The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (if you are a frogfish)
A small group of us spent 2 weeks in Bonaire in October and November 2012 and had a great time. As two of the group have knee problems and the dive shop boats all leave something to be desired, we did only shore diving (one of the group did two days worth of boat dives).
We stayed at a Sand Dollar (www.sanddollarbonaire.com
) condo and dove with Bonaire Dive and Adventure (http://bonairediveandadventure.com/
) located adjacent to the property. The Sand Dollar condos are all individually owned; however, they can be rented through the U.S. travel company. Some owners have done a better job than others of keeping their units up to date. If you stay there, be sure to ask for a unit with a walk-in shower (as distinguished from units that have tubs with high sides that could be dangerous to get into and out of). You may also want to request a screened-in porch.
We chose Sand Dollar, having stayed there many times in the past, because we like their spaciously sized accommodations and the easy access to both the dive shop and their pier for shore diving (more about the pier later). All the units have fully stocked kitchens with large refrigerators, microwaves, toasters, blenders, and plenty of kitchen dishes and utensils. This is important for us, since we ate our breakfasts and lunches in and several in our group are good cooks. Maid service is twice a week, but you can get clean towels any time by going to the office and asking for them. In addition, each bedroom has its own a/c unit and many have an additional unit in the living room, but there is an additional charge if you want to use the living room a/c in the two-bedroom units. Electricity and water are very expensive on Bonaire and being a good steward of these resources is important and not hard to do. It is amazing to us that so many tourists come to a fragile environment like Bonaire and don’t adjust their habits, but part of the charm of being in Bonaire is being conscious of how we affect our environment and doing something about it.
We found the office staff to be both nice and helpful. When we needed to make reservations for dinner, they would make them whenever we asked. And when we needed a repair done, the staff responded promptly.
Now the diving. There is quite a dispute going on between some condo owners and Bonaire Dive and Adventure, the dive operation that was originally associated with Sand Dollar. As a result of the dispute, now if you call the reservations office in the U.S. and do not specifically ask for them as your dive operator, you will be pushed to use Dive Friends Bonaire (which only recently opened a shop on the Sand Dollar property in October 2012). While the Dive Friends operation is okay - the people running the operation are friendly and helpful – there are some issues with it: namely, they are located at the back of the Sand Dollar property so that getting from the dive shop to the water’s edge is somewhat of a chore if you dive the reef in front of Sand Dollar (called Bari Reef). In our opinion it is much better and easier to use Bonaire Dive and Adventure as the dive operator because of the location of their dive shop, the proximity to the dock, the location of the tanks on the dock, and the large gear room where you can hang and store your gear, and the large rinse tanks in two locations – one set on the dock and the other closer to the parking lot for divers who want to dive off-site. Dive Friends currently has gear for rent and tanks at several locations on the island, including the shop at Sand Dollar, but only one set of rinse tanks and tanks at the shop at Sand Dollar. Dive Friends only has a few relatively small individual lockers with locks (several of our group are short and the upper lockers would be useless for us) to store gear and one set of rather small rinse tanks. The real problem is that Dive Friends has no dock or pier of its own at Sand Dollar so that the shore entry/exit to Bari Reef is over precarious rocky terrain. We are certain that this is not going to work for our particular group and could prove dangerous when the water is rough. For example, the first day at our check out dives, there was such a strong surge in the water (unusual for Bonaire) that everyone needed assistance to get out of the water, the waves were that strong. While Dive Friends is trying to rectify this situation and has been trying to get its permits and other permissions in line, they are not able to build a floating pier just yet in front of Bari Reef.
One of the other things we like about Bonaire Dive and Adventure is that they have a professional naturalist who leads dive trips (preceded by a detailed illustrated lecture) and also can take you out for bird watching tours. Several members of our party did both with Jerry and enjoyed themselves and learned a lot.
One other thing: Bonaire is working to keep the lionfish population at bay. They have been pretty successful at the reefs in front of the resorts like Sand Dollar and other fairly accessible dive sites. One member of our group who last year saw several lionfish on Bari Reef saw only one this year. And two of our group dined on lionfish during our trip - doing their part to lower this invasive fish’s numbers.
The diving was lovely as usual. Lots of fish and lots of variety in fish species. Bonaire is known for diversity but not usually large critters; however, the tarpon who like to follow the divers are plenty big as was the barracuda. There were octopus and even a solitary squid. The diver in our group who went on boat dives to Klein Bonaire said that the coral was in better shape when she got away from the close-in reefs. She saw frogfish and sea horses too.
One of our favorite things to do on Bonaire is to dive with Dee Scarr (you can learn more about her at http://www.touchthesea.com/
). She is a naturalist and dive master who really knows how to relate to the creatures. She has been on the island for 30+ years and knows the water intimately and has an easy way with new as well as experienced divers alike. While most of the time we do our own thing, it is a nice treat to go on a guided dive with an experienced dive master who is quite adept at finding neat critters and who allows for leisurely, unrushed dives. This trip we met up with nosy coneys and French Angelfish, bristle worms, a 30-year old sponge, sharptail eels, morays, tarpon, cleaning stations, and at the end a very shy octopus.
Now to dining – while a few of our favorite restaurants were gone, there were several terrific ones still in business. Some of our personal favorites have moved into lovely new quarters as well. Try Bistro de Paris for fine authentic French cuisine - the bouillabaisse was superb as was the rack of lamb. Another fine establishment, especially for the carnivores, is Patagonia, which is an Argentine steak house. Try At Sea whose chef is quite adventurous. Also, It Rains Fishes is quite good. Then there is Wil’s and Mona Lisa in town, both of which have excellent food. However, be advised: Bonaire is part of the Netherlands and Europeans still smoke a lot. And there are no rules about smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants. It is disconcerting to go out for a fine dinner, only to have it spoiled by being seated next to folks who smoke throughout dinner. Save room for the two gelato shops in town - Gio’s and Lilly’s – both of which are wonderful and are open late.
As mentioned, we love to cook in as well as dine out. So everyone should be very happy that now there is another new big Dutch supermarket along the same road as the Warehouse store. Van Den Tweel was fully stocked and, in particular, the fresh fruit and other produce was both varied and kept well. It makes stocking up once you get to the island very easy. We had an enjoyable time in the supermarket, trying to decipher labels – most people on Bonaire speak more than one language and are happy to translate. We found one couple who really enjoyed showing us items that we would never have figured out for ourselves.
One of our group was not feeling well this trip so we went to the ER at the local hospital to have her checked out. She was having prolonged coughing jags and halfway through the trip, needed decongestants to allow her to clear her ears. The doctor in the hospital was Dutch and frankly only did a cursory job in diagnosis and prescribing cough syrup; it didn’t really solve the problem. Interestingly, when she could not clear her ears and had finished the cough medicine, the local botika (this is a pharmacy - the best one is not the one in town, but one of the ones just outside the main drag) was more helpful, prescribing decongestants. Ultimately, the decongestants the pharmacist provided did the trick for the rest of the trip. She went to her doctor when she got back and after a week of antibiotics and an inhaler was back to her old self.
The weather at this time of the year (late Oct., early Nov.) in Bonaire can be wet. It rained a few times in the first week, leaving big puddles which in turn caused there to be more mosquitos than usual. And, the fresh water affected the brine shrimp on which the flamingos feed. So, while we saw a lot of flamingos the first couple of days near where we were staying, after it rained, they were gone, replaced by egrets and other shore birds. We found the flamingos later in the second week, further south in the island, when we went for a drive the last day.
The Bonairian people are very nice; however, there is some petty crime on the island and one needs to take some precautions. All the car rental companies recommend that if you use the car/truck to haul tanks for shore dives that you leave the windows down and leave nothing in the vehicle. There have been a number of instances of items being taken from rental vehicles, and car windows broken if something of perceived value is left in the vehicle.
One final note, Bonaire is now part of the Netherlands and their currency is now, get this, the U.S. dollar - no currency exchanges or trying to figure out what something costs in U.S. dollars any more. But, be careful as some credit card may still charge a foreign transaction fee - check with your card company before you go. There are a couple of banks (with a few branches) on the island and a number of ATM machines. Indeed, there is one bank just off the Sand Dollar property with an ATM machine.
We would rate the diving as excellent for beginners, especially the shore diving on Bari reef. For more experienced divers the boat dives and other shore dive locations also rate a solid 4 stars. Snorkeling near the Bari reef can be great - there is lots to see in very shallow water; most of the time the visibility was pretty good. We even came across a swimming iguana. The accommodations at Sand Dollar can vary, but the best units rate a solid 4 stars. The many great restaurants available give our dining out a solid 5 stars.