On the beach
in beautiful Bonaire
ABC's of a delicious escape
The neighboring islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao offer unique
Text and photo by Toby Saltzman
Dreaming of an island escape? Pondering the shimmering sea that
is delectable alphabet soup of Caribbean isles? You'd do well to
dip in for a taste of the ABC's - Aruba, Bonaire, and
Curacao - the cluster of Netherlands Antilles that grazes the equator
in Aruba is marked
by Dutch architecture.
That's not because they're quintessentially lush, palm-fringed
idylls (these volcanic isles are not), but because each island,
lovely in its own way, has tropical climes, perennially sunny skies,
warm turquoise waters, and plenty of activities, not to mention
some of the Caribbean's most gracious, hospitable people.
"Bon bini, welcome," the first greeting you're likely to hear in Papiemento
(the local dialect, a medley of Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, French
and Arawak) is a genuine overture. The isles were originally inhabited
by Arawak and Caiquetio Indians, as the Spaniards discovered when
they arrived in 1499. The islands later fell under Dutch rule. By
1636 the Dutch West Indies, particularly Curacao, had become essential
links along the European trade route to the Caribbean and South America.
Later on, the trio of isles became a haven for people in search of
asylum: English Pilgrims, South Americans and Jews who fled the Inquisition
in Spain and Portugal found sanctuary here. Under Dutch influence,
the islands began to mimic the architectural charm of Amsterdam, with
buildings embellished with decorative facades.
of Aruba is always sunny.
candy floss architecture distinguishes shopping malls
near the cruise port.
Over time, the islands' economies languished. Prosperity returned
to a degree when oil was discovered in Venezuela.
a beautiful wildlife reserve rife
with rare birds.
Curacao, the largest island, with a huge harbor and deep-water
port, gained a major oil refinery. Aruba's refinery closed in 1985,
but reopened in 1991. Tiny Bonaire relied on harvesting salt. It's
no wonder the islanders embraced tourism. Curacao, the largest of
the three and the administrative capital of the Netherlands Antilles
- which also include Saba, Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius - has
a sprawling harbor and deep-water port, colourful Dutch architecture
and fantastic scuba diving. Aruba is known for its beaches, casinos
and friendliness: as the national anthem puts it, "The greatness
of our people is their great cordiality." Tiny Bonaire, which still
relies on harvesting salt, is the least commercialized of the islands
and is a mecca for divers who flock there to enjoy one of the most
unspoiled reef systems in the world.
On the isle
of Bonaire, The Kralendijk, is a cluster of streets near the
where wooden fishing dorrys
mingle with fancy yachts.
At first glance, the islands seem almost otherworldly with their
bizarre blend of rocky deserts, cactus jungles and secluded coves.
But Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao are similar in geography, yet very
different. The muggy Caribbean heat is less noticeable in Aruba,
where you are always kissed by a breeze. Indeed, the strong trade
winds "bend" the famous Watapana or Divi Divi trees. In Bonaire,
where the air is moist, fluffy white clouds drift constantly across
blue skies. But it's the water that's so alluring. Aruba's beaches
are gorgeous swaths of powdery white sand stretching along the coast.
Bonaire, on the other hand, has few beaches around its crusty, volcanic
coast, but magnificent coral reefs abound in the calm, shallow waters
near shore. Curacao has many small beaches, the best of them secluded
in tiny perfect coves.
Each island's capital is easily seen on foot. But the best way
to explore inland is by jeep. Just take care, though. Remember to
fill the tank before you leave because gas stations are few and
far between. Your best bet is to stick to main roads. And watch
out for wild goats that may suddenly dash across your path.
arguably the best place
in the world to learn scuba diving.
At first glance, Aruba's capital city, Oranjestad, is like a set
from a fairy tale. Thanks to the Dutch influence, the island's architecture
has a charm reminiscent of Amsterdam. Pretty buildings painted in
frothy pastels house boutiques selling everything from expensive
jewelry and leather to Dutch cheeses and Delft tiles.
Palm Beach, the center of Aruban tourism, is lined with swanky
resorts, jazzy casinos, cheerful cafes and grass palapas (umbrellas)
perched into the sand. Beachside shops rent scuba and snorkeling
gear, windsurfers and sailboats. There's great diving off both the
south shore, where the reefs teem with aquatic life, and the northwest
shore with its shipwrecks to explore. If you're more inclined to
dive in dry comfort, the Atlantis Submarine will take you down almost
140 feet (45 metres) below sea level to the Barcadera Reef.
many small beaches, the best of them secluded in
tiny perfect coves.
Exploring the Aruban countryside is bound to yield a few surprises,
geological contrasts and historic sites. The tour guides boast that
the future of Aruba's wild and wonderful landscape of cacti, scrub
and Divi Divi trees looks promising since the government decided
to turn one quarter of the island into a conservation park. Walk
out to the coastal reefs and you'll find tidal pools filled with
tiny sea creatures. En route to the Natural Bridge, a coral reef
phenomenon carved by centuries of crashing waves, stop at the Ayo
and Casibari boulders and the nearby Guadariki caves to see ancient
Indian petroglyphs. Keep your eyes peeled for two special flowering
plants: One, the Sceida, dubbed the local "penicillin," is used
medicinally as a gargle or to soothe wounds; the other, Bringa Mosa,
which literally means "fight with your girlfriend," is poisonous
and potentially deadly. If you're a golfer, the Tiera del Sol course
poses a tremendous challenge, with strong winds over-riding its
dazzles on first impression,
especially if you enter its capital,
Willemstad by cruise ship.
Tranquil Bonaire is arguably the best island in the world to learn
scuba diving or snorkeling. Thanks to an impressive reef ecology
program (revolutionary by world standards when it started in 1960)
which outlawed spearfishing, harvesting conch, anchoring at random
or removing coral from the sea, Bonaire is still a pristine paradise.
Lush reefs can be found so close to shore that it's possible to
see exotic sea life in water that's barely waist high. Pink Beach,
the island favorite, is regaining its coral sandy width after being
devastated by a storm a few years ago. The sandiest public beach
is on Klein Bonaire, a slip of an out-island accessible only by
boat. The loveliest resort beach, at the Plaza Resort, where guests
facing the intracoastal waterway may moor private yachts in front
of their rooms, has shallow waters calmed by soft sand bars. Bonaire's
main city, The Kralendijk, is a cluster of streets near the harbor
where wooden fishing dorrys mingle with fancy yachts. For its tiny
size, Bonaire boasts intriguing sights: Flamingo pond, dazzling
pink because of the thousands of birds which stalk its shallow waters
for food; Washington-Slagbaai National Park, a beautiful wildlife
reserve rife with rare birds; the salt mountains sparkling in brilliant
sunshine; and nearby Rincon, Bonaire's oldest village, where the
adobe huts of African slave salt-miners still stand.
market in Willemstad
Curacao dazzles on first impression, especially if you enter its
capital, Willemstad by cruise ship. The Queen Emma Floating Bridge
swings aside and you sail past the historic fort and brightly painted
Dutch buildings. History credits its kaleidoscopic colors to Governor
General Albert "Froggie" Kikkert, who in 1817 demanded that all
glaring white buildings, which he insisted provoked his migraine
headaches, be painted. Willemstad has undergone a monumental restoration
to preserve its architectural heritage. The floating market is a
riot of vendors flaunting produce, plants and souvenir tchatchkas
from Venezuela. A couple of blocks away stands the Mikve Israel
Emanuel Synagogue. The oldest synagogue in Western Hemisphere, consecrated
in 1732 by Sephardic Jews, has floors carpeted in sand to symbolize
the desert path of the Israelites and the years spent smothering
the sounds of their prayers during the Inquisition. An adjoining
museum is a treasure trove of ceremonial and historical artifacts.
You can spend days exploring Curacao. Christoffel Park, a rugged
4450-acre (1800-hectare) wildlife preserve, offers challenges for
bikers, horseback riders and birders. The Boca Tabla coastal plateau
and grotto gives an awesome view of a coral island that's emerged
from the sea. With 38 beaches tucked in coves around the island,
Curacao is a treat for beach hoppers. Don't miss the wide curve
of pristine sand at the posh Sonesta Resort Hotel. Big Knip and
Small Knip, each protected by coral cliffs, have the best public
beaches. The Seaquarium, meanwhile, offers an exciting Animal Encounters
program: You can swim with stingrays and exotic fish and sharks
through a plexiglass enclosure. (Actually, you're the one who's
enclosed - the sharks swim free.)
of Curacao's many
Island Tips: Don't forget your passports, rubber-soled shoes for
exploring the reefs, snorkeling gear, a fully waterproof camera
for scuba diving shots and a good supply of film. The constant ocean
breezes make the ABCs seem deceptively cool, so a hat and suncreen
area absolutely essential. Aruba has the best duty free shopping
of the ABCs, particularly for watches. The array of sophisticated
chronometers with bezels, thermometers, shock sensors, altitude
and barometer readers, and pulse monitors will blow your mind. Comparison-shop
at home first, especially if you hail from Canada. Check if the
imported item includes an international warranty, and if it warrants
the hike in currency exchange. Since the islands no longer accept
each other's currency, it's wise to use US funds.
Tourism Information Contacts:
Aruba Tourism: 1-800-to-Aruba
(In Canada: 905-264-3434)
Bonaire Tourism: 1-800-Bonaire / 212-956-5900
Curacao Tourism: 1-800-332-8266 / 212-683-7660