gentle current make for a pleasant snorkeling experience at Klein Bonaire, a tiny uninhabited island just off the west coast of where you're docked. Amateur windsurfers will delight in the ideal conditions of Lac Bay, a protected bay on the east of the island where water sports enthusiasts don't have to worry about being blown into open ocean. As a bonus, much of Bonaire's marine ecosystems are protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park, a groundbreaking conservation effort when it was founded nearly 40 years ago.
Salt Flats & Flamingos
Head south from Kralendijk (along Bonaire's one, narrow highway) and encounter otherworldy landscapes and colors as you pass the island's salt flats. White pillars of salt break the horizon line along a shimmering bubblegum pink lake to the left, while on your right, iridescent blues and bleached coral provide stark contrast. Salt is Bonaire's top export, and Cargill, an American company, controls much of the operations here. If you're lucky, you'll see neon pink flamingos -- known as chogogos on the island -- here, in an area called Pekelmeer. However, binoculars or a zoom lens from the road will be the closest you can get to these graceful birds; Pekelmeer is one of only four areas in the world where flamingos breed, and it's a protected sanctuary. Also, global warming has affected their habitat, and the water has receded from the road in just the past few years. If you have time (or on your second visit) head about a half-hour north of port to Washington-Slagbaai National Park, where flamingos are also known to frequent -- especially in Gotomeer, a saltwater lagoon located within the park.
Handmade Gifts & Homemade Beer, Downtown
Sure, as soon as you walk off your ship you will still be hit with the immediate Caribbean sell of diamonds, watches and designer clothing, but leave the port and head across the street for more authentic finds. Wilhelmina Plaza hosts the Bonaire Arts and Crafts Cruise Market, and vendors sell everything from art to soap to tekibon, a liquor like tequila made from regional cacti. After a little souvenir shopping, head across the square (along Kaya Grandi, the main street) to the Bonaire Blond Brewery for some shade and suds. Just three years old, this modern craft brewery has about five beers on tap, from their namesake brew to a fruity IPA. The beer is just $5 and food is also available. It's a nice place to stop before wandering Kaya Grandi, where you can buy everything from tacky Christmas ornaments to Bonaire salt.
Food Trucks in Paradise
If you find yourself on the go and outside of downtown Kralendijk during lunchtime, it's a perfect excuse to hit up one of Bonaire's local food trucks. Grab a cold drink and a lion fish sandwich; lion fish is an invasive species that has a very mild flavor, so you are doing yourself and Bonaire a favor by having one. Beautiful views of the island from a lawn chair make up for the lack of walls. Try Cactus Blue, heading south past the airport, or Kite City, currently at Te Amo Beach.
Learn About 7,000 Years of Caribbean History
It can be shamefully easy to write off cheery Caribbean islands as just another beach with a tropical drink, but in fact, the Southern Caribbean region has a complicated history of slavery and colonialism. Dutch archaeologist Ruud Stelten has set out to change the perception that the Caribbean has no history with the Terramar Museum, a lovely new facility within walking distance of the port. While the museum has been open for just one year, it is housed inside a renovated historical building and documents thousands of years of Bonaire history, along with that of neighboring islands and ports of call. Rooms across two levels are dedicated to subjects like the Amerindians, shipwrecks and salt mines. Stelten is passionate about the exhibits, and believes that Terramar tells a story rather than displaying individual works. Expect to spend at least 45 minutes here; admission is $10, but discount coupons can be found at nearby restaurant It Rains Fishes.