Travel

Plunge into Adventure on This Tiny Southern Caribbean Island

From shore diving to donkey safaris, the biggest challenge in Bonaire is staying inside.

Mark Horn/ Photodisc/ Getty Images
Mark Horn/ Photodisc/ Getty Images
Mark Horn/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

“In Bonaire, you don’t think, you just do.” At least that’s what I repeat to myself standing at the edge of this cliff, eyeing the dirt-covered notch of fossilized coral beneath my feet. About 25 feet below that there’s clear, impossibly turquoise water. Maybe too clear: I think I see shadows of rock-masses right beneath the ripples, but hopefully my eyes are playing tricks on me.

On the southern end of the Caribbean, the Dutch municipality-the “B” between Aruba and Curaçao in the ABC islands-is less about tourist traps and more about outdoor appreciation. Here, 20,000 residents are relegated to two cities-Kralendijk, the capital, and the older Rincon-while about one third of the whole island is covered by Washington-Slagbaai National Park, where I am currently frozen.

Angelita Niedziejko/ Moment/ Getty Images
Angelita Niedziejko/ Moment/ Getty Images
Angelita Niedziejko/ Moment/ Getty Images

To get to this perch above Boka Slagbaai bay-once a setting for goat slaughtering (slagbaai comes from slachtbaai, Dutch for “slaughter bay”)-I trekked in aqua shoes up a lumpy trail lined with spindly candle cacti that sprung from the ground like electrified hairs. Take away the sounds of the ocean, and the landscape could easily double as a Western US desert. But then an iguana crosses my path, moseying along on Caribbean time. Behind me flamingos converge, feasting on a former salt pan. And at the top of the trail, I emerge to see the water-expansive, gorgeous, with coral reef all around, all protected thanks to the island’s conservationist efforts.

So now, all there is to do is jump from this cliff, which seems like nothing. But a crowd has gathered to watch. Maybe they were in the national park to hike the trails of Mount Brandaris, the highest peak on the island. Or maybe they were there to dive and snorkel in secret cove beaches, like the hidden tide pools of Boka Kokolishi, a favourite for wading. Maybe they’ve kayaked, explored historic ruins or driven in their 4×4 along a dirt road, where mountain goats climb rugged mounds to one side and geysers from the ocean spurt angrily on the other. Maybe, but now they’re here to watch me.

All I just want to get it over with. I look down-a mistake, because then I hesitate (a note to cliff jumpers out there: Don’t look down. Never look down.). And eventually, I leap.

Did you know you could do a belly flop on your back? Before that trip to Bonaire, I didn’t. But I sure do now. And I’d do it again. Here’s what else you can get up to on this small but mighty adventure island.

bernard radvaner/ Corbis/ Getty Images
bernard radvaner/ Corbis/ Getty Images
bernard radvaner/ Corbis/ Getty Images

Inhabit the scuba spirit of Captain Don

Today, the miles of reef fringing the perimeter of Bonaire is all a protected marine park, stretching up to 984 feet offshore and stocked with 470 colourful species of fish, 60 kinds of coral, and multiple diving and snorkelling sites. The reef’s accessibility, along with year-round good weather, has earned 24-mile-long Bonaire a reputation as the shore-diving capital of the world-a place where you can pop into underwater wonders straight off the land, rather than needing a boat.

But the value of the reef might never have been recognized if not for one man, a Californian named Captain Don Stewart. Navy man, avid diver, raconteur, and inventor (he apparently was responsible for the sliding screen door), Captain Don was also an environmentalist. As the story goes, he made a pit stop in Bonaire while on a sailing trip back in 1962, his 50-year-old schooner in need of repairs. At the time, only 4,000 people lived on the island, but it was the water that caught Captain Don’s attention. When it was time to leave, he changed his plans. “I could see the reef as we tied up,” he said of his first sighting. “I could hear it calling my name.”

Medioimages/ Photodisc/ Getty Images
Medioimages/ Photodisc/ Getty Images
Medioimages/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

Bonaire’s introduction to diving began with the six tanks Captain Don brought with him, and the protection of local marine life became his legacy. He spearheaded a campaign to have permanent diving moorings placed at dive sites that prevented divers from anchoring in, and thus destroying, the reefs. His efforts not only led to the banning of spearfishing to protect the reefs (it’s the reason conch, though plentiful in the waters around Bonaire, has to be imported from neighbouring islands), but also to the creation of the marine park in 1979. Today, all divers in Bonaire are required to attend a class on reef preservation, as well as pay a nature fee of $25 to enter the park waters.

You’ll see his name invoked throughout the island, most prominently at the PADI diving resort he founded in 1976, Captain Don’s Habitat, a favourite of divers and divers-to-be with certification classes, specialty courses, and access to over 50 moored sites by custom dive boat. The attached Rum Runners restaurant, a go-to for cocktails with a killer sunset view, is a favourite of everyone else.

Other area resorts include Buddy Dive Resort, Grand Windsock, the more affordable Caribbean Club, and the luxurious Harbour Village, complete with its own secluded stretch of private beach (the only place you’ll find that on the island). But resort access isn’t required to hit the water: Stop off at a dive shop for some equipment, choose a spot-the extraordinary 1,000 steps perhaps (actually just 67 steps), or the Oil Slick, where you step off a short cliff into the waves-and take the leap.

Michel Porro/ Getty Images News
Michel Porro/ Getty Images News
Michel Porro/ Getty Images News

Throw caution to the wind (literally)

The consistent trade winds that blew Captain Don’s aging sailboat over to Bonaire are the same breezes that make the island a destination for wind-fueled sports. Champion windsurfers are made here-you’ll find some teaching classes at Lac Bay. The Frans Brothers, stars of the 2013 documentary Children of the Wind, about three Bonarians’ journey from a small fishing village to windsurfing superstardom, run their own windsurfing school and wing foil centre on Sorobon Bay. (One of the owners, Elton “Taty” Frans holds the fastest record for windsurfing from Bonaire to Curacao).

Of course, if you want a more laid-back activity, there’s plenty of that, too. The windsurfing club Jibe City offers rentals and classes-plus adirondack chairs, hammocks, and a bar for those who prefer to watch.

Another option? Skim across the seas on a kiteboard-that’s done at Atlantis Beach, with classes at Kiteboarding Bonaire or Bonaire Kiteschool-or try your hand harnessing the wind on land. Bonaire is the only island in the Caribbean where you can landsail. Using the New Zealand-designed Blokart (rhymes with go-kart), Bonaire Landsailing Adventures allows you to zip around a waterfront track right dotted with cacti. Just watch out for those iguanas.

Cave Tours Bonaire
Cave Tours Bonaire
Cave Tours Bonaire

Duck underground

You’re standing in front of a gaping hole in the ground about three feet wide, depths as dark as the eye can see. Your snorkel is strapped around your neck. Then your spelunking guide nods: “Yup, this is the cave where we’re going down.” Yet another one of those “just do it” Bonaire moments. If you’re lucky, there’s a rickety ladder to climb, but you’re most likely rappelling into a dry cave to crawl through spiny formations, or a wet one, emerging in a wonderland of clear pools, stalactites, stalagmites, and coral shaped like everything from brains to bats. Oh wait-those are real bats.

There’s a reason Bonaire is devoid of lush vegetation. Its geology was formed by a volcanic core pushed up from the earth and surrounded by limestone karst. But what the land lacks in nutrients for plant life, it makes up for with its holes. Caves, over 400 of them, litter the landscape, and the Bonaire Caves & Karst Nature Reserve is dedicated to their protection. To that end, just a few are accessible to visitors, and require a guide like those from Go Caving Bonaire or Caves Tour Bonaire to take you through the underground worlds (if you choose the latter and get Dirk as your guide, be ready for plenty of adorable dad jokes).

Frans Sellies/ Moment Open/ Getty Images
Frans Sellies/ Moment Open/ Getty Images
Frans Sellies/ Moment Open/ Getty Images

Delve into the island’s cultural history

Arrive at Bonaire by sea or land, and the first things to catch your eye are the pink-hued salt flats on the southern end of the island, each lined with massive 50-foot tall white pyramids of salt. They’re part of one of the largest solar salt facilities in the Caribbean. (The salt is available to buy all over, but at the flats, there’s a box of crystals to sample for free.)

Drive by the flats on land and you’ll notice something else: almost identical square white houses, Scandinavian in their minimalist design. Dating back to 1850 and made of coral stone, these were once shelters for the enslaved brought in by the Dutch from the west coast of Africa to work on the flats (slavery was abolished in the Dutch Antilles 13 years later). Their homes were typically located inland in the city of Rincon, but as the flats were a seven-hour walk away, staying overnight in these accommodations meant they could work, sleep, and work again. And it was tough work-they often went blind due to sun and heat exposure.

Though the residents today are a conglomeration of several cultures-their language, Papiamentu, is a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and African dialects-at times, Bonaire can seem like two countries: one for those who built the country, and one for those who conquered it. The original inhabitants were an Arawak tribe called the Caiquetios, believed to have migrated from Venezuela. (It was their name for the island-Bojnaj-that evolved into “Bonaire”.) After the Spanish landed, they searched for riches on the arid desert-like land and found none. They subsequently deemed the land useless, enslaved the Caiquetios, and shipped them off to Hispaniola (now Haiti) and the Dominican Republic to work in the copper mines.

Orietta Gaspari/ E+/ Getty Images
Orietta Gaspari/ E+/ Getty Images
Orietta Gaspari/ E+/ Getty Images

1636 saw the arrival of the Dutch, who came in search of salt to use as preservatives in the herring industry. In Bonaire they found their White Gold, and, in the late 1600s, implemented the slave trade to work primarily on the salt flats. Until slavery was abolished, the entire island amounted to one large plantation. Around Kralendijk, you’ll see maps for a self-guided historical walking tour, taking you past Dutch colonial buildings like the Protestant church, built in 1847 for Dutch immigrants, and Wilhelmina Park, named after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (she has her own “welcome seat” affixed with a plaque).

But to learn more about the cultural history of Bonaire, of those who toiled on the land and whose descendants still live there today, head inland to Rincon and find the Mangazina di Rei. Once a building used by the government to store agricultural rations for the enslaved, today it’s a museum documenting the island’s cultural, agricultural, and geological makeup.

Every last Saturday of the month, they hold the Nos Ziljea, a celebration of local crafts, agriculture, and musical entertainment plus local foods like Funchi, a mash of black eyed peas and brown sugar, and goat curry, which you can also sample at nearby local restaurants like Posada Para Mira. (If you’re feeling adventurous, go for the iguana stew).

George Shelley Productions/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images
George Shelley Productions/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images
George Shelley Productions/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Create your own safari

Cruise around the roughly 24-mile island, and you’re bound to encounter quite a bit of wildlife. Some are a natural fit, like iguanas, waterfowl, caracaras, parrots, and even goats. Also flamingos, pink like the salt flats, munching on shrimp from briny waters and hanging out at Bonaire Wild Bird Rehab, their very own sanctuary. They say there’s more flamingos than people on the island, and that might very well be true.

And then there are the donkeys. Dropped off by the Spanish in the 1500s and left to fend for themselves on the island, about 1100 burros now roam freely throughout Bonaire. And if encounters with humans turn unfriendly, it’s usually the fault of the animal with two legs and opposable thumbs. That’s where Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire comes in.

Established in 1993, the sanctuary takes in donkeys injured and orphaned by car accidents or by other means. Here, about 750 animals are cared for by volunteers and set up, Golden Girls-style, for the rest of their days with food, shelter, medical care, and gossip buddies. Visitors can pay an entry fee and embark on a DIY safari, walking or driving through the sanctuary by car, golf cart, or scooter, and buying grass pellets to get swarmed by burros poking their snouts in open windows, car doors, and anywhere else they fit. Long-term visitors to the island can sign up to volunteer or apply to be an intern. Short-termers can choose to sponsor or “adopt” a donkey, securing a local friend the next time they return. And if you can’t make it down in person, you can always watch the action go down via livestream.

tikiandco
tikiandco
tikiandco

(Ad)venture into the night

Bonaire might be more suited to daytime exploration, but there is also a burgeoning nightlife scene, helmed by live performances at Little Havana and salsa parties at Cuba Compagnie. And you can count on cocktails backed by spectacular sunsets at places like Karel’s Beach Bar in the heart of Kralendijk, or at more upscale restaurants like the Mediterranean-inflected Sebastian’s, Ingridiënts at Buddy Dive, and the aforementioned Rum Runners at Captain Don’s Habitat. There’s even an option to sail into the sunset itself, with a four-hour dinner cruise aboard a 50-foot wooden schooner from Melisa Sailing.

Later, move on to the heartier stuff at Tiki & Co. Its Bonaire-raised owner Eddy Trenidad has apprenticed everywhere from the Prohibition-inspired Room 13 in Chicago to the trend-setting Stirr in the Netherlands (now closed). Have him whip you up something to please your palate, or choose from any of the well-balanced options. Just be aware: Drinks come heavy on the gothy theatrics here (order the Sorobon Zombie for a flaming surprise), and even heavier on the booze (order only one Sorobon Zombie if you want to remember what happened that night).

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She has plunged into adventure. It stung.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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