By Sarah Dougherty
DAY 1 – Bali to Labuan Bajo, gateway to Komodo
Leaving Denpasar on a wet morning to fly to Flores for the first time comes with the added excitement of boarding a plane for the first time in over a year.
Our little team consists of myself (I’m Sarah from 360Bali), Nigel from The Yak Magazine, and Chloe, a colleague who is putting together travel itineraries for VIP Concierge, a bespoke concierge service.
The flight takes us over Bali, Lombok, and Sumbawa, mountainous islands surrounded by stunning coral reefs. We pass Bali’s Mt Agung, Mt Rinjani on Lombok, smaller volcanoes, and endless coves as we travel towards our destination; the fishing village of Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo, and currently one of the fastest-growing destinations in Indonesia. It is well worth trying to get a window seat as the views are fabulous.
The descent reveals tiny islands rising from a calm sea, we’re now in the land of the dragons and from above there is something prehistoric about the geography.
The airport reminds me of many I’ve been to before, albeit quite fancy for this little fishing village. The airport is literally minutes from our villa. We’re immediately plunged into the huge public works program that is underway here, creating a dust storm that mars our welcome but fails to diminish our excitement. Enough has been done so we can see the wide, palm-fringed boulevards starting to take shape. A huge investment is going in to upgrade Labuan Bajo into a premiere international destination and the activity is fierce on our visit.
Our first glance at the Villa, Paradise Garage, part of the Scallywags family, reveals a stunning two-story building with sweeping views across the harbour over tiny islands with misty lands in the distance that whisper of adventures yet to come.
The captivating views from the terrace at Paradise Garage, Labuan Bajo.
A modern 7-bedroom villa on the hill, Paradise Garage is stunning, with wide verandas to enjoy the views across two levels, a beautiful fully equipped kitchen and living room leading to the air-conditioned guest rooms with private en-suite bathrooms. Built as a home, you could move right in and enjoy a week or more just gazing out at the views. It’s possibly Labuan Bajo’s most luxurious private villa and definitely the largest.
After settling in with our hosts, owners Nigel and Jacky, we head into town, navigating the construction that is going on everywhere. For lunch, we stop at Happy Banana, an incongruous mix of antique interiors and Japanese food, created by the owners, Simone, an Italian, and his Australian wife. The beers are cold and the modern sushi menu is surprisingly good for this little outpost.
The modern sushi menu at Happy Banana is a delicious surprise.
Day 2 – Cruise to Seraya island and Le Pirate beach Club.
Underwater and barefoot
Today we’re heading out to dive and snorkel. Rallying the troops post-breakfast we gather at the Scallywags dive centre. Four of our crew are diving while Jacky and I are content to snorkel. We’re planning lunch at the popular boutique resort and beach club, Le Pirate, on the island of Sabalon.
The harbour is dusty, due to the construction, and lined with small shops. A new marina is being built here to replace the old commercial port. With it will be an upmarket shopping precinct, a Starbucks, and above it, the new 5-star hotel, Inaya Bay Komodo. I’m imagining my next visit will be to a different Labuan Bajo, yet it is nice to see the local flavour will be restored rather than wiped out. Locals are given materials to upgrade their homes rather than bulldozing them for modern builds, retaining a lot of the unique character.
We board Scallywag Dive’s boat. A compact speed boat designed to take divers and snorkelers to the outer islands in quick time. Divemaster Caroline Scott has fallen in love with Flores and her enthusiasm is infectious.
Caroline will dive today with the boss, Nigel, Chloe, and traveling partner Tibo. Chloe and Tibo haven’t had a dive for a couple of years so they enjoy a refresher and a run through the equipment before we moor off Seraya Island, home to two beautiful boutique resorts.
While the divers head down, we get off and order coffee and beers at The Seraya Resort overlooking the bay. With a mix of tents and private suites, The Seraya puts a soft footprint on this island and the bamboo restaurant on the hill has a lovely menu. A second resort, Sudamala, is located on the neighbouring beach.
Post dive, we set off for Le Pirate where we’ll snorkel along the beachfront while the divers take another turn exploring the deeper water.
The snorkelling is stunning, like swimming in an aquarium with incredible fish and beautiful coral. We spot a turtle and follow it for a while before heading to the beach club for drinks and lunch. Le Pirate’s beach club is a popular stop out here with a lively sand bar and a pretty restaurant. Glamping tents are built along the shore and today they have a full house as well as more day-trippers than we expected to see. The music is good, the beers are cold and the burgers are very welcome after being on the water for a few hours.
A bunch of happy, and slightly tipsy, campers we head back to the harbour and enjoy an early home-cooked dinner at the villa before turning in. Tomorrow is an early start.
Diving deep beneath the clear waters of Komodo National Park
DAY 3 – We’re off to see the dragons, see the pink beach, swim with turtles, and enjoy a gourmet barbecue.
The Komodo National Park comprises a coastal section of Western Flores, the three larger islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca, 26 smaller islands and the surrounding waters of the Sape Straights. The islands of the national park are of volcanic origin. The terrain is generally rugged, characterised by rounded hills, with altitudes up to 735 m. The climate is one of the driest of Indonesia with annual rainfall between 800mm and 1000mm. Daily temperatures in the dry season from May to October can be as high as 40 °C. (source: Wikipedia)
We set off early today to make sure we’ve got time to include the hotspots in the Komodo National park, including Komodo (Rinca is also being totally transformed for cruise ship passengers and day trippers), and Padar island, home to the famous pink beach.
Komodo island and neighbouring Rinca are home to the dragons, and it’s kind of a must stop, although all of us have done it at least once before. We opt for the short walk and to be honest, it’s a little underwhelming. A new cruise ship dock and amphitheatre are being built at Rinca Island and it promises to be a bigger and better attraction than what we’ve seen (although there’s definite division on whether this Disneyland-style construction is a good or a bad thing).
Once we’ve had the obligatory dragon photo, we head for our next stop, Pink Beach. There are actually two, both are located on Padar island and normally they are dense with tourists. Visiting now (during COVID-19) means we almost have it to ourselves so after a swim in the pristine water, we enjoy a delicious lunch on board the compact yet very stylish and comfortable Segara Buana. Although we had hoped to be on the bigger boat, Mischief, a live-aboard Phinisi with a stylish upgrade, it’s currently out of the water.
The modern catamaran that we’re on instead is perfect for 8-10 guests and is well equipped with sound system, fridges, and has one small cabin. Lunch is an elaborate sushi spread from Happy Banana. On boarding this morning we were very happy to find two of our favourite chefs had arrived to give us a taste of the gourmet catering. Ben Cross from Mason in Canggu, and Executive Chef Stephen Moore worked together at KuDeTa for years and are great friends. This is Steve’s gig as he is chef for Mischief and Ben has tagged along for the ride. They are planning a beach barbecue later this afternoon so the sushi is more than enough to get us through, and it’s good.
Chef Steve lays out an impressive sushi lunch. After lunch we have another stop, it’s called Turtle Town, and before we’re even in the water you can see the turtles swimming beneath the boat and popping their heads up. Underwater it’s incredible, full of giant turtles that swim up towards you and are totally at ease with us being in their territory. After years of being in Bali, multiple trips to Lombok and a week in Raja Ampat, yesterday was the first turtle I’ve seen up this close.
On this swim we must have seen at least ten giant turtles, it was fantastic. High on the adventures, the incredible beaches we’ve seen and speeding over turquoise water past arid islands, we get into the cocktails on the way to our final island, close to the mainland, for an incredible beach barbecue. The water where we stop is divine and we all fall in. While the chefs and the staff set up the barbecue, we relax, swap stories and greet Nigel and Jackie who have joined us for dinner.
What’s for dinner? For dinner the chefs have marinated chickens and giant prawns, created some delicious salads and there’s plenty of wine and beer to sustain us. The staff set up tables with hurricane lamps and the scene is very romantic. A brief rain shower passes over but the rest of the evening is still and the moonlight across the water is very romantic. By the time we get back I’m straight to bed, exhausted and a few cocktails over my limit.
Day 4 – Exploring Labuan Bajo and a move to Selini On The Hill.
Our last day and night in Labuan Bajo is a land day and it’s our chance to really explore Labuan Bajo. For all the dust, construction and never-ending noise, punctuated by the melodic chanting from the surrounding mosques, it’s easy to see the proposed changes to the village taking shape.
We move to Selini On The Hill, run by long time Bali resident Marilena Vlataki, who made the move to Flores 13 years ago and bought this piece of land on the hill overlooking the village and the port. It’s a quirky and pretty resort made up of a tumble of private villas scattered across the hill. Greek Marilena has put her personal touch on the each of the villas, many named after famed Greek islands with more than a touch of her homeland. Each has a wide veranda with a staggeringly beautiful view over the village and out to the islands.
After settling in to our villas and enjoying a catch up with Marilena, who I have known for many years, we take some time to chill out before we head down to the village.
The chanting from the mosque interrupts my siesta, I have been warned and strangely the sound is quite magical, the sound systems here are much better than many I have heard. Checking my phone I find that Nigel has already ventured out and found a little hostel with cold beer. I head down and join him.
Our sunset destination is the new Inaya Resort Komodo, where we meet the GM, Michele. It’s not the first 5-star in Bajo, there is an Ayana Resort on the bay and on the other side of the village is Plataran, where many of the Government ministers and their staff stayed previously. They are all patronising Inaya now.
We sit on the rooftop terrace and enjoy cocktails while we survey where the new yacht club will replace the current commercial port. The surrounding land will be reclaimed from the sea and planted with gardens and the tree-lined walk ways that will feature throughout the village.
While the local character is slowly being replaced, the truth is its ramshackle and messy. The new jetty with a floating pool at the end and berths for modern yachts does sound very sexy, and The Inaya overlooks it all. The complex will be interconnected with cafes and shops lining the street front.
After watching the stunning sunset and doing a quick tour of the rooms, we head out for dinner. Marilena has booked us into Made In Italy, generally considered the best restaurant in the town, we enjoyed the food while the hospitality was a little cool and the prices rivalled Bali’s best, so we ate simply and headed back to Selini for an early night.
I was awakened by the call to prayer by 4am, but again I had been expecting it and quickly drifted back off to sleep
Day 5 – Time to go
I’m an early riser and thankfully found the security guy, Gusti, wandering past my villa as the sun started to rise over the bay. He graciously delivered a pot of Flores coffee and I sat on the veranda and watched the village below come to life.
Nigel was staying an extra day to explore Sababi Island, the site of a proposed resort with Jools from Asia Land and Sea, our host yesterday on the boat that had taken us out on our fabulous trip to Komodo. I was envious, I won’t lie, but we’d had such a fabulous trip I couldn’t complain. Thoughts of buying up and moving to Flores flitted through my mind once again, it’s very seductive.
Marilena joins me for a quick coffee and laughs at my suggestion, she’s seen so many come and go over the years, but there is a real sense that things are changing here and the future looks so different from the past. I get over it and pack.
Chloe, Tibo and I head off to the airport, literally minutes away. The flight takes us once again over floating islands and the stunning turquoise water below, a magical landscape filled with myths and legends and stories yet to be told.
My impression is that finally, Indonesia is getting it right. Putting in the investment and the infrastructure, supporting the local population to upgrade their lives and approving sustainable projects, will put this destination on the world map.
The beauty of the Komodo Islands is a natural paradise, and creating a world class base to explore it from is a signal to the world that Indonesia is more than just Bali and they are now taking a more sophisticated approach to planning and sustainability. The Komodo Islands deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list. It is inspiring and awesome and truly beautiful.
Characters we met
The Greek mother of 3, married to her Balinese husband, decamped to Labuan Bajo on the edge of the Komodo National Park and decided to build here. “Everyone told me I was crazy. Ten years ago this place was very backward but I could see the potential even then.” Currently she overlooks the town of Labuan Bajo and the port, a ramshackle collection of Favela-like buildings with rust roofs and a commercial port. Look left and the bay view is gorgeous, look right and it’s a mess. Marilena also owns a live aboard Phinisi with 5 cabins which is chartered for day trips and longer stays.
His traditional phinisi boat, Mischief, is a luxurious live aboard, perfect for exploring the islands and it also makes the voyage to Raja Ampat, another beautifully preserved national park in Indonesia’s fascinating archipelago.