In Dutch Antilles, Bonaire on divers' A-list

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The "B" of the Dutch Antilles' ABCs — Bonaire — is not as often-visited as its close cousins, Aruba and Curacao. It is, however, held in high esteem by snorkelers and divers.

Why? Crystal-clear water and 469 species of fish.

The destination is frequently ranked as one of the world's best underwater destinations, attracting enthusiasts eager to experience the miles of colorful reefs beneath the water's surface. Divers feel a sense of independence, given the ease of access to shore dive sites around the island. Maps showing these sites are widely available.

The marina at Harbour Village Beach ClubAnd, in addition to a first-rate underwater experience, visitors can also experience a first-rate resort. Harbour Village Beach Club, the island's only luxury resort, is located in the country's capital, Kralendijk, on Bonaire's west coast. The 44-room property is also the island's only gated and private beach club, according to General Manager Jean-Marc Petin.

Standing on one of Harbour Beach's beachfront terraces, guests may see the tops of snorkels peeking up over the waves, sandy feet dangling from hammocks and, occasionally, a fellow guest emerging from a shore dive.

To accommodate guests who are certified divers — about 60% of resort-goers, Petin said — the resort has its own diving operation, Great Adventures, which recently received a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) 5 Star Instructor Development Center ranking, the group's highest rating, and offers scuba dive certification courses for all ages.

Chris Ball, PADI master instructor for Great Adventures, said that beginning next December, the operation will also be certified to teach dive instructors.

"We've had a lot of assistant instructors and dive masters [come to the resort] in the last few years, and we've been targeting those professional levels," she said.

Great Adventures also has two private dive boats, bringing groups of Harbour Village guests to open water twice a day. For those who are not certified divers, snorkeling equipment is also available for rent.

Petin acknowledged that the island "hasn't been educating and training young professionals for the hospitality industry and imports some local talent.

"But local waiters and waitresses make up for the lack of experience by having a nice attitude," he said.

Indeed, I found both the service and the services at Harbour Village to be top-notch. I ate many times at La Balandra Beach Bar and Restaurant, where servers were friendly and efficient, and made use of the resort's spa and fitness center during my stay.

Island of adventure

Because of Bonaire's niche dive/snorkel market, Petin said he believes that the 113-square-mile Caribbean island "is still struggling to attract attention compared to Aruba and Curacao," and the country does not have the "glamour and glitz" of its counterparts.

The beach at Harbour Village Beach ClubHowever, Ethsel Pieternella, director of tourism for Bonaire, wrote in an email that there is "movement toward a more expanded market" and that "on Bonaire, there is a consensus that our cherished diving market should be one of several pillars sustaining our tourism industry."

While Bonaire also does not have the "towering, 500-room hotels [and] all-inclusive resorts" that tourists find on many islands of the Caribbean, Petin said he believes that this absence of commercial development, far from being a limitation, gives the island a more rustic and independent feel, which also attracts adventure travelers and beachgoers.

For nondivers, there are many options. Bikes, scooters and cars are available to rent to explore miles of white-sand beaches. On a tour of the island, I saw many brightly colored "slave huts" that were used by those working on the salt hills in the mid-1800s. I also passed quite a few kite- and wind-surfing schools that had set up shop on the beach.

Pieternella said he believes the island attracts "upper-middle-class, well-informed travelers seeking a soft adventure and leisure destination … that are interested in a family-friendly product at a reasonable price, quality, value and rate."

He said the island is also in the process of becoming more active in marketing regionally to North America, Latin America and Europe.

The peak season for visiting the island runs from Dec. 21 to Jan. 5; Petin said about 30% of Harbour Village guests are families with children. Half of the clients hail from the U.S.; the resort attracts about 25% from Dutch-speaking countries and a 25% mix of Europeans and South Americans.

The resort's bookings come from three sources: travel counselors, tour operators and online travel agencies.

The resort offers a "star program" for travel agents, where, in addition to the agency's 10% commission, counselors can earn $150 for every seven-night stay booked for a one- or two-bedroom suite or premier suite and $100 for every Marina Front room booking.

Petin said he is also is hoping to grow his business by offering more agent fam trips in the future.

"We don't offer enough fam trips to agents," he said. "My wish would be for more travel agents and tour operators to come and visit."

Visit www.tourismbonaire.com.

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