Bruce Bowkerís Carib Inn, Bonaire
hard to book, but heaven for hardcore divers
from the October, 2007 issue of Undercurrent
Bonaireís semi-arid climate makes for great visibility,
and its reefs are shallow and full of life. The Reef
Environmental Educational Foundation (REEF) lists eight
of North Americaís top 10 sites for species richness in
Bonaire. Another bonus: Bonaire lies far south of the
Caribbeanís hurricane belt, so it was spared any effects
of recent hurricanes Dean and Felix. The last hurricane
it felt was Lenny in 1999. Waves hitting the western side
for 12 hours destroyed the charming restaurant and dive
shop that stood over the water at Sand Dollar Condominium
Resort, my usual haunt. The government became restrictive
about structures built over water so Sand Dollar wasnít
permitted to rebuild on the old site. My new choice would
be the Carib Inn.
With years of diving under my belt, I felt worthy
of becoming a guest. Thatís because this small, nofrills
resort caters strictly to hardcore divers. Bowker,
Bonaireís first full-time dive instructor back in 1973,
worked for Captain Don, then founded the Carib Inn in 1980
and is legendary among serious divers. His staff gives
excellent service but also leaves divers to do as they
please. Thatís why the Carib Inn, just south of downtown
Kralendijk, has an average occupancy rate of 90 percent
and the highest return guest percentage in Bonaire. Itís
so hard to get a reservation that even return guests must
book a year ahead of time.
As a first-time visitor last June, I got a brief diving
orientation after checking in. Unescorted by a divemaster,
I did the official checkout dive on the Innís house
reef. The white, sandy bottom spread out gently, scattered
with nautical debris, including a mix of rusted anchors
from different decades. Reef squid hovered in groups,
while a small octopus was out and about. I also saw three
spotted morays, a goldentail and a sharptail moray. When I
placed my hand in front of Pederson cleaner shrimp, they
soon hopped on to do a manicure. During my night dives, a
large green moray, 24 inches around at the neck, basked in shallow water, and on afternoon dives an eagle
ray put on lengthy shows.
In my mind, ďresortĒ conjures up images
of pools, bars, restaurants and long lists of
guest activities. Not the Carib Inn. It has
a freshwater pool, but no restaurant or bar.
However, the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and
Casino have such amenities. There are only
10 units, each containing a refrigerator and
microwave, and eight have kitchens. Rooms are
basic but air-conditioned, clean and comfortable.
I stayed in Unit 3, near the pool, with
tile floors and a full kitchen. Two twin beds
could be pushed together, and the day bed
quickly became an equipment bench. The bathroom
was small and needed more ventilation
but had a nice-sized shower. I gladly paid
the additional $10 daily charge to run the
air-conditioning when not in the room because it couldnít cool the room quickly after
being switched off. Free wi-fi Internet access around the pool also worked well in my
room. During my week, the guests were American hardcore divers, with the exception of
a young Dutch couple. I met a couple enjoying their 27th visit to the resort.
All divers are required to pay a $25 annual fee to dive in the Bonaire National
Marine Park and receive a tag to place on their BCs. At Angel City in the south, a
ranger politely asked to see my tags. Part of a double reef system, Angel City had
a easy beach entry, although like all the southern entries, there are many chunks of
sharp ironshore in the sand interspersed with slick rocks that can cut and trip divers
when waves come in. The two reefs merged just south of the mooring buoy anchored in
the sand and were filled with large boulder star coral and multiple schools of schoolmasters,
creole wrasses, blue tangs and bold trumpet fish. Several juvenile spotted
drums posed for pictures. While I was told to expect large schools of horse-eyed
jacks, I never saw any here or at any other site.
I dived Alice in Wonderland, south of Angel City, three times. On the south end
is a canal bringing seawater to the solar salt farm that made a good entry point to
go in geared up and avoid the slick rock. It was a long swim to the inner reef but
worth it to see colorful boulder star coral, brain coral and tube sponges. Rainbow
anemones contained Pederson, squat and spotted cleaner shrimp, often in the same anemone.
Five flamingo tongues clung to one gorgonian. Large schools of Creole wrasses
and blue tangs were common, as well as hinds and graysbys. I have never seen so many
lettuce leaf slugs; one was the size of
a small lime.
The Carib Inn made diving easy.
I was assigned a number to hold space
on the dive boats that also corresponded
with a numbered tank. There was
a signup board for after-hours tanks,
and extra tanks for shore divers were
always available day and night. After
each dive, I returned my tank to be
refilled. Because I went shore diving,
I didnít interact much with the staff;
they left me alone unless I asked for
something and then were friendly and
helpful. Multi-day fill packages were
also offered but there was no need to
purchase one in advance. At the end of
my stay, staff looked at my total fills
and gave me the package that equaled the
best possible deal.
The dive shop is a full-service
facility stocked with high-end equipment
for sale and rent. My dive buddy
had a regulator problem, and Bowker
worked on it twice without charge. He
was unable to solve the problem but
when my friend asked for a rental,
Bowker explained that the regulator
wouldnít pose safety concerns during
the week, and he was right. Nitrox was
expensive Ė- fills were $15 each or
$179 for six days of unlimited fills
(by comparison, the Aggressor boats
charge $100 for the week). But Bowker
says he doesnít think Nitrox is worth
the cost when doing two to three dives
daily with huge surface intervals.
Bruce Bowkerís Carib Inn
|Service and Attitude||
| = poor = excellent
Two dive boats went out promptly
at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily for
one-tank dives. Boat diving was handled
the same way as tank rental -- interested
divers could place their number
on the sign-up board by the tank fill
room. Like the Inn itself, the boats
were clean, basic, fiberglass boats
powered by large outboards, with large
ladders making for easy exits from the
water. Boat dives were $15 each, with
the best package deal calculated at
tripís end. However, only one boat was
in use each day and it was never full.
With 60 dive sites on Bonaireís western
side alone, shore diving never got
There were no currents and most
dive sights were shallow with no real
reason to go below 60 feet. Visibility
ranged from 75 to 100 feet. I was
thrilled to find Bonaireís reefs beautiful
with zero bleaching. The water
temperature ranged from 78 to 81
degrees, while day temperatures were
The Hilma Hooker wreck was a
favorite dive site. North of Angel
City, the 235-foot freighter sits on
her starboard side in 95 feet at the
beginning of the double reef, and the
top of the wreck is at 50 feet. Itís
covered with encrusting sponges, tube
and stove pipe sponges, wire coral
and orange cup corals. The hull was
a favorite nesting place for sergeant
majors and I found lots of shrimps.
Garden eels and one large stingray
lounged in front of the wreck while
surrounding it were schools of black
durgons, yellowtail snapper and an
ocean triggerfish. As Bonaireís most popular dive site, itís crowded with boats each morning so I arrived in the late
morning or early afternoon to have it to myself for a shore dive.
As beautiful as the southern reefs were, the northern reefs were more so. The
most difficult part was access. From Kralendijk north is a cliff coast broken up by
the occasional small rock beach, making getting in and out with dive gear a challenge.
Oil Slick Leap was a popular site, as much for the well-placed ladder as the healthy
reef. The ladder descends 10 feet down a sharp ironshore cliff, with large clusters of
orange cup corals underneath rocks at the bottom. The reef top starts almost immediately
from shore at 30 feet, sloping steeply to give the appearance of a small wall.
The reefs were dense with soft coral, large black sea rods, sea plumes, even some
staghorn coral that was common on Bonaire before Lenny struck. A hawksbill turtle
allowed me to swim with him for as long as I wished.
Eating in Bonaire was as enjoyable as the diving -- I didnít have a bad meal.
Canít-miss restaurants are Richardís Waterfront Dining and Carpaccio. Richardís is a
block south of the Carib Inn. The large, covered terrace made a great dining atmosphere
and the bar a great place for a drink beforehand. Steaks and pasta were on the
menu but with such fresh fish, expertly prepared in light sauces, it was hard to order
anything else. Capriccio specializes in Northern Italian cuisine with less cream and
more olive oil. The extensive wine cellar is considered one of the Caribbeanís finest.
Entrees ranged from brick-oven pizza and simple pastas to osso bucco and filet mignon.
A lobster pasta in a light olive oil and cheese sauce, followed by tiramisu, transported
me to Italy.
To get to dive sites, my group rented three Mazda BT50s from A-B car rental at
Flamingo Airport. Reservations were made in the U.S. by phone and everything went
smoothly. The trucks were a little beat up but ran fine with good air-conditioning.
A-B trucksí wooden tank holders bolted onto the truck beds could hold nine tanks and
kept them from rolling around and damaging gear. We returned our trucks dirty but
undamaged and our deposit was returned. However, in the return line before me was a
man being charged for a truck dent marked as pre-existing on his rental form.
Returning to The Carib Inn after an afternoon of shore diving, I found a notice
with directions to a turtle nest hatching on the islandís south side. Such is the way
Carib Inn does business. Bowkerís staff measure their tenure not in months but years
of employment, and he made time to talk to anyone wanting to chat about diving, the island or anything else. That makes booking a room difficult during the peak winter dive season. Reservations are already open for 2009, and regulars are quick to snatch
up their favorite rooms.
While Bonaire is not the place to see pelagics or large schools of game fish,
itís hard to find anywhere that has its combination of healthy reefs, easy dives,
clear water, large schools of reef fish, shrimps and every type of eel found in the
Caribbean. I got this on every dive. There are many places to stay but for serious
divers desiring a peaceful place where theyíre left alone and free to dive as they
please, the Carib Inn is unbeatable.
Diverís Compass: Carib Inn rates start at $99 per night for poolside
units without kitchens to $159 for a three-bedroom house, and these
rates are not per person but per unit . . . The Innís Web site has a
ďLast Minute OpeningsĒ page . . . A $125 non-refundable deposit holds
any unit for a one-week stay and, unlike every dive resort Iíve visited,
the remainder of charges werenít due until check-out; the five
flight-delayed members of my group werenít charged for the missed
day . . . The basic charge was $12 per day for one tank, weights and
belts; $5 for each additional air fill per day . . . My A-B rental
truck was $374 for the week, with a $100 deposit. . . A Continental red-eye flight in
January costs approximately $800 from either Houston or Newark; Delta Airlines plans
to start nonstops from Atlanta on February 9 . . . Departure tax is US$32 . . . U.S.
dollars and major credit cards are widely accepted . . . The hyperbaric chamber is
next door to the hospital . . . Web site: www.caribinn.com.