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December 8th-15th, 2003
I was sitting on a rocky hilltop called Subi Brandaris, the highest point on Bonaire, savoring the sweet coolness of the salty breeze wafting up from the sapphire blue Caribbean 784 feet below me, when an intangible impression became a tangible thought—Bonaire is paradise.
Bonaire, a small Caribbean island east of Central America and north of Venezuela, is part of the Kingdom of the Netherland’s Leeward Antilles and along with Aruba and Curaçao are collectively called the ABC Islands.
Each of the islands are a paradise in their own right, but Bonaire claims the title of “Diver’s Paradise”—they even say so on their license plates. Indeed, the reefs that surround Bonaire teem with life so vivid that they resemble a Technicolor fantasyland—thanks to farsighted dedication and a pioneering role in the preservation of nature, the waters around Bonaire were designated the Bonaire Marine Park in 1979. But paradise isn’t confined to the underwater world, topside attractions offer up just as much beauty as their aquatic competition—the island itself is a wondrous place where iguanas bask under bougainvillea, pink flamingos wade gracefully through vast salt pans, and cacti offer a thorny perch to parakeets and trupials.
Eager to enjoy a bit of paradise, underwater or otherwise, we settled in to our room at the Divi Flamingo Resort—just a two-minute stroll from downtown Kralendijk, the brightly colored buildings and lush landscaping of the Divi provide guests with oceanfront rooms just steps from one of the best reefs on the island.
The Divi Flamingo’s house reef, Calabas, is perfect for all levels of divers and snorkelers—a mild to nonexistent current and depths ranging from 20 to 100 feet with ideal visibility in the 60 to 100 foot range, allow the underwater enthusiast an easily accessible glimpse of the best reef diving this side of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
As is the case with just about every dive site on the island, a variety of reef corals including brain coral, elkhorn, staghorn, mountainous star, gorgonian, and black can all be seen at Calabas reef—you will also encounter a myriad of other marine life. Schools of blue tang, stoplight parrotfish, surgeonfish, and angelfish abound, along with the resident eels, octopus, and squid—all just a few feet from our room.
The colorful underwater world of Calabas reef kept us entertained for hours, but we did manage to pull ourselves from the water occasionally—lunch at the onsite restaurant Chibi Chibi was one such occasion.
Divi Flamingo Resort’s restaurant, Chibi Chibi, is a colorful, romantic gathering spot that is open for lunch and dinner daily—the oceanside bar and grill serves fresh local seafood as well as traditional continental cuisine, making it easy to find something on the menu that appeals. Favorite items included burgers, Chibi poppers, and Indonesian chicken sate—with a special fondness for the tuna sandwich and key lime pie. In addition to the delicious food, guests dining at the Chibi Chibi are also entertained by a multitude of tropical fish swimming happily in the surf just below the restaurant.
From our base at the Divi Flamingo we rented a Suzuki Jimny and set about exploring the island—heading south, we were able to visit highlights such as the Salt Flats, Gotomeer, the Slave Huts, Pink Beach, and Willemstoren Lighthouse.
The Salt Flats, where towering white mounds of salt grace the horizon like mountains of snow, are easily visible from the road—the massive piles of salt stand out beautifully against the pink and turquoise pools of the salt pans. Salt pans, or salinas, are the colorful pools where sea water collects and then dries leaving behind salt—the water color ranges from the turquoise of newly flooded pans to the bright pink of pools rich in bacteria and brine shrimp rich in carotenoid.
The blinding white of the drying salt and the colorful pools make for a dramatic site, but that isn’t the only draw of the Salt Flats—look carefully along the horizon, that pink haze moving about in the distance is a flock of flamingos.
Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary, located in the abandoned solar saltworks adjacent to the flats, is one of the largest such sanctuary’s in the western hemisphere—completely protected and closed to the public, the sanctuary provides a home for thousands of flamingos. Views of the birds are usually limited to distant glimpses, so bring binoculars, but on rare occasions, the flamingos can be seen close to the road—providing a lucky few with up-close sightings.
In the past, the Salt Pans were not such a serene place—the industry’s saltier history is revealed at Rode Pan.
Rode Pan, also known as the Slave Huts, consists of two groupings of small buildings—the white grouping, known as Whitte Pan, can be seen on the side of the road opposite the salt flats, the second grouping called Oranje Pan, are painted a reddish-orange and stretch from the flats towards the southern tip of the island.
The diminutive slave huts, quite picturesque despite their unfortunate history, have been preserved as a reminder of the salt industry’s oppressive past—slaves working the salt pans by day crawled into the huts to rest and escape the sun.
Continuing towards the southern tip of Bonaire, we stopped briefly at Pink Beach—fringed by palm trees and blessed with pinkish colored sand, Pink Beach offers a great place to enjoy a picnic or amazing shore diving/snorkeling.
Willemstoren Lighthouse, located at the southernmost point of Bonaire, was built in 1837—the lighthouse is now automated and closed to visitors, but it is the perfect place to watch the sunset and the flamingos as they leave the salt pans to fly over the ocean back to Venezuela.
Day two of our exploration of the island took us north along the dramatic leeward coast—our destination, 1000 Steps, is one of the most renowned beaches/dive sites on Bonaire.
The road leading to 1000 Steps hugs the coastline for most of the drive, providing unparalleled views of the ocean and the limestone cliffs that tower above the turquoise water—curve after curve imparts one amazing vista after another. Shades of blue, ranging from the aqua hues along the beach to the deep sapphire of the horizon, paint a picture of what is yet to come—a rugged stone staircase snaking its way down the cliff to a coral rubble beach that leads to the open blue vista.
1000 Steps, like the other dive sites on Bonaire, is marked by a yellow roadside boulder emblazoned with the beach’s name—parking in the lot adjacent to the marker, we made our way down to the beach. Descending the steps, 67 not a thousand to be exact, amid dry cliffs, shrubs and cacti, we finally stepped foot on the beach—at first glance, the surf appeared choppy, but we decided to grab our snorkel gear and make one pass with the current.
We swam out to the reef and drifted over the coral—sea fans swayed to some unheard symphony and kaleidoscopic corals covered the sea floor. Many wondrous fishes darted about, entertaining us as we floated past the beach—the shallows were chock-full of parrotfish, blue tang, and sergeant majors and the deep on the outskirts of the drop-off kept our attention. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of a whale shark or manta ray, but nothing appeared from out of the depths—reaching the end of our drift snorkel, we exited the water and climbed the stairs back to our car.
Finishing out the day at the Divi Flamingo, we made our way to the Town Pier for one last snorkel excursion before retiring—prior to snorkeling at the Town Pier, I would have never believed a mere snorkeler could see such wonders.
Town Pier, located in downtown Kralendijk, is home to an array of underwater life that has to be seen to be believed—the colossal pilings of the pier are virtually covered with bright orange cup corals and other coral varieties that leave no space uninhabited. Marine life abounds in these coral colonies and all around the pilings—shrimp, crabs, and blennies hang out amid the cup coral and angelfish, wrasse, filefish, and porcupinefish graze on the brain coral on the sea floor. In addition, sponges, peacock flounders, sea cucumbers, lizardfish, barracuda, grouper, goatfish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, trunkfish, rock beauties, grunts, and bearded fireworms were all encountered—it was an identification book come to life!
While snorkeling the Town Pier we also came across a school of reef squid—proving to be our favorite underwater encounter of the trip, we swam with and watched the squid as they morphed into different colors right before our eyes.
Water logged and exhausted from our fun-filled day, we grabbed a bite to eat at Chibi Chibi, watched the sunset from the resort’s pier, and then crashed in our room for some much needed rest—tomorrow we would set out to climb to the highest point on Bonaire.
The next morning, we headed north once again, this time for an adventure in Washington-Slagbaai National Park—driving in this park is an adventure in and of itself, so make sure you rent a 4WD vehicle if you plan to tour the park. The dirt road that traverses the heart of the national park is bumpy and rutted and makes for quite a fun drive—unless it’s muddy, think twice about a visit if it has recently rained, the mud you will encounter will be more than problematic.
[Note: As of 2011, the park had made great improvements to the road—a 4WD may no longer be needed—check with park officials for up to date information]
The main goal of our visit to Washington-Slagbaai National Park was to hike to the highest point of the island, Subi Brandaris, but along the way we made sure we stopped at all the park’s highlights—one of the most fascinating was Suplado, a blow hole where air pressure creates spectacular splashes and hellish noises.
Continuing our tour of the park, we drove along the rugged coast where views of the dramatic ironshore and splashing waves will impress even the most jaded traveler—a stop at Boca Kokolishi, or Cocolishi Bay, allows for a stroll along the beautiful black-sand beach and views of the waves crashing against the towering pulpit-like stone pillars.
Back in the car, we continued our pilgrimage towards Subi Brandaris, stopping once again to enjoy another park highlight and our first hike on the island—Pos Mangel, or “Sweet Well”, which is a nice little hike to a rare freshwater supply. Here you will find iguanas, lizards, goats, and several species of tropical birds, all of which make the most of the well that serves as a pretty reliable source of drinking water—goats and iguanas can be seen at all times of the day, but birds tend to gather in the late afternoon. If you can, plan your hike to coincide with this gathering and you won’t be disappointed—especially since this is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of the Bonairean parrot and the Caribbean parakeet. We weren’t lucky enough to see either of these rare birds, but we did have a nice time hiking with the goats and photographing the iguanas—the goats followed us like puppy dogs as we hiked along the trail and the iguanas, which seem to be at ease around humans, will come quite close, allowing for great full-frame portraits.
After completing our hike to Pos Mangel, a mere 30-minute roundtrip trek, we were finally on our way to Mount (Subi) Brandaris—the hill, which rises to the lofty height of 784-feet, is the highest point on Bonaire.
We arrived at the parking lot at the base of Brandaris in late morning—the park recommends hikers begin the climb before noon to avoid the heat of the day and to allow enough time to complete the trek and exit the park before closing (Park is open from 8am-5pm, and you must enter the park by 2:45pm).
The climb to the summit, which takes the average hiker 45-minutes, starts with a narrow footpath that eventually gives way to a ridgeline scramble—the ridge route, which requires the use of your hands and feet to climb over some of the boulders, is marked with yellow circles painted on the rocks.
Following the yellow bull’s-eye markers past contorted Divi-divi trees, we soon found ourselves standing on the summit of Subi Brandaris—from the top of Bonaire, the views are magnificent. On a clear day you can see as far south as the salt pans and across the ocean to Mount Christoffel, the highest point on the distant island of Curaçao—located 30 miles away. If it is an exceptionally clear day, you might also see views of the mountains in Venezuela—an astounding 50 miles from the coast of Bonaire.
We lingered on the summit for nearly an hour, taking in the views before beginning our descent—kododo blauw lizards and bananaquits accompanied us as we made our way back to the car.
Leaving Washington-Slagbaai National Park, a place we thoroughly enjoyed, we made our way to Gotomeer—a saltwater lagoon near the island’s northern end where flamingos tend to gather. Bonaire is one of the few places in the world where pink flamingos nest—these shy, stilt-legged birds are a pleasure to observe. Should you wish to add flamingos to your bird-watching agenda while on Bonaire, the best time to see any of the nearly 15,000 that call the island home is January to June—when they tend to their fuzzy gray-feathered chicks. For the best views, take the paved access road that skirts the edge of the lagoon to the parking and observation area—although the skittish birds kept a respectable distance, we were able to see the flamingos at closer distances than at Pekelmeer.
Our fun-filled day of exploration ended with dinner at Donna & Giorgio’s—delicious home-style pizza and pasta are prepared by Donna and her Sardinian born husband Giorgio and served in the restaurants cozy interior or al fresco on the terrace. The restaurant, on the main road just outside Kralendijk, quickly became our favorite place to dine on the island—the spaghetti pomodoro and bistecca arrabiato are to die for!
There is no shortage of great places to dine on Bonaire—among our favorites were It Rains Fishes, Rum Runners adjacent to Captain Don’s Habitat, Coco’s Beach Café, and City Café.
City Café, a busy waterfront establishment, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner at reasonable prices—fresh seafood, sandwiches, and salads are the staples of the menu. In addition to the great food and atmosphere, City Café is a great place to access the internet—for a fee, we paid $10/2 hours, you can check your email and surf the web.
Coco’s Beach Café, serving Tex Mex and grilled fare, will forever have a warm place in our hearts—the cable in our hotel room did not have a CBS feed and we were doomed to miss the finale of Survivor: Pearl Islands. Forlorn, we set out to drown our sorrows in nacho cheese and margaritas—making a run for south of the border, island style, we grabbed a seat at Coco’s near the big screen TV. On a long shot, we asked the waitress if they were able to get CBS—sure enough, they did! The waitress even let us move closer to the TV where we sipped on Pina Coladas while watching Survivor—you can’t ask for more than that!
Bon Bini, which means “Welcome” in the local language Papiamentu, pervades the outlook of everyone on Bonaire—the warm people, the warm weather (Bonaire is blessed with sunshine 365 days per year and an average temperature of 82° F), and a hot-list of activities coalesce to create a near perfect Caribbean get-away. The excellent snorkeling, diving, bird-watching, hiking, and dining are sure to win you over, and true to its boomerang shape, the island will somehow work its way back into your heart after you leave—beckoning for you to return.
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