Bonaire Tours and Vacations, Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot 67, at Harbor Village Market Square (tel. 599/717-8778; www.bonairetours.com), offers island tours, nature and history walks, snorkeling, fishing, mountain biking, sailing, or kayaking expeditions, as well as day and evening sailing excursions. Outdoor Bonaire (tel. 599/791-6272 or 785-6272; www.outdoorbonaire.com) offers more adventurous outdoor pursuits, such as cave snorkeling, rock climbing, night kayaking, hiking and camping in the national park, and even rappelling down from the top of the historic lighthouse.
Because Bonaire has always been off the beaten track, highlights are modest and few. You can walk the length of sleepy Kralendijk -- the name translates literally into "dike made of coral" -- in less than half an hour. Stroll along the seafront, with its views and restaurants, and along Kaya Grandi, the major shopping district. The town has some charming Dutch Caribbean architecture -- gabled roofs painted ocher and terra cotta. If you've got a yearning for fruit, visit the waterfront food market with daily produce deliveries from Venezuela.
Bonaire's minuscule Fort Oranje takes more time to find than to explore, but provides a pleasant diversion. The tiny fort, Bonaire's oldest building, now serves as the courts and jail. The structure is quaint and makes for a pleasant walking destination. Around the corner, Yenny's "museum" is simply the owner's collection of quasi-creepy life-size rag dolls dressed and surrounded by a backdrop of island scenes. As you meander through her yard, the forlorn turtles, lonely flamingos (rescued when found as orphans), and boisterous dogs are all part of the experience. The cheerful hand-painted decorations are reasonably priced, unique gifts. The owner is usually seated in the front yard on a nice afternoon, but if not, you may want to drop by another day.
A 10-minute walk away, the Museo Boneriano (Bonaire Museum), at Kaya J. v/d Ree 7 (tel. 599/717-8868), displays a haphazard collection of shells from local species, excavated human remains from a Caiquetio burial site, and various antiques and artifacts of European settlement that offer clues into the island's colonial history. With few signs to make sense of the collection, a guided tour is recommended. It is open weekdays 8am to noon and 2 to 4:30pm. Admission is $1.50 for adults and $1 for children.
North Of Kralendijk
The coastal road north of Kralendijk is one of the most beautiful in the Antilles. Turquoise, azure, and cobalt waters stretch to the horizon on the left, while pink and age-blackened coral cliffs loom on the right. Towering cacti, intimate coastal coves, strange rock formations, and panoramic vistas add to the beauty.
Started in 2010, giant white windmills have been erected to harness the abundant wind power and reduce dependency on oil, imported via massive oil tankers from Venezuela. The long-term goal is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by as much as 80%. These massive white turbines add a monolithic beauty to the landscape and are a sight to behold. They also represent a net gain in environmental sustainability for this ecofriendly island.
Just north of Kralendijk, Barcadera is an old cave once used to trap goats. Take the stone steps down to the cave and examine the stalactites. Farther north, just past the Radio Nederland towers, 1,000 Steps Beach offers picturesque coves, craggy coastline, and tropical waters of changing hues.
Turn right on Kaya Karpata for Rincon, the island's original Spanish settlement. Today, the quiet village is home to Bonaire's oldest church. Stop for a traditional lunch of stoba (stew) and funchi (polenta) or slimy but tasty cactus soup at the famous Rose Inn, Kaya Buyaba 4 (tel. 599/717-6420), Thursday to Monday noon to 6pm.
On the outskirts of Rincon, a large white building marks the spot of a new and not-to-be-missed highlight of any island tour. Mangazina di Rei (tel. 599/786-2101) translates as the King's Warehouse, and is the second-oldest building on the island. Once used to store provisions for slaves, it has been restored and transformed into a small museum and cultural center that preserves and depicts the culture, history, architecture, and traditions of early Bonaire. Drop by for a tour, or wander through the gardens where re-creations of houses from different eras are on display. Local children learn traditional crafts, dances, and recipes from elders, so don't be surprised if you're offered some homemade tamarind juice or limeade and invited to try a few local dance steps. The center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm.
On the way back to Kralendijk, take the road along the northeast coast to Boka Onima, the site of 500-year-old Caiquetio Indian petroglyphs. Stop at the home of Sherman Gibbs, on Kaminda Tras di Montaña. Sherman combines plastic bottles, boat motors, buoys, car seats, and just about everything to create an outsider-art fantasyland.
Washington-Slagbaai National Park
Washington-Slagbaai National Park (tel. 599/717-8444; www.washingtonparkbonaire.org) occupies the island's northern end. It's easy to find; just look for the yellow and green lizards painted on telephone poles along the road. They lead you to the park entrance. Formerly plantation land producing aloe, salt, charcoal, and goat meat, the 5,463-hectare (13,500-acre) reserve showcases Bonaire's geology, animals, and vegetation.
Residents include 203 bird species, thousands of organ-pipe and prickly-pear cacti, endemic parrots, parakeets, flamingos, iguanas, and blue lizards. Feral goats and donkeys, left over from the colonial period, continue to roam the hills grazing voraciously on rare native and endemic plant species. For this reason, the park is attempting to remove these animals over time. The scenery includes stark hills, quiet beaches, and wave-battered cliffs. Take either the 24km (15-mile) or the 35km (22-mile) track around the park. Park entrance is gained through purchase of a nature/squire tag (the mandatory pass costs $15; free for children 12 and under) for general park entry or $25 if you wish to snorkel, swim, or dive. The park is open daily except holidays from 8am to 5pm. You must enter before 2:45pm. Guide booklets, maps, and a small museum are at the gate. The unpaved roads are well marked and safe, but rugged; jeeps trump small cars here. For those looking to leave the island just a tad tidier than it was when they arrived, volunteer opportunities to paint, prune, and mend fences can be arranged by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just past the gate, the Salina Matijs salt flat attracts flamingos during the rainy season. Beyond the salt flat on the road to the right, Boka Chikitu's cove, sand dunes, and crashing waves provide a splendid seascape. A few miles farther up the coast, Boka Cocolishi, a black-sand beach, is perfect for a private picnic, and the calm, shallow basin is perfect for close-to-shore snorkeling. Boka Slagbaai has a picturesque beach and positively charming restaurant where you can cool off with a bite, a beer, and a view of the ocean on one side and a serene lake teeming with shorebirds such as flamingos, egrets, and herons on the other side.
Back along the main road, Boka Bartol's bay is full of elkhorn coral, sea fans, and reef fish. Nearby Poos Mangel, a popular watering hole, is good for twilight birding, while the remote reef of Wajaca harbors sea turtles, octopuses, and triggerfish. Immediately inland, 235m (771-ft.) Mount Brandaris is Bonaire's highest peak. At its foot, Bronswinkel Well attracts dozens of bird species including pigeons and parakeets.
South Of Kralendijk
Just south of town, next to the airport, down a dirt road, the Donkey Sanctuary (tel. 599/9-560-7607; www.donkeysanctuary.org) is slated for relocation farther from the airport. This enclosed area provides a safe haven for many of the island's 400 or so wild donkeys that previously roamed the entire island and fell victim to car accidents with increasing frequency. The park is open daily from 10am to 5pm, but the last drive through is at 4pm. The entrance fee is $6 for adults and $3 for children, but additional donations are welcome. If you encounter a donkey outside of the sanctuary, remember it's illegal to feed them and advisable to not approach or touch as they can kick or bite if frightened. Not touching is particularly important when encountering a colt whose mother is probably nearby. Females may abandon their young if your smell masks its natural odor, which is used to help the mother recognize her baby.
A little farther south, dazzlingly bright salt pyramids dominate the horizon. Looking more like snowdrifts than sodium mounds, they're the product of the nearby salt pans.
Farther from the road, saltworks serve as a flamingo sanctuary. Bonaire is one of the world's few nesting places for Caribbean pink flamingos, and the island's spring flamingo population swells to 5,000. Because the birds are wary of humans, the sanctuary is off-limits, but from the road you can see the birds feeding in the briny pink and purple waters.
At the island's southern tip, restored slave huts recall the island's dark past. Each hut, no bigger than a large doghouse, provided nighttime shelter for African slaves brought over by the Dutch West Indies Company to work the salt flats. Four cement obelisks, each painted a different color along the shore, were used as flagpoles to indicate to passing ships when the salt was ready for export.
Near the island's southern tip is Willemstoren Lighthouse, which was built in 1837. It's fully automated today and closed to visitors, but is classically picturesque.
A few minutes up the east coast, Lac Bay's shallow water and steady breezes are ideal for windsurfing. Deep inside the lagoon, mangrove trees with dramatic roots lunge from the water. Nearby Sorobon Beach is idyllic for frolicking in the calm surf.
Hungry after your adventures? Follow the signs to Maiky Snack (tel. 599/786-0086 or 700-6785) for a local lunch under the shade of a divi divi tree. The papaya and cucumber stews (stoba) with goat meat are served with rice or funchi (polenta) and the fresh fish of the day is topped with a sweet creole sauce. It's open Friday to Wednesday for lunch from 11:30am to 4pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.