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-pats
We 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.