TRAVEL: Highlights of the Caribbean
On a trip to the hurricane-free Dutch Caribbean islands, Victoria Mitchell finds that snorkelling is as easy as learning your ABC
Don’t worry, says our guide, ahead of my first snorkelling trip. “We don’t get many sharks.” “And they’re only small,” quips the skipper of the trimaran, sensing my trepidation as we sail towards the dive site.
Flippers fitted and mask not too tight, I tentatively inch closer to the edge, peering into the crystal-clear water below. It looks inviting but my childhood fear of swimming in the sea is threatening to take over.
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After a few deep breaths and some words of encouragement, I slowly lower myself into the warm water.
Within minutes all anxiety has disappeared and, instead, I am transfixed by the spectacular sights beneath the surface.
It’s a perfect introduction for a novice snorkeller and a first-time traveller to the Caribbean.
I am here to visit the ABC Islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao – which form part of the Dutch Caribbean.
They lie on the southern fringes of the hurricane belt and are rarely affected by ferocious storms which lash other islands each year. Although British visitors tend to regard the ABC islands as off the beaten track, they are reached by direct flights from Amsterdam, which in turn can be reached quickly from East Midlands Airport.
First port of call on my whistle-stop tour is Bonaire, which lies 30 miles from Curacao, 86 miles east of Aruba and 50 miles north of the Venezuela coast.
Within hours of arriving I am on the water. Under sail, we’d made our way towards a reef off a small uninhabited islet called Klein Bonaire (Dutch for Little Bonaire), which forms part of Bonaire National Marine Park (BNMP).
We are guests of Woodwind Cruises, a family-run business, which offers a variety of guided sailing and snorkelling trips on the 37ft trimaran.
Under the water, the array of colourful and unusual fish and plant life is startling.
Bonaire is the second largest of the three islands, yet, with just over 15,000 locals, has the smallest population.
The majority of visitors are here for the scuba diving and snorkelling – it’s considered one of the finest spots in the world for underwater activities, with more than 55 per cent of arrivals being repeat visitors.
Back on shore, life in Bonaire is relaxed, the locals are laid-back and friendly, and with its myriad tranquil and unspoiled beaches it is the ultimate place to chill out.
A short 40-minute plane hop away, however, and Aruba – dubbed One Happy Island – is a different kettle of fish.
The Dutch initially occupied the island in 1636 to protect their salt supply from the mainland and establish a naval base in the Caribbean during their 80-year war with Spain.
Now, it’s a sun worshipper’s paradise with stunning, long, white, sandy beaches and offers a bustling nightlife. Just 20 miles long and six miles wide, it has a population of only 120,000.
However, it does have some big-name hotels, a plethora of restaurant chains, coffee shops, bars, upmarket boutiques, casinos and the obligatory golf. It’s a popular destination for cruise ships and a haven for American tourists with plenty to keep them occupied.
Our party hops on board a giant catamaran for a three-hour cruise around the coast. The emphasis is on fun and the free cocktail bar ensures no-one goes thirsty. We make two stops for those who want to snorkel – one at a shipwreck – and spend the rest of the time relaxing on the deck, fruit punch in hand.
For something a bit more sedate and with a little history, you can visit the California Lighthouse.
The old white-washed lighthouse stands as a silent sentry in the area known as Hudishibana, near the island’s north-western tip.
It’s named after the US ship, the California, which sunk near the shore before the lighthouse was built in 1914. The site is a great spot to witness spectacular – and very quick – sunsets.
Now one of Aruba’s scenic landmarks, the lighthouse offers a picture-perfect view of the island’s western coastline of sandy beaches, rolling sand dunes and rocky coral shorelines.
On our last night in Aruba we head to the beach where we enjoy a candle-lit meal with waves lapping just yards away.
The final stop on our tour is a 20-minute flight away on one of the regular Insel Air shuttles that service the islands.
Curacao, famous for the sweet blue liqueur, has become one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean and was chosen as one of the top 10 places to see in 2012 by Frommer’s.
It was discovered by the Spanish in 1499 by Alonso de Ojeda, one of Christopher Columbus’s lieutenants, and remained Spanish until the Dutch conquest of 1634.
The Dutch influence is still apparent in the architecture and the narrow cobbled streets in the capital city of Willemstad, with vividly-painted houses lining the waterfront.
The historic area of Willemstad’s inner city and harbour has been awarded Unesco World Heritage status and walking tours of the capital are a great way to learn about its diverse heritage.
Long, wooden boats from Venezuela arrive daily in the lively harbour to sell an array of fish direct from their decks, which makes for a bustling makeshift market place.
After a guided walking tour of the city’s highlights, we head west for one final ocean adventure with Go West Diving.
All fears now behind me, I snorkel into caves and clamber up cliffs before jumping into the sea, something I would never have been brave enough to do before.
Back on shore, we head to the All West Apartments, where many seasoned divers choose to stay, and swap stories of our underwater adventures over a sunset BBQ.
Victoria flew to the Dutch Caribbean with KLM, which offers return flights to Aruba from Heathrow via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, from £940. For reservations call 0871 222 7474 or visit: www.klm.com
Operators providing packages to Aruba include Kuoni Travel, which offers seven nights’ B&B during November at the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts Aruba, including flights with KLM, from Heathrow and Manchester, with transfers in resort from £1,653 (two sharing).w w w.kuoni.co.uk
For more information about the destinations visit: www.tourismbonaire.com