Bonaire: Once a Visitor, Always a Friend
The island is blessed with a preserved natural beauty that remains unspoiled by even one traffic light.
License plates on Bonaire read, “Diver’s Paradise,” with good reason. Almost every day is a perfect day for diving or snorkeling. Bonaire sits just 11 degrees north of the equator in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean Sea, where the sun shines for nearly 12 hours a day and year-round temperatures hover in the 80s. The island is surrounded by a ring of coral reefs; more than 400 species of marine life live among 55 types of coral. The fragile ecosystem is protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park, which ensures wise use of the reefs, sea grass, and mangroves. The result: the most unspoiled underwater conditions in the entire Caribbean.
Most of the island’s inhabitants live in and around Kralendijk. To the north of Kralendijk, the land is hilly, while the south is incredibly flat and home to the aptly named salt flats. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea are visible beyond massive pyramid-shaped mounds of salt—some of the purest in the world. After the Dutch claimed the island in 1636, salt became Bonaire’s leading source of income and remains the island’s top export.
Nestled within the salt flats is Pekelmeer Sanctuary, a 135-acre protected flamingo reserve that holds the distinction of being the largest flamingo breeding ground in the Western Hemisphere. During mating seasons, flamingos outnumber the native population of 15,000. It can be difficult to spot the birds from the road without good binoculars, so if you want to get up close and personal with them, head north from Kralendijk to Lake Gotomeer or one of the other salt lakes in the Washington Slagbaai National Park. The 13,500-acre nature reserve is home to parrots, parakeets, iguanas, and, of course, pink flamingos.
In addition, the island is an unlikely haven for donkeys. The Spaniards first brought donkeys to Bonaire in the 17th century. In 1993, a local couple established the Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire to care for the sick, wounded, or orphaned ones. In July 2011, the sanctuary moved just south of the airport. Guests are welcome to explore the grounds, where hundreds of donkeys roam free in the natural environs.
While there is plenty to do above water, the real allure of Bonaire lies under the sea. Bonaire has 86 official dive sites, 53 of which are accessible from shore. There are several important things to keep in mind before entering the National Marine Park. All divers must attend an orientation with their dive operator. Spearfishing is a no-no, as is collecting seashells, sea fans, sand, or any type of coral. The waters are very warm, so gloves are not needed. Lastly, avoid touching the coral—it is very fragile.
The waters off the east coast are too rough for swimming and diving, but they do offer the best conditions for windsurfing and kite surfing. Beginners and experts alike will like Lac Bay on the southwest coast. The peaceful lagoon offers extraordinarily clear, waist-deep waters and constant trade winds, making it the ideal locale for both sports.
Bonaire’s official dive sites are marked by yellow stones on the side of the road. Klein Bonaire, the 1,500-acre uninhabited islet a half-mile west of Kralendijk, is worthy of exploration; shuttles and water taxis to Klein Bonaire are available in town. Not dive-certified? Snorkeling is a delightful alternative because coral formations grow within three feet of the surface. Swim around the coral reefs and keep an eye out for sea turtles, colorful parrotfish, eagle rays, and sea horses.
Discover the underwater wonders of Bonaire’s thriving reef on a guided snorkel in the island’s National Marine Park.
Climb into an open-air 4×4 for an expedition across the desert terrain of Washikemba, then to Lac Bay, a windsurfer’s haven, and Sorobon beach.
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