The charming island alternative to Bali

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The charming island alternative to Bali

The majority of tourists to Indonesia tend to stick to the same classic routes. We all know this, and it is our bread and butter. Although the number of tourists to the country has increased sharply yet we find that most of our guests and about 40% of total arrivals land on Bali, the ‘Island of the Gods’ – a percentage that has not changed much over the years.

But this does not mean that things are not changing or developing. Bali is still a standalone destination for most visitors. However, as connectivity increases and ‘new’ islands develop we see Bali changing into a convenient hub from where you can fly in and out, stay a couple of days or longer and then continue to discover some of the other destinations Indonesia has to offer.

Welcome to Komodo!

Many of these places are still in — what I would call — a sweet spot, not yet a focus of mass tourism (or the new buzz word ‘over-tourism’) but already offering good flight connectivity, basic infrastructure and some standout accommodation.

One of the most charming of these places is Flores and the surrounding area. The island, around three times the size of Bali, was first put on the map by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the 16th century. They gave the island its name and left quite a mark on the island. It is not difficult to spot Portuguese ancestry in the local population and the biggest heritage the Portuguese left behind, which is a connecting link between the different ethnic groups of Flores, is Catholicism. Churches are full on Sundays and the Easter processions in the eastern city of Larantuka are legendary and fascinating to watch.

The blend of ancient local costumes and culture with Catholicism make up a curious mix, and is a big draw for a visit. This is topped off with superb landscapes, an incredible underwater world and the largest living lizards anywhere. These should convince you to hop on the next plane from Bali (or Jakarta) to see them for yourself.

The first time I visited Flores was in 1999 when I travelled overland from Maumere in the eastern part of the island all the way up to Medan in Sumatra. It was quite a trip of approximately 4,500 kilometres on dodgy buses, slow trains and huge boats overloaded with refugees who escaped the terrors of a religious war on the Maluku islands (further east), which broke out during the transition period to democracy in Indonesia.

On the top of Padar Island during the dry season

Back then my last stop on Flores was the sleepy town of Labuan Bajo, which consisted of no more than a few huts. I certainly did not think that I would open our fourth Asian Trails Indonesia office right there 19 years later. But things are changing fast in Asia once a certain stage of development kicks in.

Labuan Bajo with its adjoining harbour is the entrance to the Komodo National Park, which has quickly rose in popularity for good reasons. The beach area where I spent a couple of days in a bamboo hut for US$10 a day (that included full board) is now owned by one of the nicest boutique resorts in the area – the Plataran Komodo Beach Resort. A marina is currently being built and a Starbucks will open soon (who needs that as there is the fantastic local Arabica Flores coffee – one of the best anywhere).

There is talk of a daily ferry shuttle to the Komodo National Park for masses of mainly Asian tourists while, at the same time, other parties within the government are trying to increase the entrance fees or limit the arrival numbers. Let’s see how all this plays out, but we are clearly only at the beginning of massive investment and development in the coming years.

A game changer and a harbinger of things to come is the newly-opened AYANA Komodo Resort, Labuan Bajo, with over 200 rooms. It is the first of a couple of 5 star properties opening up in coming years in and around Labuan Bajo.

The main attraction and reason for most people visiting Flores are obviously the Komodo dragons, which are endemic to only three islands to the west of Labuan Bajo. It takes about four hours in a speed boat or up to eight hours in a slow boat to get there. A minimum of three days should be enough to visit the basics, and fly in and out. However, we recommend adding more days to get more out of the trip.

The wider Labuan Bajo area makes for a great beach extension, as there are some lovely boutique resorts on the small islands that have the feel of small Greek islands but with a Pacific setting — difficult to describe and you have to be there to experience the unique ambiance.

If the budget permits then go on a cruise. The holiday can hardly get any better – sleep on board and explore the many different savannah-style islands with amazing underwater world full of turtles, manta rays and intact corals.

And for those who truly want to discover places on Flores that are not yet “exposed” by Instagram, “invaded” by hotel chains or Airbnb, or featured in tourism packages I recommend an overland island tour of between five days to a week. Thanks to good air connectivity you can easily start the journey in the east of the island and finish in the west (or vice versa). While the infrastructure around Labuan Bajo is the most developed on the whole island and caters for a wide range of budgets, we work mostly with selected guesthouses in the rest of Flores that make up part of the charm. This tour certainly has the potential of becoming another classic route!

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