Commonly known as the ABC Islands, the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles – Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao – are situated just off the coast of Venezuela.
Because they conveniently fall south of the Caribbean’s hurricane belt, the islands are a popular tropical destination for visitors year-round.
All three islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, Aruba and Curacao are autonomous, self-governing islands while Bonaire is a municipality. Dutch and English are the official languages of the islands, but most locals speak Papiamento – sort of a musical creole version of Spanish.
How to travel between the ABC Islands
Travel between the ABC islands is via a few small regional air carriers. I chose Curacao-based Insel Air for my inter-island flights and was amazed at just how affordable they were (of the 3 flights I booked, not one was more than $70).
2019 Update: Insel Air is no more, the primary carrier between the ABC Islands is now Divi Divi Air.
With a full week to explore, I decided to spend 3 nights on Aruba and 2 each on Bonaire and Curacao.
First up, Aruba!
The Caribbean Powerhouse of Aruba
The island of Aruba has been part of the Dutch community for nearly 400 years and is now an equal partner within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. For centuries the citizens of Aruba have shown their loyalty and devotion to the Dutch royal family by naming schools, streets and public buildings in their honor.
Even the island’s capital city, Oranjestad, is named for the Royal House of Orange. The Queen is the head of state and her birthday is celebrated here as a national holiday.
I arrived to perfect weather Saturday afternoon and checked into the Renaissance Aruba located in Oranjestad. One of the best perks of staying at the Renaissance is the access to the resort’s private island, Renaissance Island, just a short boat ride away.
Flamingo Beach Aruba
The island has two beaches, Iguana Beach for families and Flamingo Beach for adults. While both are equally fabulous in sand and surf, Flamingo wins the prize for wildlife.
About a dozen pink flamingos prance around the shoreline drinking seawater and searching for food. In fact, if you buy a few pellets of food from one of the nearby machines, they will literally eat right out of your hand.
Definitely one of my favorite animal encounters on a beach…anywhere.
Palm Beach Aruba
For my second night in Aruba, I got out of town to check out the island’s most famous resort area, Palm Beach. I booked a room at the fabulously-luxurious Ritz Carlton Aruba and spent all of day two on beautiful Palm Beach.
This long strip of white, sandy beach is bordered on one side by turquoise waters and on the other by every high-rise hotel you can think of.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous beach, but after an hour spent dodging the multitude of beach-goers and boat traffic, I was longing for the tranquil companionship of the pink-feathered residents of Flamingo Beach (flamingos don’t talk and they certainly don’t jet-ski).
Next up in the ABC Islands, Bonaire…
A Bonaire Affair
In 2010, Bonaire joined sister islands St. Eustatius and Saba in creating a new constellation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands known as the BES Islands.
While the political change was barely noticeable to visitors to the island, one thing that did change was the currency – Bonaire now uses the US dollar as its official currency.
Like Aruba and Curacao, the US dollar was generally accepted island-wide before, but here it’s now law of the land.
Though separated by only 120 kilometers, getting from Aruba to Bonaire required two flights on Curacao’s Insel Air, including a brief stopover in Curacao. Though each flight was only about 20 minutes, the overall travel time was a laborious 3 hours.
But all travel woes were forgotten when I arrived at the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. My room had a fantastic oceanfront location with a balcony that literally dangled over the crystalline waters below.
Bonaire has long been known as a “Diver’s Paradise” of the ABC Islands.
Luckily for me (since I’m not a diver), the same traits that make Bonaire spectacular for diving make it equally magnificent for snorkeling. And I didn’t have to go far.
In fact, just steps from my room at the resort was an exquisite coral reef just begging for exploration. It’s a whole new world down there as the reefs provide a habitat for all kinds of marine life.
One of the reasons for Bonaire’s lush and healthy coral reef is the island’s lack of miles and miles of sandy beaches. Too much sand stirred up and settling on coral suffocates it. But what Bonaire lacks in beaches it more than makes up for underwater.
I spent my one full day in Bonaire snorkeling around the reef and lounging on the resort’s tiny but perfect beach before settling in with a glass of wine for a brilliant sunset.
Bonaire is far more laid-back than Aruba and I really enjoyed my two days here. If I were a diver, I’d probably come back again and again.
The Colors of Curacao
Situated in the middle of the ABC islands in the Leeward Antilles, the island of Curacao is just a 20-minute flight from either Aruba or Bonaire.
Once considered a worthless island by its original Spanish masters, it was the Dutch who realized Curacao’s true potential as a trading base when they took it unopposed in 1634.
Aside from a certain electric-blue liqueur, the island of Curacao is probably best known for its colorful, Dutch-inspired capital of Willemstad. The gabled buildings that line the sea could just as easily be located in Amsterdam if not for their rainbow of colors.
Connecting the two sides of this UNESCO World Heritage city is the Queen Emma Bridge which is better known as the “Pontoon Bridge” or even better, the “Swinging Old Lady.”
Built in 1888 and supported by 16 floating pontoon boats, the bridge swings open several times a day to allow ships to enter the port. When the bridge is open, a free ferry shuttles pedestrians from one side to the other.
Just a short walk from Willemstad’s main avenue, the Renaissance Curacao was the hotel of choice for my stay. Situated next to the 19th-century Rif Fort and surrounded by a multitude of shops and restaurants, the newly-built Renaissance has become locally famous for its Infinity Beach Club.
The man-made infinity pool on the second floor (yes, second floor) of the hotel is an engineering feat combining the sandy beach of Las Vegas stunner Mandalay Bay’s pool with the ocean-edge views of the infinity pool at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Since those are two of my favorite pools in the world, I was quite taken with the Renaissance’s interpretation.
Ocean water is pumped up to the beach area and water pours over the infinity edge giving the illusion that it is returning back to the sea. It’s hard to find a more tranquil spot to spend the day.
I loved the town of Willemstad and of the three ABC Islands, it was hands-down the best capital of the three. But I do wish I’d had more time to get out and explore the rest of the island further.
Overall, it was a terrific week in the ABC islands and it was especially nice to spend some time in a part of the Caribbean I’ve never visited.
So which of the ABC Islands was my favorite?
Well, for sandy beaches and glitzy resorts and casinos, it’s hard to beat Aruba.
And for a vibrant city scene, you’d have trouble topping Willemstad.
But for pure rest and relaxation – what I was really after on this trip – Bonaire rises straight to the top.
Of course, the flamingos of Flamingo Beach may well have been the highlight of the trip. After all, it’s not every day you get to swim with flamingos.
For now, I’m headed home to get back to reality for a while but fear not – planning for RTW #7 in January is well underway!