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January 2000 Vol. 15, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Bonaire, A Shore Diver's Mecca

the Carib Inn, deep diving, private guides

from the January, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Just about every diver goes to Bonaire once. Many return repeatedly, while some swear never to return, finding the diving boring, the desert landscape unattractive, and the willy-nilly modernization uninteresting. I visited Bonaire in June -- my third trip -- to check hotels and dive operations, in a sense doing advance work for this months reviewer who undertook serious diving, often long and deep. Its clear I missed out on the good stuff.

On my first trip in 1976, only Bonaire Beach Hotel (now the defunct Sunset Beach), where Captain Don and his guide, Bruce Bowker, held forth, offered diving. The good captain used inflated condoms to mark the reef and monitored his depth by the color changes on the red ribbon he wore. He had a dive boat, but half the time we piled into an old truck and chugged up the coast to leap off the ironshore. Beautiful coral, plenty of fish, and warm clear water is a description that still applies, though two decades of exploitation have taken a toll.

Today, divers have several easy-to-categorize lodging/ diving options. Theres the gang of four, essentially next door to one another, a mile plus north of town: Sand Dollar, Lions Dive, Buddy Dive, and Captain Dons Habitat, all with restaurants fronting on the reef. The first three are condo complexes, too standardized for my liking, and the Sand Dollar doesnt seem to be aging gracefully. Buddys and Lions are nearly twins. Only Captain Dons has real island character, both in the little units off the beach and the villas. At each of these, divers climb down ladders or leap off the piers at waterfront dive shops to visit the same continuous reef, which remains pristine north of Dons but deteriorates south of the Sand Dollar. Each has excellent boats that travel to the same sites. Buddys has a drive-in air station, which you can use whether or not you stay there. My preference? Captain Dons.

Each of the four has a seaside restaurant that serves similar food prepared by chefs trained in the Chart House school of cooking, which isnt at all bad, but gets routine. I tried several restaurants: everywhere broccoli and cauliflower were the veggies, mahi mahi the fresh fish, and the same white flour rolls were on every dinner table. Eventually, a hamburger and fries made a good dinner. Nearly everyone recommends Richards seaside restaurant, where I indeed had a good meal, but Richard himself told me his food is a notch below the best restaurant on Bonaire: the Capriccio. At all these restaurants, full meals with a couple drinks and tip will run you $50-60.

Bonaire has two upscale properties (the only two on Bonaire with any beach to speak of), the large, hotellike Plaza and the more sequestered and pricey Harbour Village, where I stayed. Its a luxurious and pricey oasis, with lovely rooms and one- or two-bedroom suites that overlook the small but pleasant beach and are done in southwestern colors and style; less expensive rooms sit back, some fronting on the islands major marina. With three restaurants, one never has to leave. Theres a well-equipped dive shop with good boats, but most guests -- a mixture of Americans, Canadians, Dutch and Venezuelans -- were barely snorkelers.

Here, beach diving requires a 100-yard walk in full gear to the restaurant pier; then, to reach the reef, a 5-10 minute swim at 30 feet under the entrance to the harbor. Snorkel off the beach and you hover over bones of coral, but like anywhere on Bonaire there are plenty of critters; on one easy snorkel I swam among a school of small jacks, toyed with a spotted snake eel, and saw peacock flounders, a scorpionfish, hunting trumpetfish, and scores of needlefish.

I made a couple of uneventful beach dives and several boat dives here. Its a competent operation for sure (though once the boat captain spun in circles for ten minutes trying to get close enough to an errant bottle to pluck it from the ocean; good thing it wasnt a man overboard). The sites were typical (e.g., Yellow Man and A Thousand Steps), with plenty of nice coral and tropicals: uneventful, safe, easy, like all Bonaire boat diving.

But this is beach diving country and Harbour Village is no place for a serious beach diver (for a beach diver in search of luxury, the Plaza would be preferable). To get the best of Bonaire, you spend your diving hours off your hotel or rent a van and jump in anywhere (which is why many divers rent a house or a cheap apartment). A fine choice is the Bonaire Beach Bungalows, cozy little houses south of town that weve written about for two decades; you just roll in from your front porch. A couple of other options include the Cyndanna (which handles the Carib Inns overflow).

Two other advertised hotels were both disappointing at best. The Black Durgon Inn looks like a low-rent place I might have stayed as a struggling college student; I cant recommend it. After years of neglect, the Divi is being spruced up, but Id take a wait-and-see attitude. It may not be enough. And finally theres the Carib Inn, the first choice for many hard-core divers. This months correspondent will tell you why.

Ben Davison

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For me, Bonaire is an affordable divers paradise that rises far above any other Caribbean option. To get the best, you must hit the less-dived shore entries, and that doesnt include A Thousand Steps of Karpata. And you need to stay where those in the know stay: Bruce Bowkers Carib Inn. Ive been to Bonaire more times than I can count, stayed many places, but now I will only stay here. Many others feel the same, so reservations months -- even a year -- in advance are often required.

The ten-room Carib Inn is squeezed on a narrow piece of beachfront south of town. The comfortable rooms are not plush; my roomy standard (#4) had been refurbished with new floor tile and paint; it was air-conditioned, had a mid-sized refrigerator with a freezer, toaster, hot water maker, a cable tv, two twin beds, closet, shower and sink. Deluxe seaside apartments and superior apartments have full kitchens. Rooms dont have phones -- you go to the front office to phone or fax. (Bruce, how about getting an outside pay phone for after hours?) Maid service is daily. Bonaire, A Shore Diver's MeccaThere is no restaurant or bar. Richards is a half block away, downtown a ten-minute walk, and Jokes small market is a block away. Theres barely a beach, but there is a small pool, a barbecue grill, and a seaside hut where we often had lunch with fellow divers staying at the Carib.

But ah, the price: my wife and I spent 25 nights in September there; I made more than 100 dives, my wife more than 40. I had some minor equipment repair, bought the usual T-shirts, and shared a rental car ($45/day) for beach diving with another couple. My room was $89/day double. (Others with full kitchens run from $99 to $139.) Our entire tab, food included, ran $4,200. Thats about what Ben paid for his seven nights.

While Ben sampled the restaurants, I usually went for faster foods. The Sandwich Shop at Kaya Prinses Marie Plaza has killer pizza and great subs; Compadres at Harbour Village has Mexican cuisine adequate for this Midwesterners palate; Cozzolis is fastfood Italian: pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches. Mi Poron has good, inexpensive BBQ. As for service, it is island time everywhere. Get used to it or cook for yourself. (Some folks bring a cooler of meat from home and buy canned and frozen goods locally.)

Lets talk diving: Bruces two boats seek out unique sites. For example, on the east side White Hole is a mini Blue Hole, but at a maximum depth of 55'. I dived it last in 1998, when I saw fifty tarpon and five large nurse sharks. Boca Spelunk Lighthouse is a two-tank dive with one on a wooden sailing ship that has deteriorated into rubble but is teeming with fish. Nearby is an Italian yacht that no one seems to have any information about. Bruce found 1,000 lire on it.

Still, Bonaire is about shore diving. At Willenstoren Lighthouse at the southern tip the surf can be wicked, but this day it was mild and the visibility was 100 feet. Here, going no deeper than 80 feet, I saw green and hawksbill turtles and large Cubera Snappers. This reef is completely different from the west side; here I enjoy drifting in the surge to the hypnotic sea fans.

At Pink Beach I went to 115 feet to find a longlure frogfish Bowker staff member Kitty Handschuh described. I watched it engulf a juvenile wrasse -- well, I saw a blur, and before you could kiss your wrasse goodbye, it was gone. An eagle ray swam within thirty feet. Heading back to the beach I watched a six-foot bluespotted cornetfish (not a trumpet fish, mind you) at a cleaning station. In four feet of water, I saw what looked like a ping-pong ball. I pulled it down; it was a ping pong ball. I stood up in the midst of a topless ping-pong game -- must have been one of those new European sports. We all got a good laugh.

Another splendid dive is the Mairi Bhan (the Windjammer Wreck). Carrying my deco bottle, I dropped to 204 feet, worked my way up the ship to 145 feet, and spent 44 minutes in decompression as I worked my way up the reef -- all told, 81 minutes. Swimming the interior of the hull, looking out through the ribs, I saw a hundred horse eye jacks and a school of mackerel scad. The top of the wreck is a riot of sponges, clams, and wire coral, with cherub fish and bicolor, dusky, and longfin damsels by the thousands. On the flats were beautiful sargassum triggers. A green turtle with a 3-foot-plus shell took off like a bat out of hell, perhaps catching a whiff of my wetsuit, which after three weeks could stand by itself. So large was a hammerhead rainbow parrot that the wash from its pectorals was like the prop wash from a freighter. Moving up through the sand chute, I came across a purple-crowed sea goddess and lettuce leaf sea slugs by the hundreds. (Water ran about 80-84, but deep down it hit 76, while vis jumped to 150 feet.)

Red Slave Huts has a forest of soft corals, sand flats, and a steeply sloping wall. I did a 85-minute dive to 61 feet, where I watched cherub fish, a herd of blue parrots, a three-foot dog snapper, and a pair of hawksbill turtles. They made several tight circles, following each other nose to tail as if they were buttsniffing dogs. I came across fields of garden eels weaving in the sand, four large spotfin scorpionfish, and an octopus in its den.

At Toris Reef youll find everything -- if you know where to look. I did a 98- minute dive to 155 feet, where vis approached 100 feet. Down deep there were sargassum triggers and a queen trigger that looked like it had been made up by Tammy Faye Baker. I searched for two lined sea horses I had seen on earlier dives, but they had either ridden off or been taken by rustlers. Along the patch reef I found some sort of shell eating a flamingo tongue (the mollusk, that is), while a foot away a large Atlantic deer cowrie sneaked away and a chain moray eel wriggled past. A large eagle ray rooted in the sand like a pig in muck.

Even if youre an experienced diver, consider hiring U.S. expat Barry Gassert, who owns the Sandwich Factory. Hes an excellent guide and will take you to the east side, where, he says, California divers or those with surf-entry experience are most comfortable. (Currents come and go and are stronger on the extremes of the island.) We did two 60-minute dives to 80 feet amid stunning scenery and 100-foot vis. I saw a huge green turtle, four southern sting rays (one being cleaned), mushroom scorpionfish, harlequin pipefish, and a three-foot Nassau grouper. Half-adozen brown sponges were big enough to double for pianos. The entry is a 10-15 foot stride, the exit on tough ironshore.

While Bonaire is a fish photographers dream, dont expect big fish other than what Ive mentioned. Ive seen mantas twice, nurse sharks, reef sharks, and an occasional blacktip shark, mostly on the east side. Unless youre sharp-eyed, when you dive without a guide you may miss the seahorses, the angler fish, the scorpion fish, the island gobies, blind shrimp, and other well-disguised or small critters, then go home saying that only commoners swim there. And one other note about the diving: there are caves inland. I cant tell you anything about them other than the fact that I met two Americans toting doubles whod been hired by the government to explore them.

You can stay anywhere and do these dives, but staying at the Carib Inn is like staying with family. The same people show up year after year and staff turnover is low. The good-natured staff members not only do their jobs well, but they enjoy doing them. Kitty Handschuh has an unlimited supply of knowledge. Linda Baker is available for night dives on the town pier and has an incredible knack for finding seahorses. Valerie, Edward, and Richie are always helpful and, of course, Bruce is always around. He has a limitless interest in, knowledge of, and love for Bonaire diving. They have guided night dives and trips to the Town Pier for $20/person, but I like Salt Pier better; permission to dive it can be gained through the office at Carib Inn.

The Inn does have limitations. There are no photo facilities, so youll need to go to other resorts or shops for film and developing. While Bruce carries Scuba Pro, Atomic, and Sherwood regulators, should you need another brand repaired, you will need to have parts for it. They provide aluminum 80s or 63s, and you can get extra tanks. I bring a 30' deco bottle with me that I fill at Captain Dons. If you want either the typical Nitrox mixture or a higher EANx for decompression, you need proof of certification and logged dives showing your experience; the tab is $8/fill.

Diving has changed over the years and will continue to do so. Kitty Handschuh believes the sites toward the southern end of the island have fared better than those north and center that are heavily dived. She believes spearfishing has decimated the grouper population. I saw a few small tiger groupers, fewer small black groupers and only one good-sized Nassau grouper. Barry Gassert told me that Marine Park officials allowed professional fishermen from Curaao to come in with nets and take swarms of fish at Salt Pier. They havent replenished themselves, and locals even fish house reefs. For this, we divers must pay $10 for a Marine Park tag to protect the reefs? Go figure.

So, you see, Bonaire is for every budget. Its usually good anytime of year, although it can get buggy. A couple of nights I got a score of bites below the knees (sand fleas, presumably). Generally speaking, Bonaires outside the hurricane belt, though the fringes of Hurricane Lenny in November raised hell (see sidebar). I like September because the weather is a bit warmer, as is the water, and the winds are often calm enough to dive the east side. Yes, Bonaire lacks the charm of many Caribbean islands, but for someone whos serious about diving and prefers to go off the beach on his own, there is no better venue in the Caribbean, bar none.

S. D.

Bonaire, A Shore Diver's MeccaDivers Compass: Bruce Bowkers Carib Inn, P.O. Box 68, Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, Dutch West Indies; phone 011-599-78819; fax 011-599-7-5295; e-mail: Bruce@caribinn.com. Besides hotel rooms, they have a 3 bedroom/2 bath house for four for $159/week. No service charge on either rooms or diving. All bedrooms have AC. Seven nights non-refundable, non-transferable deposit of $125 required within three weeks of booking to hold a room. One week of shore diving is $99 (or $12/day for 1st tank + $5 refill -- whichever is less). All PADI courses available...Contact Barry Gassert at his shop or call 011-599-7-7369 or -7735 or -6862...Many resort guides will moonlight for extra bucks on a day off; ask your favorite... While Papiamento is the local language and Dutch the official language, most locals also speak Spanish and English. U.S. dollars are widely accepted. They generally give change in guilders. Driving: Foreign licenses accepted. Air is 82 degrees on average with highs into the 90s. Water ranges from 78 to 82 degrees. Dress is casual, but bathing suits, bare feet, and no shirts are not appreciated in town. There are several auto rental agencies, but I prefer Nettys because of the price, service, and a repeat customers discount. A mini-van for a week runs about $200. Nettys Car Rental: 011-599-7-5120; fax: Oll-599-7-2120. While horror stories abound about ALM air, it has never lost any of our luggage. Nonetheless, carry on your essentials and realize that resorts will loan and/or rent you the items you need until your luggage shows. Round trip from Miami: $368 plus taxes. Air Aruba and Air Jamaica also provides service to Bonaire.

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