The flight from Bonaire to Curaçao only takes 15 minutes – 46 miles. We’re up and we’re bumping down again. All of these islands have the same prevailing winds. First impressions of airport organisation aren’t encouraging. They’ve just introduced a fancy self-scanning booth system for chipped passports, but the signs say that you have to complete an online embarkation form before you arrive if you want to use them. Nobody told us about that, so no-one is entering the shiny new booths, despite the fact that two large planes have just arrived from Amsterdam.
As the immigration queues build up the officials decide to waive this rule. They call us up one by one and scan our passports for us. In the baggage hall the handlers have totally ignored the screens telling us the carousel at which our luggage will arrive. They’ve decided to make life interesting by mixing up bags from the four arriving flights on all the belts.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings it’s already obvious that Curaçao is very different again, from Bonaire and Aruba, with much more infra-structure and sophistication. It’s also much more Dutch. My boutique hotel is a picturesque converted town house by the sea in the Pietermaai district of the capital Willemstad. I’m delighted to find it has an excellent restaurant, which serves possibly the best caipirinhas I have ever tasted.
Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, is a UNESCO heritage city, so I have high expectations. There are the clusters of the bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses I have come to expect. It’s most colourfully picturesque along the banks of the canal like opening which leads to the sea-water-lake-cum-harbour around which Willemstad is built. There’s a wobbling pedestrian pontoon bridge across this, which swings open with very little warning, to let boats through. A buzzer sounds, but it moves almost immediately, no flashing lights, resulting in hordes of running people, leaping across the steadily decreasing overlap, as the pontoon slides away. I'm one of them.
There are a couple of forts and a ‘floating market’, that is not really floating, as all the goods have been taken off the boats and displayed on stalls along the roadside. It’s also a busy cruise ship port. The west bank, especially, is crowded with escapees from the liner on the dock. ‘Where did ya get your map love?’ It goes without saying that the route from the quay to the fort is lined with so called high end shops - Tiffany, Gucci, Prada, gaily decorated, in an attempt to blend in with the local architecture.
Pietermaai feels more authentic to me. The gabled buildings have not been over-restored and are generally more shabby chic. Some are so crumbly they have been rescued with hoardings and vibrant street art. There are plenty of murals. I spend the afternoon on a tiny man made ‘City Beach’ here. And I’ve sampled another good restaurant this evening. Really tasty Asian/Caribbean food. Really expensive too.
I’ve opted for car hire today. This is something I usually avoid: driving on the wrong side of the road, unfamiliar cites and stick shifts (as the Americans call them). But it’s cheap here and they have automatics and it’s the most convenient way to tour the beaches. My car is a dinky little Nissan Micra and, as it turns out, driving on the right is a doddle, even in all the traffic. Maybe it’s like riding a bike-once you’ve done it before adequately you’re okay.
The road signs and the GPS are a different matter altogether. I’ve downloaded an app called maps.me, as it works offline and the phone signal is erratic. I’m directed to ‘slide left’ and also to ‘exit, then turn left’, which apparently means, just turn left. ‘Turn right and then left’ means goes straight on, according to the road markings. I’m forever in the wrong lane and thankfully the locals are reasonably patient. They overtake me as soon as they can, but no-one toots at me.
It’s definitely an island of two halves. Willemstad seems to be surrounded by a huge industrial estate and I’ve explored most of it by the time I’ve misunderstood all the ambiguous commands I’ve been given. The island is orientated more or less east-west and I’m heading west, where all the best beaches are. The traffic peters out eventually and I can potter along. As in Bonaire, (though that’s north-south) this end is pretty limestone hills, but this time covered in shrubs, as well as the ubiquitous finger cacti.
I visit five beaches, Playas Lagun, Jeremi, Grote Knip, Kleine Knip and Fortis. I snorkel at Lagun, where the publicity says the fishermen’s gutting of their catch brings in turtles. It’s a small sandy cove that’s pretty enough, though spoilt by ugly concrete constructions on the beach. No fishermen, (but some boats upturned on the beach) and no turtles, but plenty of unusual fish along the rocky headlands.
Playa Jeremi is a larger cove, but not as pretty. I talk to two South Africans relaxing on a bench on the cliff above. The guy used to live in Brighton near me, it so is a small world. Three Dutch divers tell me that the only decent snorkelling here is right out on the reef and there’s no-on else that distance away in the water. I decide to move on.
Grote Knip is another beach that features on the best beaches in the world lists. (See my own list of best beaches.) It’s longer than the others on the island and the sea really is an amazing blue. I’ve read that Curaçao liqueur is that colour because it’s supposed to represent the sea around Curaçao. Possibly, but I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s quite that lurid.
Grote Knip is also famous for rock bombing. Visitors queue up on top of a crag to jump into the crystal-clear waters (this bit sadly is true). However, the stretch of sand, though wide, is horribly crowded. There are tour buses parked up for heaven’s sake. So, I depart for Kleine Knip, which I’ve read also has good snorkelling. It does. And there are turtles.
I spend some happy hours in the small bay at Kleine Knip, swimming, snorkelling (there is a turtle here) and eating delicious, (at a price), fried snapper and banana, bought from the local entrepreneur. She has the monopoly on this beach.
Fortis, at the top of the island, brags that it has the best view in the west, all down the cobalt coast, but it’s shingly and definitely not the nicest place to snooze. There’s a bar there advertising iguana curry. I don’t think I’ll risk it.
Next decision: a circumnavigation of the island, visiting viewpoints on the way back. This is definitely a mistake. The GPS can’t cope and keeps diverting me down unmade roads, where I end up in people’s backyards. Their dogs aren’t too happy about it. I also need fuel - from what the locals call a pomp station. It would also have been good if someone had told me that you have to pay for petrol before you fill up here, in cash. Fortunately, it’s cheap - a dollar a litre - and I emerge from the whole day happy and unscathed. So does the car.
A last stroll east along the coastal road. More man-made beaches, more restored colonial gables, lots of bars, cafes and dive shops. A sign boasting 'Cold beer, Hot instructors' probably wouldn't pass muster elsewhere. A final fresh lime drink sitting on the rocks by the sea.
Then I’m braving Curaçao Airport again. It’s even worse than on the way in. The check-in queue curls half the length of the departures area and then turns to double its size. It’s a challenge trying to work out where to join it, as it’s unintentionally merging into the queue for security and immigration, which runs the whole length of the hall, before twisting back on itself. One thing about travelling – it’s taught me patience, to a certain extent. An hour and a half later, when I finally get to passport control and another line, there are three of those spanking new little e-passport booths illuminated, but roped off. ‘Can I use those?’ I ask, waving my little wine-coloured book. They nod and I’m through. Danki Dios, as they say in Papiamento.
Goodbye Caribbean, I’m heading home.
The flight from Aruba is only half an hour, crossing Curaçao on the way. The ABCs are not arranged in alphabetical order in the ocean. A late arrival in Bonaire, but a happy one. ‘Have a good stay,’ beams the efficient lady on immigration. The reception at my new hotel, a dive resort is less effusive. They’re making me pay to rent the safe in my room. I’ve never come across that one before, when the safe is already in the room. 'Otherwise we will lock it up…
I’ve been having another quiet day in the sun, while I suss out the locality. I’ve been to the local Chinese supermarket (expensive). Like Aruba, the island is flat and arid, but without the wide sand beaches. The area around the hotel is hardly scenic. There is a water processing plant, cactus fencing and a view across to an even flatter, smaller island, Klein Bonaire, half a mile away. Instead, Bonaire has a reputation for the best diving in the Caribbean. I’ve tested the snorkelling off the hotel jetty. There’s a drop off to a reef five metres out, but the wind and boats have kicked up sand and visibility isn’t great. There are pair of tarpons - enormous - under the pier though. They lurk around, as the hotel kitchen tips the scraps of fish into the sea for them.
I wind up the afternoon with a massage. In between, I’ve been watching the lizards and iguanas scurry round the pool and teeny humming birds sneaking nectar from scarlet tube-shaped blossoms. Those birds move fast. They might need to, as there’s also a black and ginger cat, who has taken possession of my patio.
Snorkelling at Klein Bonaire. I spend an hour and a half happily drifting along drop-offs that start opposite my hotel. Like all coral in the Caribbean this is not particularly colourful, but at least it’s alive and there’s plenty of interesting animal life: eagle rays, angelfish, barracuda, turtles, eels, varieties of parrotfish and the usual assortment of striped sergeant majors and shoals of minuscule blue flashes. The stoplight parrotfish is common here. It’s one of those fish that changes sex, in this case from female to male. It must be a weird life.
My very organised Dutch boat hosts say that Klein Bonaire used to be owned by Harry Belafonte. It’s where he wrote Island in the Sun.
I find the most rewarding travel often happens when I get a local to take me round. Today, Oy (short for Gregorio) is taking me on a figure of eight tour round Bonaire, in his Kia. He is quietly knowledgeable and goes out of his way to stop for photos. It’s a surprisingly interesting and diverse place. The reef runs right round the island, which is almost entirely coral and limestone as a result. The drop-off is really close to the shore, all up the western coast, so divers can access without boats. All of the sites are marked with yellow stones. ‘Thousand Steps’ (there’re really only 67 Oyo says), though access looks rather too adventurous, across slippy rocks in some. There’s a stripe of turquoise running along the coast, immediately turning cyan at the reef, so it’s very easy to see where it is.
The land rises to 2000 metres in the north, where there are some small mountains, lakes and a few flamingos. The limestone hills and cliffs are entirely finger cactus covered. It’s the only thing that grows (they make liqueur and slimy ‘healthy’ soup from it). All the food has to be imported. There are tall metal windmills running pumps, numerous small ranches and some goats scattered across the countryside. Road signs also warn of wild donkeys and sure enough we encounter a small, shy group, grazing in the scrub
Rincon, famous for its annual festival, visited by the king and queen, is the only town outside the capital, Kralendijk. The latter sits at the centre of our figure of eight, so is encountered twice. It’s unsurprisingly, a smaller version of Philipsburg, in Sint Maarten, with brightly painted shops cafes and bars and Dutch gables, geared up to cater to the cruise ship market.
There’s a different sight around every corner. In the south are commercial salt pans, more lakes, some very pink, flamingos and a lighthouse. To the west, more diving sites, sea bird covered rocks, restored slave huts and a bay where the sky is dotted with the bright sails of kite surfers. To the east, sea grass lagoons in a sheltered sandy bay, this one swarming with windsurfers. Colourful and fascinating.
This hotel is a little hit or miss. The staff are mostly very friendly and work hard, though not very efficiently. However, one man who works the late shift around the office has had a distinctly off tone of voice whenever I’ve dealt with him. When I inquire about my return transfer to the airport, which I’ve already booked by email, he reprimands me: ‘You’re supposed to give us the information’. So, I ask for his name, thinking I will mention it on Trip Advisor. ‘Rudy’ he replies. I can’t help smirking.
I’ve been hanging out with two friendly Canadian couples, Dave and Barb and Bob and Sharon (sounds like a film) at my hotel. I met them first on my trip to Klein Bonaire and all four, although now retired, are in education too, so we’ve plenty to talk about, as well as the usual topics, Trump and Brexit. They invite me snorkelling on the local reef this morning – we’re all leaving this afternoon. Dave is so keen not to be mistaken as American that he even wears a Canada T shirt while he’s in the water.
I sit with them again at the airport this afternoon, recovering from today’s disasters. I lost my passport and boarding pass after I checked in. It was eventually handed in to the airline. Heaven knows what happened. But in the kerfuffle of searching for the passport I then lost my Maui Jim sunglasses. They don’t turn up. It’s an expensive and stressful day, especially as Insel Air are back to normal. The illuminated sign at the gate says ‘On Time’, but my flight to Curaçao is really running an hour late.
Few people I’ve met are quite sure where Aruba is: it’s a tiny Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. It’s so small that Google has trouble locating it and Vodafone puts out welcome to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela messages before tending me information on making calls in Aruba. Wikipedia says it has dry, sunny weather, blond beaches and gentle surf with constant trade winds bringing the cool breezes and causing the famous divi-divi trees to slope south-westerly. It’s certainly windy - I must have brought it with me. It’s a really bumpy flight in, when I arrive, eventually, from the Falkland Islands.
Unpack and flop on one of the blond beaches. Divi Beach is certainly beautiful, with white sand, but the bars and resort hotels abutting it are a little ugly. Most of the bars serve hamburgers and grilled sandwiches.
My hotel, like most American resort hotels is too big; it has four pools, four restaurants and a pretty golf course with lakes. It’s not quite a naturalist’s paradise, but it houses flocks of shags and other waterfowl, all vying for space on the relative tranquillity of the tiny islets in the lakes and a varied assortment of harassed looking lizards and iguanas, retreating to the undergrowth.
My apartment is spacious, brown and a little shabby. And the air conditioning won’t turn off or go above 72 degrees, because ‘Otherwise the room will get mouldy’ - ugh - it already smells pretty musty. But it has everything I need, including a kitchen area, with oven, and I got a very good deal. Aruba at New Year is not cheap. There’s even a sitting room and separate dining area. Though I bash my head on the too low light fitting every time I stand up.
The resort is on the edge of the capital, Oranjestad. The whole of this area, several hotels along the beach and behind it, is owned by the same company, who run a free shuttle bus, to encourage the punters to spend all their money within the bounds of their property. I hop on to go to to the local supermarket - I think I will do some cooking, it will save on fancy restaurant prices and gala dinners.
The bus doesn’t go all the way to the shop, of course, as the company doesn't own it. Much of downtown is grey and utilitarian. Apparently there is some Dutch Colonial architecture if you hunt for it. There's been recent political pressure to maintain the island's' cultural heritage. The store is packed with festive shoppers and I buy steak for tonight and chicken for tomorrow.
It’s a shame that when I get down to business the oven doesn’t actually work…I won’t bother asking at the front desk. They’ve already told me that none of their maintenance men are working because of the holiday when I complained that my Wi-Fi didn’t work. Perhaps I shouldn’t pay because it’s a holiday then.
Firecrackers have been exploding noisily behind the hotels all day. They take New Year very seriously here. As it gets dark, the sky is lit up with the prettier fireworks. But I’m not keen on the loud bangs and my lack of sleep is catching up with me. I’m not sure I will make the big displays at midnight.
It’s very quiet here today – no piles of bodies, like in Latin America after fiesta. That’s good. I’m exploring, so I stroll out of the trolley zone, (I’m surprised alarms don’t go off), north round a small headland, to Eagle Beach. This is promoted as being Third Best Beach in the World and the Best in the Caribbean. Who on earth judges these things or votes for them? It’s a lovely stretch of powdery wide white sand and jade water, but it’s nowhere near as stunning as the gorgeous curve and clear turquoise water of Grace Bay, on Caicos, for example, to compare it with another all very American enclave. (See my own suggested list of best beaches.)
Hotels line part of it and there’s a quiet stretch in the middle, backed by some greenery, where I camp out for a while. Quiet that is, until some locals park up in the bushes and turn their sound blasters up full volume. I’m already a ghastly pink colour in the constant wind, so I retreat to the hotel for a break. I go to the Towel Hut(!) to exchange my sodden mess for a fresh one as instructed. They don’t have any.
I decide to sit by a pool for a couple of hours before calling it a day. The beach is a ten-minute walk and trying to find sunbeds that aren’t territorially marked isn’t easy. The thatched umbrellas are called palapas here and there are a series of rules nailed to each one. ‘No reserving before 8 a.m. your personal belongings may be removed if you are absent for over 2 hours…’. No wonder there aren’t any Germans around. The infinity pool sounds nice. It isn’t. Every one of its dinky little areas and swim up bars is absolutely solid with loud adults and children splashing. My idea of holiday hell.
Keep repeating to myself - ‘It was a great deal’, as I endeavour to cook chicken legs without an oven…
It’s still a holiday here. I thought I might spend my last day touring the island, but I’m not sure I’m going to see anything of interest. It’s flat and arid. The highlight of an island safari seems to be a natural bridge that collapsed two years ago (there’s a smaller version in the vicinity you can look at instead, the fliers say).
So, I opt for a whole day on the beach, relaxing and internet bingeing under a palapa. It’s so windy that the back of my sunbed flies forward and whacks me on the nose as I’m trying to retrieve my towel, which has collapsed over my face before threatening to fly away. It’s not a good look.
You will have gathered that I’m not much more enthusiastic about Aruba than the Spanish conquistadores who deemed it ‘useless’. I’m happy to fly on to Bonaire later this evening. I’m doing the ABCs in the correct alphabetical order, of course. I decide to indulge in Happy Hour in the hotel bar before I leave. Two margaritas help to take the edge off the rudeness at the airport. ‘Shoes off!’. I doubt I’ll be back. Though, despite warnings from locals about Insel Air, the south Caribbean equivalent of LIAT (Leaves Island Any Time), the plane is actually early.
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