Travel Guide: Bonaire, an Untamed Island in the Southern Caribbean
Looking for adventure? Take a departure from the typical
The tiny Dutch island of Bonaire, just off Venezuela’s coast, is definitely having a moment.
While parts of the Caribbean are still rebuilding following several seasons of far-reaching hurricanes, this gem is quickly becoming a household name as more and more hoteliers and cruise ship lines are targeting the island for the long-haul future. Along with sister islands Aruba and Curaçao, Bonaire holds the rare distinction of lying outside the hurricane belt. In other words, all the sun and sea with none of the summer and autumn risk.
For travelers, this means the options for cruise ship excursions is growing exponentially.
Prior to this recent boon, Bonaire, roughly the same size as the city of Tampa, had largely been somewhat of a two-trick pony dedicated to scuba diving along with windsurfing/kitesurfing. Scuba divers prize Bonaire for its reefs, the world’s first to be protected as a marine sanctuary established in 1979. Just offshore, corals pop with as much color as candy stores. Plus, the destination’s gin-clear water means you don’t need to dunk yourself to appreciate the underwater views, but simply ride, float or paddle across the surface.
The second draw for sporty types is Bonaire’s steady-to-strong winds. Since the 1980s, windsurfers have flocked to Lac Bay, three square miles of protected flat waters on the southeast coast, perfect for beginners to learn the sport and for pros to train year-round. In recent years, the area has grown to include a lineup of beach bars offering smoothies, blended coffee drinks and light lunches, allowing families and groups of friends to stay all day. There’s even a hotel, the Sorobon Beach Resort, offering daily yoga and massage in addition to stand-alone chalets with hammocks and open-air showers.
On the opposite coast, kitesurfers cluster at the beach named in their honor—Kite Beach—a 20-minute drive south from the main city of Kralendijk. This sport, decades younger than windsurfing, is still up and coming. Travelers can see this reflected in the infrastructure. Whereas Lac Bay has permanent beach bars and retail shops, the kitesurfing instruction and gear rentals are offered from converted school buses. One such operator is Bonaire Kite School, offering private and semi-private lessons; instructors are certified through the International Kiteboarding Organization. By the end of one session, even first-timers can learn to fly the kite, harnessing its power to body-drag (ride through the water without the board) for a thrill that’s as joyous as sledding.
These sports might be part of the island’s history, but its future is much more diverse.
Newcomers to Bonaire might want a tour to learn the lay of this boomerang-shaped island, much of which is desert. Bonaire Cruisers offers six-hour guided trips where guests drive six-seater, open-air, off-road Yamaha Grizzly vehicles. Routes highlight the north and south, giving day-trippers a background of the island’s history as a salt producer, as well as the chance to tear it up on the winding dirt backroads.
For a more active day of exploring, try Bonaire Eco Cycling. With this boutique operator, guests pedal electric bikes along the southern coast, stopping at the lighthouse and historic huts where slaves of the 19th-century salt industry slept. Because the cycles are electric, participants have the option of assistance from the motor, guaranteeing a relaxing excursion.
Riders who prefer to pedal can mountain bike the ridges of Washington Slagbaai National Park, a 14,000-acre wild area, home to iguanas, parrots, flamingos and parakeets. Bike Rental Bonaire has a fleet of loaner 21-speed mountain bikes, allowing cyclists to tackle the mountains to the north, the dirt roads of the interior or the coastal flat trails.
With an understanding of the island, most visitors rent a car for a few days, if not the entirety of their stay. A rental car isn’t a must on Bonaire, as most of the restaurants, from Capriccio serving homemade pasta to the Mediterranean hotspot Mezze, are found in downtown Kralendijk, all within walking distance of one another. However, because most visitors plan on driving to dive sites or a beach during their time on the island many hotels and resorts offer packages with rental cars.
This allows travelers to see more at their own pace, including one unique attraction: the Donkey Sanctuary. In 1993, Marina Melis created this safe haven for the animals that were once vital to the salt industry, but then abandoned. Guests pay an entry fee to drive the park and meet the donkeys, most of whom are so curious and eager for attention that they’ll crane their heads inside of your car, sometimes three or four at a time, if the windows are rolled down.
Tour enough of the island, and you’ll pick up on the fact that although Bonaire does have beautiful beaches, they’re not of the typical white-sand variety. You’ll find long stretches of small pebbles. This is why the destination, to date, has been nowhere near as popular as neighboring Aruba. But if you do explore Bonaire, you’ll also see that a Caribbean escape need not center solely on the beach. Not when there’s so much action packed into one small—but no-doubt-happening—paradise.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
American Airlines flies weekly from Orlando International to Bonaire, with one stop in Miami. Before you go, check out tourismbonaire.com
The island is home to 400 caves. Outdoor Bonaire offers guided tours through wet and dry caves, taking guests to the best stalactites and other formations. It also leads groups safely in snorkeling these underground wonderlands. outdoorbonaire.com
Those who crave a white-sand beach experience can day-trip to the satellite island of Klein Bonaire, a half mile from shore. Here, guests can spread out, sunbathe, swim and snorkel some of the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean. Daily water taxi service is available.
True bird lovers will appreciate Echo, an organization committed to saving the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots of Bonaire. Weekly tours of the grounds and their rehabilitation efforts—as well as the opportunity to see parrots in the wild—are given Wednesdays at 5 p.m. Private tours also are available. echobonaire.org
Stay on the water at this 26-apartment hotel with a plunge pool and massive sun deck. Each of the suites is unique, from studios to penthouses. The ground-floor owner’s suite is a white minimalist dream, with a fully stocked kitchen, as well as an oceanfront patio for savoring the sunset. bellafontebonaire.com