Bonaire in May 2003
by:Jean-Sebastien Morisset and Melanie Vallee
|Last Updated on:July 17 2003
at 07:07 pm -0400 GMT
Talk to any diver about their favorite
vacations, and you're likely to hear about Bonaire. As Bonaire's
license plate boldly states, it's a "Divers Paradise".
The dive sites are plentiful (over 80 marked and many more
un-marked), most are easily accessible from shore, visibility
often exceeds 100 feet, and there's very little current. Bonaire
offers some of the easiest and hassle-free diving in the world.
Over the years, a few events have changed this once pristine
island. In 1999, large waves from Hurricane Lenny slammed into
Bonaire's north/west sides, destroying ocean front property and
reefs down to 30 feet. In 2002, the Dutch airline KLM moved
their regional hub from Curacao to Bonaire, extending the
landing strip, building a new petrol pier and holding tanks.
Flights have increased dramatically, and large 747s now arrive
and depart four times per week. When booking a hotel, you should
consider how far you'll be from the airport. Otherwise, you
might have to tolerate the window-shaking roar of engines at 4am
Sunday morning when KLM's 747 takes off for Amsterdam.
Even with all these changes, Bonaire remains
one of the premier dive destinations of the Caribbean. The
diving is easy, and many of the southern dive sites were
untouched by the waves of '99. The following article will center
on the current state of Bonaire as-of May 2003 - recommended
Accomodations, Restaurants, Dive Sites, and other activities.
The Birds of Bonaire
Bowker's Carib Inn
This is a charming ocean-front hotel owned by Bruce and Liz
Bowker. Originally a residential house, Bruce and Liz purchased
the property, and converted it to an Inn catering to divers. A
small dive shop offers air and servicing of most major brand
names. The compressed air is clean, and the tanks are well
maintained. The same can't be said for some of the other dive
shops on the island. We actually heard loose metal in one of the
tanks we rented from Buddy Dive! Unfortunately, Bruce doesn't
offer Nitrox, but we're hopeful that will change in the future
as more people request it. For now, only Bruce's tanks are
allowed on his boats, and he only offers air. Since most reefs
on Bonaire are between 30 and 80 feet, air is usually
acceptable, and dives are often 70 mins or more. Bruce offers
two boat dives per day, one at 8:30am and another at 1:30pm. The
boats are small, with an average of 6-10 people, and fast. The
dive site is chosen by the divers on the boat before leaving the
dock. The divemasters will do any site within the bay, and
special trips to Red Slave or Washington-Slagbaai National Park
can be arranged.
If you prefer to shore dive, Bruce's place can be an excellent base
of operations. You can use his tanks (clean air, well
maintained), or pickup Nitrox from another dive shop. Buddy Dive
offers drive-through pickup with unlimited tanks, but prior
experience has lead me to doubt the service schedule on their
tanks. You'll also need to rent some kind of transportation - I
would suggest a pickup since loading/unloading is easier, and
pickups are allowed in the Washington-Slagbaai National Park
(cars are not). Bruce's Inn offers rinse tanks in the front for
shore divers, and rinse tanks in the back for boat divers.
Rounding off the ammenities are a tiled
swimming pool (with a turtle design on the bottom), a sandy
beach entry, and a common dining & BBQ area on the
waterfront. There's a wide selection of room sizes and rates,
but the most popular ones are rooms #7 and #8. They are located
on the second floor of the original house, and feature large
balconies that look out onto the sea. This is an idilic place to
have breakfast early in the morning. The rooms offer a complete
kitchen, two bathrooms, and a second fold out bed in the
Restaurants (North to South)
Donna and Giorgio's
An italian restaurant on main street, as you head north our of
Kralendijk, Donna and Giorgio's offer the usual italian fair
without pretention. The tables are right out front on the patio
/ gravel, where you can watch the cars go by. On wednesday
night, one of the central tables is reserved for a local salsa
band. Bring your appetite, because the portions are generous!
One of our favorites! De Tuin (pronounced
"The Ton" as-in "a metric ton") is an
internet cafe, bar, and restaurant. Several of the locals
hang-out here, and it's common to be handed a Dutch menu (they
also have English ones). The first time we went, Frank and Phil
(our Divermasters at the Carib Inn) suggested we try the ribs.
They gave us specific instructions to order individual
portions, otherwise they give you fewer ribs and lump all
the orders on a single serving plate! The ribs are served with a
sour cream dip which is excellent.
Capriccio is located on Kaya Isla Riba, just
north of City Cafe on the waterfront. They have an outdoor
terasse, but I would suggest opting for the indoor dining room
instead. The terrase doesn't receive much wind, there is traffic
passing within a few feet, and there's a dumpster accross the
road. The dining room is cool, and (if you have the choice) you
can sit in one of two cozy alcoves. You can't really go wrong
with any of the menu items. My favorite is probably the Gnocchi,
which are handmade by the chef. Capriccio's also have an
extensive and resonably priced wine list, many of which are
private imports from Italy.
The Mona Lisa was one of the first establishements on main
street -- built before there was even a paved runway. It was
named after the original owner's two daughters (Mona and Lisa).
Since the Mona Lisa has been around for so long, it has a real
lived-in feel. There are plenty of dusty artifacts hanging from
the ceiling and walls - some of which haven't been painted in a
hundred years, I expect. The Mona Lisa is another local
hang-out, and before sitting down for dinner, I would encourage
you to have a drink at the bar and soak up the atmosphere.
When you're ready, you can move to the dining
room or choose one of 3 tables in the bar area. The bar tables
offer the same food, but at a lower price. If you reserve early,
you can ask for a window table in the dining room. The same
lived-in feel extends into the dining room, and with the warm
personal service of Rudy, you'll feel at home in no time. Some
locals we know come here almost every week. Although the menu
doesn't change much, all the plates are absolutely exquisite.
Try the shrimp bisque -- I've never tasted a better one.
Richard's Waterfront Dining
Arriving on Bonaire, we like to eat at
Richard's that first evening. The restaurant extends onto the
beach, and the view is breathtaking - a perfect setting to start
a vacation. As you look out onto the bay, you might even see the
lights of night divers on the reef. Richard's offers a variety
of local fish and some meats. The fish can be a little dry, but
the view more than makes up for this.
Washington-Slagbaai National Park
There are several places around the Washington-Slagbaai
National Park where you can park and walk down dirt paths to
see iguanas, birds, and goats. We stopped at Pos Mangel, halfway
around the park, and found several goats relaxing in the partial
shade of small trees. Iguanas (often over 4 feet long) are
usually present here, and will come looking for food. Be careful
- in drier periods of the year, they've been known to use their
claws to climb up tourists' legs for food! The same trees which
provide partial shade, also prevent winds from reaching far down
these paths, so make sure you bring along enough water to keep
cool and hydrated.
There are several shore diving oportunities
around the park, but very few divers take advantage of them. It
takes a good 1/2 hour to reach the park, and almost another hour
to reach the dive sites. Some of the sites have moorings, but
boats rarely come up here because of the distance and time
required. Plan on bringing several tanks and a lunch if you want
to dive these sites. See the review of Playa Benge bellow for
more information on the park's unique fish and coral varieties.
The Birds of Bonaire
Bonaire has a large number of itinerant
visitors. There are about 90 migrant species from North America,
25 from South America and 25 sea birds. Bonaire is a stepping
stone between continents for many birds and gives them a chance
for a safe place to rest before they continue their migration. A
large number of Greater Flamingos make their way from Venezuela
to Bonaire, a 50 mile flight, every day. The Flamingos use
Bonaire as a breading ground, and young (grey) flamingos can be
seen on occasion. After a few months, they'll fly back to
Venezuela with the adults, where they'll remain for the next 4-5
years, returning to Bonaire when they reach sexual maturity.
There is also a good variety of local birds; The Bananaquit
(also known as the chibichibi), Ruby
Topaz Hummingbird, Ground Dove, Tropical Mockingbird,
Black-Faced Grassquit, Caribbean Parakeet, Yellow Warbler, Orange
Trupial, Yellow Oriole, Caracara, Pearly-Eyed Thrasher, and
many more shore birds...
The waters around Bonaire are protected by the Bonaire National
Marine Park, which actively promotes conservation of the reefs.
There are over 80 marked dive sites around Bonaire, most of them
accessible from shore. Some of the more popular sites, located
within the bay, have seen better times. The bay dive sites are
close and have little current, making them perfect for
beginners. As you travel further south, the sites become more
spectacular. Dive sites past the White Slave Huts (about 10-15
mins from Kralendijk) receive few visitors: the soft corals are
plentiful and healthy, and where you would see only one or two
fish of a species in the bay, you'll find whole schools of them
down south. There are a few sites within the bay worth a visit,
such as the Town Pier, Hilma Hooker, and Salt Pier.
If you're going to do any shore diving, get
your hands on Bonaire Diving Made Easy - Practical Guide to the
Shore Dives of Bonaire, by Jessie Armacost. It's printed in
Bonaire and should be available in most local dive shops. In
this book, you'll find up-to-date information on the majority of
marked and un-marked dive spots around the island.
Dive Sites (North to South)
Playa Benge (Washington-Slagbaai National Park)
Playa Benge is almost half way around the
park, and is accessible by shore or boat. This far north, you
have a chance to see schools of fish not frequently seen in the
bay. The coral formations are also large and impressive. The
waves from Hurricane Lenny destroyed most of the coral above 30
feet, but the reef is still in excellent shape down to 130 feet
or more, and it's starting to come back in the shallows. Make
sure you save some air for the shallows -- the current can move
you around a bit, but the juveniles and small creatures you'll
see are well worth it. I lost count of how many Yellowtail
Damselfish and blennies or every sort we saw.
The Town Pier of Bonaire is a classic night dive. Orange Cup
Coral adorns almost every surface, and you're likely to see Frog
Fish, Seahorses, many Eels and Crabs of all sorts. Dive shops
and resorts organize dives to the pier once or twice per week,
so crowding can be a problem. When making a reservation, make
sure the dive starts after 8-9pm (later is better), and there
are no more than 6-8 people. Good buoyancy skills and finning
technique (frog kick) are essential, especially if there are
photographers in the group. Since the pilings are made of iron,
your compass will be useless. Follow the divemaster, and pay
attention to where you're going. It's rather difficult to get
lost, unless you're a photographer focusing too much on all the
creatures and coral.
The Hilma Hooker is another classic dive for Bonaire, albeit
during the day. No doubt this would make an excellent night dive
too. There are three moornings on the Hilma Hooker and an easy
shore access. This site can be fairly busy, so you might want to
dive it outside of the peak boat diving hours (about 8:30am to
10:00am and 1:30pm to 3:00pm). This is especialy true for
photographers that want to take wide angle shots without other
divers getting in the way. A typical dive on the Hilma Hooker
starts from the bow (south) to the stern (north), and finishes
on the reef (east).
If you want to dive the Salt Pier, you or your dive shop should
fax a request to the Harbor Master one or two days before. This
insures that divers are not in the water when there is a ship
coming in or out of the pier. Practically speaking, no-one
really does this since it takes too long for the Harbor Master
to fax back an authorization.
If you dive the Salt Pier by boat, there are
two ways to do it. The dive boat can drop you off at the pier,
and then go tie-off at Jeanny's Glory, just north of the pier.
You swim along the pier (going north), and eventually arrive at
the boat. The divemaster will certainly brief you on the markers
you can use to find your way back -- this includes a huge chain
and floating drum (must be 20 feet accross) which is located
between Jeanny's Glory and the Salt Pier. The other way to dive
the Salt Pier from a boat is to tie-off at Jeanny's Glory, and
then swim south to the pier, turn back, and swim back to the
boat. To conserve air, you should stay shallow between Jeanny's
Glory and the Salt Pier.
The prefered mathod of diving the Salt Pier
is from shore. You can park on the north side of the conveyor
which crosses the street. There's a small parking lot, but you
can (and should) park closer to the shoreline. The swim out to
the pier isn't very long, and there are plenty of small criters
and fish in the shallows. When you reach the pier, you can swim
from one group of pilings to the next. There are usually large
Tarpons, Baracuda, and Jacks hanging around, but there are
plenty of small critters too, including Seahorses.
Fish Hut South
This is an unmarked site just south of the Fish Hut (it's really
just after the fish hut). There's a 2 foot brain coral at
the edge of the shore that marks a good entry point. The smooth
rock botton has many holes filled with Sea Urchins, so be
careful where you step! There are lots of healthy soft and hard
corals on this reef. If you're looking to take a picture of
large Purple Sea Fans, this is your site. We also noticed a
higher than average number of shrimp and anemones. Melanie found
her first Sea Horse on this reef.
Look for a sandy area to enter and exit. The hard bottom has
many holes and gullies, so watch your step. It's a fairly good
swim out to the reef, but the shallows can be the most
interesting part! On one dive, we saw a Green Turtle, a
Hawksbill Turtle, a Southern Stingray, a Spotted Eagleray, a
couple of Blue Parrotfish, and lots of Cowfish -- all in the
The entry here can be a little tricky --
there are holes with small Sea Urchins to avoid as you walk
through the waves. Once you reach the sandy area, the swim out
takes a few minutes. There might be some current in the
shallows, but this will let up as you swim out towards the reef.
There are small coral heads and soft corals to examine on the
way out. On the reef, you'll see lots of schooling fish, soft
corals everywhere, large and curious baracudas, and probably one
or two turtles. If you're a photographer, this site is excellent
for wide-angle shots.
Red Slave had a mooring, but since dive operators don't like to
come out this far, it wasn't properly maintained. Eventually,
the rope broke and the mooring disapeared. So for the time
being, Red Slave is only accessible from the shore. The
shoreline is a little steep, and covered in small rocks which
extend down into the water, so watch your step. The swim out to
the reef is a little long, but like all other sites down south,
you'll be plenty rewarded once you get there - schools of fish
and soft corals abound.
photos of Bonaire...
HAVE FUN ON YOUR DIVE TRIPS
AND SCUBA DIVE SAFELY!