By Sarah Dougherty
Situated within a narrow channel between Flores and Sumbawa, Komodo National Park is comprised of three large islands (Komodo, Padar and Rincah) and 26 smaller ones spread over almost 2,000 square kilometres of tranquil blue sea.
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
With a string of successful businesses in Bali including restaurants and boutiques, Marilena felt burned out and her fast lane lifestyle was taking its toll. “ When I came to Flores I needed a change, I was drinking too much, staying up late and enjoying myself a lot but it was getting too much,” she tells me.
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.
MarilenaOwner of Selini On The Hill
He’s famously made and lost fortunes. After setting up the massive Carphone Warehouse in the UK in his ‘20’s, he then set sights on Australia and was part of the set up team for the second largest Telco in the country, Optus. An ill-timed investment saw him lose the lot, and long story short, he ended up in The Komodo Islands where he lived in a fishing village for a year while scoping out land.
Like many who have played the big game, Julian Brownlie (Jools) is riding the second wave and has now partnered with the original team behind Alila Resorts in a new venture called Asia Land and Sea, which will build on land he acquired during his time in the village. Sunset Point, the site for a new Alila Resort, sits on the mainland bordering the national park. With stunning beaches and spectacular views, the property covers almost 20 hectares with much left in its natural state. ‘This is tourism of the future,’ he explains as he describes the design from the deck of his catamaran which takes guests out for day trips and charters.
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.
JulianOwner of Phinisi Boat
A former pipe fitter from Birmingham, Nigel and his Australian wife, Jacky, borrowed to build their first villa in Bali, Anyar Estate in Umalas. With an eye for buying up land in beautiful places, they built the Scallywags brand and opened resorts in Lombok’s Gili islands before buying up part of a future resort island, Sababi, in the Komodo Park. Their Scallywags dive shop and inn is located on the harbour at Labuan Bajo and they have just completed the luxurious Paradise Garage, a 7-bedroom villa on the hill overlooking the bay leading out to the islands.
Developing Sababi Island in the Komodo national Park has been years in the planning and with the upgrades to Labuan Bajo, which includes an international airport, the yacht club and a cruise ship port, the time is right. Julian (see above) also owns land in Sababi, a pristine paradise island surrounded by white sand beaches and coral gardens teaming with beautiful tropical fish, it is one to watch as a future destination in the islands.
Nigel & Jacky AmesOwners of Scallywags
While they have no plans to build an empire, Simone, a former Italian screen star, and his Australian wife, Suma, discovered Labuan Bajo 8 years ago and opened their sushi restaurant In the Main Street of the town. The eclectic restaurant, fashioned from pre-loved furniture has become a fixture in town for their small but delicious selection of sushi.
After travelling the hippy trail for some years, they decided to make their home here. After three years full time they realised they needed more and now divide their time between Labuan Bajo and a home outside of Ubud in Bali.
Good looking and charming, Simone fails to mention his former life as an Italian star but the story is part of LBJ’s modern fables, as well known as his crunchy tuna rolls.
Simone & SumaOwners of Happy Banana
Watch our adventure video below
A Quick Guide to Flores
A stunning 7-bedroom villa with panoramic views, a range of eco features and fabulous facilities
Selini On The Hill
Selini On The Hill is a unique, rustic retreat featuring 10 self-contained villas overlooking the town and the bay islands.
A fully equipped dive boat for day trips to the islands. Perfect for snorkelling and exploring for non-divers as well. Learners can sign up for a dive course and get their certification. Packages are available and budget accommodation is on offer at their dive resort on the harbour. Naturally guests can also trade up and stay at Paradise Garage.
A modern catamaran offering day trips for 8-10 guests, snorkelling gear provided and dive equipment on request. Day trips include numerous stops, gourmet catering and a sunset barbecue for extended trips.
Live Aboard Options
Mischief’s luxurious and contemporary style encourages a relaxing experience in a tasteful surrounds, so guests feel at home from the moment they step aboard. Built from sustainably sourced tropical hardwood, Mischief’s chunky hull supports a large volume that forms the foundations for 3 spacious ensuite guest cabins. A master cabin is located on the upper deck with a private aft facing terrace. Further accommodation can be found on the main deck, where a double and twin cabin are located, each one fitted with its own ensuite bathroom. Mischief’s cabins feature large windows, making the most of spectacular panoramic views. At the heart of the yacht, guests will find an airy dining, bar and lounge area for relaxing indoors.
Kelana, meaning ‘to wander,’ is a modern adaptation of the ancient Phinisi yachts that carried exotic seasonings from Indonesia’s Spice Islands to Europe. With a bohemian aura, Kelana’s natural materials and elegant finishing’s forge a charming ambience to make sure you feel completely at home. With 3 cabins she is the perfect boat for families to connect whilst creating memories of a lifetime.