Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving

flamingos

Bonaire: more than a dive destination? For most visitors, diving is THE reason to go, and it was certainly the lure for us to select Bonaire among the Dutch Antilles. But our planned “about a week” turned into nearly three: partly thanks to a circle of friends, but also because the island offered more than we anticipated: easy living for cruisers and non-underwater-based fun, like these beautiful flocks of flamingos. It’s much more than diving: here’s a rundown of how Bonaire hit the mark for our crew.

Welcome to Bonaire!

Clearance was among the easiest anywhere. One office, a three minute walk from the dinghy dock / Karel’s Bar. One clerk’s window. Two forms. 24×7 clearance. NO CHARGE. Although you may have to call officers to show up, as we did – sorry guys! – on Christmas day. This service has nothing to do with cruisers and everything to do with the cruise ships that call in almost every day. Despite the onslaught, Bonaire has avoided turning into a mini-Dutch Caribbean Disneyland (we hear Curacao and Aruba are less unscathed). Dutch style architecture (a few windmills even, in the salt pans) in a walkable town where you only have to go a block from the waterfront for souvenir shops to fade.

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Live music outside storefronts on a “Christmas Shopping Night,” a skip away from a spectacular little gelateria. Get the dark dark chocolate. You’re welcome.

Security

Moored off the primary settlement we felt very safe on Bonaire, something that can’t be said about population centers in many Caribbean islands. It’s imperfect (there are reports of some vandalism in town, petty theft) but we walked through the outskirts after dark without concern. We didn’t feel like we HAD to haul the dinghy every night. We still did, much of the time, but it’s good not to feel like a target.

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Provisioning

Well stocked markets are about a 20-minute walk from the bar / dinghy dock. Too hot to walk? One market arranges a weekly pickup/dropoff shuttling cruisers from waterfont. I’d walk up, then hitchhike back.

We’d provisioned deeply in Martinique (brie! Bordeaux! saucisson!), but could have done very well here. Aside from having a wider, nicer selection of fresh produce, all the usual staples plus tasty Dutch specialties (gouda! stroopwafel! droge worst!) and good value were available between Van den Tweels (upscale) and the Warehouse (great prices).

Everyday life

Everyday practicalities of cruising life were straightforward: most are not inexpensive, but little is cheap in most Caribbean islands. Restaurants? We didn’t even consider them, honestly. Prices weren’t bad, but they weren’t inexpensive, so per our norm we simply opted out. Laundromats on shore ran about $15 per load (we walked, but they’ll give you a ride from the waterfront); fine for catching up, then back to bucket laundry on Totem.

We DID indulge in a night at the movies, thanks to a “do something fun” mad-money gift from my auntie, and it was unforgettable! Will we ever again be in a seated, open-air movie theater? Will we ever again have to pause halfway through the movie while a squall blows through soaking our seats and clothes? Have you ever been in a theater where a live mango tree stood at the end of a row of seats? The Last Jedi was meant to be watched under a sky full of stars.

Bonaire movies

Connectivity

Jamie and I have been busy with coaching clients the last few months, and we need a good internet connection for video calls. Digicel in Bonaire was 4G for the cheapest per-gigabyte rate yet in the Caribbean: under $2/GB! Very handy, and perfect time for some holiday Skyping with family.

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Boat business

There’s a finite number of boats here, limited by the restrictions on anchoring (you can’t. end of story). A fixed number of moorings off Kralendijk and a very few transient marina berths are the only options. I’m told right now there’s no room for boats hoping to visit. During our stay in December the mooring field was busy, but seemed to have near daily turnover, and there were always at least a few moorings available. It’s the busy season now: but hurricane season in an island like Bonaire, safely south of the hurricane belt, would be another busy season and demand for a spot probably peaks. I don’t know how many moorings there are on Bonaire, but the crowd control enforced by limited space was nice.

GoogleEarth view of the Kralendijk waterfront,boats on moorings at the dropoff

Google’s satellite view of the Kralendijk waterfront, boats on moorings at the dropoff

On shore, boat specific equipment is a little harder to come by: just one lonely chandlery, the Caribbean Budget Marine chain, but they’d order things in if needed. Hardware stores covered the rest, big-box style.

Pausing to look at flamingoes at the north end of hte island, this little cutie

Pausing to look at flamingos at the north end of the island, this cute little visitor had something to say

Surprising values

Islands that have to import pretty much everything typically don’t offer good value for money; the cost of transportation and taxes/duties hike prices. An unexpected deal was quality gear for snorkeling and diving. As one shop put it: “we’re competing with Amazon.”  Our buddies on Utopia II had a BCD that needed repair; it was about the same price to replace it with a nice new equipment as to shore up of aging gear.

Beachcombing

In 10 minutes at an undisclosed location on Bonaire, Jamie found SIXTEEN colors of beach glass. Normal looking beach, not piles of glass, just… remarkable, and unprecedented in our experience.

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On the other hand, the plastic bane of our oceans and beaches was sadly omnipresent. The sad reality of our world right now.

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For the kids: just lots of fun being with friends, beach glass or plastic or whatever.

Island life

Our perch off town was imbued with a feeling that we were a part of this little community. The small-boat fishing fleet’s dock nearby kept things lively. A sailing school was off the bow.  Totem was used as one end of the starting line for a triathlon; she was a turning mark for a Sunfish race (we have the gelcoat dings to prove it!).

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We were in Bonaire for the weeks leading up to Christmas, but never really felt the commercial onslaught that happens at home. Homes and businesses put up decorations, I heard a couple of carols; most of the festivity was back on Totem. Except, notably, for the night of he holiday parade. Nothing to make you smile more than what’s basically a small-town parade. Bonaire’s spanned the generations, featured senior home residents and costumed kids  following the truck with Santa’s helpers bearing treats for curbside children.

Island exploring

Not such a good value: rental cars! Prices seemed hiked by the season, and the demand from cruise ships. We rented a truck with Utopia one day, threw (gently invited) the teenagers in the back, and drove a loop around the island.

Loading up for a day of touring

Loading up for a day of touring

Many of Bonaire's feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

Many of Bonaire’s feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

...and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

…and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

Ancient paintings on limestone in a "star watchers" cave

Ancient paintings on limestone in a “star watchers” cave

Learning about Bonaire's biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots

Learning about Bonaire’s biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots. Note, Niall is barefoot. The guide was concerned that we didn’t have “appropriate footwear” but allowed Niall to hike barefoot anyway. No problem for him.

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

 

The water

Right, this was about everything else, and I wrote about the striking underwater world of Bonaire here, but the access as a cruiser is incredible.

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Want to swim off the boat? OK. Want to dive daily? OK. Want to do nothing but watch the sunset? OK. It may be particularly missed as we sit at the Marina Santa Marta, where the color and smell deter any interest in swimming. But Bonaire was particularly special this way, even if we were only watching the watery horizon as the sun set.

Cruiser Community

After the crush of boats in the lesser Antilles, the smaller fleet in Bonaire was refreshing. Enough for community and fun, not so much it felt like an overplayed grownup summer camp. Sharing stories with new cruisers and circumnavigators and hopeful future sailors and happy landlubbers alike.

Good times with good humans

Good times with good humans

Gathering for a white elephant Christmas party with fellow sailors: organized by Sail Ho‘s Brita with Rhapsody, Totem, Windancer IV, Chapter Two (their lovely Island Packet 420 is for sale, I’ll happily put anyone interested in contact with them).

With hindsight on Bonaire and Grenada, I’m not sure why the latter is such a gathering point in hurricane season– except to think that people just haven’t gotten to the Dutch Antilles yet, or are intimidated by the bit of distance and never will, or are discouraged by the possible scarcity of mooring. Given the choice as destinations to avoid the worst of seasonal risk, I’d pick Bonaire in a heartbeat.

[update: If we were going back and planned to spend more time in Bonaire, my first stop would be the awesome Addo’s bookstore on Kaya Industria, a short walk from the waterfront. They’ve got a nice selection of English-language books of interest to hte visitor: everything from field guides, to diving references, to local history. Books for children in two or three languages (Papiamento, Dutch, and English) would be fun for adults and kids alike to learn more about Bonaire and better appreciate their stay.

Coloring books, field guides, and more - specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo's books in Kralendijk.

Coloring books, field guides, and more – specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo’s books in Kralendijk.

Totem is preparing to depart Colombia this week, bound at least for Panama! By next month we’ll be splashing in the Pacific again.

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17 Responses to Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving

  1. Beat Wettstein January 22, 2018 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Behan,

    Thanks for another well written blog!
    We are leaving Curacao tomorrow (Jan 23rd) for Santa Marta. Might miss you just.
    We stopped at Las Rocas on the way to ABC.
    Have a good passage to Panama and through the canal.

    Warm regards.

    Beat
    Sv Kianga

    • Behan January 23, 2018 at 7:05 am #

      We will just miss you in Santa Marta, what a shame! Glad you got a visit into Las Rocas. We’re leaving SM just as you head out from Curacao.

    • Mike January 30, 2018 at 6:22 pm #

      Hey Guys! Long time no, see. Are you coming to Annapolis in April for the spring show?
      Behan, if you recall our conversation on your last visit, let me know if you can find the picture we discussed. We’ll be mounting the “ceremonial tribal tool” onboard and would love to have the accompanying pic!
      Hope to see you soon.

  2. Ren January 22, 2018 at 10:48 am #

    If it aint Dutch it aint much ! lol.
    If there is no mooring you can always go to curacao and anchor inside the bay.
    Loved it here, enjoy !

    • Behan January 23, 2018 at 7:00 am #

      “If it ain’t Dutch” hahahahaha! Thanks Ren, appreciate having someone with Curacao experience chime in. Did you do much diving there?

      • Ren January 23, 2018 at 10:25 am #

        No diving other than snorkeling. For diving Aruba is the best location I’ve heard from many.

  3. Porter January 22, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

    Great Blog as usual!!

    Google fi phone: good in 138 countries: data 10$/gb BUT capped at 60$/month so data free after that! Just FYI

    Also– best way to get to northern or NW Caribbean from Columbia or Panama? or is one wind trapped in the western Caribbean?

    Heading down to Virgins in 2 weeks

    Best: Porter Helen Grace Lilly S/V Ibis.

    • Behan January 23, 2018 at 7:18 am #

      Timely, we ordered a Fi phone last week! I did not know about the cap – wow, that’s VERY interesting, if you use a lot of data can swing the cost per GB. Re: routing from Col./Panam to NW Carib… a few options but yes, you’re at the downwind end of the Trades, so basically it means buckling up if that’s in your plans. Happy to talk ideas, easier via email. We’re off to Panama tomorrow, getting excited about canal > Pacific!

      • Ren January 23, 2018 at 10:25 am #

        I think the capping is new. Just happened in the last few weeks.

    • Richard January 24, 2018 at 9:19 am #

      Hi Porter,
      Only did one passage in that direction. Panama-Gran Cayman in November. Perfect passage, 12-18 true, wind rarely ahead of the beam or aft of the stern quarter. But the wind is what you get, not what you wish for! Not to be missed: a stop in Providencia. Although the undeveloped Corn Islands or the Miami-in-Colombia San Andres might be interesting to other tastes.

      • Porter, Helen, Lilly and Grace- Ibis January 31, 2018 at 7:25 am #

        That sounds like a great passage. Christmas winds? I had not looked into the corn islands. Looks very interesting. I’ve heard to give Nicaragua a wide berth, but the.corns look 70 or so offshore.
        Who knows. Perhaps we just go through the canal.
        Thanks for the tips!!

  4. Chris Whaley January 23, 2018 at 10:39 am #

    Behan,
    Many thanks for your descriptive, picture-filled posts keeping us “focused on the prize”. On a more mundane subject, can you describe how you do your laundry on board with buckets etc…?
    Chris & Colette

    • Behan January 23, 2018 at 4:25 pm #

      Pretty simple really! Three changes of water in a 5 gallon bucket to do a load:: 1) wash 2) rinse (add a splash of white vinegar) 3) rinse. Take turns working laundry in the bucket by hand. We use Fresh water only. Love to have a wringer to make it easier but this gets it done! Dry ont he lifelines and all’s well.

      • Chris Whaley January 23, 2018 at 5:37 pm #

        That was a quick response, thank you! See you on the water.
        C&C Whaley

  5. Allison January 25, 2018 at 10:27 am #

    Gorgeous scenery and photos! Thank you for sharing!

  6. Jan blake January 25, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

    Thankyouforthe great descriptions. And photos all very informative for someone who has not been there. Doyouever write about your costs, srunningtheboat food everyday expensive. Did you start out on a boat.? Had you had previous sailing experiences ? We are retired and about to start RVing around the USA. I think gas will be our biggest expensive. Thanksforsharingtheinformation.

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