This is a story about our diving vacation in Bonaire, a Dutch Antilles Island island in the southern Caribbean, with Lori's brother Steven and his son Andrew. If you read carefully, you'll find reviews of dive spots and restaurants (be sure to follow the links for the detailed dive notes). We were also assisted by the wonderful folks on the ba_diving mailing list, whose comments are attached, as well as the Bonaire Info and Talk sites (see Bonaire link above). Click on any photo to see a larger version.
We stayed at the Caribbean Club. We loved that it was remote and quiet and small and that all of the staff know who you are. Everyone was very friendly and made you feel at home. In fact, we often shared a beer or two with the manager Joep Goode and his sister Nina who was visiting from Holland for the holidays. There was a Buddy Dive satellite dive shop with unlimited air on the premises which was extremely convenient. We liked the place so much we talked about coming again next year. We were in rooms 16 and 17. Room 17 has a large private patio, and there is a nearby gate to a driveway for easy gear loading.
Days went like this: Enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the Hilltop restaurant at the Caribbean Club, dive in the northern part of the island, enjoy a leisurely lunch either in town (Kralendijk, pronounced Kralendijk) or at Hilltop, make two dives in the southern part of the island, rinse gear, shower, enjoy a leisurely dinner either in town or at Hilltop, crash.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Except that on Wednesday we did one dive in the morning on a boat, and only one dive in the afternoon (on a boat). And except that we did one dive in the south on Thursday followed by two dives in the north. And except that we didn't dive at all on Friday. But otherwise, that was the routine :-).
Having been warned that small planes with draconian weight limits are known to leave 50% of the luggage behind, we booked a flight on Continental through Houston. We left from San Francisco Airport on Friday, the 21st. We had a bit of a scare as the ticket agent simply said my bag was too heavy and I had to take some stuff out of it. I was not impressed with the customer service: What is the limit? Is it per person or per bag? There was no indication, just that I had to get rid of some stuff. Before panic set in, we at least were given a number of 50 pounds (although it still wasn't clear if it was 50 pounds per person or per bag) and found that miraculously while my bag was 13 pounds heavy, Lori's bag was 13 pounds light. So we transferred 13 pounds to Lori's duffel and was finally able to check in our bags.
We arrived in Houston and were treated to a five-hour layover. There we had a nice fish--and alligator--dinner at Pappadeaux Seafood to prepare for the red-eye to Bonaire.
We, of course, got in the slowest immigration line upon landing, which gave the mosquitoes ample time to feast upon us.
Actually, the mosquitoes on this island aren't too bad. They come out between dusk and dawn, but aren't too large and aggressive. But despite the Burt's Bees "natural" repellent, we still received a good deal of bites. Good thing they don't harbor malaria. We should have had the gold standard--DEET--but wearing long pants and socks at dinner did the trick.
The Caribbean Club had rented a four-door truck for us (which turned out to be quite nice and appropriate for the diving and driving) through AB Carrental.
Given that it was close to 6 am, and check-in was closer to 3 pm, we drove around the southern end of island in the wee hours of the morning to kill some time. It was pouring rain during most of the drive--it is the rainy season after all. When there was a break in the deluge, we saw salt marshes, pink flamingos, and old slave huts framed by rainbows.
Tired and hungry, we finally arrived at the Caribbean Club and had breakfast (and a pot of coffee). Still tired, but no longer hungry, we took a power nap after unpacking. We were now in much better shape to pay our nature reserve dues ($25) and go snorkeling. We then ate lunch at Hilltop.
Shortly thereafter, Steve and Andrew arrived. They paid their nature reserve dues and everyone rented gear.
By that time, it was time for dinner and we simply ate again at the local restaurant Hilltop. The food and service are OK, but we usually weren't in any hurry so we didn't mind. And you can't beat the convenience!
We then collapsed and slept 12 hours.
Our morning dive was at the house reef: Oil Slick Leap. Andrew was recovering from the flu so he sat out the dives today. But having him topside was handy as he was able to run and get more weight for Lori and Steven who bobbed at the surface like apples. Once Lori and Steven were on the bottom, Andrew threw on his wetsuit and went snorkeling above us.
The Oil Slick dive spot (dive #1 notes) has the easiest access on the island. There is a coral platform for a giant stride entry, and a ladder and platform for getting out. This is important since around most of the island, there is a 1-to-30 foot wall of coral separating you and the great diving. Lori discovered that full-foot fins are not a great idea on this island. Because of the sharp coral and absence of sandy beaches, you want to be wearing thick booties for ingress and egress; hence, you need open-heel fins. Her feet were sore by the end of the trip.
The dive spots are easy to find. Each one is marked by painted yellow rocks with the name of the dive site on them in black ink. You just pull over, stash your truck in a parking spot on the side of the road, or on the beach, and dive!
After a luncheon at Hilltop, we dove at Karpata in the north in the afternoon (dive #2 and dive #3 notes). It's a nice spot, except that it's a lot of work to lug your gear up and down the stairs to get to the beach. The entry is otherwise OK. Another disadvantage of going this far north is that the road becomes one way so that you have to return either via Rincon, or via a dirt road (which we did).
Ravenous after our first day of diving, we devoured a pretty good dinner at Salsa on the water. Our service was relatively good (service is generally pretty slow on the island, but we're on island time, after all). However, we talked with someone who waited two hours for their food another night, and they were the only ones in their section! They finally gave up and went to Subway. Yes, there is a Subway and a KFC, but other than that (and a Benetton shop) we didn't see too many signs of commercialization, including no high rise hotels or condos. Bonaire is trying to maintain its Caribbean feel. But we digress. The food at Salsa was pretty good, although my Venezuelan lobster wasn't crispy as it should be, but rather it was a bit creamy. It tasted OK though, although the texture was a bit unappealing.
Our morning dive was at Witch's Hut just a couple of dive spots north of us (dive #4 notes). Relatively easy access makes this a good spot.
We then had lunch at City Cafe downtown on the water. This is a great place for lunch!
Our two dives in the afternoon were at Angel City to the south (dive #5 and dive #6 notes). Relatively easy access makes this a good spot too. The fish and coral structures are larger here, and there is a sand channel separating two reefs, so this spot holds a lot of interest.
Since it was Christmas Eve and we didn't know if any restaurants would be open, we opted for dinner at Hilltop. Joep was barbecuing ribs, chicken, and fish. It was all excellent, so Hilltop is a good choice on BBQ nights.
Lori wanted to dive at a particular spot in the north, but it turned out to be a dive spot with boat access only. So we backtracked and dove Witch's Hut again (dive #7 notes).
We had lunch at Hilltop and the fish sandwich was great! The fish was cooked perfectly.
We dove twice at The Lake in the afternoon (dive #8 and dive #9 notes). Like Angel City, it offers relatively easy access.
We had an excellent dinner at It's Raining Fishes. Hans, the owner, took good care of us. We were treated to fresh wahoo specials. (Wahoo is the fresh catch of the day. Every day.) We had lots of cheese in our wahoo au gratin, pasta with four cheeses. It was very tasty, well presented, the service was great, and they had the most attractive waitresses on the island. Even Lori agreed! Steve asked Hans his secret to attracting such beautiful waitresses, and Hans replied that it was because he was the best-looking restaurateur on the island.
Afterward, we strolled over to Little Havana, the local watering hole, because Andrew was hoping to meet girls his age. But as you can imagine, it's challenging to cruise with your dad nearby! Instead, our little homeboy just contented himself with shouting "Whaddup! Whaddup!" and making other strange noises out the truck window as we drove by cute gals.
We had to try out the diving on Klein Bonaire, a small island near Bonaire, so we booked a couple of boat dives today through Buddy Dive. Klein Bonaire has similar landscapes, but diving off of a boat is a whole lot less work!
We dove Sampler in the morning (dive #10 notes), had a pretty good lunch at the Buddy Dive Pool Bar, and dove Hand's Off in the afternoon (dive #11 notes).
We had dinner at Hilltop. They still had their Christmas menu which was pretty good. We elected to have dinner locally because we intended to do a night dive and didn't want to have to take a shower before dinner (since we'd be taking one after the dive).
We chose to dive at Oil Slick Leap (dive #12 notes) because it had the easiest access. We weren't the only ones. The folks coming out said that they had seen sea wasps in the shallows. These jellyfish are related to the box jellyfish in Australia (I think) whose sting can kill. So, it was with trepidation that we entered the water. We followed one diver's sage advice of purging our alternate regulator upon ascent to disperse the pests. But that didn't help the entry! So I dropped quickly to the bottom and waited for Andrew and Steven (Lori didn't think her buoyancy was up to snuff for a night dive, so she didn't join us).
Without shore support and a strobe at the ladder, I didn't feel like venturing too far, but we still got a good taste of night diving. At one point we turned off our lights and agitated the water with our hands to make the phosphorescence sparkle and glow. Cool stuff. And we didn't die.
Today was our last day of diving. Sigh.
We dove at Hilma Hooker which was "intentionally" sunk to build a reef (dive #13 notes, video, more video). Andrew freaked out his father when he went into the wreck--and from Steven's perspective--did not come out. I saw him come out of the swim-through and pass under the bow, but as Lori and I passed over the bow, Andrew was nowhere to be seen, so we swam back to the middle of the boat where I spotted Andrew at the stern. I signaled an OK to Steven and I could see the bubbles from his large sigh of relief!
Lunch at Hilltop.
Our last two dives were at Andrea II (dive #14 and dive #15 notes). This is a great spot. It offers relatively easy access and a few palm frond umbrellas (which look like they need fresh fronds) for shade during a surface interval. This site has lots of cool critters, large coral structures, ridges, and sand channels for variety.
We enjoyed our best dinner of the week at Wil's Tropical Grill. (It may be just called Wil's by the time you read this. Apparently, the Dutch think that "Grill" just means barbecue and the restaurant offers so much more than that.) In addition to the tasty and delightfully presented food, we engaged in conversation with the Dutch-born Wil, his wife Sue from New York, and the extremely friendly wait staff (from all over). We learned that the government of the island may be transitioning from a Dutch protectorate--if I'm getting this right--to something more like a Dutch state where Holland provides all services (including fresh pavement on the roads). Works for me.
Like most divers here, we spent our off-gassing day driving around the Washington Slagbaai National Park. While we did not make all the stops in the park, we still spent 2.5 hours navigating rutted, rocky, dirt roads. The park is unspoiled and contains miles and miles of rough coral coastline, and lots of large Kadushi cactus and an impenetrable scrub of divi trees. There are also a few large hills a couple of hundred meters high, and ponds with dozens of pink flamingos.
Lizards were everywhere. At the beginning, I weaved around them, but when it became apparent that they were nowhere near extinction, I stopped weaving and let Darwin take its own course and provide lunch in the form of roadkill for other lizards. We also encountered a couple of large iguanas who tried to scare us off, but prudently scurried off into the bush as we approached. Goats appeared and disappeared throughout the day, and we also encountered quite a few of those feral donkeys we kept hearing about.
There was a museum at the entrance which would be worth a look next time. Another fun activity would be to pack a lunch and hike to the top of the 241 m Brandaris, the highest spot on the island, and cool off with a snorkel at one of the beaches. Most of the snorkeling spots have difficult access (putting it mildly), but there is one coral beach and one sand beach at Boka Slagbaai that would be good.
We had lunch in Rincon, which is not at all touristy. We had lunch at a Chinese snack shop and were surrounded by locals cooling off with an afternoon beer.
I offered to drive around the southern end of the island with the salt mines and the slave huts, but was vetoed in favor of walking around town to stretch our legs and buy some t-shirts.
We headed back to the inn to pack--sigh--take a dip in the pool, check out, and get cleaned up for dinner.
We had dinner at Donna & Giorgio's which is on the water. The food was pretty good, and Andrew finally got his pizza fix. It was the first place that had live music, but then again, this was the first time we went out Friday night. The band consisted of a bongo drummer, singer and percussionist, and a bass player wielding a 6-string bass.
And then we headed back to the inn to finish packing. Sigh.
As we were just about to turn off the lights, Lori let out a scream and thought she saw a scorpion. I surrounded the corner with towels, armed myself with a shoe and a camera, and went hunting. I found a cute little gecko instead.
It was still dark when we packed the car and headed down to the airport this morning. The roads were deserted. Not even the donkeys were out. And just as we had arrived with a downpour, it dumped rain once we were safely inside the airport. The line was relatively short for us, but it still took about half an hour to check in and get our boarding pass; by that time the line had doubled in size so it pays to get there early. Despite what we heard otherwise, you need to get your boarding pass first before paying your departure tax ($32) which you can pay with a credit card.
So now we're on the 737 headed to Houston.
It was a great trip. Bonaire is very accessible: English is spoken, dollars are accepted, you can drink the (desalinated) water, and while the mosquitoes bite, they don't carry malaria. The weather was fantastic. Even though it was the wet season, it did not rain at all during the day while we were there. It was warm, the breezes made it comfortable, and I was completely comfortable diving with just a 3 mm wetsuit.
And the diving! It's better than Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos. I think Australia (both coasts), with its colorful staghorn corals, giant clams, crayfish, reef sharks, and large cod still has the edge for the best diving. (Monterey is still the best diving in my book, but given that it's half the temperature, it's--uh--different.)
We're hoping to go back to Bonaire soon.
Copyright © 2007 Bill Wohler
Last modified: Sun Feb 22 23:50:13 PST 2009