Who Do the BES Islands Belong To?

Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius (usually called Statia) are the Caribbean Netherlands, although the term 'Caribbean Netherlands' is sometimes used loosely to refer to all of the islands in the Dutch Caribbean. They're also known as the BES Islands, for obvious reasons. The islands are classified as 'public bodies' in the Netherlands, overseas countries and territories of the European Union; so, European Union law does not automatically apply.

Bonaire (including the islet of Klein Bonaire) is one of the Leeward Antilles and is located close to the coast of Venezuela, along with the other ABC Islands. So, Bonaire is geographically part of South America and part of another island group, as well. Sint Eustatius and Saba are in the main Lesser Antilles group, south of Sint Maarten ( a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

Saba and Sint Eustatius are (there is some debate about this) part of the Windward Islands and are volcanic and hilly, with little ground suitable for agriculture. The highest peak is Mount Scenery, on Saba. (At 887 metres this is the highest point in all the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

A Brief History of Saba and Sint Eustatius (See ABC Islands for Bonaire)

Saba is thought to have been inhabited by the Ciboney people as early as the 1100s BC and then, later, circa 800 AD, Arawak peoples from South America, whilst Statia was first inhabited by Caribs.

Christopher Columbus is said to have sighted Saba in 1493, but he didn't land. He didn't like the look of the impenetrable cliffs. That didn't stop him naming it St Cristobal, but his name didn't last very long. He possibly also saw Statia, but the first firm sighting was made by Francis Drake and John Hawkins. A tussle for both islands then developed between the Dutch, the English and English pirates, From the first European settlement in the seventeenth century, until the early nineteenth century, St. Eustatius changed hands twenty-one times between the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

Over this time, Saba became a key refuge for smugglers and pirates. Fishing was also a major source of revenue and the women learned to make lace ( introduced by a nun from Venezuela).This became the primary source of revenue and Saba became known as 'The Island of Women'.

When they were under Dutch control (as of 1678), the islands of St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten and Saba fell under the direct command of the Dutch West India Company, with a commander stationed on St. Eustatius to govern all three. The Dutch eventually gained full control in 1816, still generally ruling from Sint Eustatius, where the main plantation owners (sugar, tobacco, indigo and rum) were housed. But the main incentive and profit came from slavery. Statia was well positioned in the middle of the islands and it had a good harbour, which was a freeport. It also sold arms and ammunition to anyone willing to pay and used these to support the American War of Independence. (That led to one of the occasions when it was captured by the British).

The BES Islands were part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the islands became special municipalities, within the country of the Netherlands.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento, in Bonaire.
  • Dutch and English are spoken in Saba and Sint Eustatius
  • The currency in all three islands is the US dollar.
  • In 2012, the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands voted for the first time, in the 2012 Dutch general election. due to now being special municipalities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,

Which BES Island is the Best?

  • Bonaire is very small and dry, and is much further south, but has real character and is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Saba is the smallest special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands and consists mainly of Mount Scenery. It is the smallest territory by permanent population in the Americas. It's very pretty with steep roads, chocolate box houses and forested slopes
  • Sint Eustatius is less attractive, but still has picturesque areas. Some flatter walking, and plenty of history. Statia, as it is known locally, was dubbed The Golden Rock as it was, for some time, the most prosperous island in the Dutch Netherlands

Getting into Bonaire

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…'

Watching Wildlife on Bonaire

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. It's known as "Diver's Paradise",(or falling that "The Velcro Island", and "Dushi Bonaire".

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.

Klein Bonaire

Snorkelling at Klein Bonaire. I spend an hour and a half happily drifting along drop-offs which 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 an interesting 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.

Round and About Bonaire

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 entire coastline of Bonaire was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. with more than 350 species of fish and 60 species of coral. There are more than 400 caves hiding here too.

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 (this is the Netherlands after all), 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

Kralendijk

Rincon, famous for its annual festival, visited by the king and queen, is the only town outside the capital, Kralendijk (Dutch for coral reef). 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.

South Bonaire


There’s a different sight around every corner. In the south are commercial salt pans, more lakes, some very pink, flamingos and a lighthouse. Apparently Bonaire has one of the largest flocks of flamingos in the world. 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. (Bonaire has produced several world champion wind surfers and kite surfers.)

Rudy

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 operates 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.

Canadian Club

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.

Leaving Bonaire

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.

(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)

Which Continent are the ABC Islands In?

The ABC Islands are the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. They are located less than one hundred miles north-west of Falcón State, Venezuela and, as such, are generally considered to be the only Caribbean Islands that are part of South America.

Who Do the ABC Islands Belong To?

Aruba and Curacao are both constituent parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other two countries in the kingdom are the Netherlands and Saint Maarten. So, the nationality of the citizens of the ABC islands is Dutch, but the islands are not a part of the European Union.

Bonaire is one of the three Dutch BES Islands in the Caribbean, along with Sint Eustatius and Saba. Bonaire was part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the island became a special municipality within the country of the Netherlands. An 80% majority of Bonaire's population are Dutch nationals, and nearly 60% of its residents were born in the former Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.

A Brief History of the ABC Islands

The ABC Islands earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetio, a branch of the Arawak. They came by canoe from Venezuela in about 1000 AD. In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda arrived at Curaçao and a neighbouring island that was almost certainly Bonaire. He is said to have called the islands Las Islas de los Gigantes, or Islands of the Giants due to the size of the native inhabitants, the Caiquetio Indians. By 1527 the Spanish had formed a government and established Catholicism on the islands. However, the Spanish conquerors decided that the three ABC Islands were 'useless', having no mineral wealth.

Nevertheless, the Spanish remained until they conceded the islands to the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands lost control of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to the British twice during the early 1800s. The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento
  • The Leeward Antilles have a mixed volcanic and coral origin.
  • Aruba's currency is the Aruban Florin, but the US dollar is also widely accepted.
  • The currency in Bonaire is the US dollar.
  • The currency used in Curaçao is the Antillean Guilder (ANG), also called the Florin.

Which ABC Island is the Best?

  • Aruba is the most affluent, and has beautiful sandy beaches. That's great if you just like to lay in the sun and swim. It is very American, full of all inclusive resorts. And it's promoted as One Happy Island. I didn't like it much - I found it lacking in atmosphere. Diving and snorkelling is much better at Bonaire and Curacao.
  • Bonaire is very small and dry, but is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Curacao is the most diverse of the three islands. more history, beaches and snorkelling.

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