Bonaire: Oh, Island in the Sun!by Angelika Gruener
The first time we visited Bonaire was in 1990. We were delighted by that quiet island and its charming people. The diving was the very best in the Caribbean. With rejoicing, we sailed towards this island again in December, 2003. But like everywhere, things had changed.
We were impressed by the quantity of new houses built along the coastline and far inland in the area of Kralendijk. Anchoring is no longer allowed; visiting yachts must take a mooring. The reason given for this is to protect the corals, although where yachts used to anchor is all sand.
Once securely on the mooring we sit in our cockpit, relaxing from the pleasant trip behind us and looking at the waterfront. Many restored houses in the typical Dutch colonial style are freshly, colourfully painted. The scenery looks splendid in the evening sun. The water is crystal clear. I throw some old bread out; immediately the water is whirling. Dozens of fishes come up to the surface to grab their dinner. It is like looking into an aquarium. The sun goes down behind Klein Bonaire, a small island to the west of Kralendijk, once owned by Harry Belafonte. During his stay he got so inspired by Bonaire that he created the song "Oh, Island in the Sun".
Next morning we put the dinghy in the water, go to the dinghy dock at Karel's bar and visit Customs. Check-in is very simple, with no costs and no paperwork from the last port of call required. Spearguns have to be declared at Customs. A form has to be filled out saying how many divers are on board, and the number of dives to be done. Then a Marine Park tax of US$10 is charged for each diver, valid for 12 months.
Next is Immigration, in the police station. We get a stamp in our passports, which includes a visa for three months.
Strolling along the waterfront, looking into the shallow sea, we see hundreds of blue-green and reddish-grey stoplight parrot fish, sometimes blue surgeon fish and trunk fish as well. The seafront is lined with thousands of white sea urchins.
Bonaire has only 15,000 inhabitants, made up of the native Bonairians and the Makambas (European Dutch expatriates). Some 4,000 people live in Kralendijk. Two official languages are spoken: Papiamento, which is very close to Spanish, and Dutch. But everybody seems to speak and understand English, Spanish and German as well.
The currency is the Netherlands Antilles florin (Naf) or "guilder", with an exchange rate fixed to the US dollar: Naf1.75 = US$1. However, US dollars are widely accepted.
Aside from the colourful waterfront, the charming little town of Kralendijk has another street, running parallel, for window-shopping. This Kaya Grandi is lined with souvenir shops, only interrupted by some jewelers and a bookshop. All articles are priced in US$, because 70 percent of all the tourists come from the States. Once or twice a week, a cruise ship arrives in Kralendijk, and hundreds of cheese-white tourists stroll through the town, counting dollar notes out of thick bundles. When we ask the shopkeepers for the price in guilders, some of them have a problem converting the dollar price to the island's official currency. On Kaya Gerharts, at the Cultimara supermarket, US dollars are accepted as well. There is a constant flow of dollars in Bonaire. You can even get US cash out of the ATM machines .
The tiny houses are constructed in the typical Dutch style. The walls are freshly painted in strong colours from yellow to ochre, or pink and bright blue. The gable-end is white. All is clean, the gardens as well. We see hardly any rubbish around town. Twice a week the waterfront gets cleaned. Every 30 meters a small rubbish bin is available, but they're too small for sailors' rubbish. Big trash containers are far away, at the main wharf.
Visiting the big supermarket in Kralendijk, we find a poor selection of tins, fresh vegetables and fruits. One week later we are astonished to see even more empty shelves. They are emptier than the supermarkets in Venezuela were during the strike! Some items are eventually available again during our visit, other stocks are never renewed. We run through four supermarkets in town to fulfill our minimum requirements. My advice: stock up in Venezuela, and again in Curaçao, where it is cheaper because all imported supplies go first to Curaçao, and then to Bonaire with freight costs added.
Bonaire is famous for its diving. The automobile license plates boast "Divers' Paradise", followed by the number. In fact, it is about the only place in the world where you can go diving by car. On the leeward side are about 60 dive sites, each marked with a yellow-painted stone bearing the name of the site. From the parking area you can go directly into the water, with your dive equipment and without a guide. Because spearfishing is forbidden, there are many reef fishes in all sizes, and they are not shy. Curiously, they approach a diver, apparently checking for the marine park tag. Unfortunately, the colourful corals are missing. All is grey and brown, damaged in recent years by westerly swells caused by hurricanes, such as Lenny in 1999. There is not much left of the thriving coral reefs we saw one decade ago.
If people want to do a dive course, Bonaire definitely is the place. Uncountable dive shops offer courses of all types. It's best to start with an open water course. This course includes the theory of diving with all the equipment, plus five dives. At the end, you will get a certification. Choose a dive shop carefully. The prices vary widely, from $260 to $380, plus 5 percent tax, plus $10 Marine Park fee. Some shops at first give a good price, but when you turn up for the appointment the price is higher because they "did not find anybody else to take part in the course". Or a fee is added later for gear rental and air fills. One shop did not want to give us a Marine Park tag, but did not hesitate to charge the $10 for it. Make sure your instructor's certification is up to date.
It is common to see divers with tanks diving along the anchorage, as well below the yachts. After four weeks staying in Kralendijk we discovered that two of our zinc anodes were missing - they had been screwed off!
On the Waterfront
After a day of excursions or shopping, we usually sit on Angelos enjoying the scenery for a while, before hundreds of mosquitoes start to attack us and the nightly noise begins. The distance from our mooring to the one-way waterfront road is only 20 meters. This seems to be the major highway of Bonaire, especially for the motorcyclists who love to pop wheelies along it. Numerous youngsters show off with their scooters and expensive racing motorcycles, which have no mufflers. As the night hours progress, the motorcycles receive competition from the various live bands, mostly on Fridays and Saturdays, keeping everybody awake till at least 4 a.m. We wonder how it is possible to run hotels and guest houses along that extremely noisy waterfront.
One afternoon a dozen youngsters stroll along and shout that they want to come out and visit our boat and see the inside. As we ignore them, they grab stones and throw them at Angelos, with the result of some damage to our fresh paint.
A staffer from the marina which controls the moorings patrols the visiting yachts daily, collecting the mooring fee of US$5.88, in advance. This fee allows us to grab the two mooring lines; nothing else is included, not even the use of non-existent public showers, and we are not allowed to use the marina's showers. Insurance isn't included, either: "The marina takes no responsibilities for the loss or damage caused to property or persons, resulting from the use of the moorings. It is the user's own responsibility to check the moorings before use" is stated in the contract of the marina. We advise every skipper to check the mooring. On a day with a maximum of ten knots of wind, one line on our mooring broke, and the other was chafing through down at the concrete block. We informed the marina, and they promised to repair the mooring the next day, but after three days it was not repaired. If yachtsmen have to pay a good price for a daily stay, then they expect a good service. At least we expect a well-maintained mooring and a shower!
Yes, although still friendly, clean and colourful, since we had last visited, there were many differences - including a new indifference - in beautiful Bonaire.
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