As a longtime cruiser, I knew little about Bonaire outside of its reputation as a diving mecca of the Caribbean. The island is not exactly as well-known to boaters as, say, the more easily accessible St. Thomas or Tortola.
But everything I had heard about Bonaire’s diving—pristine conditions, 54 official “walk-in” sites from the shore, another 31 mooring buoys for sites accessible by boat, 6,700 acres of marine park with more than 60 species of coral and all kinds of fish—was enough to make this island a must-see destination for me.
Bonaire is south of the hurricane belt, directly in the path of the Trades. It’s home to the Caribbean’s longest-standing national marine park, with 50 years’ worth of marine conservation efforts now paying off for those of us who visit by boat. More than a hundred well-maintained mooring balls swing above world-class dive sites within an easy cruise of the anchorage, with a vivid underwater tapestry of swirling, flashing, colorful life. And after a day of diving, the laid-back bars along the waterfront are the perfect place to relax and absorb that tropical contact high.
Bonaire is a Dutch island, one of the three “ABC” islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Bonaire is the least-developed of the three—hence its unique beauty.
The arid landscape is covered in cactus fields, which are beautiful, albeit a little intimidating, to walk through. The southern part of the island is flat with pink-tinged salt ponds, flamingo-filled saltwater lagoons and a 700-acre mangrove-lined bay that’s a refuge for green turtles. It’s also a stage for world-class windsurfing championships. A donkey sanctuary is a must-see if the thought of being charged by a dozen animals doesn’t make your legs shake. You’ll be licked and nipped through your open rental-car window, which is funny until it isn’t.
Slave huts from the 1600s stand in clusters along the coast as reminders of the men and women who forged a viable salt industry. Late-19th-century lighthouses flank all four corners of the island, and three navigational obelisks—red, orange and blue—stand at different points along the southern coast, marking the collection points for various grades of salt. Women used to walk out on long planks to awaiting ships, balancing heavy sacks of salt on their heads. There’s now a pier and conveyer belt, but salt continues to be Bonaire’s main export, mainly distributed throughout the Caribbean and the eastern United States.
The southern flatlands gradually slope toward the northern highlands, where Mount Brandaris offers panoramic views. The Washington Slagbaai National Park that surrounds it provides 13,500 acres of protected land for the 210 species of migratory and resident birds, 16 species of lizards, pint-size land tortoises and clusters of wild donkeys, with hiking trails for us humans. The Goto Meer saltwater lake is a wetland habitat for flocks of pink-tinged flamingos that migrate from Venezuela each year. The northern coastal circuit has blowholes, walk-in dive sites and Caiquetio sites, where 500-year-old inscriptions are painted on rock as reminders of the island’s original inhabitants.
If you find yourself ready for a tropical drink after a day of sightseeing, Kralendijk has the best of the island’s seaside bars, boutique restaurants and trinket shops. The colorful architecture makes the town a destination in itself, with a Protestant church, a Roman Catholic convent and the Bonaire Museum among the archaeological landmarks.
Kralendijk is also a hub of activity. Island tours, art galleries and museums, and bike, quad and car rentals all start there. It is also where you go for all water-sports rentals and services.
The majority of Bonaire’s mooring balls have a two-hour maximum stay (reserved for daytime recreational purposes only). To stay overnight, boats must have a spot in the mooring field or in a marina. It’s worth mooring out: The water temperature is lukewarm, and its clarity magnifies the color of the fish swimming just out of reach. At any time, there are people swimming off boats. The light turquoise water shifts to a deep blue directly off the stern, where a 30-foot drop-off leads to a reef covered in coral and fish.
There is a first-come, first-served policy on the 30-odd moorings in the field. Boats paying higher fees in the marinas jockey for favors with those on the less-expensive moorings to get the next float that becomes available.
Most of the dive sites are on the eastern side of the island, where a gentle, sloping shelf is covered in hard and soft coral, and the seafloor is covered in sand and seagrass. I was most impressed with the scenery: Layer upon layer of coral providing safe haven to school upon school of colorful fish. I usually hug close to the reef when I dive, but I found myself pulling away to take in the breathtaking views surrounding me. Picture Nemo’s home reef: a kaleidoscope racing along an eight-lane highway on the edge of an endless clear blue.
Yes, there is a paucity of larger marine life, and don’t go looking for challenging dive sites, but there are a few wrecks to explore, with the 236-foot cargo ship Hilma Hooker being the most famous. Resting at a depth of 60 feet, the site is easily accessible by a five-minute swim from shore.
And maybe don’t tell too many other boaters about all the beauty there is to find in Bonaire. Let’s keep it the magical place that it is today.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue.