Sapphire Seas & Vibrant Coral Kingdoms
Toucan Diving and Plaza Resort on the Isle of Bonaire
by Walt Stearns
From the deck of Toucan Diving's 32 foot Island Hopper, Purple Rain, the waters off the island of Bonaire looked incredibly inviting. They were totally translucent in the 5 to 10 foot shallows, becoming a light aqua where the crest of reef meets the drop-off. Just beyond, the sea was a deep sapphire. Off Bonaire, the drop-offs are unbelievably close to shore. Less than 80 feet out, the top of these descents customarily begin 25 to 30 feet below the surface, cascading to 150 or even 600 feet in some places. Thus, shore diving off Bonaire does not involve long, difficult swims to reach the best part of the reef. You wade in, swim 30 feet and you are on a reef bristling with life.
Among the Western Hemisphere's great diving destinations, Bonaire offers thriving coral kingdoms with abundant varieties of tropical fish, invertebrates and sponges in bright hues. Our first dive of the morning on Rock Pile, on the south side of Bonaire's tiny offshore island, Klein Bonaire, was as beautiful as advertised. At depths of 40 to 130 feet, scattered among numerous collections of soft corals, majestic sprays of tall Purple Tube Sponges and recliner sized Orange Elephant-ear Sponges punctuated the slopes steep contours.
As I was coming back along the crest near the end of my dive a Toucan divemaster waved me over. He was pointing out something to other divers. The focus of attention was not one, but two medium sized yellow frogfish down in the coral a mere 30 feet from the mooring. All I could think was, it never fails. I had a 15mm lens on my camera and here were two small subjects. I should have, could have, might have planned for it!
Besides offering beautiful underwater vistas for colorful wide angle photography, Bonaire also has some rare and unusual reef fish; Longlure Frogfish and Longsnout Seahorses.
It also has excellent dive operations and resorts. The newest establishment on the island, Plaza Resort, opened its doors in 1995. Following months of serious refurbishments and landscaping, the sprawling 12 acre complex near the airport was transformed into one of Bonaire's largest five star resorts, with extraordinary luxury accommodations.
The property's owner, the Netherlands based Vandervalk Hotel Company also owns more than 62 resort hotels and restaurants in Europe and Curacao .
Lining both sides of the man-made lagoon (also part marina for visiting yachts) that winds its way through the heart of the property, the accommodations come in a parade of options. Most of the 200 units are Junior Suites, facing either the lagoon or the large, seaside pool overlooking a palm tree studded white sand beach. How they came up with the term Junior for these suites, I will never understand. Each features its own balcony or patio and they are down right huge, with incredibly large bathrooms and closets to match. Air-conditioning, mini-refrigerator, coffeemaker, cable TV with remote, telephone, in-room safe, beautiful rattan furniture and two queen sized beds are standard. The rest of the units are comprised of 48 one and two bedroom villas, 18 one and two bedroom apartments, four penthouses and four beach houses with fully equipped kitchens and more. Thus, the needs of individuals, couples, families and even large groups traveling together are accommodated with no problem.
Dining choices on the grounds include the open air Banana Tree restaurant near the swimming pool, the Tipsy Seagull bar and grill right on the beach; serving everything from hamburgers to salads and pizza; and the more elegant indoor Caribbean Point Restaurant, in the main building next door to the resorts Casino. Between the Casino and lobby area, there are a couple of gift shops offering souvenirs, jewelry and sundries and the office for Tropical Travel. Tropical Travel can provide anything from nature tours to sailing excursions, snorkel and picnic trips to Klein Bonaire or shopping trips to Curacao and Aruba.
The hotel's concierge can arrange or address services for special events and activities. Some of these include full audio/visual services and access in the large convention room for meetings, wedding receptions and cultural events. For convenience, a small shopping gallery was recently added near the resorts entrance. It features a mini grocery store, hair salon and ATM.
Toucan Diving is the watersport operator for Plaza Resort. An associate of the hotel's Caribbean line, Toucan Diving is the Netherlands Antilles leading IDD (Instructor Dive Development) affiliate. This is the largest scuba education and certification agency in Northern Europe.
Toucan is also offers PADI and NAUI certifications. Guests can take advantage of training opportunities from open water all the way to divemaster from all three agencies. Certifications beyond that are IDD.
In addition to scuba instruction and being well stocked with the latest equipment from both Tusa and Scubapro in the retail center and rental department, Toucan Diving's dedicated dive boats include two 30 foot Island Hoppers. Both the Purple Rain and the Green Flash are set up to comfortably handle 12 divers for two tank excursions. Instead of the standard Bonaire one tank am and pm trips Toucan's boats head out from the dock (behind the shop) each morning between 8:30 and 9:00 for a two tank outing, returning around 12:30. During the surface interval, the crew provides snacks and drinks for their guests. Boats depart at 1:30 pm for a single tank trip to Klein Bonaire or, if the group prefers, anywhere along the leeward side of Bonaire. At the center, guests can book their choice of boat dives or simply grab a few tanks and head off on a shore diving adventure. Toucan keeps a large number of tanks available 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year for guest use.
For socializing after the dive, grabbing a drink or snack, or just breaking down gear for the day, the large patio area between the shop and dock is great. It is nicely arranged, with large freshwater equipment rinse tanks, shower stalls, restrooms and an equipment drying room featuring private lockers with locks; making it unnecessary to cart wet stuff back to the room. Scheduled to be opened by the time this goes to print is a snackbar next door to Toucan's classroom, facing the patio. Adjacent to both the shop and the resorts main parking lot, A B Car Rental (the office is in the Plaza's main lobby) maintains a fleet of mini-buses and Toyota Rav 4 SUVs.
Along the southern half of the island are some of Bonaire's most striking shore based dive sites. Salt Pier, several hundred feet long, drips with color from copious corals and sponges. When there are no ships loading at the pier and at the discretion of the salt company, it is a dramatic sight worth seeing. The Lake features large mushroom shaped coral heads, often full of schooling grunts, Goatfish and small snappers, all the way down to a wide sand valley at 100 feet running parallel to shore.
Close-by is Bonaire's premier wreck dive, the Hilma Hooker. Sent to the bottom in 1984 (in the same large sand valley that runs to the lake) to create a new dive site, the 235 foot freighter has taken on a moderate amount of growth, the most colorful around her giant propeller and rudder, which are covered in Orange Cup Corals. Although she rests on her starboard side, her massive girth rises 60 feet off the bottom.
18 Palms, just off the resort, features a steep drop-off with a terrace covered with thick formations of Fire Coral and regularly visited by several large Tarpon. For your convenience, Toucan offers free delivery of your dive gear, as well as tanks, to the beach anytime. Just be sure to tell them in advance when you want to go.
In addition to diving packages, Plaza Resort Bonaire also offers special introductory guided snorkeling and windsurfing packages. For general information and reservations, call Plaza Resort Bonaire's U.S. representative, Travel Marketing Services, at (800) 766-6016, (617) 821-1012 or fax (617) 821-1568. To reach the resort direct, call (011) 599-7-2500 or fax (011) 599-7-7133.
Servicing the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) is the national air carrier, ALM (Antillean Airlines), with regular departures from both Miami and Atlanta International airports. Flight time from Miami to Bonaire averages three hours and there is sometimes a stopover on Curacao.