Caribbean paradise, no waiting

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This remote island in the Caribbean doesn't make the best first impression — unless flat, scrub-covered desert with a scattering of cactuses stimulates your imagination.

Donkeys freely roam some areas. Football-size, hand-painted rocks serve as highway signs. And much of the inland remains wild, accessible only by gravel road. But when I donned my snorkel mask or hiking shoes, I realized Bonaire's true beauty lay waiting to be discovered.

Unlike its neighbor, Aruba, Bonaire is relatively unknown. The boomerang-shaped desert island is about 50 miles north of Venezuela and attracts about 60,000 visitors a year. Aruba is swarmed by 643,000 annually. Those who come to Bonaire usually seek two things: a serene alternative to popular tropical destinations such as Hawaii and some of the best diving in the world.

Bonaire's 80 dive spots were named the best in the Caribbean/Atlantic by Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine in 2004. Klein Bonaire ("Little Bonaire"), an uninhabited island half a mile offshore, has 26 more sites. But you don't need to dive to see the marine splendor here, and most visitors aren't divers: Half never scuba dive. My partner, Craig, and I didn't slip into wetsuits or strap on oxygen tanks either. Instead, we snorkeled, hiked and explored the island's history.

We arrived by ferry after a stay on Curaçao, another island in the Netherlands Antilles.

One of the owners of Ocean View Villas, where we planned to stay for a few nights, greeted us at the port and gave us a quick tour of the seaside town of Kralendijk and the island.

The peak tourist season is mid-December through mid-April, when Bonaire's perpetually sunny sky entices visitors from the United States and Europe longing to escape their gray winter homes. The average low in February is 81.5 degrees, and the water temperature averages 80 degrees. Because it lies outside of the hurricane belt, Bonaire receives only 20 inches or so of rain annually and is a year-round destination.

It's possible to park, walk to the water and dive in from almost anywhere along the shore. We rented equipment from WannaDive Bonaire. Bart Snelder, one of the company's owners, explained the region's unique differences.

"On Bonaire there are vastly more species of coral," Snelder said. "The name of the game is shore diving. It enables divers to explore on their own at their own pace, whenever and wherever they want. On Hawaii, the diving is much more structured."

Bonaire is protective of its seascape. The waters ringing the 24-mile-long island and Klein Bonaire are a protected marine park. Rangers patrol the shore to ensure that no ships drop anchor, which could damage reefs, and that no divers spear fish.

Natural wonders are matched with interesting history. North of town, we found the modest Museo Boneriano (Museum of Bonaire). The 110-year-old building has Caiquetios Indian artifacts dating to the 15th century. The Caiquetios, who sailed from Venezuela around 1000, were followed in 1499 by explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, who claimed Bonaire for Spain. In 1633, the Dutch took over Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.

Today islanders speak Dutch, Spanish, English and Papiamento, a local language that blends Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese and French.

The museum also featured elaborate costumes from Maskarada, a New Year's tradition involving ornate dresses, masks and crowns.

Our suite at Ocean View Villas, one block from Bachelor's Beach, included a kitchen stocked with snacks and juice, a washer and dryer, and a private patio. The apartment had air conditioning, but screen doors and windows allowed a gentle breeze to cool the room. Many of the guests neither dive nor snorkel, said Tim Nesselrodt, who owns the resort with his partner, John Merrick. They come for tranquillity.

"It's the only place in the world that I know where so many people live together without any problems," said Nesselrodt, who moved to Bonaire in 1990 from West Virginia. "In a population of about 10,000, we have 70-some nationalities here. So we're dealing with a number of different languages, many different colors of people, all kinds of religions."

We wanted to spend the first day on land. We ventured south on a figure-eight road described as a "two-lane highway," which was actually a 1 1/2-lane street. Painted boulders labeled our first stop, Pink Beach, where the sand appears rosy because it's composed of granulated conch shells. In the water, we spotted a 7-foot green eel swimming among tiger groupers and queen parrotfish.

In the distance rose vast salt flats, white mounds of Bonaire's largest export. In the 19th century, slaves harvested salt for the Dutch West Indies Company and slept in tiny one-room huts, preserved as reminders of a grievous past. We walked through 10 white huts along the shore, followed farther down the road by 19 red huts, which faded to a golden orange. The doorway of the slave huts ended at my waist, about 2 1/2 feet high. Inside, the only sound was the whistle of the wind.

Meeting up with ex-patsWe returned to Kralendijk for dinner at It Rains Fishes, a 4-year-old restaurant that became our favorite. At most of the restaurants we visited, servers spoke fluent English. A surprising number were American expatriates attracted to the simple, low-key island life.

The details set apart It Rains Fishes: Seashells circled the candles, plastic blue and yellow fish floated in the water glasses and the check arrived in a miniature wooden treasure chest. The service was exceptional. Craig said his beef saté was tender, and my chicken saté was subtle but flavorful.

The next day, we headed north to 500-year-old petroglyphs left by the Caiquetios, a branch of Arawak Indians. The red, brown and black paintings are on lime surfaces in caves and on rock shelters at Boka Onima near Rincon, Bonaire's oldest town.

We spent the rest of the day at Washington Slagbaai National Park, a wilderness sanctuary on the former site of two plantations that exported goats, aloe vera, charcoal and divi divi pods, which contain tannin used by tanneries.

Visiting the nature sanctuary takes at least half a day because both of the one-way dirt roads are rough. Organ pipe cactuses towered above our rented Daewoo minivan, which was more like an oversized golf cart and struggled to climb a hill in at least one spot. But the inland wildlife and coastal views make the trek worthwhile.

The road later passed Saliña Wayaca, which offered glimpses of the pink flamingos that nest on the island. The water lured us to Playa Funchi, a beach of white coral that once was the harbor for one of Bonaire's plantations. Craig floated into the tide and immediately saw six stoplight parrotfish.

The best snorkeling came later in the day at 1,000 Steps, a spot south of the national park, across from Piedra Haltu (High Rock), part of another former plantation. Despite the spot's name, the beach lay only 72 steps from the bluff. The island is the peak of a submerged mountain with coral reefs as close as 50 yards offshore. We shared the isolated enclave with schools of blue tang, sergeant major and other marine life. The neon-colored fish surrounded us as we swam through staghorn, elkhorn and brain coral in the clear, calm water.

We were tempted to return to 1,000 Steps after dinner with underwater flashlights. Diving and snorkeling are permitted 24 hours a day. We had just enough energy, though, to clean up for dinner at Richard's Seacoast Restaurant, where diners sat on a deck that stretched over the tide. The entrees included shrimp scampi, grilled dorado and filet mignon.

We spent our last day exploring Kralendijk, the capital. We sat on the Welcome Seat, a bench in Wilhelminapark, where families in the early 20th century waited for loved ones coming from Curaçao. Some say the "W" on the seat stands for "welcome" and others say it is for "Wilhelmina," the queen of the Netherlands during the first half of the 20th century. Nearby stood the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument, commemorating the first lady's visit in 1944. We also went to Ft. Orange, built in 1639 and today a courthouse, and Bestuurskantoor, a home built in 1837 for the governor.

I couldn't help but linger by the shore before boarding our flight home. I stopped at North Belnem, a sand beach almost directly across from the airport, and savored one last peaceful moment. I realized that this was one desert island where I wouldn't mind being stranded.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bonaire by the sea

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is available on American and Air Jamaica. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $733.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below, dial 011 (the international dialing code) and 599 (country code for Netherlands Antilles) followed by the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Ocean View Villas, 6 Kaya Statius Van Eps; 717-6105, http://www.oceanviewvillas.com . I stayed in one of the three apartments here. Each has a kitchen, a private patio and air conditioning. Run by expatriates. Friendly, quiet and low-key. From $80.

Bellafonte Chateau de la Mer, 10 E.E.G. Blvd.; 717-3333, http://www.belbonaire.com . For a more luxurious experience, try these recently built, oceanfront apartments. Pier provides direct access to the water. Studios start at $95. Larger units run $140 to $310, depending on season.

Divi Flamingo Beach Resort, 40 J.A. Abraham Blvd.; 717-8285, http://www.diviflamingo.com . For those seeking a resort providing diving services as well as accommodations, try this waterfront spot. Rooms are similar to what you would find in a mid-scale motel, but they are colorful and well-kept. Doubles from $179.

WHERE TO EAT:

It Rains Fishes, 24 Kaya Jan N.E. Craane; 717-8780, http://www.itrainsfishes.com . This colorful, popular eatery specializes in fresh seafood but also serves an eclectic array of other dishes such as excellent chicken and beef satés. Entrees start at $14.

Richard's Seacoast Restaurant, 60 J.A. Abraham Blvd.; 717-5263. An elegant seafood restaurant run by an expat. We dined on a deck overlooking a shoreline of coral and sand. Entrees start at $14.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Corp. Bonaire, 10 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 900, New York, NY 10020; (800) 266-2473 or (212) 956-5912, http://www.infobonaire.com .

— Todd Henneman

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