KRALENDIJK, Bonaire — The instructions are simple: Wade into the water. Look at the bewildering variety of Bonaire’s exotic sea life. Flop back onto the beach. Repeat.
There isn’t a whole lot else one needs to do to enjoy the island, and that makes it a perfect escape. There is excellent wind- and kite-surfing on the windward side in Lac Bay. There are scenic views and a beautiful desert habitat in Washington Slagbaai National Park. But the true lure of Bonaire lies beneath the waves. The local license plates read “Divers Paradise” for a reason.
Bonaire, just 12 degrees north of the equator off Venezuela, is a Netherlands special municipality and the quiet cousin of the three “ABC” islands of the Dutch Caribbean. It is entirely without what passes for bustle in Aruba and Curaçao. One perfect day here illustrates the isle’s natural gifts.
After a buffet breakfast at the Divi Flamingo Hotel, some of the best snorkeling was just 10 yards away. As it darted in the surf, it was easy to spot the distinctive rainbow iridescence of the stoplight parrotfish from our table even before we finished our coffee. We descended the wooden steps of the hotel’s jetty into the water and were confronted with so many species swirling around that it seemed as if we had stepped into an overstocked aquarium. The experience was duplicated at countless other locations on Bonaire, which is ringed by a coral fringing reef right at the shoreline. The whole reef system is designated for protection as the Bonaire National Marine Park.
Well over 400 fish species and more than 50 coral species populate the reef. The most common fish are parrotfish, which is great because they’re also the most beautiful. The stoplight parrotfish are predominantly green and blue, but carry hints of every crayon color in the box, and they let snorkelers approach. The brilliant cobalt of the adult yellowtail damselfish is surpassed only by the velvet black bodies of the juvenile, speckled with electric blue spots. The boxy shape of the curious trunkfish is comical. One swam right up to my mask to get a look inside. A spotted eagle ray, considered endangered since it is under pressure worldwide from fisheries, winged its way by with slow motion flaps, trailing a long needle tail. Seeing it was a thrill.
Eager to see more of the island, we tossed food, water, and snorkeling gear in a backpack and got on our rented mountain bikes. A pair of mating iguanas ignored us from the hotel lawn as we rolled out. Heading northwest along the leeward coast out of Kralendijk — Bonaire’s capital and the only place on the island that can really call itself a town with the possible exception of Rincon — we found flourishing wildlife and little traffic.
The bike ride was startling. Expecting a dense, rain-forest-like tropical island, we were surprised by the giant cacti. Bonaire is arid, with only 20 inches of rainfall a year. Sand and prickly bushes dominate the landscape, which is as beautiful as any blooming desert, with the aquamarine sea never far away.
Sunning Bonaire whiptail lizards skittered away from our knobby tires, their neon teal tails glimmering. Just outside of town a pair of Lora, the endangered yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot, flew above us, matching our slow speed. Later we would see the island’s more famous resident birds, the pink Caribbean flamingo, which likes to feed on the brine shrimp in the salt pans. But the biggest surprise came on a fast downhill around a blind corner. Chilling out on the untraveled road were a herd of wild goats, descendants of the domesticated animals brought over by European colonizers. Grabbing big handfuls of brakes, I just avoided a collision, and the ruminants sprang into the brush. Wild donkeys are a frequent roadside sight as well.
A guide at a dive shop told us we didn’t need a map to find the good spots. He was right. We just rode along the coast and looked for roadside rocks painted yellow. They are markers for diving and snorkeling spots, and there are plenty of them. From Kralendijk there are a dozen snorkeling and dive spots worth a stop before the road heads inland to Rincon. Dozens of divers waded in and out of the surf at Karpata, and for good reason.
Blessed with good coral formations and the undulating fans of abundant plant life, Karpata was also home to the only octopus I saw on the trip, a shy beast camouflaged nicely with the rock he clung to. The stone staircase at 1000 Steps takes you down a cliffside easily negotiated even with shouldered mountain bikes, and rewards snorkelers with an easy entry into the water. Every site we stopped at offered the surreal experience of having a deserted beach to ourselves, only to be suddenly surrounded by divers emerging from the waves.
As quiet and homey as Bonaire is, the quality of several restaurants surprised. My favorite, Plazita Limena, let us roll our bikes right through the dining room and lock them up along the back gate. The casual style of this Peruvian restaurant in downtown Kralendijk belies a serious menu: a fantastic locally-sourced pumpkin soup and easily the best ceviche I’ve ever had.
The fish populating Bonaire’s stellar coral reefs aren’t just beautiful, they’re tasty, too.