Snorkeling Indulgence at
Bonaire's Plaza Resort
by Joel Simon, Apr. 1997
If you happen to be on the left side of the airplane as you're landing at the Flamingo Airport on Bonaire look for a broad expanse of red roofs, set off by glorious blue water. They mark Bonaire's newest major hotel, the five star Plaza Resort.
Bonaire offers visitors a wide variety of accommodations and services. If you're looking for luxury, you can look to the Plaza. Opened in late 1995, this remarkable facility spreads over 12 beautifully landscaped acres adorned with tropical plants and trees. The layout includes more than 200 spacious suites, three restaurants, three bars, tennis courts, a casino, conference rooms, a gorgeous seaside swimming pool, a private white sand beach and, of course, a full service dive and snorkel shop. What more could anyone want?
According to Martin and Ingrid Vandervalk, the resort's young, energetic managing directors, the answer is service. 'Sophisticated facilities are only the beginning. Our goal is to build a unified staff that fully understands and caters to the needs of our guests.' The Vandervalk Hotel Company, based in the Netherlands, owns more than 62 hotels, motels and restaurants in Europe and on Curacao. In fact, it was its accomplishment with the Curacao Plaza Hotel that stimulated interest in developing the new property on Bonaire.
Although the Plaza is less than two miles from Bonaire's capital of Kralendijk, many guests find most everything they need on the resort property. Upon entering the expansive hotel lobby, you'll notice the service desk of Tropical Travel, a local agency specializing in nature tours, sailing and fishing outings, and day trips to Klein Bonaire for snorkeling, exploring or picnics. In the lobby area is the Conch Corner, a cafe serving all types of specialty coffees and teas, fresh sandwiches and light snacks. And nearby is the entrance to Bonaire's fanciest casino, should you get the urge to try your luck at slot machines, poker tables or roulette.
In addition to these amenities is the private beach, one of the resort's greatest assets for snorkelers. Bonaire is well known for the continuous wreath of shallow fringing reef that surrounds it, including the area immediately in front of the Plaza beach. Simply put on your mask, fins and snorkel and enter a clear, calm, sea filled with corals and fish. The sandy entry and tranquil shallows make this an ideal spot, especially for beginners. The house reef, now known as 18 Palms, begins with a shallow terrace blanketed with stands of Fire Coral that provide a protective habitat for invertebrates and small fish.
If you're more attracted to the bigger and more visible animals, you won't be disappointed. This area has gained a reputation for its resident Tarpon, which can grow to more than five feet in length. With huge silver scales and large opalescent eyes, Tarpon are like jeweled broadswords in the sea. Although at first their presence may be intimidating, they are harmless to snorkelers and divers.
In addition to the school of Tarpon, many other fish make 18 Palms their home. Keep your eyes open for colorful Rainbow Parrotfish, often seen (and heard) grazing on algae in the shallows. There are also dense meandering schools of Blue Tangs, along with French Grunts, Yellowtail Snappers, slender Trumpetfish and French and Queen Angelfish. On the bottom, Peacock Flounders may be lying on the sand, perfectly camouflaged and nearly invisible to the untrained eye.
In fact, as with most of the waters surrounding Bonaire, the fish are especially friendly. This is no accident. Over the last 40 years, while neighboring islands built refineries and bunkers for Venezuelan oil and developed economies based on commerce, shipping and industry, Bonaire continued to shepherd its primary resource; the lush fringing reefs surrounding the island.
On Bonaire, turtles have been legally protected since the mid 1960s. In the mid '70s, when spearguns were as popular as underwater cameras are today, Bonaire outlawed spearfishing. In contrast to many other Caribbean islands, Bonaire's fish became numerous and very approachable. In 1979, Bonaire once again made an unprecedented move, legislating a Marine Park that totally protects everything; living or dead; from the mean high tide line to a depth of 200 feet. Boats were prohibited from dropping anchors. The reefs thrived. In 1992, despite strong political opposition, Bonaire again set a new standard by enacting an annual $10 park entrance fee, making the Marine Park self-supporting. Today, Bonaire stands proud as a world leader in underwater resource management.
'Many visitors ask me what our Marine Park does,' says Kalli de Meyer, the spunky manager of the operation since 1991. 'Our goal is sustainable use of the resource. We do this in four ways: installing and maintaining permanent boat moorings; sponsoring marine research programs; enforcing our prohibitions against anchoring, spearfishing and pollution; and most importantly, by education.'
Promoting reef conservation through education is an ethic found throughout the island's watersport community and is especially important at the Plaza Resort. Under the guidance of dive shop manager, Paul Verbeek, Toucan Diving has been a strong supporter of Bonaire's Guided Snorkeling Program, an exciting tool for snorkeling and marine biology instruction, combining classroom and water activities.
Last year, with sponsorship from the local government, the island's hotels and watersport operators implemented one of the most ambitious projects in the world of snorkeling. The program consists of 12 entertaining mini slide lectures, each lasting about half an hour; in this case given in the spacious air-conditioned classroom at Toucan Divers.
Willem Semeleer and Joaquin Theodora, two of Toucan's multi-lingual instructors, agree that the presentations on fish identification and the overview of coral reef ecology have been among the most popular. 'The set-up is really ideal,' says Willem. 'In the comfort of the classroom we can take all the time we need to discuss vital elements of the reef....Then we go out in the boat and take a first hand look for ourselves.'
Snorkelers can really ride in style with Toucan Divers. Two Island Hopper 30s with 320 hp turbo diesel engines zip participants to sites along the shore of Bonaire and the neighboring island of Klein Bonaire. They also have the use of a smaller flattop boat that's ideal for the many nearby snorkeling sites. From the resort's private wooden dock, simply walk on board and away you go. In addition to the skilled services of a snorkel guide and captain, all boats feature sturdy ladders for easy entries and exits, first aid kits, two-way radios and fresh water.
For snorkelers who prefer to investigate the island independently, the Plaza is well-equipped. In conjunction with the resort, ABC Car Rental can offer you a rugged Toyota RAV4 utility vehicle. Simply load it up with gear, fresh water and a picnic lunch, and drive to any of more than 30 clearly marked shore dive locations, including those on the challenging dirt roads of Washington-Slagbaai Park on the island's north end. The Marine Park distributes free maps and has painted yellow stones along the road marking the easiest access points.
If you prefer to go by sea, you might try renting one of the resort's 13 foot Boston Whalers. Although no scuba diving is allowed from these boats, snorkeling is just fine. Be sure to ask for some pointers from the staff if you haven't had much practice with small boats; ocean kayaks are also available.
After a day in the water, you'll look forward to returning to your room at the Plaza. With a view toward either the sea or the gardens, your spacious air-conditioned suite includes a bathroom, private balcony or patio, queen sized beds, cable TV and twice daily maid service.
The Plaza Resort Bonaire offers a remarkable combination of luxury accommodations, services and facilities. For information and reservations, call Travel Marketing Services, the Plaza's U.S. representative, at (800) 766-6016 or (617) 821-1012; fax (617) 821-1568. To contact the resort directly, call (011) 599-7-2500 or fax (011) 599-7-7133.