Bonaire Travel Guide
Date Visited: March 2015
When your plane pulls up outside the small terminal building of Bonaire’s Flamingo International Airport (painted Flamingo pink) you’ll know you’ve landed somewhere special.
The island lies 48-km east of Curaçao and 140-km east of Aruba. It is the smallest of the ABC islands in terms of population (16,500) and 2nd smallest in terms of area (38-km long, 8-km wide). However what the island lacks in size it makes up for in charm and soul. Bonaire is enchanting. A large number of visitors to the island are return visitors. It is also outside of the Caribbean hurricane belt.
The name Bonaire is thought to have originally come from the native Indian Caiquetio word ‘Bonay’, a name that meant low country. The early Spanish and Dutch modified its spelling to Bojnaj and also Bonaire.
While Curaçao emerged as a centre of the slave trade, Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. A small number of African slaves were put to work cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting solar salt – see ‘Salt Mining’ below.
Bonaire is one of three islands that constitute the Caribbean Netherlands, along with Saba and Sint Eustatius. They are the three special municipalities of the Netherlands that are located in the Caribbean Sea.
Today tourism is the main industry, this island of 16,500 receives over 100,000 tourists a year. Most come as day-trippers on cruise ships, others come to dive in the Bonaire Marine Park. The largest group of visitors are Dutch and American.
Kralendijk is the capital and largest city (population: 3000) of Bonaire. When a 5000-passenger cruise ship is in port this small town is overwhelmed.
The town developed around Fort Oranje, originally under the English as the settlement of “Playa”. The town was renamed “Kralendijk” by the Dutch colonial rulers in about 1840.
The language spoken in the town is Papiamentu (a creole language indigenous to the Dutch Antilles) but Dutch and English are widely used. In Dutch, Koralendijk (of which the name Kralendijk is a degeneration) means “coral reef” or “coral dike”.
There’s not much going on in this small town. The tourist information office has a walking tour brochure, which covers all of the sites of interest. You could see everything in half a day.
For the best coffee (and ice cream) in town, I recommend Gio’s Gelateria and Caffe, located on the main street – Kaya Grandi.
Whenever cruise ships are in town there is a market held on the Wilhelmina square. The BBQ sold here makes for a tasty lunch.
Off the coast of Kralendijk lies the uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire, a diving and snorkeling paradise. This small island can be reached by water taxi, or, for divers, by the local dive operators.
Bonaire is famed for its flamingos. They are drawn to the brackish water of the island’s lagoons, which harbour the shrimp upon which they feed. You can see flamingo populations at the northern and southern ends of the island.
The best viewing is at lake Gotomeer, either at sunrise or sunset.
The Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary (southern end of the island) is one of only four areas in the world where flamingos breed. Pekelmeer means “salt lake” in Dutch.
Entry is not allowed in the sanctuary, but the birds can be watched with binoculars from the road.
If you are passing through the town of Rincon, you should stop in at the Cadushy distillery. A variety of products are made here including the only vodka in the world to be made from a cactus – the Kadushi Cactus.
If you are looking for an island for a beach holiday then Bonaire is not the place for you. The shoreline is mostly rocky with a reef running along the entire leeward (protected) side of the island.
Diving and Snorkeling
This is the reason most people come to Bonaire…
Bonaire is essentially a coral reef that has been geologically pushed up and out of the sea. This has resulted in the natural fringing reef system you see today, in which the coral formations start at the shoreline. At any point along the coast you can step into the water and start snorkeling or diving. Just beyond the shoreline is a dropoff.
This is a diver’s paradise.
The entire coastline of the island was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979 in an effort to preserve and protect the delicate coral reef and the marine life that depends on it.
If you are diving on the island you will be required to purchase the Bonaire Marine Park tag for US$25.00. The tag is valid for one year. SCUBA divers are obliged to display the dive tag on their BCD.
Dive operators can be found along the coast, especially north of Kralendijk.
If you drive south on the island, you will see a series of white hills looming on the horizon. This is the Bonaire salt mine, which is today operated by the American company Cargill.
Salt mining has always been an important industry on the island. Fort Oranje was built by the Dutch in 1639 to defend the harbour, from which the main export was salt. The capital then developed around the fort.
During the era of slavery, the Dutch West India Company used African slaves to harvest salt. Salt was one commodity that Bonaire had in endless supply, although it took back breaking slave labor to produce it. In the early days of the industry, the most important use for salt was in the preservation of food, since refrigeration was still centuries away.
At this ‘solar salt mine’ seawater is pumped into evaporation ponds where the water is evaporated through the action of the sun and wind. As the water becomes more briny the level of algae increases and this results in the vivid pink colour. Once all the water has evaporated the remaining salt crystals can be harvested.
Most of the salt produced here is for industrial use, you will not find shops on the island selling cute souvenir packets of locally produced salt for you to use in your cooking.
Bonaire offers a range of accommodation options, especially dive resorts. Many hotels are located on the coast and allow guests direct access to the reef. High season prices apply from December to April.
I stayed on the coast, just south of the airport, at Bellefonte Oceanfront Hotel. The hotel has a wooden jetty, which provides direct access to the reef.
Best to book ahead using an online agent such as booking.com
There are restaurants catering for all budgets scattered around the island, especially in Kralendijk.
The best supermarket on the island is Van Den Tweel, located at 39 Kaya Industria, Kralendijk.
Some nationalities require visas for Bonaire – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
Flights into Bonaire arrive at Flamingo International Airport. There are daily connections to the other ABC islands provided by the national carrier, Insel Air.
United Airlines and Delta provide connections to the US, while KLM and TUI Antilles provide services to Amsterdam.
From the airport, taxis are available. There is no public transport on the island, your best option is to hire a car from the airport.
There are no scheduled ferry services connecting Bonaire to any other island. The only way to arrive by sea is by private yacht or cruise ship.
There is no public transport on the island. You either hire a car, take a taxi or walk.
The best option for exploring the island is to hire a car. You should book in advance as demand sometimes outstrips supply.
The island can be circumnavigated in just a few hours or in one day at a more relaxed pace.