Aruba + Bonaire + Curaçao See And Do
Aruba has the sand to stack up against any island in the Caribbean. Fine strands can be found the entire length of the sheltered, leeward shore, beginning with west-end Arashi Beach, a stretch of soft brown sand and calm water where locals and repeat visitors like to head for a late-afternoon swim then hang around for sunset. Approximately two miles south is Hadicurari, usually called Fisherman's Huts for the string of dilapidated shelters along its sand and ironshore coastline. A half-submerged wreck rusts in the shallows, which are considered the island's best site for kiteboarding and windsurfing. Immediately south, a column of high-rise resorts announces Palm Beach, Aruba's most tourist-oriented shore. The powdery, ivory-colored sand is as wide as 50 yards in places—all the better to grab a beach umbrella or thatch-roof palapa and people-watch. Nearly two miles long, the beach is jammed with sun-burned tourists, barefoot restaurants and overwater bars, dive shops, and day-sail charters, as well as water-sports operations that will rent just about anything that floats. Around a rocky outcrop, more laid-back Eagle Beach is punctuated with Aruba's iconic tree, the gnarled divi divi. Development is far more understated here, with low-rise hotels limited to the southern section. Near San Nicolas on the east end, horseshoe-shaped Baby Beach is a local favorite for its shallow, protected waters, though the smoke-belching stacks of Valero oil refinery are a buzz-kill on the view. The bluffs of the rugged, windward side are broken by only a few small beaches. Powerful surf usually renders Boca Prins unsafe for swimming, but the pristine dunes within Arikok National Park are perfect for a picnic.
Although its beaches will never be confused with those of Aruba or even Curaçao, Bonaire's coastline can claim several respectable spots to throw down a blanket and take a dip. (On the bright side, there's rarely a crowd.) Tucked away on the northwest coast inside Washington Slagbaai National Park is the picturesque old harbor of Boka Slagbaai, with a narrow, arcing beach backed by restored colonial-era buildings. Along the sheltered west side of the island, secluded 1,000 Steps beach is accessed by a staircase (actually just 64 steps) built into a limestone bluff. Bring a snorkel and swim out 50 yards; you'll find a spectacular garden of pagodalike star coral, thickets of staghorn coral, and swarms of reef fish. Rocky Playa Palu di Mangel, or Airport Beach, is a local weekend hangout at the end of the runway that's suffering from overuse; better to drive five miles farther south to Pink Beach, where the reddish sands lead to a haunting group of stone-walled huts once occupied by slaves who worked Bonaire's enormous salt pans. But beware that the coral shelf and strong currents may make swimming difficult. Bonaire's wild windward coast is dotted with rocky cairns and driftwood sculptures all the way to Lac Bay, its finest beach. Shielded by an offshore reef, the shallow, sandy harbor is world-famous among windsurfers. With bathrooms and changing rooms, it's also family-friendly, though the southernmost stretch has a naturist (that is, nudist) resort. On empty Klein Bonaire, northside No Name Beach has a desert-isle vibe and powdery white sands dimpled with the tracks of sea turtles during the April through October nesting season.
Most of Curaçao's 34 named beaches share a similar setup along the island's sheltered southern coast: a cove of white sand bracketed by limestone cliffs. The best are found west of Willemstad, beginning with Playa Cas Abao, a 30-minute drive west of the capital. Its quarter-mile strip of soft sand is privately held; the ten-guilder admission fee (approximately $5.70) adds to the private feel by limiting the number of beachgoers. Open daily from 8 am to 6 pm, the beach has a full lineup of amenities and services, including bathrooms and changing rooms, bar and grill, massage pavilion, and all sorts of beach toys for rent from Cas Abao Watersports (599-9-864-9899; casabaodiving.com). Another 20 minutes up Westpunt Road, local fishing boats and middle-aged European tourists haul out onto tiny Playa Lagun, which comes alive on the weekends. Though it's well off the main drag, the undeniable beauty of Playa Grote Knip brings a steady stream of tour buses. Most passengers simply take a snapshot from the eastside overlook, however, leaving the goth-white sands to locals and long-term visitors. If there's a drawback, it's the lack of shade to be found anywhere but beneath a few palapas and young coconut palms. Twenty minutes east of Willemstad, a sandy isthmus between Caracas Bay and Spanish Water swings past the well-preserved tower of Fort Beekenburg (built in 1703) to dun-colored Baya Beach. Although a ship pier mars the scene, Curaçao's most snorkel-friendly wreck dive, Tugboat, lies in shallow water just 100 yards offshore. Fifteen miles southeast of the big island, unpopulated Klein Curaçao offers day-trippers a complete castaway experience: shipwrecks, an old lighthouse, and more than a mile of flat, empty sands that are the longest in Curaçao. Mermaid Boat Trips does dive and snorkeling tours out to the island three days a week ($75 per person; 599-9-560-1530; www.mermaidboattrips.com).
Tel: 599 9 461 6666
Though not in the same class as, say, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, this collection of 400 species of local fish and coral is arguably the best in the Caribbean and a great way for nondivers to get up close and personal with marine life. The 46 aquariums include colorful French and queen angelfish, purple mouth and goldentail eels, and cubera snappers, all housed in sunlit tanks fed by an innovative open-water system that continually pumps in fresh seawater. There are also touch tanks with starfish and nurse sharks. Visitors can watch the underwater action in a fish-filled lagoon from the hold of a glass-bottom boat; the more adventurous can even enter the water and hand-feed sea turtles, nurse sharks, and sting rays. For an additional fee, the Dolphin Encounter allows visitors to swim with dolphins in a natural lagoon or even open water (599-9-465-8900; dolphin-academy.com).
Open daily 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.
A dry climate and a privileged location south of the hurricane belt have protected the ABCs' reefs from sedimentation and storm damage. Visionary conservation measures also ensure abundant fish populations. Indeed, Bonaire's economy largely depends on diving, so the entire coastline is protected as a national park to a depth of 200 feet. At Bari Reef, just north of Kralendijk, 369 fish species have been recorded—the greatest diversity in the Caribbean. Most of Bonaire's 63 named sites, such as 1,000 Steps, Tori's Reef, and the Hilma Hookerwreck, are accessible from shore, though a boat is required to hit the 23 additional sites on Klein Bonaire, a desert isle one mile west of the capital. Many hotels, such as Captain Don's Habitat, cater to divers with on-site dive shops and boats. They can also obtain permits from the dockmaster for Town Pier, one of the Caribbean's most famous night dives.
Though primarily known for its beaches, Aruba has the best selection of wreck dives in the ABCs. The most well-known is Antilla, a 400-foot German submarine tender scuttled by her crew in 1940. Large hull sections lie in just 40 feet of water and rise nearly to the surface, making it ideal for novice divers. PADI-certified JADS Dive Center leads small groups to these and other sites (297-584-6070; jadsaruba.com).
The finest of underrated Curaçao's 82 named sites run west from Willemstad to Westpunt. Many are shore-accessible, though several of the most famous, like the giant star corals of Mushroom Forest and the Superior Producer wreck (which went down in 1977 just outside the harbor), require a boat. West-end Ocean Encounters West is just minutes from numerous pristine sites. It also leads guided night dives during the brief September coral-spawning season (599-9-864-0102; oceanencounterswest.com).
Tel: 599 9 434 7765
There isn't anything in the Caribbean like this must-see museum, which exhibits the world-class collection of African art and ancient artifacts of founder Jacob Gelt Dekker (owner of the adjoining Hotel Kura Hulanda). Built on the site of a former slave pen, the institution recounts the sordid history of human bondage, especially the transatlantic slave trade that played a crucial role in colonizing and developing the New World. Curaçao supplied slaves to the Spanish empire for centuries, and the lucrative, gruesome enterprise was once the largest employer in the Dutch colonial empire. The story is told through exhibits with old shackles and fetters, vintage maps and prints, the exquisite metalwork and pottery of enslaved African tribes, and even the antique doors of a Timbuktu mosque. There are also displays of pre-Colombian goldwork, the syncretic religions of Santeria and voodoo, and the Maroon (runaway slaves) culture of Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the South American mainland. On Wednesdays at 7:30 pm., reenactors recount the slave trade on Curaçao.
Open daily 10 am to 5 pm.
The ABCs' are committed to preserving their natural beauty, which ranges from an aviary-filled forest to an arid park swarming with rattlesnakes. Bonaire's Washington Slagbaai National Park, founded in 1969, is a preserve that now comprises one fifth of the 110-square-mile island (599-717-8444; www.stinapa.org). Renovated plantation buildings hold a small visitor's center that traces 3,000 years of human habitation on the island, while a series of 4WD roads lead to natural blowholes, ancient stone walls, and colonial-era ruins. The dry-forest habitat and salt pans support nearly 200 bird species, including an endemic Amazon parrot and some of the Caribbean's largest flamingo colonies, while the beaches are nesting grounds for four species of sea turtle. Resident naturalist Jerry Ligon leads bird-watching tours of the park by appointment (599-791-6079; firstname.lastname@example.org). Park trails can also be tackled on a guided mountain-bike tour with Bonaire Wellness Connexions (599-717-4241; bonairewellness.com).
On Curaçao, 4,500-acre Christoffel National Park is a 40-minute drive west of Willemstad and is laced with hiking trails and driving routes that lead to abandoned plantations and mines, Indian pictographs, and the highest peak1,345-foot Mt. Christoffelin the ABCs (599-9-462-4242; carmabi.org). Desertlike Arikok National Park on Aruba's windswept east end protects 13 square miles as a habitat for rare endemics like the burrowing owl and cascabel, or Aruban rattlesnake (297-585-1234).
A winning combination of strong, steady tradewinds and shallow, protected beaches make conditions in the ABCs perfect for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Lac Bay, a part of Bonaire National Marine Park on the island's untamed east coast, has an international reputation among windsurfers. Lessons and rentals are available at several shops in Sorobon along the western edge of the three-square-mile bay, including Jibe City (599-717-5233; jibecity.com). The best wind conditions stretch from December through June. It's also possible to rent sit-on-top kayaks at east-side Mangrove Info Center to explore Lac's mangrove forest (599-780-5353; mangrovecenter.com). A few spots along the lee shore are beginning to attract kiteboarders as well. For instruction or rental, head to the Atlantis dive site near the south end of the island, where Kiteboarding Bonaire offers three-hour lessons twice daily (599-701-5483; kiteboardingbonaire.com). Kiteboarding rules on Aruba, especially at Fisherman's Huts, an undeveloped stretch of beach a quarter-mile north of Palm Beach's high-rise resorts. Several operators, including Armando's Kite Shack, offer instruction and rental equipment (297-733-1515; kitesurfingaruba.com). The wind subsides during the October–November rainy season, but otherwise it's often blowing at 20 to 25 knotsperfect for shredding the seas.
The charming, pastel-colored Dutch shophouses lining waterfront Handelskade are Willemstad's signature image, but the beauty of Curaçao's scenic capital goes well beyond those facades. A commercial crossroads for five centuries, the compact city is a working port with neighborhoods of well-preserved colonial buildings and a fascinating, multicultural historyan enviable mix that justifiably earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. After the Spanish gave up on arid Curaçao, the seafaring Dutch developed it into one of the world's finest deepwater ports. The oldest section of town, Punda, was founded in 1634 and lies east of St. Anna Bay, the channel connecting the Caribbean to the harbor. Behind seafront Fort Amsterdam, now the hub of government, a grid of narrow streets holds shops that cater mostly to cruise-ship passengers. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Sephardic Jews arrived in Curaçao in 1651 and established Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest continuously operating Jewish congregation in the Western Hemisphere. A small museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4:30 pm; visitors are also welcome to attend Shabbat services on Friday evenings or Saturday mornings (29 Hanchi di Snoa; 599-9-461-1067; www.snoa.com). A few short blocks to the north, colorful Venezuelan boats tie up at the Floating Market along Sha Caprileskade to sell fresh fish and produce. Built in 1888, the floating Queen Emma Bridge is a unique design that swings open for ships entering or exiting the harbor; it links Punda to Otrabanda, a residential, gentrifying neighborhood of winding streets anchored by the Kura Hulanda hotel and museum complex. Willemstad is ideal for walking and wandering, and if the bridge has swung open, don't worry: A free ferry will take you across.