There’s great snorkeling from the shore at Wayaka II.

Bonaire sparkles in the Caribbean

Exploring nature, reefs, distilleries and cuisine

We’ve always enjoyed Caribbean cruises because they allow us to sample the islands. However, after 15 or so cruises, we’ve moved on from sampling and now prioritize gorging ourselves on one island at a time.

We first experienced the Dutch island of Bonaire as a one-time stop from our weeklong cruise itinerary. We signed up for a beach and snorkeling excursion, so we disembarked from the ship right onto a small tour boat and spent our entire day on the water, never actually setting foot on the island.

The coral reefs and sea life overwhelmed our visual senses that day – some of the best snorkeling we’ve ever experienced. After that single day, we vowed to return to Bonaire for a long vacation. We’ve fulfilled that promise twice in the past two years.

Sea turtle spotting is popular in Bonaire’s coral reefs.
Sea turtle spotting is popular in Bonaire’s coral reefs.

Bonaire snorkeling, diving and beach combing

On an island with a mega reputation for great diving, my wife and I enjoyed snorkeling over Bonaire’s great coral reefs. We snorkeled from our hotel’s beach, from roadside beaches such as 1,000 Steps and Wayaka II and from a catamaran trip along the nearby island of Klein Bonaire.

On average, we snorkeled twice a day – I have shriveled prune-toe photos if you’d like me to post those images. Go ahead, dare me! The ocean sea life impressed us each time: hawksbill and green sea turtles, varieties of coral including staghorn that look like elk antlers, sting rays, midnight parrotfish, large schools of mesmerizing blue tang and surgeonfish, illuminated filefish and a variety of others. See my list of additional sightings below from our hotel’s beach.

We also signed up with Woodwind Tours for an afternoon catamaran sailing and snorkeling excursion, our second trip with them. They provide a great crew led by Dedrie. The staff offer an impressive variety of snorkeling equipment at no extra cost, including wet suits, full face masks and numerous prescription vision masks. We saw lots of sea life and an impressive coral reef that we rate at the top of our list. And they garnished our excursion with a great island pasta/salad plate and drinks that included more than the routine rum punch and soda. Bottoms up!

We enjoyed spotting this trupial at Slagbaai National Park.
We enjoyed spotting this trupial at Slagbaai National Park.

Exploring Washington Slagbaai National Park

We set aside a day to visit Bonaire’s national park. We purposely rented a four-wheel drive vehicle because Washington Slagbaai and its roads are rough and unpaved. But the drive matched the scenery which was much more wild than the rest of the island.

You can visit lighthouses, watch blowholes, photograph flamingos and other exotic birds, snorkel or dive from shore, hike among the cactus and floral, picnic along the beach or just enjoy the scenic drive.

There’s lots of ocean life close to the Harbour Village Beach.
There’s lots of ocean life close to the Harbour Village Beach.

Harbour Village Beach Club

After our first weeklong vacation to Bonaire, there was no question about where to stay again: Harbour Village Beach Club resort. Bonaire has few sandy beaches but the best one is perhaps at Harbour Village. There’s something relaxing about stepping out of your room onto the warm sand and into the ocean breeze. It’s the main feature that drew us back to this resort. Staff keep the private beach and resort grounds well groomed and the service is excellent.

I normally don’t single out accommodations in my WRT posts, but this resort deserves the accolades. The La Balandra Bar & Restaurant in the resort juts out into the ocean and lights illuminate sea life while you dine at night. Sea birds can be pesky in this open-air restaurant, but overall we enjoyed the charm of having gulls, parrots and other feathered guests squawk at us while we dined. And we enjoyed the guilty pleasure of ordering restaurant food and drink from our beach hammocks.

Our biggest surprise at this resort? The abundance of sea life we encountered while snorkeling just 40 feet from the resort’s shoreline. There’s much more beautiful coral around other parts of the island, but the resort added rock piles off shore and is growing coral, which draws a colorful variety of ocean life. Here’s a sampling of what we encountered: octopus, four varieties of eels, schools of tarpon, spotted drumfish, sea anemone, numerous parrotfish and giant French angelfish.

The resort accommodations are somewhat on the high end of our price point, but we won’t stay anywhere else. Time of year matters, so check out their seasonal rates.

Dive shop staff helped me identify this midnight parrotfish.
Dive shop staff helped me identify this midnight parrotfish.

Onsite dive shop

Great Adventures Bonaire is the resort’s onsite dive shop, a PADI five-star Instructor Development Center. Bonaire boasts a lot of dive shops, approximately 25, but only a handful currently participates in coral restoration efforts. Click here for a related story about the resort’s impressive eco and sustainability efforts.

We attended an evening talk about coral reefs hosted at the resort, presented by the dive shop’s manager, Christine Ball. Informative plus inspiring!

The dive shop staff take guests out daily on dive and snorkel trips. Resort guests can also use the dive shop’s paddleboards and kayaks free of charge during daytime hours. And you can check out its underwater research reef cam for live action.

Iguana Stew Bonaire
I tried iguana stew in Bonaire, but I sampled this one with my camera.

Enjoying spirits and cuisine

Liqueurs made from cactus? Why not. We’re on vacation and motivated to try something new every day. The Cadushy Distillery provided that opportunity along with tastings and drinks from other Dutch islands. We sipped (one of us slurped) drinks in their courtyard filled with island birds. It’s a great stop if you’re near Rincon or touring the nearby national park.

Our favorite island restaurants included Italy in the World, Between Two Buns and the Dash Kitchen food truck with its homemade doughnuts, breads and cuisine. I also tried iguana stew at a restaurant serving local fare.

Other tidbits about Bonaire

  • The official currency of Bonaire is the U.S. dollar. The island made the switch in 2011.
  • From Charlotte, we connected in Miami and then flew direct to Bonaire.
  • Some people enjoy visiting the Donkey Sanctuary, home to sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys. It’s a great resource, just not a beautiful destination on the island.
  • We rented a truck for two days because we wanted to explore the island, offshore snorkeling sites and Slagbaai National Park with its bumpy roads. They drive on the same side of the road as Americans and getting around was easier than we expected.
  • We each had to purchase a $25 ocean park pass. It’s a requirement for anyone who enters the waters around Bonaire, where every inch of coastline is designated a national marine park. Well worth our investment.

 

We’ll cruise again in the future – we’re headed to Alaska this summer. But we’re currently moored in our “island siesta” lifestyle, happy to arrive on a Caribbean island and anchor our bodies for a relaxing week.