2000-03 Wanderlust in the Netherlands Antilles
By Greg Johnston
Wanderlust is an amazing thing. It’s what compels people like you and me to seek out new travel experiences, or at the very least, wander farther down a familiar road.
When I arrived on Bonaire, a familiar place to me, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to spend the next few days. I did know, however, that I wasn’t going to spend it entirely underwater. There is a side of Bonaire that I wanted to see. And besides, that damn wanderlust was really starting to kick in!
Having decided to spend my mornings diving and the afternoons in search of, well, I’m not really sure what, I boarded the dive boat heading to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker.
It had been a long time since I visited this site, and I was curious to see it again. With light to moderate currents and depths ranging from 60 to 100 feet, the wreck is very accessible—a great location for wide-angle photography. Lying on its starboard side at the beginning of the double reef system, I was pleasantly surprised at the vibrant color of the sponges and corals that covered the wreck. I got a good taste of what I would be seeing the rest of the week, and I opted to do a second dive, promising myself I would explore the island later.
This time the dive boat headed straight for Carl’s Hill on the northwest tip of Klein Bonaire. Never to disappoint, this site is a mini-wall that begins 20 yards offshore and drops to a sandy bottom at 70 feet. I was surprised at how few photographers were on the dive boat; this sheer wall is covered with sponges and soft corals, and barracudas and Bar Jacks are everywhere.
After returning to the dock and enjoying a bit of lunch on the waterfront in the capital town of Kralendijk, I began planning the rest of my day.
Getting close to some of the island’s topside wildlife was at the top of my list. Bonaire has more than 170 species of birds, which I thought was quite amazing for a small, arid island. Actually, Bonaire is one of only four places in the world where flamingo colonies breed. In fact, more flamingoes live on the island than do humans.
The popular birds are represented on the walls of the pink-painted airport, on the endless parade of T-shirts and in the array of curios for sale in the gift shops. But if you really want to experience Bonaire’s flamingoes, you’ve got to venture south or north of Kralendijk.
Pekelmeer Sanctuary is at the far southern tip of Bonaire. The birds flock around the salt ponds here, salt being an important industry on the island. But I headed north, to the other place to see the flamingoes, Lake Gotomeer, in Washington Slagbaai National Park. It was magnificent. Of course, the key to enjoying either location is to keep your distance and not disturb the birds.
Shore Diving into the Blue
Bonaire’s incredible undersea topography is very diver-friendly. More than 80 dive sites around the island can easily be visited, many from shore. This is unique in the Caribbean and quite convenient. As you drive along the well-paved roads that follow the shoreline, you’ll notice brightly painted yellow rocks with the names of easily accessible dive sites.
I visited a few of my favorite places in some of the small coves in Washington Slagbaai National Park. Playa Funchi, Boca Slagbaai and Nukove offer some of the best dive sites on Bonaire. They’ve stayed pristine because they are so remote and require a long drive by car to get to, but they are well worth the trip.
Throughout the park the reefs are topped with amazing stands of Elkhorn and Staghorn Corals. Expect to see lots of damselfish, with butterfly and angelfish amid grunts, Conies and Rock Hinds. Then comes a transition zone dominated by the mountainous Star Corals that form huge pagoda-like structures and pillars. This is where you will find an abundance of soft corals and beautifully colored sponges. Solitary grouper, large parrotfish and various snapper can be photographed on the reef; you can also expect to see the ubiquitous shoaling chromis, Yellowtail Snapper and schools of cruising jacks in blue water.
Because of Bonaire’s unique topography, cycling around the island has become a big attraction, second only to diving. At least every other month you’ll find cycle races and mountain bike challenges. Yes, Bonaire has some great mountains to ride. At first glance, the predominantly flat terrain lulls you into thinking there is no challenge, but the hilly northern region will tax even the strongest legs.
With more than 300 kilometers of backroads, I decided to take the easy route and headed north along the ocean towards Karpata, where I found a restored historic plantation house. Along the way, I watched a huge, majestic osprey circling high above the water, on the hunt. Finally he dived towards the water, broke the surface and snatched an unlucky fish for his lunch.
Farther along the road, I stopped my bike across from the Radio Netherlands towers at a place called 1,000 Steps. Actually there are only 64 steps down to the beach, but it felt like 1,000 on the way back up carrying the bicycle (imagine the climb in full dive gear). The ancient limestone cliffs along this part of the coast mark the sea’s level more than 100,000 years ago.
There are many secluded coves along this stretch of the road near Karpata, perfect for snorkeling and picnicking. Karpata is one of Bonaire’s most popular shore dives, although it can also be reached by boat. With depths ranging from 20 to 100 feet, divers can pose for pictures alongside one of the many huge ship anchors embedded in the coral.
The next day I decided to skip my morning dive for a leisure trip to Lac Bay and join in on the night dive later that evening. Heading south from my hotel, I stopped in Kralendijk for a short visit to this Dutch colonial town. Strolling through the Museo Boneriano and Fort Oranje gave me a glimpse of the island’s past. The town’s oceanfront promenade offers stunning sunset vistas and a fine view of Klein Bonaire. After browsing Main Street’s collection of boutiques and craft galleries, I drove miles of meandering roads to the island’s sparsely populated south coast. Along the way I passed Bonaire’s stunning solar salt pans and salt mountains, historic slave huts and the Willemstoren Lighthouse.
Catching the Wind
Bonaire has long been known as one of the finest windsurfing destinations in the world, attracting experts for high-energy competitions. At Lac Bay, the combination of wind, water and land has created an ideal windsurfing environment. Winds across the bay’s eight square kilometers are as reliable as sunshine in Bonaire, and its unique shape creates three distinct zones, each perfectly suited to particular skill levels.
If you are an experienced surfer, then strike out for the blue-green swells across the bay. In this intermediate area there’s some swell protection offered by the island’s outstretched arms, but the energy of the wind and the water is raised a few notches. After a few hours of getting the hang of surfing, I preferred to sit and watch the action.
Later that afternoon as I made my way back towards Kralendijk for my night dive on the Town Pier, I drove past ranches and agricultural areas with goats, wild donkeys and camouflaged iguanas living among the prickly cacti.
That night, the dive was capped by a full moon that glowed eerily on the pier pilings, which are virtual cities of unimaginable colorful critters. The Town Pier is Bonaire’s most well known dive site, and every time I am on the island, I never miss the chance to dive it, because like all of this island paradise, it’s only familiar on the surface.