Exploring Bonaire: Adventure From Sea to Shore

Our first visit to Bonaire more than 20 years ago gave us an unexpected surprise. Caribbean Islands are covered with swaying palm trees, right? Not always. We marveled at a landscape covered with cactus and other hardy species of plants and animals that could survive in a semi-arid climate that receives only 22 inches (56 cm) of rainfall annually. These discoveries were the first of many more exciting ones during our visit.

We returned recently, knowing not to expect palm trees, but excited to enjoy the island’s true oasis — seemingly endless fringing reefs and incredibly beautiful turquoise water.

Salty History

The earliest known inhabitants on Bonaire were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians; they are believed to have arrived around 1300 B.C., migrating north from Venezuela to Bonaire. During an exploratory expedition in 1499, Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda landed on the shores of Bonaire and claimed the island for Spain. The valuable commodity of natural solar salt was one of the main attractions for the Spanish due to its importance as a food preservative. In spite of Spanish possession, the Caiquetios had the island to themselves for 3,000 years until the Dutch took possession in 1636. By the late 1600s, African slaves were imported to work on the plantations and salt pans.

From 1799 to 1816, various countries occupied Bonaire, as changing politics in Europe affected the Caribbean Islands. By 1816, the Dutch reclaimed Bonaire, along with four neighboring islands; the islands were collectively known as the Netherland Antilles.

Recent history has brought significant change due to a major process of constitutional reform begun in the courts of the Netherland Antilles. The change was made because four of five islands making up the Netherland Antilles no longer wanted to be a part of the Netherland Antilles; however, they did want to maintain close ties. In 2005, numerous conferences were held to work out the complexities of the constitutional reform, and in 2006 the constitutional position of the five islands was declared. The Netherland Antilles and the other partners agreed upon the new constitutional structure of the “Kingdom of the Netherlands.” On October 10, 2010, the Netherland Antilles ceased to exist and the charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands became official. Bonaire is now a special municipality within the country of the Netherlands.

The locals, known as Bonaireans, represent a rich cultural history that includes Indian settlers and African slaves. Listen carefully and you will hear four commonly used languages — Dutch, Spanish, English and Papiamentu, the native Creole language of the Dutch Caribbean Islands.

From Salt to Suntans

The presence of salt was a blessing and a curse in Bonaire’s history. Because of its value as a food preservative, it was often the root cause of struggles between European countries. The value of salt was one of the main reasons for the Dutch takeover of Bonaire. Salt became the king of commodities until the abolition of slavery in 1863. With the loss of the labor force, salt production lost favor; market demands, high tariffs and weather contributed to the dwindling interest in the harvesting of salt. A renewed interest in salt production began in the 1960s when a U.S. company designed Solar Salt Works; today it is a thriving industry on the island. Large salt pans on the southern end of the island are now a tourist attraction where huge pyramids of glistening white salt crystals create a striking picture against the deep blue sky.

Tourism began to blossom during the 1980s and now provides more jobs than any other industry. Since the whole island is virtually a recreational playground and a diver’s dream, it is easy to understand why tourism is the reigning commodity of Bonaire.

Resorts are bustling and new restaurants are springing up. In spite of the new developments, Bonaire continues to retain its small-town Dutch charm, one of its most valuable and appealing assets. Even today, there are no traffic lights on the island.

The quaint town of Kralendijk (crawl-in-dake) serves as the capital of the island. There is still a touch of old colonial Dutch architecture with buildings painted in brightly colored shades of blue, orange, pink and aqua. Kaya Grandi, the main street, is lined with enticing shops and restaurants. There are also designated historical sites such as Fort Oranje scattered around town. Although the fort never saw action, old English cannons still stand guard; today the building is a courthouse.

When the sunbathing’s done, the place to be is along the waterfront where dining, music and dancing set the stage for a most enjoyable evening.

Divers’ Paradise

In 1962, Capt. Don Stewart arrived on Bonaire’s shores and promptly fell in love. Stewart was instrumental in developing the scuba diving industry, opening Bonaire’s first dive shop. He also became a driving force behind reef preservation and the establishment of Bonaire’s National Marine Park in 1979. The park became a part of the National Marine Park of the Netherland Antilles in 1999.

The leeward side offers more than 60 known dive sites, many accessible from shore. Klein Bonaire has 26 dive sites as well as spectacular snorkeling just off of its pristine beaches.

Before diving, visitors must check in with a dive operator to pay a marine park fee of $25; nondivers pay $10. The fees are good for one year, and the $25 fee allows free entry into the Washington Slagbaai National Park.

Divers come from around the world to enjoy the ease and freedom of diving where they choose, when they choose, as long as they follow the rules of the marine park. The setting is perfect for avid divers, diving families and divers earning their certification.

The majority of dive sites are on the leeward side where calm seas, gentle boat rides, shallow reefs and clear blue water create a stunning backdrop for diving. When diving from shore, yellow-painted rocks mark the dive sites. Parking is available so all you have to do is gear up and go diving.

The wreck of the Hilma Hooker is one of Bonaire’s most popular dives. The ship rests at 100 feet (30 m) on a sandy bottom. Over the years, nature has painted the wreck with a colorful variety of coral and encrusting sponges. The heavily encrusted propeller is a photographer’s dream scene. Another beautiful site is 1000 Steps, a picture-perfect setting for a dive; the name, an exaggeration, is indicative of the steps leading down to the beach, but the journey is well worth the effort.

Preserving Paradise

Bonaireans began taking giant steps toward the conservation of their natural treasures in the early 1960s. Since that time Bonaire has become an influential world leader and example in implementing environmental protection and preservation measures. STINAPA (Stichting Nationale Parken) was established in 1962 to assist in preservation efforts; the nonprofit foundation is responsible for managing the Bonaire National Marine Park and the Washington Slagbaai National.

The Bonaire National Marine Park includes the entire coastline of Bonaire, Klein Bonaire and Lac. The area covers about 6,670 acres (2,700 hectares) and extends from the shore to a depth of 200 feet (61 m). Mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs are included in the park. The marine park is considered a demonstration site by the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) and serves as a model for marine preservation in the Caribbean. Among other duties, ICRAN maintains more than 100 public moorings, monitors safe levels of commercial and recreational use and enforces the park’s rules and regulations.

Nature lovers and birdwatchers will be delighted when visiting Washington Slagbaai National Park. An amazing nature sanctuary covering 14,000 acres (5,600 hectares), it includes two of the island’s largest plantations from the colonial period. The park is a haven for numerous endemic and endangered species, including the yellow-shouldered parrots, parakeets and iguanas as well as the iconic pink flamingos.

On Bonaire’s southern end is the Flamingo Sanctuary near the salt pans of Pekelmeer (pink lake) and the towering Willemstoren Lighthouse. There is no direct access to the sanctuary, but it is still a treat to see the handsome pink birds. The Bonaire government also protects nature’s aquatic nurseries, the mangroves, which are a vital part of the ecosystem.

Topside Touring

Nestled in a quiet valley north of Kralendijk is the small village of Rincon, Bonaire’s oldest town. Originally settled by the Spaniards in the 1500s, Rincon has weathered the test of time, retaining its quaint charm. The center of town consists of a small business center, a post office and one gas station where locals gather to enjoy swapping old tales and today’s news over a cool drink. Side streets lead visitors to historical places such as an appealing old church reminiscent of its original Spanish architecture and the Mangazina di Rei, also called the King’s Storehouse, used to store crops from the annual harvest. Slaves living in Rincon replenished their provisions from the Storehouse on weekends before the 12-mile (19 km) trek to the salt pans for another week of work. The building is the second-oldest stone building on Bonaire and is now a part of the Cultural Park.

A visit to the Cadushy Distillery is a must when in Rincon. The grounds are part of an old estate that dates back more than a century. Bonaire’s oldest theater and the new Bonaire Heritage Foundation are also located on the grounds.

After leaving Rincon, travel the eastern coastline for a look at the wilder side of the island. Be sure to visit the Boka Onima area where fascinating Indian inscriptions are carved into the rocks; more than 500 years old, the inscriptions are thought to be the work of the Caiquetio Indians.

The south end of Bonaire is home to the Cargill Corporation’s salt works and Salt Pier, two popular attractions on the island. Just past Salt Pier are the slave huts at White Slave and Red Slave. Towering obelisks stand in stark contrast to the tiny concrete huts that served as shelter for slaves who traveled from Rincon every week to work the salt pans. On the eastern side are Sorobon and the sheltered cove of Lac Bay, which has become famous for windsurfing because of its almost perfect conditions. Wide expanses of powdery white sand gently slope into the gorgeous aquamarine bay where trade winds constantly sweep across the shallow bay. Surfers of all levels enjoy the thrill of skimming across the bay, mimicking the graceful flights of butterflies on brightly colored gossamer wings.

Lac Bay offers more than windsurfing; it also boasts one of the Caribbean’s best preserved mangrove forests. Kayaking is the ideal way to enjoy the beauty of the mangroves, one of nature’s supreme ocean nurseries.

Ample Activities

When you’re not diving, it’s easy to fill a surface interval. Activities includes the latest rage, kiteboarding, as well as paddleboarding, wakeboarding, parasailing and the hugely popular windsurfing. Kayaking is a great way to explore the lush mangroves; try a glass-bottom kayak for a better view.

For the novice spelunker, there are cave tours into the underground world of stalactites and stalagmites. A visit to the Butterfly Garden and Donkey Sanctuary are especially fun for families. The Butterfly Garden has more than 20 species of butterflies from around the world. The Donkey Sanctuary is a nonprofit organization established to protect and care for the nearly 400 resident feral donkeys. Horseback riding beckons the equestrian; avid golfers can play a round of golf on the all-natural eco-friendly 18-hole course. To relax after a rigorous day of adventures, enjoy the tranquility of a sunset cruise on the calm waters between Bonaire and Klein Bonaire.

The island hosts numerous events throughout the year, celebrating Bonairean food, culture, music and activities such as sailing, scuba diving and windsurfing, just to name a few. Check their website (listed in the sidebar) for event dates and details.

With all that Bonaire has to offer, it is no surprise that the island remains one of the top Caribbean destinations — and a place divers return to again and again.

Story and photo by Barry and Ruth Guimbellot