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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the other hand, the plastic bane of our oceans and beaches was sadly omnipresent. The sad reality of our world right now.
For the kids: just lots of fun being with friends, beach glass or plastic or whatever.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Totem is preparing to depart Colombia this week, bound at least for Panama! By next month we’ll be splashing in the Pacific again.