From the pioneering work of the flamboyant and determined Capt. Don Stewart to its oft-copied marine-park model, Bonaire has been a leader in establishing ocean-conservation standards in the Caribbean. After arriving in 1962, Capt. Don, who died last year, recognized Bonaire’s underwater treasures, and he helped persuade locals and the government of the Netherlands to establish meaningful protections. The result is an island beloved by divers— and by our readers. Bonaire earned four No. 1 awards in the Caribbean and Atlantic region in our 2015 Top 100 Readers Choice survey, for macro, advanced, beginner and — for the 22nd consecutive year — shore diving. It also notched three top-five finishes, for underwater photography, overall diving and overall best destination.
Even divers who have been here so many times they’ve lost count are required to attend an orientation class and make a checkout dive. Then they’re required to purchase a $25 annual tag or $10 day pass. If that seems like a hassle, consider how easy it is to dive here. All you have to do is rent a truck — often included with resort packages — load it with tanks (usually available 24/7) and choose between dozens of sites, most of them along the island’s leeward west coast. You’re the boat captain and divemaster! No schedules to adhere to, and no enforced bottom times. Although there are dive resorts and operators that offer this dream setup, there is not another place in the Caribbean that caters to divers this way islandwide.
The signs are everywhere to remind visitors that this island is tailor-made for divers — red-and-white fags fluttering over dive shops; yellow stones along the roadside, pointing to dive sites; license plates inscribed with “Divers Paradise;” 24/7 tank-refill stations. Counting the dive sites that ring Klein Bonaire, there is a total of 86 places where divers can blow bubbles — many of them accessible from shore and open to divers any time of the day or night. The road to building this underwater utopia hasn’t been without bumps, but islanders were quick to realize the value of their marine resources. As Capt. Don noted in his ship’s log when he first sailed into Kralendijk’s harbor, “Bay like glass, a spectrum of shimmering blues, extraordinarily clear. To the north, a craggy silhouette of small mountains sloping southward to a fat spit of coral- rimmed beach. Brilliant tropical fish of all varieties. Looks to be a fantastic underwater island.” Indeed it is, and readers named it the No. 1 spot for shore diving and No. 2 for best overall diving.
Just a sampling of dive sites gives you an idea of how sweet it is to dive the waters here. It’s a short swim out to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker, a 236-foot cargo vessel with a shady past (25,000 pounds of marijuana was found in a false bulkhead after the ship had engine problems and was towed to Kralendijk). It’s a popular site — get an early start so the only crowds you’ll bump into are the mobs of fish here. Bonaire isn’t known for wall diving, but it is possible to get vertical at north-western sites like Rappel, famous for its healthy stands of swaying sea fans, and Wayaka, in Washington Slagbaai National Park. These drop-offs aside, Bonaire’s fringing reef is mostly a terraced affair, sloping down gently from about 30 feet to 130 feet. It’s a reason why the island earned a No. 1 award for beginner diving.
Bonaire’s advanced-diving opportunities — another No. 1 award — are truly challenging. Northwest sites like Playa Funchi, Playa Bengi and Bise Morto, in Washington Slagbaai, are slammed by heavy current. But if you’ve got the stamina, you’ll be wowed by the most pristine corals found not only in Bonaire but in the Caribbean. As you drop down, look for schools of horse-eye jack.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
Bonaire’s waters teem with nearly 400 fish species, according to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and underwater photographers (the island got a No. 2 nod from readers in this category) will appreciate setting up for reef scenics that pulse with marine life. If you’re a fan of tiny critters (No. 1 for macro), the island is silly with flamingo tongues, seahorses, and hermit and coral crabs. Is behavior more your thing? Look for jawfish aerating their eggs, sergeant majors protecting their nests, and juvenile spotted drum flying their dorsal fins like pennants in the wind.
Along with the fishy reefs, you’ll fall in love with the warm and friendly locals — learn a few words, like mi dushi (“my sweetheart” in Papiamento, the Creole language spoken here) — the charming Dutch-inspired architecture of the capital Kralendijk, and the crazy-quilt landscape that looks a little like the American Southwest plopped down into the Caribbean. The island’s salt ponds are a natural habitat for brine shrimp, a favorite meal for hundreds of pink flamingos and other migratory birds that flock to the island. By the time you pack for home, you’ll be saying, “Mi stima Boneiru” (“I love Bonaire”). Our readers certainly do, giving the island a coveted top-five listing for best overall destination.
The dive resorts all have beach bars, including Plaza Resort’s Coconut Crash (plazaresortbonaire.eu), or venture of premises to Kralendijk’s harborfront and drop in at Karel’s Beach Bar for a lively happy hour (karelsbeachbar.com).
Choose between two restaurants at Divi Flamingo: Chibi Chibi or Pureocean (diviresorts.com). Either way, you’ll have calming views of the Caribbean. In Kralendijk, you’ll find eateries with inventive menus, such as At Sea — the terrace is lovely.
With two swimming pools, its Ingridients restaurant, drive-thru air-fill station and house reef, Buddy Dive Resort (buddydive .com) is perfect for the do-it-yourself diver. Want to do your own cooking? Apartments have fully equipped kitchens.
NEED TO KNOW
￼When To Go It’s dry and sunny year-round. Bonaire enjoys a lucky geographic location — it lies outside the Caribbean tropical storm belt and averages only 22 inches of rainfall annually.
Travel Tip Consider getting a room or suite with a fridge — the markets in Bonaire are well-stocked, and you can get fresh fruits and vegetables at the harborfront in Kralendijk.
Dive Conditions Water temps average in the low 80s. On most sites, viz is a dependable 100 feet.