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Friday, 01 September 2017

Curacao & Bonaire—A Perfect Combination of Islands to Visit

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My wife and I were seeking a vacation destination in March, after the typical long Chicago winter with its mostly grey skies each day. We wanted a place that would incorporate historical/cultural sights, unique and interesting scenery, relaxation—which in our case happens to be water sports—particularly snorkeling or diving, and that extra something that is different than places we have been to in the past. Because we allocated 12 days for the trip, including 2 travel days, we didn’t want to fly half way around the world. Curacao & Bonaire perfectly satisfied these requirements.

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Both islands, situated between 40-50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, offered desert scenery filled with giant cactus gardens (as opposed to the more common lush rain forests one sees on other Caribbean islands), historical plantations to visit and a UNESCO World Heritage site—Willemstad—the capital of Curacao that offered many interesting cultural sites and museums, and some wonderful snorkeling on both islands. Curacao and Bonaire (along with nearby Aruba) have a strong Dutch influence having been colonized by the Dutch in the 1600s so there was an abundance of Dutch architecture. While many citizens residing on both islands are from the Netherlands, both Dutch and English (as well as the local language of Papiamentu (a curious Creole blend of African, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English, and Arawak Indian) are widely spoken.

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Our trip started in Chicago, flying to Miami with a three-hour connecting flight from Miami direct to Willemstad. We divided the trip into 5 full days each in Curacao and Bonaire. It was the perfect amount of time to spend on each island with a diversity of activities each day.

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I concluded that the most efficient way to see both islands would be to hire a private guide for 2 full days on each island in order to combine snorkeling with other sightseeing. After reading reviews about various guides and obtaining recommendations from the hotels we had booked and lots of back and forth correspondence with a few potential guides, we selected guides who we felt understood what we wanted to do and see on each island.

On Curacao, we used the services of Andy Rolfast, owner of Around Curacao Tours and a native of Curacao. For Bonaire, where we were more focused on snorkeling excursions, it was particularly important to find a guide who would accompany us in the water and who specialized in diving/snorkeling. We used the services of Brenda Yorke of h2o Visions Bonaire. Brenda is a dive master from Nova Scotia, living in Bonaire for many years after living and working as a dive master on other Caribbean islands.

Both guides were very flexible and provided a wealth of information on the history and current daily life on the islands as well as very knowledgeable on marine life, restaurants and any other type of information a tourist might seek. As a photojournalist, I tend to ask a lot of questions upfront in the planning of a trip before retaining a guide since I want to maximize the experience in the limited time available. Both guides were prompt and responsive to my many questions and emails and very helpful in filling in a few blanks on how we could take advantage of certain activities for the several days on each island when we were on our own.

In Curacao we stayed at the Renaissance—a wonderfully situated hotel. Be sure to request a room on the fourth floor with ocean views. Credit cards and the US dollar are widely accepted on both islands (with the US dollar serving as the official currency on Bonaire). We intentionally booked our respective guides for the first 2 days on each island as they were able to suggest more sites for us to visit on our own and since both islands are quite small, our guides were very familiar with all of the restaurants and could provide their take on dining spots based on personal experience and feedback from prior clients.

In Curacao, we met our guide in the hotel lobby to discuss how we would structure our two days with him. While he often takes clients on a combination of snorkeling and sightseeing in the course of a single day, we decided that it would not be comfortable or logistically easy to change in and out of swimsuits and continually dry off after snorkel excursions, so even though there would be some backtracking, focused on tourist sites on land for the first day and snorkeling on the second day. Curacao is 38 miles long and 7.5 miles wide and therefore relatively easy to get around on the few main roads. We had also read that Curacao did not have the same abundance of marine life as Bonaire because the waters are not as protected legally. Since there are less cultural activities on Bonaire, we decided the greater focus on water sports would be on Bonaire while a greater focus on cultural, historical and landscape sites on Curacao.

Our first stop was an old slave house with a thatched roof. There are very few thatched houses left on the island and unfortunately while the house was not open when we arrived with our guide, we still were able to get some sense of the architecture from the outside. We next went to Christoffel National Park, which contains Curacao’s highest peak at 1,239 feet. While we did not climb the “mountain”, we were told that on a clear day the panoramic view from the peak stretches to the mountain ranges of Venezuela. The coastline of Venezuela is less than 40 miles away.

There are numerous hiking trails and a network of driving trails in the park. We decided to drive through the park which is comprised of hilly fields filled with tall prickly pear cacti reaching up to 10 feet high, divi-divi trees and exotic flowers. Within the park, we took a tour of Saronet Plantation. It is considered the best-conserved and most complete plantation house in Curacao. The land house was originally built in the 17th century (1662-1664). Builders did not have any tools on Curacao and as such most of the materials were shipped from the Netherlands. Presently the plantation house is a museum. The restoration was finished at the end of 2009. The plantation house and other buildings on the grounds were renovated and restored to their original condition.

After visiting the plantation, we stopped at a casual restaurant nearby and tried iguana soup for $2. While it did not suit our taste, it is very popular on the island in view of the abundance of iguanas throughout the island. We then drove to the far north coast of the island where we saw dramatic waves crashing against the rocks and cliffs of the island. We visited nearby Shete Boka park, where we saw a natural rock bridge over the water and thunderous waves smashing into the rocks and jetting up into towering plumes of spray.

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We next visited the Tula museum dedicated to a heroic slave called Tula who was eventually brutally suppressed and publicly executed. The museum is located in a former plantation house, where there is a chilling display of the artifacts used to enforce slavery on the island. The Tula museum is well worth visiting for the house itself and to remember the struggles of the slaves who lived and died here. We then drove by Santa Martha Plantation which was very beautiful from the outside. It had unexpectedly closed ½ hour early so we were not allowed in. Next we stopped inland at a beautiful inlet with mountains in the background and fishing boats in the waters below. It was a particularly picturesque spot. We returned to the hotel at 4:30pm and walked to dinner to a nearby restaurant, Perla del Mar, where my wife and I split an entrée of conch and had a main entrée of red snapper in garlic butter, the catch of the day. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a homemade ice cream store which was the perfect ending to our first day.

Andy gave us a brief tour of the capital, Willemstad, before our snorkeling, which was very helpful for when we did our own self-guided walking tour. He showed us all of the mansions on one particular street in the Sharloo neighborhood, part of which was the old Jewish area. We passed a Jewish cemetery filled with ornate tombstones. We visited Fort Beekenburg south of the capital built in 1703. The fort was used to ward off pirates as well as the French and English fleets during the 18th century. It is considered one of the best-preserved forts in the entire Caribbean. We also visited Bloemhof Plantation, now used as a studio for sculptors. It dates back to 1735 and has been beautifully restored. We visited the gardens in the back of the plantations.

We then had one of our best and most unique snorkeling excursions ever in all of our years of snorkeling in different parts of the world. Andy took as to Playa Piscador where we snorkeled with the large green turtles. We saw numerous turtles swimming just below us as well as rising to the surface occasionally for air. The fishermen clean their catch at this location and the turtles are attracted by the remains of the fish. I was able to capture some wonderful photos of the turtles with my underwater camera. We then snorkeled at Playa Lagun, which was a beautiful setting for snorkeling surrounded by two cliffs on each side of the bay. We saw some tropical fish but it was not particularly great for snorkeling. We then stopped at Nina Sanchez art gallery/plantation which contained very colorful paintings of island scenery. We ended up buying an acrylic painting of a traditional market scene.

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Last modified on Saturday, 02 September 2017

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