An island of fossilized coral sits surrounded by Caribbean waters about 50 miles off the Venezuelan coast. This island is home to 1,100 wild donkeys, 15,000-20,000 pink flamingoes, and 30,000 wild goats.
And only 20,000 people.
What this not-so-typical Caribbean island, Bonaire, lacks in glitzy nightlife and casinos, it makes up for with some of the most spectacular scuba diving and snorkeling around.
And that’s where I was for a week in September, along with my husband, son, and nine dear friends. We rented a house on the shore just outside the main town of Kralendijk, Bonaire—enough bedrooms for all 12 of us, and a kitchen large enough to handle half-a-dozen cooks at once. (As long as the cooks are friendly with each other and careful with pointed utensils.) That house was our base for daily snorkeling and diving adventures—many of them as close as our backyard.
Bonaire is a Dutch island, so a trip to the grocery store often became an exercise in trying to figure out Dutch words for “tuna,” “chicken,” and “unsalted butter.” By some unspoken agreement, we never used Google Translate, preferring the thrill and victory of guessing instead—or of asking a local for help.
Because most of the more well-known Caribbean islands are volcanic in nature, we American are used to fertile, humid, tropical islands with plenty of palm trees and flowers lining every path. But on Bonaire, the landscape is covered in enough cacti to make a convincing backdrop for a Hollywood western, and hot, arid breezes send one hunting for lip balm.
The phrase “desert island” makes a lot more sense in Bonaire.
And the wild donkeys and goats make an entertaining nuisance of themselves wandering through town streets, parking lots, and people’s patios.
No, you don’t come to Bonaire for the usual Caribbean trappings. You come here for a respite from your ordinary life, for the unbroken horizon of turquoise and deep-blue waters, and for the colorful realm that exists beneath the surface of those waters.
This island is known as a haven for scuba divers. The road that rings the island is dotted with dozens of tiny beaches designated as dive spots. Each dive spot—usually just a small bit of sandy or rocky beach—is marked with a single rock painted yellow and hand-lettered with the name of the beach: Andrea 2, Bari Reef, 1000 Steps.
Two of our party are certified dive-masters and all our divers are scuba-certified, so we didn’t need to hire a guide or tour boat. Instead, each day we loaded our rental pickups with tanks and gear, drove until we spotted an enticing yellow rock, parked, and suited up. Then we walked into the surf. Those of us who only wanted to snorkel (including me) stayed in the shallow water, swimming through shimmering rainbows of coral, tropical fish, and playful sea turtles. The divers swam until they reached the “shelf,” where the sea bottom dropped away at a steep incline. Then they dove down along the cliff, seeing more coral and bigger fish, like six-foot-long tarpon and eagle rays.
Every day we averaged three different snorkel/dive outings, broken by the occasional windsurfing lesson on a mirror-smooth turquoise bay or a drive into town for drinks or dinner.
All of this describes a place, but it fails to describe the emotional impact a place like this can have.
To sit on the edge of an ancient coral reef and watch a sunset spill shafts of gold and rose against a dusk-blue sky can make breath catch in a sigh—or almost a sob.
To sip coffee on your back steps in the early, quiet morning as a stunningly colorful parrotfish nibbles at delicacies among the rocks in water so shallow its fins and tail keep waving above the water’s surface is to remember that the world is full of tiny wonders.
To watch, a guest in the undersea world, as two small turtles find each other and spend the next ten minutes twirling around one another in a dancing game is to find a part of your heart that isn’t, you realize, quite as jaded as you thought.
These may be tiny, ordinary moments for someone who lives with them every day. But they are tiny, extraordinary miracles for people who don’t.
Traveling to places like Bonaire helps me remember that the world is larger than I take for granted and full of treasures I too often forget to seek.