An ABC of island fun

BRENDA WEBB
Last updated 12:22 25/07/2012

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I feel absolutely waterlogged.

Since arriving in Bonaire, a southern Caribbean island world-renowned for its diving and snorkelling, we've spent hours in the water. My wrinkled hands and feet are letting me know enough is enough, but it's impossible to stay out of the crystal clear sea and stop exploring these astonishing reefs.

Our usual brisk early-morning swim has turned into a much slower affair as we visit "the locals".

There is the beautiful moray eel in our mooring block, friendly angel fish that swim right up to our masks, a lurking barracuda, a turtle that nibbles on grass in the shallows, brightly coloured parrot fish chewing on our mooring lines and a shy manta ray we've seen once but who has eluded us since.

We give ourselves an hour or two to dry out before heading out to one of the 86 snorkel and dive sites dotted around the sheltered west coast of Bonaire and the smaller Klein Bonaire a few hundred metres offshore. Then it's another recovery session over lunch before we're back for an afternoon snorkel.

It's totally addictive and exhausting. We've never slept so well.

Bonaire, along with neighbouring Aruba and Curacao, is part of the Netherlands Antilles group which lies just north of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean.

Nicknamed the ABCs, all three are essentially scraps of rock with harsh and rugged landscapes where straggly cactus and aloe grow, lizards compete with iguanas and muddy lagoons are home to elegant pink flamingos.

Before being discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the islands were inhabited by the Caiquetio people, a subtribe of Arawak Indians who the Spanish captured as slaves.

When the Dutch arrived in the 1630s, they established successful plantations and began a thriving business that included bringing in African slaves, training them and reselling them. The tiny slave huts still remain.

The official language in these islands is Dutch, although many still speak the native Papiamento, which incorporates Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and African dialects, and is almost impossible to understand.

Today all three islands have established themselves in respective fields. Aruba is noted for its oil refineries and casinos which attract American tourists (two good reasons not to linger there). Curacao is one of the Caribbean's prettiest and most important ports. Bonaire attracts thousands of divers to its coral reefs.

With its fantastic sea life and astonishing water clarity, Bonaire was our favourite. Besides the plentiful fish life – 469 species live here – the coral is fascinating.

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Massive lumps of aptly named brain coral (it really looks like a brain), huge stag and elkhorn and the gently swaying soft corals in gorgeous hues of purple and orange abound.

Bonaire is one of the richest reef communities in the entire Caribbean, with plunging reef walls that descend to a sandy bottom at 30 or so metres.

All marine life is strictly protected, including coral. You aren't even allowed to wear gloves when diving, and the collecting of fish, coral or shells, dead or alive is forbidden.

The main town of Kralendijk is delightfully uncrowded. There is little here, but we manage to find a supermarket, good restaurant and a coffee shop that doubles as an internet cafe and icecream parlour. We need sustenance after all that swimming.

After 10 magical days in Bonaire, we head west to Curacao to find the only thing the two islands share is a similar harsh landscape. Curacao is incredibly crowded and busy and for the first time in months, we have to be careful crossing the road.

Willemstad, the capital, is a little piece of Amsterdam transported to the Caribbean. Brightly painted and beautifully decorated buildings in Dutch colonial style line the streets. In 1996 Willemstad was rightfully added to the Unesco World Heritage list.

Curacao's people are a true melting pot as a result of the island's colourful history as well as the thousands of workers from 50 countries who come to work in the massive oil industry.

Sadly, drug trafficking is a problem. Therefore cruising yachts are restricted to a handful of anchorages and must tell authorities where they are at all times.

Given anchoring limitations and the red tape involved, we choose to explore the island by car and head for Christoffel National Park in the far north. It is spectacular in a desolate way, with waves crashing in to jagged rocks and a landscape covered with cactus and aloe. The sandy white beaches are beautiful, but the snorkelling does not quite measure up to our experiences in Bonaire.

The waters around Curacao abound with sport fish and the annual Curacao Blue Marlin tournament is on. We are delighted to hear the marlin are released, but tuna, mahi-mahi and wahoo, which are prolific here, are landed. We watch as one monster tips the scales at more than 100 kilograms.

Before we leave Curacao, we simply have to try the local liqueur. At a beachfront bar, the waiter suggests a blue margarita made with blue curacao instead of triple sec. It's divine. Maybe this island could grow on me after all.

- The Marlborough Express

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