|Forty miles north of Venezuela, these two sliver-shaped Dutch islands are, quite simply, Diver's Paradise (as Bonaire's license plates boast). Coral thrives along their underwater volcanic slopes, nurturing colonies of riotous color and beauty in water as clear and blue as Curacao's famous liqueur. Three decades back, the islands' wiser powers realized that conserving this natural wonder was not just ecologically kind but also commercially shrewd; since then, several marine parks have been established, mapped, and protected. Bonaire, though the smaller and less worldly of the two, led off this endeavor, and its dive facilities are virtually peerless. Beginners will find premier instruction in ideal surroundings; seasoned scubaholics will find, well, ideal surroundings. Underwater photography is a popular pastime, too, so most shops include darkrooms and labs. Entire families sojourn here and hardly see the sun; they spend their days Ñ and often nights roaming the deep, tailing schools of parrotfish or marveling at shipwrecks. Because the reefs are so accessible, snorkeling's also superb. |
Along the coast, coves of fine sand alternate with rugged lava formations where the sea has carved cavernous grottos. Inland, both islands are arid and sandy, a cactus-speckled landscape known as cunucu. Trim Dutch-style Greathouses, landhuizen, and pretty pastel villages provide visual and cultural relief from the countryside; on Bonaire's southern half, a handful of salt ponds provide a greener haven for more than a hundred species of birds, from flamingos and hummingbirds to lorikeets, herons, and doves.
While Bonaire's 112-square miles are occupied by 11,000 people, Curacao, at double that size, is home to 175,000 citizens of nearly 80 nationalities. Willemstad, Curacao's capital and the maritime center of the Netherlands Antilles, embraces the world's seventh-largest harbor, trafficked by yachts, trading schooners, and supertankers hauling Venezuelan oil. The town itself is a model of antique Dutch splendor gone tropical: lush palm-shaded parks and stately sinuous buildings that are painted in Easter egg colors.
If you crave cosmopolitan comforts (golf, tennis, fitness) and a vivid nightlife (from jump-ups and rum fests to swinging casinos), Curacao is the better choice. Lazy Bonaire, with its sweeping tropical settings, does have a few spas and tennis courts, a "barefoot casino," and a smattering of folksy diversions, but it's best suited to those who want to end their days of diehard diving with a good unpretentious meal and a quiet night under a beautiful moon.