(Photos: Thinkstock; Corbis; Getty Images)
These three island jewels situated barely off the coast of Venezuela are as distinctly different from one another as diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. They share a common history of war, slavery, and occupation, and Dutch influence is unmistakable on all three. Join us as we spell out the differences between the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.
The case for Aruba
By far the best-known island of the three, Aruba buzzes with activity. Picture long stretches of white sand beaches dotted with high-rise resorts and hotels. There are swaying palm trees, but you will also see cactus and scrubby, windswept trees. The ABC islands lie outside the Caribbean hurricane belt, but wind is a daily occurrence.
Well over a million tourists visited Aruba last year for an overnight stay, with another half million arriving by cruise ship. It can feel crowded.
Aruba might be the smallest of the ABC islands, but it sure packs a lot of sun and sand into its shores. (Photo: Getty Images)
Population and size: Roughly 103,000 people call the island home. Aruba is the smallest of the ABCs. Only 19 miles long, its total area is less than 75 square miles. The population is concentrated around the city of Oranjestad, where both the Queen Beatrix International Airport and the cruise terminal are located.
For a truly wild Aruba experience, rent a Jeep and go off roading over the sand dunes. (Photo: Getty Images)
Popular ways to get around the island: Taxis are flat-fee, making them an affordable option for resort guests and cruise passengers to get around town. If you want to see the wild and natural side of the island, you will need to either rent a car (four-wheel drive preferred) or take a tour. ATV tours and horseback rides are popular.
The prime beachfront location of the Ritz-Carlton makes it a popular choice among travelers. (Photo: Ritz-Carlton Aruba)
Places to stay: You will find familiar names among the hotels and resorts on the island, including the Ritz-Carlton Aruba, five Marriotts, and even a Holiday Inn. There are all-inclusive resorts to choose from, as well as traditional pay-as-you-go options. Private vacation rentals are abundant on the island. VRBO.com lists over 400 rentals, including three-bedroom villas, some with private pools and hot tubs, for as low as $300 per night. If you choose one of these options, remember that you will need a rental car.
Rent a car and trip up to the lighthouse on the north shore of the island. (Photo: Getty Images)
What to do if your cruise ship stops here: Tours that include being on or under the water are the best bets on Aruba. If that’s not your thing, then this is a port where you can safely rent a car for exploring. Head north to see the beaches and the lighthouse, south to experience the quiet town of San Nicolas.
Pull up a chair, grab a good book, and forget all your troubles on Palm Beach. (Photo: Getty Images)
The beaches: Aruba is all about the beaches. Chair and cabana rentals are available at the resorts along Palm Beach. The resorts usually sift the sand on their beaches to remove the pebbles and pieces of coral that are common on most other beaches on the island. At the northern tip of the island are Boca Catalina Beach and Malmok Beach, where you can hope to escape the crowds of the resort beaches.
That beautiful turquoise water is a star attraction in Aruba and there’s plenty to do on and in the water, including windsurfing and snorkeling. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Water sports: Though it isn’t particularly a scuba hotspot, Aruba has enough underwater options to keep most divers happy for the duration of their stay. The wreck of the Antilla is a 400-foot-long German freighter enjoyed by both divers and snorkelers. It was scuttled in 1940 when Germany invaded Holland.
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are top water options, along with sailing, hydro-flying, parasailing, and party boats. (Party boats are a water sport, right?)
Tasty food and refreshing beverages combined with gorgeous on-the-water views make Pelican Pier a popular spot with tourists. (Photo: Peter Vallance/Alamy)
Shopping, food, and nightlife: Shopping in Aruba is heavily influenced by the cruise industry. Look for the usual chains selling watches, jewelry, and perfumes close to the port. For better bargains and locally produced goods, go a few blocks away from the port.
Restaurants, clubs, and casinos light up the night on Aruba. You’ll find everything from typical beach bars to crowded dance bars, many within walking distance of the hotels and the cruise ships.
A beach is definitely preferable to this.
The Case for Bonaire
Bonaire is low-key and all about relaxing and enjoying those famous turquoise waters. (Photo: Corbis)
The least populated and least visited island in the chain is Bonaire. First-time visitors either fall crazy in love or leave grumbling about the lack of facilities. You don’t go to Bonaire looking for endless stretches of beach, high-rise hotels, or rowdy nights out on the town. This is the quiet island. The pace is slow and leisurely. Small to mid-sized cruise ships dock several days per week, almost overwhelming the port city of Kralendijk. Locals are thankful for the tourism revenue, but wave a happy goodbye when the ships sail into the sunset.
On Bonaire, much of the island is wild and unpopulated, with the port city of Kralendijk acting as the island hub. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Population and size: The island is the home of approximately 17,000 people, who have the luxury of spreading out over most of the 113 square miles. The north end of the island is mountainous and largely unpopulated, as is the rugged and windswept east coast.
If you want to explore the wild beauty of the Washington Slagbaai National Park, you’ll need a durable vehicle. (Photo: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr)
Popular ways to get around the island: If you are staying on the island, renting a car is the only way to get around. The main roads are paved, but you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle if you plan to venture to the national park, where the roads are rutted dirt.
Buddy Dive offers lovely beachfront accommodations and plenty of underwater activities to keep you busy during your stay. (Photo: Buddy Dive/Facebook)
Places to stay: There are no well-known chain hotels on the island, and only a handful of resorts not dedicated to scuba diving. Dive resorts include Buddy Dive and Captain Don’s Habitat. Private rental homes and condominiums are abundant. Everything from tiny backyard apartments to four- and five-bedroom villas are available on VRBO.com, FlipKey.com, and Airbnb.com. Prices range from just under $100 per night to as high as $3,000 per night.
The serene and beautiful appearance of the slave huts in southern Bonaire are almost enough to distract from their dark history. Almost. (Photo: Cliff Hellis/Flickr)
What to do if your cruise ship stops here: As the number of cruise stops have increased, so has the choice of things to do. Bonaire’s protected reef has some of the best diving you will find in the Caribbean. Dive Friends Bonaire has shops close to the pier and can arrange either a shore dive or boat dives for you.
If you don’t do water sports, there are tours in buses, and on bicycles, Segways, and Harleys. The island is perfectly safe for renting a car and driving on your own. The traffic is light; there’s not even a stoplight on the island. The sites to see are the slave huts, saltpans, and the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. The scenic cliff road north from Kralendijk is another possibility.
No trip to Bonaire would be complete without a trip below to surface to get up close and personal with all the local aquatic flora and fauna. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Water sports: Bonaire is a diver’s paradise, both for the beauty of the protected reef and for the abundance of shore diving options. Diving from shore, while a bit more strenuous, allows you the freedom to set the pace for your entire dive trip. You decide the time and place for each underwater adventure. The shops on the island make it easy by offering unlimited air packages and even drive-through tank-swapping stations. Most rental vehicles even come equipped with tank racks.
Shore dive locations are marked with painted yellow rocks along the entire western shore, where the water is calm and protected. Free maps of the island showing the marked dive sites are available in stores and car rental agencies.
Snorkeling, wind surfing, and kitesurfing are good alternatives to diving, with lessons and guides available for all of these options.
The famous 1,000 Steps Beach on the west coast of Bonaire is just one of the various beach options on the island. (Photo: Nik Wheeler/Corbis)
The beaches: The shore consists primarily of rocky ledges with peaceful pocket beaches tucked here and there. The southern shore, where the terrain is flatter, offers the best beaches, but be prepared to share with divers looking for easy shore entry. Beachgoers can use the same yellow markers as the divers, knowing there will be parking and reasonable access to the water at those markers. If you hate sand, there are even beaches in the north made up entirely of coral stones worn smooth by the waves. One good example is the dive site known as Weber’s Joy. The musical sound made by the clatter of the stones with each new wave is a pleasant change from sandy beaches.
Come to Karel’s Beach Bar for the epic sunsets and then stay to party well into the night. (Photo: Karel’s Beach Bar/Facebook)
Shopping, food, and nightlife: The standard cruise port chains are beginning to move into Bonaire, but there are still plenty of locally run businesses in the port area of Kralendijk. Local artists and vendors set up booths to sell their wares in a plaza downtown on days when ships are in port.
Restaurants tend to come and go, but the resorts all have onsite restaurants of high quality. The nightlife is typically confined to the resort bars or at Karel’s Beach Bar in town. The Divi Flamingo Resort has the only casino on the island, if gambling is your thing.
The Case for Curaçao
It’ll be hard to contain your excitement as your boat approaches Willemstad and you get your first glimpse of those recognizable Dutch buildings. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Consider Curaçao the working-class island of the chain. The terrain is more rugged and mountainous than either of the other two islands, creating striking scenery. The familiar Dutch architecture greets visitors in the port city of Willemstad. The island presents an interesting mix of tourist facilities and urban island living. In places, resorts seem to have sprung up right in the middle of single-family neighborhoods.
Each year, cruise ships bring in about a half million people to Curaçao. (Photo: Danny Lehman/Corbis)
Population: Curaçao is the most populous island in the chain, with more than 150,000 residents. Roughly half a million visitors stayed on the island last year, and another half million arrived by cruise ship. The island is of medium size, an area of 171 square miles.
Rent a car or have a taxi take you around the island. (Photo: Hemis/Alamy)
Popular ways to get around the island: To fully explore the island, a car is necessary. Many hotels offer shuttle services. Be prepared for traffic congestion in the populous areas. An alternative are the neighborhood nine-passenger vans with license plates labeled BUS. They run on a 30-minute cycle through neighborhoods in town, making them an easy way to pick up groceries or get to the shopping district.
The sparkling blue pools next to the gorgeous blue ocean will make it hard to decide which to take a dip in first. (Photo: Curacao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino)
Places to stay: Resorts that you never have to leave are typical on Curaçao. Marriott, Sunscape, and Hilton are among the choices that include spas, restaurants, and casinos. The pools are sparkling, the beaches private, and activities may either be included, or available onsite.
Small hotels are abundant, but prices are not appreciably lower than the mega resorts. The same holds true for private vacation rentals, at prices ranging from $130 per night to as high as $1,000. Vacation property owners extra for electricity use over a base amount, driving the low end closer to $150 per night.
When you’ve had enough of those sparkly blue waters, ATV and buggy tours of the national park are a popular land-based activity. (Photo: Hein van den Heuvel/Corbis)
What to do if your cruise ship stops here: Tours are your best bet on Curaçao. Traffic congestion makes car rental a challenge. If you hate tours, decide where you want to go in advance, and then hire a taxi or private guide to get you there. As with the other two islands, water sports are the primary activities for many visitors, but ATV and buggy tours of the national park are an alternative.
As with the other ABC islands, scuba diving and snorkeling are wildly popular with tourists. (Photo: Getty Images)
Water sports: Scuba diving is quite popular here, with a mix of shore and boat diving available. The wall dives are spectacular. The reef has not been as protected as Bonaire’s, but it is healthy in most places. Many hotels have house reefs and dive shops. Guides are available for shore dives beyond the resorts. The Dive Bus near the Sunscape Resort offers a house reef in addition to guided shore dives at many locations.
The stunning Kniip Beach is wildly popular with locals as well as visitors. (Photo: Thinkstock)
The beaches: Curaçao’s most obvious beaches lie within the resorts. Access depends on paying a day-use fee. It’s the hidden beaches, far from the resorts, that attract return visitors to the island. The beaches are often tucked away at the foot of hillsides or at the base of rocky outcroppings. A few are set aside as parks and have entrance fees, but many are free to use. Most have a sand and coral pebble mix, so bring your water shoes.
If you tire of the beach bars and fish shacks, Omundo provides a more upscale alternative. (Photo: Omundo Curacao)
Shopping, food, and nightlife: Shopping ranges from the standard cruise port chains to galleries featuring Caribbean art. The urban setting lends itself to a sophistication not often found on Caribbean islands. That sophistication carries over to the culinary world, which goes far beyond the usual beach bars and fish shacks. You will find hidden gems like Omundo Restaurant and Wine Lounge.
A word to the uninitiated: The many buildings you see labeled “Snack” are neighborhood beer bars, not a place to get a quick bite to eat.
Nightlife is best enjoyed from the safety of the resorts, which usually offer multiple drinking venues, dance bars, and casinos.