The Best Things to Do in Bonaire

Bonaire is the lesser-known sibling of the Dutch Caribbean islands, a sister to Aruba and Curaçao (their first initials make up the chain’s catchy nickname: the ABC islands). The colorful Netherlands Antilles archipelago lies 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and comfortably outside the Caribbean’s hurricane belt.

Bonaire is laid-back by design: Large chain hotels have been kept out and eco-preservation enforced since the 1970’s, keeping the local dive sites some of the best in the world. The island’s relaxed and slow pace which helps maintain the island’s chief attributes: its national park, and legendarily pristine wilderness, both above and below the surface. Adventure sports abound, too: diving, caving, sea kayaking, mountain biking, wind surfing, and cliff jumping, to name a few. The culture contains layers of Amerindian, Spanish, African, Dutch, and British influences. In fact, you’ll hear traces of the languages of all of the above (plus some French and Portuguese) during any given conversation in Papiamento, the creole language spoken. You’ll find you can get by just fine with a few key phrases: por fabor, danki, and bon dia—all of which mean exactly what you think they do.

Encircling the entire island of Bonaire—and the neighboring islet of Klein Bonaire—Bonaire National Marine Park is home to some of the best snorkeling and diving you’ll ever do. Thanks to long-standing protective measures (dive-site moorings that preclude damage from anchors being dropped nearby, for example), the coral and fish here are some of the healthiest in the region, so expect a profusion of marine life, whether in the form of tiny sea horses, massive morays, or a zillion creatures in between.
Kaya Grandi, Kralendijk, Caribbean Netherlands
Rivaling the colors you’ll see below the sea on the coral reefs of Bonaire, the rainbow of Dutch-colonial buildings that line the streets of downtown Kralendijk—and especially Kaya Grandi, i.e., Main Street—will be worth your while, even if you don’t intend to shop at the neighborhood’s stores. But so much the better if you do: This is a serious retail mecca, with everything from duty-free outlets to local boutiques.

One of the most romantic hideouts on Bonaire, La Balandra is designed to make you feel like you’re dining on an old Spanish ship when, in fact, you’re ensconced in the Harbour Village Beach Club. Cruise passengers have two options here: Pay an approximately $50 resort fee that includes a credit toward the restaurant, but also gives you access to the private beach, lounge chairs, dive shop and other facilities—or go for the restaurant only. Either way, call ahead to reserve (599-717-7500).

Kaya Grandi, Kralendijk, Caribbean Netherlands
A sprawling one-stop shop for all things local—including the aloe and sea salt that were once drivers of the island’s economy—the Bonaire Arts and Crafts Cruise Market sits right by the cruise-ship piers, which means minimal schlepping. You’ll also find regional spices, clay sculptures and watercolors.
Kaya Grandi
When a South African woman and an Italian man met each other—and Bonaire—through their work on cruise ships, beautiful things ensued. Not least, the handmade glass jewelry at the shop the pair opened here several years ago. Check out, among other baubles, the particularly apt Angelfish Collection.

Not all the fun happens below the sea here. For fun atop the water, head to Lac Bay, the largest bay in the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, for the uninitiated). Kayaking through the resident mangroves, you’ll see all manner of birds and fish—particularly if you rent a glass-bottomed kayak. Meanwhile, the combination of consistent trade winds and sheltered shallows makes for some of the world’s best windsurfing—even if you’re new to the sport.

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