Bonaire/Curacao, Netherland Antilles, April 2001
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Bel Mar Apartments, Happy Holiday Homes, Toucan Divers, Limestone Water Resort
Curacao report still in progress
Author:
Scott Roberts

Preface:

Bonaire is supposedly "Divers Paradise", so I decided to see for myself what all the hype was about. What follows is a summary of our eight night stay in Bonaire and two nights in Curacao. My wife Cherie and I flew down on frequent flyer miles from Seattle. Our friends, Rob and Heather flew down to meet us the day after. Cherie and I are both PADI Advanced Open Water certified with just over 60 dives logged in the last 4 years. Half of our dives are in the cold water here in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. The rest are in Jamaica (North and West Shores), Little Cayman, French Polynesia., Baja, Monterey, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii. Our friends took their Open Water referral courses in Seattle, and the plan was to finish their certification in Bonaire. If you want more information about the islands or the diving, you should check out the DiveAtlas.com Bonaire and Curacao indexes. There you will find links to some island information. We really donít like vacations where all you do is dive, so there is some good information in this report if you enjoy other activities as well.

Flights:

We left Seattle at Midnight on Friday. The connections on American to Curacao were very tight, but we made them all just in time. Make sure you take the TrAAin in the Dallas airport. Itís a big airport, and it will save you time if they recommend you take it. We arrived in Curacao at about 2pm. Our flight to Bonaire on ALM left at 7:20pm, so we had some time to kill. Iíll talk more about that later.

ALM has a horrible reputation. People talk about lost baggage, cancelled flights, and virtually anything bad. Itís hard to tell from just one experience, but we did not have any problems. The flight was about five minutes late. Everything went fine and we were in Bonaire at 8pm. Customs was very easy and didnít even ask what was in our bags. We did see them stop someone who had an entire suitcase filled with miniature liquor bottles.

This was before the September 11th terrorist attacks, so things may be a bit different now.

Rental Car:

We rented a 4-door pickup from AB Rentals. It wasnít the newest of cars, but it ran fine, and the AC worked. The young lady from the car rental agency was waiting for us and lead us to the office to fill out the paperwork. The 4-door pickup was a great choice. They say it fits 6, but 4 seemed fine to me. The back seat is a bit cramped.  Throw the tanks and your gear in back and you are ready to go. The tailgate provides a great place to gear up for your dive. Throw your wet gear in the back after the dive. Couldnít be more simple. They say not to leave any valuables in the car. We left no more than water bottles, T-shirts and towels in the car unattended, and we always used the provided club. We left it unlocked. That way no curious thief would have the urge to break our windows. We did see broken glass on the ground at a few dive sites. This suggests that petty theft is still a problem. We didnít have a problem and the island is small enough that you donít need to bring much with you on your travels. The cost for eight days was $275. We declined insurance because my credit card covers that.

Island Orientation:

This is by no means a comprehensive description, but it will help let you know what Iím talking about. For more detailed information check out the Bonaire Index at DiveAtlas.com. The majority of the diving is along the Western shore of the island.  Dive site maps can be found at several locations on the internet.  The map to the right is from Oceanphotos.com.

Kralendijk:
This is the main city in Bonaire and it is located in about the center of the island along the West coast. The town is centered around one main street. Itís small, but you can find most everything you would need in a pretty small area. There are a few banks in town with ATMís that accept most major credit cards. US dollars are accepted everywhere we were. Some places may have difficulty with large bills though. Most places accept credit cards. There are many small shops that have pretty much the same tourist garbage for sale. My wife was able to find a nice little gallery that was selling reasonably priced prints. They also had some original pieces if that is what you are looking for. We used the Cultimara grocery store in town for our liquor, postcards and groceries. We didnít do a tremendous amount of research, but I hear that there are cheaper grocery stores around. Cultimara supposedly has the best selection, and it was very good for a tropical destination. Prices were about 15% more than in Seattle. There are several restaurants in town offering everything from ribs to Indonesian food.

Restaurant Reviews:

Old Inn: This was our favorite.  This is absolutely fabulous Indonesian food.  We ordered the family style special that comes with seven entrees.  Each one was unique and well prepared.  You will not go away hungry at Old Inn.  We had some great leftovers as well.  Old Inn is located directly across from the Plaza Resort, just South of town.
Richard's: This place is hyped up in a big way on the internet.  Although the fish is very fresh and well prepared, the recipes lack creativity.  The setting is beautiful being located right on the shoreline and just south of town.  A great place to hang out and enjoy the sunset.  It was fairly expensive.
The Blue Moon: Located across from the water at the south end of town, this restaurant creates a great laid back atmosphere.  We were serenaded by a Columbian guitar player who actually spent some time in Seattle.  The people were great, and the food was pretty good.
Amadeus Restaurant: Located on the north end of town, Amadeus specializes in ribs.  For this reason, they also specialize in begging dogs hanging out on the sidewalk.  The ribs were OK, the dogs were entertaining, and the drinks were pretty bad.  You may want to skip this one. 

North of Kralendijk:

Located at the North end of the island is Washington-Slagbaai National Park. There are a few dive sites in the park, and it is worth a trip just to check out the park. There are many cool rock formations, a ton of cactuses, tropical birds, lizards, flamingoes, and beautiful views along the Caribbean. Between the park and Kralendijk are some of the best dive sites on the island. We dove Karpata, 1000 Steps and Andrea 2 during our stay (more about that later). The town of Rincon is immediately South of the park. Itís a cute little town worth taking a little time to explore and take some pictures. The drive along the East side of the island, North of Kralendijk , is quite spectacular. The sea was angry that day (Costanza 97í). The waves are huge and they come crashing into the cliffs that line the shore. Itís very impressive, and makes you glad itís quite a bit calmer at the dive sites. Immediately North of town are where most of the large dive resorts are located. If you enjoy the larger resorts, there are plenty to choose from. We like traveling on our own time somewhat outside of the main tourist areas, so we decided to stay South of Kralendijk.

South of Kralendijk:

Driving south from town you run into the Divi Flamingo casino. They have slots and blackjack. The resort was pretty run down, and the casino smelled like an air-conditioned ashtray. Unless you really need to gamble, skip this visit. South of the Divi is the Plaza. Their casino was closed during our stay, but if the hotel is any indication, I would think that it is quite a bit nicer. It was pretty luxurious inside, and if youíre looking for luxurious accommodations this might be your best bet. A couple of minutes past the Divi is the Airport. The airport is small, but services the largest of planes. KLM, American Eagle, Canada 3000, Air Jamaica, and ALM all fly into Bonaire. Iím sure other charter airlines may do so as well. Just down the road from the Airport there are several dive sites which stretch all the way to the South tip of the island. The residential community of Belnem is located just South of the airport. There are several smaller establishments in this area for those who prefer a more private place to stay on their vacation. Past Belnem you will find salt production fields, some historical former slave quarters, Pink Beach, flamingoes, and a lighthouse. The drive down South is quite nice, so itís worth it just to say youíve seen the whole island. If you follow the road around the Southern tip of the island, you will eventually get to Lac Bay. This is where all of the windsurfers hang out. Although Iím not a windsurfer, it didnít look too spectacular to me. It was very shallow, the wind was steady, and it was very calm. I guess it might be a good place to learn, but I would think that advanced wind surfers might get board with it. I'm sure there is easy access from this bay to more advanced areas.  This is also where you can snorkel the mangroves. There are a few dive sites in this area that donít sound too spectacular.

Donkey Alert: There are donkeys all over the place!  If you are scared of donkeys, stay home.  Bonaire is known by donkeys as donkey paradise.  They were going to put that on the license plates, but they thought that diver's paradise would be better for tourism.  This decision does not appear to have hurt the donkey population.

So now I suppose you know your way around. The nice thing about Bonaire is that itís pretty simple. You can go there having done very little research and find your way around just fine. At the same time, there is plenty to keep you occupied for a week if you are diving. We stayed 8 nights, and could have used a couple more. I would say that a 4-night stay is plenty if you are not diving, unless relaxing and visiting restaurants is your thing. I prefer a more active vacation.

The First Night (Happy Holiday Homes):

After receiving or rental car, we were off to our first nightís accommodations at the Happy Holiday Homes. This establishment is family built, owned, and operated, and has been around for about 14 years. Happy Holiday Homes is situated at Punt Vierkant in the residential neighborhood of Belnem.

The property consists of several 1 to 3 bedroom cottages. Each cottage includes air conditioning, full size kitchen, living room and bath. All the units are very nicely equipped, and the owners can pretty much get you anything you need to make your stay enjoyable. The property is surrounded by a wall and is 1 block inland from the Caribbean. For this reason, there are no views from the units, but the wall gives you a lot of privacy.

Happy Holiday Homes is a great place to stay if you are on a budget and plan on diving quite a bit during your stay. The cottages are very spacious, extremely clean (probably the cleanest I've seen in the Caribbean), and well maintained. The three bedrooms are plenty big for five people, and our one bedroom was more than enough for us. Each cottage is well equipped for the diver. There are washing facilities and washing tubs available for your use. There are several cottages that support large groups as well.  This would be a great place to go with several friend and dive your brains out.  You can find all the information you need at their web site.  If you have any questions, they are an e-mail away, and are very responsive.

We were exhausted from our 17-hour trip, so we hit the hay as soon as we unloaded our bags. The next morning I had a chance to sit down and talk with the owner and view the various cottages. She was a very friendly woman, and it sounds like you are in good hands if you choose to stay there in the future. They make tremendous efforts to make sure everything is maintained properly, and are constantly making small improvements.

Off to the BelMar:

We were scheduled for a 9am checkout dive with Toucan Diving. They have a satellite shop located at the BelMar. This is where we were staying the remainder of our time on Bonaire.

The BelMar is located within walking distance of Happy Holiday Homes. It is a beautiful apartment building located right on the shoreline. All of the apartments have views of the magnificent blue Caribbean with Klein Bonaire in the distance. Tropical plants and birds are everywhere on the property. There is also a small pool on the patio in front of the apartments. Directly in front of the building there are steps leading down to an H shaped dock that is elevated about 5 ft over the sea. One side of dock hosts a thatched roof umbrella with four lounge chairs that are a perfect place to hang out and enjoy the warm breeze and an ice-cold Corona.

Beer Tip: Aside from a few bad canned beers, you will find Heineken, Amstel, and Corona. Personally, I donít find any of these to be too great, but a Corona with a lime will do just fine. We always opted for the Coronaís because they came in 12oz bottles. Amstels and Heinekens come in tiny 8 oz. Bottles and they are pretty much the same price. If you have no strong preference, go with the Coronas.

The snorkeling in front of the apartments is average. Most of the coral was destroyed by the waves generated by Lenny in 1999. There was a lot of interesting marine life though. This is the case with most of the island, although the sites up North around Karpata were sheltered from these waves. If snorkeling is your thing, you should probably head up there or go to another island where snorkeling is better. The diving was very good. There is a buoy about 200 ft out from the dock. This buoy marks the unofficial dive site that is the BelMar Reef. At the Buoy, the reef slopes down at about a 30-degree angle until you reach a sand bottom. This dive site is one of the many in the area that boasts the double reef system. If you continue past the sand bottom you will reach the second reef. This reef is very similar to the first one. The coral is magnificent, and you will find all of the typical Bonaire marine life. On our three dives on the BelMar reef we encountered a turtle, box fish, eels, trumpet fish, grouper, tangs, trigger fish, damsels, gobies, puffer fish, French and queen angel fish, parrot fish, and various wrasses. Although not quite as spectacular as Karpata, this dive is definitely worth doing quite a few times during your stay. I found the reef to be a little bit nicer to the North of the buoy as opposed to South.

The Toucan Diving dive shop is located directly behind the apartments. It shares the same building as the BelMar office. At Toucan, you can find pretty much anything you need. You can book guided dives, boat dives and snorkeling tours. There are also equipment and tank rentals. The tank rental program is extremely convenient. They provide you a key that opens the room with the tanks. There is also a drive up facility where you can pull up our car and load tanks 24 hrs/day. We found that there were always plenty of tanks available at all times of the day. It is very convenient, and their prices are similar to other dive shops on the island. You can purchase unlimited tanks and weights for $120/week.  The staff at the BelMar Toucan shop was very friendly and informative.

The BelMar Unit:

Please note that the dock has been rebuilt since this picture was taken.  It's basically the same, but it's a little larger and there is a very nice thatched roof hut on the dock closest to us in this picture.  We chose unit #2 because it was slightly cheaper than unit #1. It was right next to the dock stairs, it was on the ground level, and it was more private than the other units. It was absolutely a perfect location. Unit #1 is great too, but itís a little bigger and more expensive. If you go, I would recommend unit #2 highly, although Iím sure the others are just fine as well. Our unit included two air conditioned bedrooms, each with private bath, a living room, kitchen, gear storage closet, and patio. It was all very clean and well maintained.

There were some things that could have been better, but the setting and the convenience more than made up for the shortcomings. Tiny ants would appear on the counter if you left food out, but it wasnít a problem unless you were messy. The kitchen area was poorly configured which made it crowded if you had too many cooks in the kitchen. The art on the wall was pretty bad (sorry if the artist is offended). The storage closet was outside the front door. They could use one on the sea side of the apartment. That way you wouldnít have to walk through the apartment to stow your gear after a dive on the BelMar reef. I canít overemphasize how nice it was to kick back with some margaritas on the dock.

Checkout dive:

Our apartment was ready early, so we were able to unpack away. After unpacking we walked over to the dive shop for the mandatory Bonaire checkout dive. Itís a good idea and I wish other places did it. First we were given a brief overview of the island including recommended dives, tips about not keeping valuables in your car, what kind of marine life was to be expected, etc. Next, we grabbed a couple of tanks and walked over to the dock. Here we were briefed on the BelMar reef. Basically, go out to the reef, turn against the current, explore until your tank is half empty, and turn around. It was very simple, similar to all the dives we experienced throughout the week. To make it even easier, there was a submerged rope which lead you from the dock to the buoy. See the dive site descriptions for more information. The dive master watched from shore, and we were issued our park passes after the dive. Iím not sure if they usually go out with you or not. We have about 60 dives logged, advanced certifications, and cold water experience, so maybe they just assumed that we knew what we were doing.

The Diving:

They don't call Bonaire diver's paradise for nothing.  This is some of the easiest and most accessible shore diving in the world.  We chose Toucan diving for our tank rentals.  The process couldn't have been easier, and the staff was very friendly.All of these dive sites are detailed at Geographia.com.  I have included my own brief review as well as links to Shorediving.com reviews.  Their reviews are great, but I find their navigation structure a bit lacking.  On all the dives, you can expect to see turtles, box fish, eels, trumpet fish, grouper, tangs, trigger fish, damsels, gobies, puffer fish, French and queen angel fish, parrot fish, and various wrasses.  I will highlight what was different on our dives.  Finding the dive sites couldn't be easier.  Get a map from one of the dive shops.  All of the dives are marked with yellow stones.  During our stay we dove the following sites.  A collage of our diving experience is located to the right of the dive site descriptions.  Click on the images for a larger view. 

Karpata: This was my favorite dive of the trip.  The coral is more healthy, the fish are bigger, and the slope of the reef is more dramatic.  At the beginning of our dive a huge French angel was following me.  It was actually too close to get a good picture.  This was a very friendly fish.  The entry is fairly easy, but be careful traversing the rocks.

1000 Steps: 1000 steps was similar to Karpata, but the slope of the reef was less dramatic.  The entry is a little easier being crushed coral as opposed to rocks.  1000 steps is still a great dive.  The steps are long, but it's no big deal if you are in decent shape.  Try lugging 40lbs of weight down to Sunrise beach in a dry suit.  Now that is hard work. 

Andrea 1: Less steep than 1000 steps, but there is an abnormally high number of blue parrot fish here.  The entry is a piece of cake.

Hilma Hooker: The attraction here is the huge wreck and the huge tarpon that often hang out here.  We made the mistake of not setting our compass heading.  It's hard to believe, but we couldn't find it for a while.  We wasted a lot of time and energy swimming around the reefs to the south of the wreck  The entry is a little difficult with some slippery rocks to navigate, but if wreck diving is your thing this is a good site.  The huge tarpon (6 ft long) are quite a site!

The Invisibles: This site was a little different than the others.  It's a bit of a swim to get out to the reef.  There are a ton of garden eels just before you get to the reef.  If you've never seen them, it's quite interesting.  They look like grass flowing in the wind.  We also saw some sand divers at this site.  These are very interesting prehistoric looking fish.  This is one of the dual reef dives on Bonaire. The entry is easy. Once you get to the reef go to about 50ft and you can see the sandy bottom. Keep going straight across the sand another 70 ft and there is a 2nd reef that hosts some bigger fish.

BelMar Reef (Between Bachelor's Beach and Chez Hines): This isn't an official site because you have to be staying at the BelMar to dive here.  It's a very nice reef, and it's part of the double reef system as well.  Watch for turtles here.  I found the reef to the north of the buoy to be a little more interesting than to the south.  Good dive, and you can't beat the convenience.  Giant stride in, take the ladder out.

Town Pier (Night Dive): This dive requires a guide, but I highly recommend this night dive.  Orange cup corals cover the pilings.  There are sponges of all colors.  Watch for tarpon, eels, and frogfish.  Your eyes almost hurt after this dive due to all the blinding colors at the site.  Toucan diving was unable to find a guide on the day we wanted to dive, so we went with Green Submarine who are located on the south end of town.  They hooked us up with a local dive master on very short notice.  Green Submarine was great, and I wouldn't hesitate to use them if you weren't staying somewhere that provided tanks.  The convenience of Toucan at the BelMar was hard to beat.

Captain Don's Reef (Klein Bonaire Boat Dive): The life at this reef is similar to the shore dives up near Karpata.  The coral are a bit more healthy than the other sites, and the fish are a little bigger.  I don't think it's worth the expense to do boat diving more than once during your stay.  I find shore diving easier if you can believe that.  You don't have to deal with people getting in your way, and you are sometimes the only one at the site, which is not the case with boat diving.  We did see a seahorse at this site.  Unfortunately, the other 8 people on the boat saw it as well.  Visibility suffered, and the seahorse stayed hidden in the soft coral.

Sand divers at The Invisibles

Orange Cup Corals at Town Pier

Town pier night dive

Coral at BelMar Reef

Garden Eels at the invisibles

Sand Diver @ The Invisibles

Sea Horse at Captain Don's reef

Spotted eel in BelMar shallows

We did do one boat dive during our stay.  We wanted to experience the Toucan dive boat, and we wanted to see Klein Bonaire, which is a small island about a 15 minute boat ride from the BelMar dock.  If you are staying at the BelMar, be sure to ask them if you can catch the boat directly from the dock.  If the seas are calm enough and you can get enough people, they will do it, and it's extremely convenient.  The boat is well set up with a nice dive platform off of the back.

We had a great time in Bonaire.  The people are very friendly, it's about the easiest foreign travel destination I've experienced, and the diving is incredible.  Will I go back?  Maybe... It's a long trip, and the marine life gets pretty similar after a while.  I think we have pretty much done everything we wanted to do topside.  If you are a patient diver, and enjoy looking at the smaller things, there might be a lot more to keep you interested.  I'm not extremely patient.  Maybe they will start diving the East side of the island.  I'm not sure how easy that would be, but Toucan said they were working on it.  It is very rough over there, but the diving is supposedly spectacular.

If you go, consider staying at the BelMar.  If you are on a budget Happy Holiday Homes is a good bet.  I just don't see any reason to stay at the larger resorts in town or North of town.  You get the ultimate in diving convenience at the Toucan diving BelMar store, and you don't get the crowds you get up North.  The setting for the hotel is spectacular.  You also get a kitchen which will save you money in the long run.  Everything is within driving distance, so location is not a huge concern.  Rent a truck, and come enjoy the shore diving and traveling freedom that Bonaire has to offer.

The report on Curacao is still in progress.  It will be posted upon completion.

 

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