Anyone who has read my previous trip reports knows that Susan and I tend to like to to go to Club Med resorts for sailing and windsurfing. But we also like to break out of the mold occasionally and try something (and some place) different. This time we decided we wanted to work on our windsurfing skills a little and go some place different. Since this was January, it also had to be WARM!. We had overheard some other travlers talking about Bonaire and we knew that Bonaire was supposed to have a great windsurfing area (good enough that some say it is better than Aruba’s "Fisherman’s Huts" area). It also has a reputation for good (excellent!?) snorkeling, which is another of our preferred activities. But, there are none of our normal ‘resorts’ on Bonaire and air travel is limited, so it was a bit of a challange (on a budget, anyway).
Getting there (and back):
I wanted to use Delta frequent flyer miles to get us to Bonaire, but could only get ‘close’. By using Delta "Sky Choice" award tickets, we were able to get to Aruba. (Don’t get me started on what I think of Delta’s FF seat allocations…) So we took Delta to Aruba and then a new airline, Bonaire Excel, from Aruba to Bonaire. Although I had heard some bad stories about Bonaire Excel’s startup, our flights were on time and comfortable using modern equipment (ATRs). On the return trip on saturday via Aurba, the Aruba airport was a true madhouse. Looonnnggg lines everywhere. It seemed that everyone in Aruba was trying to leave that day. The only good thing is that Delta did upgrade us to first class on the way back. I guess they felt a little guilty about how many FF miles the trip costs us.
Accomodations: After some research we settled on the Kon Tiki (Lac Bay) apartments. This is a small (probably 10-12 units) facility on the edge of Lac bay, where the Windsurfing is. It is truely out by itself, more than we had expected it to be. The only other facilities anywhere close by (within about 7 or 8 miles) are the windsurfing ‘outfitters’ and the Sonora Beach resort (a "naturalist" resort, which we decided against). The Kon Tiki arranged for the windsurfing rentals (at a slight discount) and a rental car (which is needed).
The Kon Tiki provides apartments, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. Lots of room to spread out. While we did not miss a TV, we would have liked to have screens across the sliding door to keep out the relatively small and non-aggressive mosquitoes. Then again, chasing the mosquitoes that did get in provided some entertainment during the otherwise very quiet evenings. We had a 2nd floor apartment with a view out across the flat part of Bonaire and out over the bay where the windsurfing took place. The Kon Tiki has a small restaurant as part of the resort and during the winter season the Kon Tiki includes breakfast with the cost of the room. They served a very good and complete european style breakfast, although it was starting to get a bit boring by the end of the week. There was so much breakfast that we took some of it to make small sandwiches that we used for lunch. We ate dinner there three evenings and they served very good meals. The chef obviously took pride in the preparation and presentation of the food.
A little geography:
Bonaire is one of the "ABC islands": Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. Bonaire is the middle sized island of the three, and has the smallest population (about 16,000). It is about 50 miles north of Venezuela and the weather (and surrounding water) is always warm. It is mostly a dry desert-like island with lots of cactus growing in the open areas. However, we were there during the rainy season and we got some rain every day, but it didn’t really get in our way very much. Besides tourism, the main industry is sea salt; there are large salt evaporation ponds on the eastern end of the island. There are some hills on the northern and western sections of the island and they offer some nice views. The island is mostly volcanic in nature (none active now) and the soil is rocky and hard. As in Aruba, most of the population speak english, spanish, dutch, and the native papimento so there are seldom any language issues. US dollars are welcome, but you will probably get change in N.A. Florins (also referred to as Guilders).
We went mainly for the windsurfing, so how was it?? In a word, great…. People who had been there for a while said that there had been virtually no wind for the previous two weeks. The week we were there, there was reasonable to good wind every day, for at least part of the day. Lac Bay is on the eastern end of the island and gets the full force of the trade winds with nothing to get in their way. There is a good reef to cut the swells/waves down to ripples. Much of the bay is shallow, ranging from about 1 ft. to 3 ft, depending on the tide. The water was clear and warm with good areas to start from. There are two outfitters and we used Jibe City, but the other facility looked good also. They offer lessons, but really didn’t seem to have their heart in that activity. The equipment was good, with excellent sail/mast/boom kits and OK, but not great, boards. (I’m just a beginner/intermediate windsurfer, so take this with a grain of salt.) When the wind got good some of the areas got rather busy, with the more experienced windsurfers tending to (unintentionally, I’m sure) intimidate the less experienced with their speed and maneuvers. My impression was that the bay was slightly better for windsurfing than Aruba. The facilities are not quite as nice, but the natural characteristics are better. The only thing that occasionally stopped us (other than lack of wind) was low tide: when the tide was low, some of the bay was just too shallow to sail across without dragging your fin. 90% of the time, though, it was great.
Snorkeling: Bonaire is known mostly for its’ diving and snorkeling spots. Unlike most islands with diving spots, almost all of the Bonaire dive (and snorkeling) locations can be reached from the shore; no boat required. Dive and snorkel locations are marked with yellow rocks along the road and there are several maps available that list all the dive locations, their characteristics, and their name (which is painted on the yellow rocks). Once you understand how it works, you can easily locate any of the eighty-some dive spots. However, the same characteristics that make shore dives possible also mean that there are essentially no soft sandy beaches. All beaches we saw are really hard rocks and coral. Getting into the water was sometimes a challange. But once in the water, there were very nice reefs and coral areas. The sea floor seemed to drop off very close to shore, so the transition from shallow to deep was within easy snorkeling distance.
For SCUBA divers there are a large number of dive shops and outfitters. If you don’t have (or take) your own snorkle gear, there are numerous snorkle tours available which will provide the equipment. The only real ‘caution’ is that there appears to be a problem with locals breaking into cars parked at the more remote dive spots. The general suggestion os to not take anything valuable and leave the car unlocked so it is not "broken" into.
Time to eat:
As previously mentioned, we ate breakfast at the Kon Tiki and that also provided much of our lunch. We stopped at a local food store and got some crackers and fruit and didn’t buy a normal ‘lunch’ any day. We ate dinner at the KonTiki three nights and it was very good. Other nights we went into the main town, Kralendijk, and found places to eat. We never had a ‘bad’ meal, and they ranged from ‘respectable’ (at a Mexican food place) to very good (at an Italian restaurant). Prices were reasonable; certainly not ‘cheap’, but very little more than we would pay at comparable restaurants in the US, and much less than, for example, Grand Cayman. Most meals for two, with a glass of wine or a beer apiece, ran around $40 to $50. The emphasis is naturally on fresh fish. One evening while eating at the City Grill a truck stopped in front and the guys got out and pulled three large, very(!) fresh, fish (Wahoo?) out of the back of the truck and carried them into the kitchen.
For anyone doing a lot of windsurfing, or anyone just wanting to relax in a very quiet and peaceful area, I would certainly recommend the KonTiki. Anyone with a primary interest in diving or snorkeling would probably be happier in town at one of the more centrally located resorts. Anyone wanting to learn to windsurf should consider Bonaire, but perhaps during a season with slightly less robust winds. Lighter winds are better for beginners and also means that there will not be as many advanced windsurfers zipping around. There was a definite difference betwen Aruba and Bonaire. Although Aruba is marketed as "The Happy Island" (and it is), Aruba is much more developed and commercialized than Bonaire. Bonaire is still very relaxed, definitely friendly, with few of the Americanized restaurants and such. Bonaire is more like a European community (in a warm climate) compared to Aruba which is more like an American city. A few cruise ships stop at Bonaire, probably two or three a week. On days where there was ship in port there were many vendors around the dock and much more activity in town. Something to either see or avoid, depening on your preferences. If you stay in a centrally located resort in town and use the in-town dive operations, you may not need a rental car. Most people, however, will probably end up renting a car for at least part of the time.