For decades, the island of Bonaire, located in the Dutch West Indies, (Lesser Antilles) has been known as a diver’s paradise. Year after year, divers return to the protected waters around this island of 14,000 residents, never tiring of the beauty below the water. But over the past few years, more and more visitors are coming to this 24-mile long Caribbean paradise to take in the beauty above the water as well, and all of the activities it offers.
Location and Climate
Bonaire is located 30 miles from Curacao, 50 miles north of Venezuela and 86 miles east of Aruba. Its yearly average temperature is 82 F and its water temperature is 80F, with an arid, desert-like terrain.
Controlled but steady growth is the name of the game in Bonaire. From luxury resorts to intimate inns and bungalows, the Bonaire government (which is part of the Dutch Kingdom) believes that all development on the island should lift the quality of life for the Bonairean population. With eight hotels on the island and a ninth (an all inclusive Divi resort) to be built in 2009, Bonaire offers ccommodations to meet every pocketbook from hi-end vacationers to backpackers.
The Harbor Village Beach Club features 30 remodeled and elegantly appointed rooms and luxurious beachfront suite accommodations. It was recently accepted as a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Its amenities include a private beach, beauty salon, spa services, tennis courts, and a 60-slip marina, meeting facilities and its own dive shop. www.harborvillage.com The Plaza Resort, another luxury resort, offers air-conditioned suites with 2 queen size beds, TV, telephone, large bathrooms, mini-fridge, room safe and hot water pot for tea or coffee. Larger Grand suites offer beachfront access and ocean views. All 174 suites and villas have patios or balconies with ocean or lagoon views. They also have the only casino on the island, as well as its own 5-star dive shop. www.plazaresortbonaire.com Both resorts are family friendly and honeymoon destinations.
With two dozen dive shops scattered over the island, and over 80 dive and snorkel sites, it’s easy to get diving no matter if one is looking to shore dive, boat dive, night dive, or family dive. In 1979, the entire coastline of Bonaire was declared a protected marine park. A $10 fee for snorkelers and $25 for divers is charged to enter the water.
The three most visited dive resorts on Bonaire are the Sand Dollar Condominium Resort, www.divesanddollar.com Captain Don’s Habitat www.habitatdiveresorts.com and the Buddy Dive Resort www.buddydiveresort.com. These resorts welcome thousands of divers a year, all looking to get in as many dives as possible during their stay. All offer dive packages for both the seasoned diver and beginner. Many dive shops offer dive certification on site. I stayed at the Sand Dollar for a week and found the resort comfortable, and the diving and snorkeling excellent. At Sand Dollar, every condo faces the ocean. All rooms are situated to catch the trade winds and bedrooms are air-conditioned and kitchens are fully equipped. There is a restaurant on site for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Located directly in front of the Sand Dollar is the Bari Reef, considered one of the finest reefs in the world, and voted the number one reef in the Caribbean with over 300 species of fish. Shore dives to the reef are one of the great sells of this resort. Andre Nahr, the owner and director of Bonaire Dive & Adventure, the dive shop located at Sand Dollar has been in operation for over twenty years. He sees a lot of repeat business to Sand Dollar and his dive facility. “The divers we see like Bonaire very much. They like the people of Bonaire and the diving you can do here is very easy. And anyplace you enter the water here; you can experience a very beautiful dive.” At the Sand Dollar, all divers must do a check out dive before going out on their on. They also offer a kids snorkeling program. Ocean’s Classroom is a discovery-based program for children which combine snorkeling with hands-on learning about the ocean and its inhabitants.
Tourism Development and other Activities
On April 23, 2007, Tourism Corporation Bonaire in cooperation with the local government, officially launched the Tourism Awareness Program, an initiative that will be implemented throughout the next three years to enhance tourism awareness among the entire population of Bonaire.
The Tourism Awareness Program will educate the Bonairean community of the important role that it has on the tourism product and will encourage small acts of kindness such as greeting visitors with a smile. Components of the program already in place include: the official slogan “Smile, Boneiru ta Dushi,” which translates in English to “Smile, Bonaire is Sweet;” a 30 second jingle that is played on local radio stations; and a mascot named Mama Smile, who promotes the program by visiting residents around the island with her Bonairean community ambassadors.
More and more visitors are exploring Bonaire by car, bicycle and hiking, which allows them to experience close up, the diversity of the island. From the Washington Slagbaai National Park, a 13,500 acre wildlife santuary where birds, lizards, goats, donkees and iguanas are viewed in their natural habitat, or learning how to windsurf at Lac Bay, the internationally known windsurfing beach, as well as horse backriding on the beach, sea kayaking and birdwatching. And spending time in Kralendijk, Bonaire’s largest town with its historic buildings and a growing nightlife, is a great place to shop and dine, or just have a drink at the dock and watch the sun go down. The week I was there the 3rd annual Bonaire Heineken Jazz Festival was in full swing with top local and international musicians. Bonaire is maturing into a sophisticated destination with a great deal to offer travelers.
One of the biggest influx of tourism to Bonaire has been the arrival of cruise ships. In the 2007/2008 tourism season, the tourist board expects 160,000 visitors to step off ships and spend money. Ronella Croes, the Director of Tourism for Bonaire, believes that controlled growth is essential, especially with the cruise lines. “ It’s very important that Bonaire not be taken over by the large cuise ships. We are marketing to the smaller ships, 100 to 300 passengers. I also want the tourism board to be ready for this growth. It’s imporant that we not only educate the people already working for the tourism board here in Bonaire, but many new jobs will be created due to the growth of tourism over the next few years. And having friendly, professional people greet and serve our visitors, is the most important thing we can do.”
A car is a must to get around the island. There are many rent-a-car businesses scattered around the island, as well as at the airport.
Bonaire’s Flamingo International Airport has gone through a major overhaul over the past few years. Airlines that service Bonaire from the United States are American Airlines and American Eagle from San Juan. Continental Airlines offers a number of flights to Bonaire including a direct weekly non-stop flight from Newark.