Bonaire – The Dutch Caribbean Paradise

Located south of Aruba and 50 miles East of Venezuela, Bonaire is a small island in the Dutch Caribbean. It is part of the ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. Bonaire is the smallest of the three, and the least developed when it comes to tourism, which is why it makes for a perfect travel destination for those who enjoy getting away from crowds.

WHY GO THERE

Turquoise blue water, picture perfect sunsets, Dutch Caribbean architecture, landscapes that vary from lush green hills to barren desserts doted with giant cactus, and not to forget some of the best dive sites in the world. If you enjoy nature, this is the place to be.

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WHERE TO GO

Kralendijk is the capital and the main city in Bonaire. It is located less than 10 minutes from Flamingo International Airport. With colorful buildings, downtown Kralendijk is a charming area with a cruise port (operating 6 months of the year), gift shops, restaurants and central amenities like tourist office, post office, police station, city hall. Surrounding residential neighborhoods and streets have theme names after musical instruments, names of countries, etc. making the city easy to navigate without many signs or even traffic lights.

Rincon is the only other city on the island. Once a town inhabited by the salt slaves who worked on the island, now Rincon is mostly a quiet residential area.

WHERE TO STAY

While there are a few dive resorts and small hotels in the area, you will not find any brand-name chain hotels or upscale all-inclusive resorts. The most beautiful hotel is Harbor Village Beach Club. Nestled on a private, four-acre peninsula, the charming Caribbean Bohemian style retreat feels more like a private estate than a hotel. Private villas and suites are surrounded by a burst of colorful flowers, yellow stucco facade, red terra cotta roofs, and golden tiled floors. Palm trees draw shade on to hammocks and beach lounges, while guests swim in the turquoise warm waters of the Caribbean. On the other side of the resort is a small harbor with a few dozen yachts and sailboats that would marvel any spot in the Italian Riviera.

At Harbour Village Beach Club, diving adventures are just steps away with Great Adventures Bonaire, the PADI five-star Instructor Development Center offering instruction courses for all levels, retail shop, a full range of services and daily boat dives from the Harbour Village dock. On site amenities include swimming pools, gym, spa and restaurant. Designed in the style of an antique Spanish ship with a dining deck located on a jetty extending over the water, La Balandra Restaurant and Bar offers diners a feeling of cruising while they enjoy daily fresh catch cooked with fusion flavors, paired with an extensive wine list.

Bonaire food

WHAT TO EAT

The restaurant scene in Bonaire is very eclectic. You can find authentic Italian, French, Indonesia, Cuban and Senegalese restaurants within walking distance of each other. Since immigrants from all over the world populate the island, there is a strong “international” culture blended in with Dutch and Caribbean. Here are some highly recommended restaurants:

At Sea – Rated #1 few years in a row, this cozy 1912 Bonairian house turned restaurant is run by a young French couple that share a passion for quality ingredients and breathtaking presentation. Each element of the plate is cooked to perfection and brought out as edible pieces of art. Enjoy daily changing menu served al fresco or inside the house.

Ingridients – Located at Buddy Dive Resort, Ingredients is a place to really treat oneself. Cool ocean breeze passes through the entire restaurant, as diners enjoy picture perfect sunsets. Diners can nibble on small plates of marinated olives, ham crostini, tuna tartare and tasty flatbread pizzas. Order the “pasta with cheese special” not listed on the menu and the server will cook tagliatelle tableside inside a 2 feet block of Italian cheese. It is a must try!

Bistro de Paris – The French food at this happening bistro located next to the harbor is some of the best you will find outside of Europe. Delicacies such as bouillabaisse Provençal, grilled tartine of snails, Foie gras, and frog legs are cooked to order by the French owner/ chef. Adjacent is an open air bar where locals hang out throughout the week.

Spice Beach Club – After a relaxing time at the beach, soak your feet in the sand, as you enjoy cocktails, typical Dutch snacks, and fresh salads. Spice Beach is a place where people come to enjoy the view, take a swim and chill through the afternoon.

Bonaire spice beach

Capriccio – This Italian restaurant in city center offers the largest wine selection on the island. It is go-to spot for homemade pasta, pizza and gelato in a relatively formal setting. Capriccio is also one of the handful of restaurants open on Sundays.

WHERE TO HAVE FUN

Twizy Tours – The coolest way to explore the tiny island of Bonaire is aboard a self-driven electric vehicle. Road Runner Bonaire offers tours of the North and South, which begin in the capital Kralendijk. South tour proceeds along the coast passing by famous diver spots, Cargill salt hills, slave houses, Atlantic Beach and Jibe City. On the way, you can stop to take photos, swim, dive, windsurf or kite board.

roadrunner bonaire

Washington Slagbaai National Park – A fifth of the island of Bonaire is a nationally protected nature sanctuary where visitors can spend an entire day hiking, walking, snorkeling, diving, swimming and bird watching. Everyone shoud have the chance to go snorkeling if they get the opportunity. That’s why you should make sure that you invest in a good snorkeling mask so you can make the most out of this experience as you may never get the chance to do it again. Expect to see more secluded beaches, caves, tall cactuses, giant windmills, goats, iguanas and hundreds of elegant pink flamingo parties. The geology of the coral island is also very visible inside the park, forming interesting patterns and colors, making it a photographer’s paradise.

Flamingos Bonaire

Rancho Washikemba – Horseback ride through a private ranch passing through cactus trees, dessert landscapes, open fields, and along the coast. Take a break at a secluded lagoon where you can go swimming with your horse. Rancho Washikemba offers horseback riding lessons, tours and parties and since horses are not native to the island, this is the only official, fully licensed and certified horseback riding ranch on Bonaire.

The Windsurf Place – Take a windsurfing lesson with one of the oldest companies on the island. Here you can rent gear and lockers, eat lunch, and practice on your own or with an instructor. The waters are warm, shallow and picturesque, resembling a vast swimming pool.

dive city Bonaire

Buddy Dive Resort – Beginner and expert snorkelers and divers will enjoy watching the underwater Coral Restoration project at Buddy Diver. Help plant, cut, and clean the coral farm, while enjoying a swim in the Caribbean waters. The dive shop offers classroom training, certifications and personal instructors. It’s a great way to give back your time and skills while on vacation.

Bonaire coral

Klein Bonaire – An undeveloped little island makes for a perfect day out. Pack your picnic and beach gear for trip to Bonaire’s west coast. Water taxis and dive boats transport passengers who want to swim, snorkel, or explore the beautiful beaches and clear blue waters. Some natives claim this is their favorite spot to getaway.

Mangazina di Rei – Visit this cultural center in Rincon to get a feel for Bonaire’s history. Aside from the nice views of the valley, you will also find a museum, gift shop, live music and interactive tours.

Bonaire culture

WHAT TO BUY

Sea Salt Bonaire – After driving around for a few minutes you know the island relies heavily on the production of salt as one of its exports. Run by a Dutch guy nicknamed “The Saltman”, this tiny shop off the main square sells everything made of salt. Boxes, tubs, salt mills, grinders, loose salt and bags of colored bath salt are available for personal consumption, gifts and souvenirs. You will also find Bonaire Sea Salt at most local restaurants.

saltman

Elements – Here you will find handmade dichroic glass jewelry designed by South African, Charlene Bosch while her Italian husband, Gabriele Tixi manages the store. Shop from a vast collection of glass bracelets, earrings, pendants and household gifts. Themes of designs included Africa collection, Ocean collection Sunset collection and many more. Each piece is beautifully done and no two pieces looked alike.

elements Bonaire

Hand-Made Elements

This is a romantic “boy meets girl, moves to an island and starts their own enterprise” story. South African, Charlene Bosch met Italian, Gabriele Tixi aboard Queen Mary 2, where they both were working at the time. They feel in love, got married, decided to quit living at sea, and moved to Bonaire in February 2011.

Charlene always had a passion for design and learned the art of working with glass from her mom. She started a little dichroic glass business, selling hand-made jewelry at the cruise port’s market stand in Bonaire six months of the year. Her unique designs reflected the beautiful aqua colors of the ocean and the bold and bright tones of the Caribbean. Visitors to the Dutch Caribbean island enjoyed purchasing local jewelry that was inspired by the surroundings.

With growing demand for her products, Charlene and Gabriele decided to open a store, Elements Bonaire in downtown Kralendijk. Soon their families moved from Italy and South Africa to join the business. Now they have stores in Bonaire and St Maarten.

elements Bonaire

I visited the store in Bonaire which was decorated with color changing tree in the center of the room surrounded by a vast collection of glass bracelets, earrings, pendants and household gifts. Themes of designs included Africa collection, Ocean collection Sunset collection and many more. Each piece was beautifully done and no two pieces looked alike. Gabriele flaunted glass cufflinks from their men’s collection. Shapes include turtles, angel fish, squares, triangle, long rectangles, packed in a zebra strip box, keeping in line with Charlene’s African roots.

elements Bonaire

Dichroic glass consists of multiple layers of metals which are vaporized in a vacuum chamber and electro beamed onto the glass. The glass is then cut into various shapes, layered together and then fused at almost 1500˚F for around 9-12 hours. From every angle you can see the colors change. The glass gives off brilliance and shine against different shades of light.

elements bonaire

All of Elements jewelry is made with stainless steel which is hypoallergenic and does not tarnish. They also make custom ordered products, such as monogrammed champagne glasses for wedding gifts and party favors.

The pieces range from $15-$55 and are also available online.

Photos tour of Washington Slagbaai National Park

Who knew that a fifth of the island of Bonaire is a nationally protected nature sanctuary? Washington Slagbaai National Park was established in 1969 and covers an area of 5.643 hectares. Once a private property of Julio Caesar “Boy” Herrera, the land was sold to the government of Netherland Antilles with the promise of not developing it commercially. As a result, this beautiful area is home to protected plant and wildlife, now maintained by the non profit organization, STINAPA Bonaire.

How the park got its name is an interesting story. In the early 1920’s the land was a private plantation named “America” and the main entrance (now visitor center) was the spot where the workers came to receive their wages and apply for work. This house came to be known as the capital of America – Washington, as symbol of decision making and prosperity.

Washington Slagbaai National Park merits a day long visit, specially if you really want to enjoy all its benefits. It is possible to do a driving tour of the park in less than 2 hours, stopping to see pristine beaches, caves, and flamingoes in their natural habitats. If you pack a picnic and gear, you can spend the day hiking, walking, snorkeling, diving, swimming and bird watching. There is only one restaurant/ inn inside the park but it’s not open year round.

The park is a photographer’s dream as one can spend countless hours capturing barely moving iguanas and elegant flamingo parties. Then there are tall cactuses and giant windmills. The landscape feels more like Arizona, then a Caribbean island, but no words can capture what you see yourself.

Here are some images I took at Washington Slagbaai National Park.

The visitor center houses a small museum that gives an overview of the island of Bonaire, especially its flora and fauna, its pioneer citizens, what they cultivated and tools they used. Pick up maps and cold drinks before heading inside for the day. Tickets are $25 per person.

visitors center Washington Slagbaai National Park

There is abundant wildlife inside the park, including iguanas, lizards, wild goats and 203 species of birds. If you look closely, you will see how the aloe plant attaches itself to the goat and transports itself for pollination.

goats at Washington Slagbaai National Park

The geology of the island is also visible inside the park. You will see dark rock formations, remains of solidified volcanic ashes as well as light colored coral rocks. The oldest dating sediments found in the area are 100 million years old. High winds and waves have caused erosion of the rocks, forming interesting patterns of erosion.

erosions at Washington Slagbaai National Park

 

The Subí Brandaris Trail leads visitors to the highest peak on Bonaire, 241 meters (784 ft.) high.  On a clear day you can see the island of Curaçao (46 km (30 miles) away from Bonaire, and, on exceptionally clear days, the Santa Ana Hill in the Paraguaná Peninsula of Venezuela, and the mountain range south of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.

highest peak at Washington Slagbaai National Park

The west shore of the Park has many beaches where one can enjoy snorkeling and swimming. The dive sites are great as the coral around the area is well protected and not crowded.

Washington Slagbaai National Park

The park is one of the best places on the island for observing birds, due to its remoteness and also the many types of habitat that includes salt-flats, fresh water wells, beaches, limestone plateaus by the shoreline and thorny forests. Flamingos at Washington Slagbaai National Park

Dutch influence is evident with these windmills, harvesting clean wind energy for the island. Bonaire is very environmentally conscious and generates most of its own energy.

windmills

All rights reserved @ Sucheta Rawal

Twizy Tours of Bonaire

Perhaps one of the coolest ways to explore the tiny island of Bonaire is aboard an electric vehicle. Hans Joern Buschmann, a professional race car driver recently immigrated from Germany to Bonaire and started a unique tour company, Road Runner Bonaire.

He picked me up from my hotel in his truck and drove me to his charming villa near downtown. After saying hi to his friendly dog and visitors at his holiday home, we proceeded to his backyard where he had small electric vehicles in vibrant colors, that looked like a cross between a Smart car and a go-cart. Technically, the car can seat two adults – one in the front and one in the back. The doors opened upwards like a Lamborghini. I boarded a black one with pink decor inspired by his girlfriend’s wedding planning business. Once behind the vehicle, it was easy to navigate with an accelerator, break and steering vehicle.

roadrunner bonaire

Road Runner offers tours of the North and South. On this day, we decided to do the southern tour of Bonaire. The 3-hour trip began in the capital Kralendijk and proceeded along the coast. We drove off into the main streets, accelerating at the maximum speeds since there was hardly any traffic.

Along the way we stopped at different viewing points to admire history, nature and architecture. At each spot, Hans gave a brief description of what I was looking at and volunteered to take photos of me posing on cliffs with waves splashing in the back. We saw some beautiful houses by the bay, drove past the Flamingo international airport, and stopped at Atlantis Beach to watch people kite boarding. Given his friendly personality, it seemed like Hans knew everyone on the island, as he waived to them and stopped for a brief hello.

Bonaire houses

roadrunner

Next, we saw some of the famous dive sites in Bonaire and a group of flamingos just hanging out by the marshes along the road.

Bonaire diving

Flamingos Bonaire

Hans is very passionate about the island, which makes him a great tour guide. Ask him anything about corals, historic significance or the best viewing spots, and he will have an answer for you. He explained to me the process of salt production in front of the Cargill Salt Hill, a magnificent site if you have sever seen mountains of salt before. Against the backdrop of blue skies, turquoise waters, and pink salt pools, the white hills stood out and made for a photo stop.

Cargill Salt Hill Bonaire

In the 1600’s Dutch settlers on the island employed slaves to work in the salt fields and traded the product by waterways. Till today, you can see slave houses and port markers in red, white, blue and orange identifying which landlord the salt fields and slaves belonged to.

slave houses Bonaire

salt traders Bonaire

A lone lighthouse stood next to an abandoned church as we continued our journey to the southern tip.

Our next stop was at Jibe City, a place for swimming, windsurfing, eating and drinking. I had a glass of fresh juice while watching kids and adults balance on their boards and sailing into the shallow blue waters.

dive city Bonaire

The adventure ended back at the house, where we dropped of the vehicles at their electric charging stations and went off to lunch. Hans tells me that Road Runner Bonaire has become one of the most popular ways to explore the island among visitors of all ages. “You don’t need to rent a car or be stuck on a tour bus. You have control over where you stop, for how long, and it’s a lot of fun driving!” he adds.

Tours start at $25 per person based on age, route and hours. Group sizes 2-8. Reservations are required.