When I told friends I was going to Bonaire, I was typically met with blank stares. This small, 112 square mile island, located just north of Venezuela and just east of its better known sisters, Aruba and Curaçao, is remarkably under the radar. Although it has been a magnet for the scuba diving community for years! The big draw here for divers is that most sites are accessible directly from shore, eliminating the need for scheduled boat trips. The area around the island has been protected since 1979 thanks to the efforts of one Captain Don, an American seafarer with a passion for scuba diving who was shipwrecked off the island in 1962. The island’s coral reefs contain most every Caribbean species of hard and soft coral, and the condition of the reefs, with little algae or bleaching, is hard to beat.
How to Get There
Getting to Bonaire from NYC requires a stopover in Curaçao (JetBlue has regular flights from JFK), which is worth a visit on its own, too. From Curaçao, we flew Insel Air (not recommended, as they cancelled our return flight back—a better option is Win Air). Once on Bonaire, we rented a pickup truck from AB car rentals, which provides a 10% discount on tanks and dive gear rental. Be sure to reserve your truck ahead of time, as they do get fully booked up.
The drive to our Airbnb took us through town and up the Sabadeco hill, to a beautiful gated house owned by Louise and Simon (and their two dalmatians, Eva and Mia). They were all there to greet us when we arrived, and Eva and Mia promptly corralled us into belly rubs on the pool terrace. The orange and purple hues of golden hour were settling in across the sky, and the northern reaches of the island stretched into view from the house.
Every dive shop on the island will require you do a check-out dive with them and pay the park fee of $25 before they rent you any tanks or gear to ensure you understand the marine park rules and won’t damage the coral. After that, you’re free to go on your own, and I did a couple of days of diving with our Airbnb host Simon, who doubles as a divemaster. He knows the best sites on the island, including ones where you will be the only divers – a truly unique experience. Some of the most spectacular highlights included a baitball so thick with fish that it blocked out the sun above us, and a group of 13 Caribbean reef squid hovering together in shallow water. There were beautiful gardens of staghorn corals, resting feather stars and curious boxfish.
And, the food on Bonaire is excellent. One of our best meals was burgers and fries from the King Kong food truck on the southwestern shore, featuring daily specials like 3-cheese or truffled burgers. On the other end of the spectrum, the cod with risotto and chorizo or the beef tartare with crunchy bulgur at Brass Boer would not be out of place in a restaurant in New York, and we enjoyed every bite. For cocktails, check out The Pier, where Jay expertly pours well-balanced, citrus-based libations. On Thursdays, the great value all-you-can-eat BBQ at Jibe City is a good reason to check out the eastern side of the island. Splash around in the shallows afterwards, and you may be lucky enough to see the water around you explode in bioluminescent bright blues.
No visit to Bonaire is complete without a drive through the Washington Slagbaai National Park. Alien landscapes of thousands of enormous cactuses and multi-layered volcanic rock abound, and we stopped to admire imprints of brain coral and other organisms in the ground beneath us. A lighthouse marks the northern tip of the island, and Wayaka 2 is perhaps the best snorkeling spot we encountered, featuring an easy, sandy entrance and fish that swam right up to us. There are some interesting overhangs leading to caves to explore, too, and you’ll encounter flamingos in numerous spots. Ideally budget a full day to linger at your leisure, or make a promise to come back.