With cactus and thorny scrub trees, 22 inches of rain a year and average daytime temperatures in the 80s, the windswept Caribbean island of Bonaire shares some of Las Vegas’ desert climate. But unlike Las Vegas, you won’t see high-rise hotels, neon lights or even a single traffic light.
That lack of flash is part of what makes the tiny, 24-mile long Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela the perfect antidote to city life. The bigger lure? Its waters. Bonaire has some of the best scuba diving, snorkeling and windsurfing in the world, thanks to an underwater marine park established in 1979. Lying outside the hurricane belt, it’s a reliable destination year-round.
In recent years Bonaire has become more appealing to the jet set, thanks to new hotels, high-end rental villas and restaurants headed by Michelin-starred chefs, as well as for the anonymity it offers.
“The fact that ultra, ultra-rich people who can go anywhere in the world keep coming back to Bonaire means there must be something here that triggers something in them,” said Bas Noij, founder of VIP Diving, which offers personalized dive services that include lionfish hunting and yoga diving. “It’s a vibe, it’s an atmosphere here, a total package that the island has that’s really special.”
What to do
Bonaire’s corals are among the most pristine in the world and its diversity of fish among the most abundant in the Caribbean (queen angels, spotted drums, puffers and schools of blue tangs among them). Divers and snorkelers often spot rays, turtles and dolphins. Easy shore access allows diving from any of the 40 dive sites designated along the roadside by painted yellow rocks, 24 hours a day (at the diver’s own risk), while most hotels offer dive operations that provide easier entry — leaping off a boat.
Windsurfing conditions are rated among the world’s best in an enclosed bay with thigh-deep water at Jibe City, while at Kiteboarding Bonaire, daredevils harness themselves to kites and ride surfboards that skim the waves propelled by 15- to 25-mph trade winds.
On terra firma, the Donkey Sanctuary, with animals descended from those imported by Spaniards in the 1860s is a draw, while Outdoor Bonaire takes birders to the flamingo sanctuary.
Where to stay
The four-star Harbour Village boasts 50 rooms (and a four-bedroom villa) by its yacht harbor; a private, man-made beach that’s the envy of the island; a five-star dive operation; a beachfront restaurant and high-touch hotel service. Visiting Dutch royals have stayed at the boutique Bellafonte Bonaire hotel, whose 22 apartment-style units (studio to penthouse) offer kitchen facilities, but no restaurant on site.
Meanwhile, multi-bedroom oceanfront villas with swimming pools are available for those seeking seclusion, booked through Sunbelt Realty, which arranges car rental, dive packages, groceries, cleaning services and more. Concierge Bonaire, set to launch this fall, will organize everything for Bonaire visitors from high-end accommodations and activities to private chefs and massage therapists. They’ll also find rooms for the staffs of those who arrive by yacht or private jet. (United, Delta and American fly to Bonaire.)
Where to eat
Capriccio, headed by Andrea Magni, the youngest chef in Italy to earn a Michelin star, serves up handmade pastas, pizzas, grilled fish and roasted meats. His wife, Lola Scandaletti, created a selection of 450 wines, with notable choices from Piedmont and Tuscany, which earned a 2016 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
The new Brass Boer restaurant offers a three- to five-course prix fixe menu created by Michelin three-star chef Jonnie Boer of De Librije in the Netherlands. The inventive fare might include tuna with spicy melon, radish and avocado or neck of lamb, oxheart cabbage, garlic and curry-cucumber yogurt. With a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve from the bar, dinner here is a fine way to toast the sunset, and your time on Bonaire.