Favourite destination: Labuan Bajo, a laid-back harbour town on Flores island, which is blessed with pristine water, gorgeous white- and-pink sand beaches and idyllic mountaintop views that offer beautiful sunsets.
There are so many things to do and experience in Labuan Bajo – from hikes and fantastic dives to rich cultural experiences.
People travel to Labuan Bajo mainly for two things: scuba diving and to see the Komodo dragons.
The Komodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard – it grows up to 3m in length and can weigh more than 70kg. Komodo National park (www.komodonationalpark.org) is the only place in the world where they are found in the wild – predominantly on Komodo and Rinca islands. Here, they hunt native deer and buffalo.
They are extremely dangerous as they are strong hunters and can be quite vicious, so travellers must visit the islands with a guide. Tours can be easily arranged on arrival in Labuan Bajo and will vary in price, depending on the itinerary, size of the tour and type of boat.
A day trip to Rinca, which is smaller than Komodo island but closer to Labuan Bajo, is the more popular choice. With the park entrance fee, camera permit, guide fee, snorkelling fee and lunch, the tours start at about 500,000 rupiah (S$52) a person.
It is worth spending some time snorkelling or diving in the park, which has one of the richest and most pristine marine environments in the world. Its coral reefs and mangroves are home to more than 1,000 species of fish, hundreds of corals and sponges, sharks, dugongs, manta rays, whales, dolphins and sea turtles.
While there are no direct flights between Singapore and Labuan Bajo, Garuda Indonesia and Wings Air offer flights from Bali and Jakarta’s international airports.
• The best time to visit Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park is during the dry season between April and early December.
• You should stay for a week or more to see and do everything around Labuan Bajo.
• Pack sunblock, particularly if you plan to do a lot of hiking or diving. Wear light, breathable clothing as the weather will be hot and humid.
• Avoid walking alone at night and you should always be aware of your surroundings.
• When visiting the Komodo dragons, go with a guide and do not wander off alone. The animals have sensitive hearing, are easily disturbed and will follow loud noises, so try to stay quiet. Do not run or make sudden movements as they will feel threatened and may attack you. If a Komodo dragon starts running towards you, run as quickly as you can in a zig-zag pattern and try to climb a tree or get to higher ground. If you have an open wound or you are a woman having her period, let your guide or ranger know, so that he can help protect you. Komodo dragons are attracted to the scent of blood, which they can smell from more than a dozen kilometres away.
Manta Point (known as Karang Makassar locally) is a popular dive and snorkelling site in the park. The reefs are only 2 to 9m deep here, but you can still see sharks, turtles, giant clams and different types of rays, including giant manta rays. It is one of their favourite spots.
Komodo’s hilly islands are also popular for hiking, with jagged hilltops that lend spectacular views of the surrounding islands.
You can get the most beautiful views of Komodo National Park and its beaches by hiking to the top of the hill on Padar island. The moderate hike takes about 40 minutes to get to the top, from where you will get an amazing view of Labuan Bajo, three crescent beaches and freckles of offshore islands.
Getting to Komodo island is a bit more difficult because it is farther away and can take 11/2 to four hours each way, depending on the boat.
But if you are going, be sure to stop at Pink Beach, or Pantai Merah, which is unique for its deep-pink sand that is created naturally from a microscopic animal that lives on the nearby coral reefs and turns them pink.
There are a few pink beaches on islands in the park, but this one is the best and is a surreal place to watch the sunset.
Every year, Labuan Bajo hosts the Komodo Festival to celebrate the culture and beauty of the region. This year, the month-long festival took place from February to March and included a parade, rowing races, a beauty pageant, exhibitions and music performances.
It is a good time of the year to visit nearby villages in the Komodo National Park, such as Papagarang Traditional Village, to attend the unique dance and musical performances and see the fishing techniques of the Bajo and Sape ethnic groups.
These are seafaring people who have a long history of fishing throughout the Indonesian archipelago and you will see them drying their catch of fish and squid around the villages, which are often built on stilts.
For another side of local life, visit Kampung Melo, just 17km inland from Labuan Bajo, to experience the distinctive Manggaraian culture.
Travellers can enjoy a half-day visit here to see how the Manggaraian people live and watch performances of their traditional bamboo pole-jumping game called Tetek Alu, the Ndundu Dake dance and their well-known Caci ritual whip fight.
There are several nice restaurants around town in Labuan Bajo, including Bajo Bakery, which serves great bread and cakes and is ideal for breakfast or lunch; and Mediterraneo, an Italian restaurant with views of the harbour.
My favourite restaurant is Atlantis on the Rock by Plataran, where you can enjoy a mixed menu of Western and Indonesian dishes and delicious barbecued seafood such as lobster and squid, with excellent sunset views. A meal costs about $40++ for two people.
Visitors to Labuan Bajo often buy Komodo-related handicrafts, magnets, key chains and T-shirts with pictures of the island or dragons.
For a more traditional souvenir, I suggest the Tenun ikat, a culturally important fabric which many people still wear in Flores. The intricately patterned cloth is traditionally handwoven using hand-dyed thread and used on special occasions such as weddings. It is often handed down through the generations.
You can buy Tenun ikat from weavers in the villages or souvenir shops in town, where it will cost from $15 to $250, depending on whether it is hand- or machine- made, as well as its thickness, detail and colour.
I suggest a hotel on the hill with a good view of the bay. Sunset Hill Hotel is a basic, but very nice hotel with spectacular views. Some rooms have a private terrace or balcony, which is ideal for watching the sunset. The hotel is also great value for money. Rooms start at 594,000 rupiah a night in the low season and 644,000 rupiah in the high season.
I also recommend Green Hill Boutique Hotel, a nine-room guesthouse in the centre of town that overlooks the harbour, which is a five-minute walk away. The rooms are simple, but equipped with a television set, hot and cold water shower, air-conditioning and private balconies. The staff are very friendly. Rooms are US$50 (S$69) or US$55 a night.
On Sumba island, travellers can stay at the Nihiwatu Hotel, named the best hotel in the world by Travel + Leisure Magazine last year. Rooms and villas start from US$750 to US$14,000 a night.
Article first published on StraitsTimes