[bar] ON'T worry, we don't get many sharks," are the reassuring words of our guide ahead of my first ever snorkelling trip. "Anyway, 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. 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 various airports in Britain. 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% 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 hopped on board a giant catamaran for a three-hour cruise around the coast. …