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Bonaire in the Off Season

If you cruise the lower Caribbean during hurricane season or are consider booking flights for summer vacation on a different island, consider the laid back charms of Bonaire, 86 miles east of Aruba and 50 miles above the Venezuelan coast.  It’s a quiet sister of the better-known Dutch islands, with a population of 14,000, and the kind of place repeat visitors entrust to friends by word of mouth—afraid it might change if too many people discover it. 

“This is an island where people come to relax,” says Carlos Rodriguez, Operations Manager at Harbour Village Marina.  “If someone asks ‘Where’s the disco?’ I say, ‘Wrong place, man,’ but the diving is fantastic.”

Scuba lovers discovered the island decades ago, thanks to some of the Caribbean’s best walk-in shore diving and snorkeling.  The government designated the entire sea around the island as a Bonaire National Marine Park in 1979, from the high water mark to the depth of 200 feet.  By law, users of the Marine Park pay a “nature fee” of $25 (scuba divers/round tag) or $10 (non scuba divers/diamond shaped tag) per calendar year.  Tags for the fee are sold by water sports operators and at other locations.

Perhaps because many visitors are under water for multiple dives all day (and at night), and go to bed early to recharge, nightlife doesn’t often play a starring role.  But Bonaire has marvelous food at reasonable prices, from Bobbejan’s BBQ and Pasa Bon Pizza for carryout to Karel’s bar or the City Café for people-watching and music on the Kralendijk waterfront.  The City Café, under a Heineken green awning, serves as succulent a shrimp curry as you’ll find anywhere, strong European-style coffee, and a world-class hot fudge sundae.

Of course, there are other activities besides diving and eating—Bonaire is considered one of the world’s best windsurfing spots, especially at Lac Bay on the east coast.  You’ll find gear and instruction on Sorobon Beach.  Kayaking is another favorite pastime, especially in Lac Bay’s mangroves, and you can book a sport fishing charter, sunset sail, or snorkeling excursion. 

It’s quite easy to get around the flat, cactus-studded island via rental car in a day, from Washington/Slagbaai National Park to the north to the blinding-white Cargill salt flats and historic Rode Pan slave huts at the south.  Watch for wild donkeys and iguanas that roam the landscape, and spot pink dots in the distance—the island has almost as many flamingos as people.

If you arrive on your boat, there are public moorings available along the Kralendijk waterfront for a fee of about $10 per day, though there are no showers or other facilities included.  Anchoring is prohibited.  Visitors are advised to contact the Harbour Village Marina for mooring assignments on channel 17 before picking up a mooring.  Dingy in to Karel’s beach Bar and check in at the Customs and Immigration office during business hours. 

The Plaza Resort Marina at the south end of Kralendijk may have a guest slip or two available but usually it is full of local boats.

A full service marina, Harbour Village in Kralendijk, can handle yachts up to 200’ and offers restaurants, water, electricity, gasoline, propane, restrooms, laundry, email, and so on.  The main office is near the fuel and arrival dock.  www.harbourvillage.com.  Next to the marina complex is the upscale 40-room Harbour Village Beach Club with amenities like flat screen TVs and a spa if you’re in the mood for a major splurge. 
The marina has its own chandlery and Budget Marine is nearby.  Reserve in advance if you plan to stay at the marina.

“Hurricane Season is our best time of year,” says Rodriguez.  “And it’s getting better and better.”

If you arrive by plane and would like a reasonable place to stay, you’re in luck—thanks to the divers, there are numerous budget apartments available as well as traditional resort hotels.  Fairly new on the scene is bright blue Blachi Koko, near the Divi Flamingo resort, offering five stylishly-decorated apartments with kitchens just a few steps from the water starting at $90 per night.  www.blachikokobonaire.com.

Only Antigua has an older Caribbean regatta (by seven months), and Bonaire’s annual week is a joyous, island-wide festival featuring all manner of competitions.  The Bonaire Regatta recently joined the Caribbean Sailing Association and for the first time will be sailed under CSA rating rules.  The 41st outing is October 5 – 11, 2008—it will be a great time to visit and join the fun.  www.bonaireregatta.com.

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