THE ARENUI - BIMA TO LABUANBAJO
Our first trip to Indonesia in 2001 was mainly for island exploration (Bali, Java, Sulawesi, Moyo) with about a week of diving. This time, we went mainly to dive and also spent about a week on land. After 24 hours in transit, starting with an 18 hour flight to Singapore, we spent relaxing time on Bali before flying to Bima to board the Arenui, a liveaboard dive boat, for a 12 day excursion that took us from Sumbawa to Labuanbajo, Flores. The Arenui is a modern interpretation of a traditional Indonesian sailing phinisi, accommodating 16 divers in 8 attractive cabins outfitted with local carvings, textiles and artwork. Our cabin, named Rama after the hero of the Ramayana epic, was located on the middle deck on the port side in the stern. It had 8 large windows, a fairly spacious bathroom, large comfy bed and a tiny balcony overlooking the deck where the crew staged the equipment. No diving was offered on the first or last days, but you can take 3 day dives and one night dive the rest of the time, and most days we took advantage of these opportunities, skipping only one day and one night dive. The water ranged from chilly to really cold, but most of the time our 5mm wetsuits provided adequate insulation supplemented by hoods and gloves. The divers were split into 4 groups of 4 each guided by a divemaster (Debbie, Wawan, Ronald and Mick).
Our first dives were muck dives in Bima Bay at a site aptly named “The Usual Suspects”, a veritable who’s who of bizarre critters. We had the great fortune to spot the rare Wonderpus (a small octopus with long spindly legs) as well as Pegasus seamoths, adorable big-eyed squid, purplish coconut octopi, flying gurnards, a teensy octopus sheltered in a small white clamshell, a variety of nudibranches (colorful shell-less sea snails) and much more. One of my favorite muck sites in both day and night was Torpedo Alley near Rinca, where a baby white cuttlefish inked us in fear, and we spotted a wide array of creatures including sea horses, hairy orangutan crabs, mantis shrimp, snake eels, robust ghost pipefish, flatheads, a stargazer, torpedo rays, decorator crabs, sole, nudibranches, Ambon scorpionfishes, Forskal’s pleurobranch, cuttlefish and a clear sundial.
In most of the non-muck sites, the coral was lush and plentiful and there were large schools of colorful tropical fishes and occasionally barracuda. It was not uncommon to dive alongside huge swarms of fusiliers. One of most thrilling dive sites was Talat Makassar, where we rode ripping currents for the privilege of diving with majestic manta rays. We dove there four times, one was a wash, but on the other three we came heartpoundingly close to many mantas. On one dive we also viewed a spotted eagle ray, cousin to the manta, in the distance.
At a site named “The Boulders” we discovered the holy grail for divers, Rhinopias, aka the lacy scorpionfish, this one a regal purple. We only ever saw one before, in Papua New Guinea, so this was a very special treat.
A catalogue of other finds included 2 glamorous Spanish Dancer nudibranches during a night dive along with frilly clusters of their surprisingly lovely fuchsia eggs , shy garden eels poking out of their holes, Goliath and smaller groupers, green and hawksbill turtles, crocodilefish, spiny lobsters, microscopic pygmy seahorses, flamboyant sea apples, giant frogfish – both black and gray, whitetip sharks, bamboo sharks, monumental Napoleon Wrasses, a zebra crab in a fire urchin, longnose hawkfish, sci-fi huge sea cucumbers, cool rays, blue-spotted rays, batfishes – including juveniles with their dramatic fins edged in orange, ubiquitous clownfishes in anemones, skittish blennies, a Titan triggerfish snatching a blue starfish, hermit crabs, many varieties of pufferfish, angelfishes, scorpionfishes, sweetlips, bubble coral shrimp, boxfishes, a baby white red-headed parrotfish, long segmented worms, the extraterrestrial-looking Mary Jane’s worms, an Indian walkman, starfishes, lionfishes, arrow crabs, hairy crabs, many types of shrimp and moray eels.
On our last night dive at Wai Nilo, another great muck site, our lights attracted sardine-sized silverside fish who attacked us relentlessly. We’ve never experienced a fish attack before, and it was disconcerting. Luckily they didn’t cause any injury, but we were grateful for all of our neoprene protection. The upside of the fish frenzy was that other critters hunted the silversides and we witnessed both a cuttlefish and a flying gurnard snatch and eat them. On that dive we also spotted a devil stinger, flatworm, nudibranches, a rare and possibly new moray species with small horns on its forehead (the horny eel?), a starry night octopus, flatheads, eels and more shrimps and crabs than we can name.
We were a bit disappointed to find so few sharks, and those that we saw were somewhat petite, but everything else more than compensated for it.
When we weren’t diving, food was plentiful and tasty, and we lapsed into Hobbit mode, with first and second breakfasts (pre and post dive) and savory between-meal snacks. Lunches were usually buffet, though we received menus to select our meals for second breakfast and dinner, which were served to us. The crew could not have been kinder or more helpful, particularly the gracious stewards, Anto and Putu, and Yusuf our favorite tender driver. The divemasters were geniuses at finding the coolest stuff day or night. We also greatly enjoyed the company of our congenial fellow divers, all who happened to be from the USA or Canada. Most meals were served in the indoor dining room, though on mild nights when we were moored in harbor, we were treated to al fresco dinners on the upper deck. On the last night while docked in Labuanbajo harbor, dinner on deck was followed by a hilarious song and dance show performed by the crew. We were also entitled to a free 30 minute massage in the open air salon on the upper deck, but we never got around to scheduling one.
We boarded motorized tenders for every dive, entering the water via backwards roll. In addition to diving, we took the tenders to a beach where four Komodo dragons were prowling, their forked tongues flicking while they walked. A wary buck with an impressive rack of antlers and a troupe of long-tailed macaques kept their distance from the intimidating reptiles. One evening we landed on the island of Padar and took an easy hike to the top of a hill to enjoy the vista and sunset. On the ride back to the boat after a fabulous night dive, we witnessed a breathtaking rise of the full moon, low in the sky and glowing in vivid orange, perhaps reflecting the dying rays of the setting sun.
On the last day, we visited Loh Buaya on Rinca Island to see the dragons on land. Joined by 3 young rangers armed with forked sticks for protection, we hiked the long loop trail, which took us over rugged terrain, up to a scenic lookout point and back to the ranger station. If a Komodo dragon were to come too close, the stick is used to pin down the neck of the dragon to prevent it from attacking. Fortunately, the sticks weren’t used. Within minutes we came upon a large male who had consumed a wild boar and was thrashing about while struggling to swallow the head whole. We were fortunate to spot young dragons, females, and more males, numbering 10 in all. As we sat near a waterhole watching a male resting under a tree, a water buffalo approached, drinking from the pool. We waited expectantly for some action; however, the dragon kept his eye on the buffalo, but never made his move.
Komodo dragons are the largest of the monitor lizard family, with males able to grow to 9-10 feet (about 3 meters) and weigh up to 70 kg. They inhabit only a few islands in the Indonesian archipelago, including Komodo and Rinca. Dragons mate in September and the eggs incubate about 7-8 months, so they usually only reproduce once per year. Females dig a hole for the nest to protect the eggs from predators, including other dragons, macaques, boars and eagles, who will eat the eggs and the baby dragons. Survival of the egg depends upon the temperature and other environmental conditions. Baby dragons are granted no protection from their parents after birth and climb trees to hide until they’re large enough to protect themselves. Komodo dragons are carnivores and usually scavengers, though they will attack and kill prey. They can swim as well as sprint fairly quickly on land, so it’s a good thing that they’re generally not that interested in attacking humans, though caution is warranted.
After the dive cruise, we were delivered to the Jayakarta Suites Hotel in Labuanbajo and after checking in and unpacking, our guide, Vincent, came to take us back to the harbor where we boarded a boat for a day tour. We started out at an island for snorkeling but we hadn’t brought our fins because we expected equipment to be supplied, and there was a brisk current, so we decided to only swim a bit. Unfortunately several other boats also came for the snorkeling, so it wasn’t a very peaceful experience. The crew served us a delicious feast on the boat that included chicken, eggplant, spinach, tofu, mixed vegetables and white rice.
From there we motored to Rinca Village, an impoverished Muslim fishermen’s village. It was a bit scary walking on the dock to the shore since many of the planks were rotting, missing, loose or full of man-size holes. The corrugated tin shacks were powered by solar energy but we still saw huge satellite dishes cropping up around the town. We went to the ranger’s office and met our ranger guide, a gregarious, warm man who insisted that we call him Uncle Louie. We climbed a steep hill for about 1.5 km to visit a cave populated by legions of bats, clinging to the ceiling and occasionally swooping closer. From there, we walked around town to chat with people, stopping by the junior high school to meet the students and distribute pens and pencils that we’d brought from home. They were studying English when we arrived.
From Rinca Village we took the boat to Kalong Island and cooled off with a refreshing swim off the beach. The crewmen fished for small wrasses while we relaxed in the water. We waited on the boat for sunset when thousands of large bats fly from Kalong to Flores to hunt. The sunset was glorious with the sky stained red for more than 45 minutes and the bats silhouetted across the sky. The ride back to Labuanbajo was pleasant under a sky brilliant with stars. We were very pleased to run into Anto on the dock when we disembarked, on evening leave from the Arenui while they prepare for the next voyage.
The Jayakarta Suites is an attractive hotel, and a good value, with a well tended garden and large, clean and attractive rooms right on the shore about 15 minutes from the heart of Labuanbajo. We enjoyed delicious traditional dishes, grilled fish and Nasi Goreng (a traditional Indonesian rice dish) at the hotel restaurant for dinner rather than head back into town.
In the morning the hotel offered a very good buffet breakfast with both Western and Indonesian choices. Vincent and a driver took us to Mirror Cave, where a local guide led us inside, equipped with yellow plastic hardhats, a necessity when squeezing through low and narrow passages in the cave. There were fanciful stalactites and stalagmites and a small cluster of really cute, mouse-sized bats. We went from the cave to the airport and waited an interminable amount of time for our flight back to Bali, which was quite late.
We had spent a good deal of time exploring Bali during our first visit to Indonesia in 2001, so this time, we mainly wanted to recuperate from the flight over and acclimate to the time zone before diving. We couldn’t have picked a better place for this. I had discovered Sungai, which is located in the rustic village of Cepaka, named for a fragrant local flower, northwest of Denpasar and Seminyak. There is Villa Sungai, for larger groups, with 3 King-size bedrooms and a day lounging pavilion, or bale, which could be converted to another bedroom, and Sungai Gold, with 2 King-sized bedrooms with oversized bathrooms and a day lounging pavilion with a smaller bathroom. Since we were a couple, our second bedroom was converted into a serene spa room, where I enjoyed a 90 minute Thai massage that is included in the rate. You can order from a menu of spa services if you wish to really indulge. Although there is a common entrance to the property, the villas are separated so that you have complete privacy, and we never saw or heard the occupants of the main villa during our stay.
Sungai means river, and Sungai Gold overlooks a lush landscape sloping down to a narrow river. The rooms before-mentioned, plus an open-air dining bale, surround a courtyard with a full-length infinity pool. The master bathroom is enormous with dual vanities, a couples-size bathtub (filled with water and flower petals on our first night) and garden shower with dual showerheads. The intoxicating scent of frangipani further enhanced our sensory pleasure. The villa is decorated in Balinese style, every feature tasteful, comfortable and functional, including modern amenities such as iPod stations in the bedrooms and lounging bale and fast WiFi. I could spend pages describing the elegance and beauty of the villa and surroundings, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so check out the photo gallery on our site and Sungai’s own website.
Airport pickup and drop off are included in the cost and for a nominal additional fee you can arrange for “VIP airport service”. We took advantage of it upon arrival and it was worth every ringgit. A representative met us outside the arrival gate, took our passports and forms, and then arranged the visas, immigration and customs without requiring us to stand in any queues. We got some local cash at an ATM while waiting and it didn’t take much longer than that for him to complete the process. By the time he was finished, our luggage was delivered (we had to check bags uncharacteristically due to our dive gear) and we were in the car making our way to Sungai within about 15-20 minutes. A car and driver are at your disposal during your stay, and all you pay for is fuel for the longer excursions.
Also included in the rate are excellent breakfasts, snacks, and in the evening a choice of two hors d’oeuvres before dinner that you can select from their extensive menu. There’s a wine and cocktail menu to choose from as well. The food was so excellent at the Villa that we didn’t bother eating at any restaurants, although Little Made, the exceptional manager, will arrange reservations and transportation in case you don’t enjoy private dining in a tranquil, romantic setting. During our first dinner, Made had arranged for a 3-man gamelan group to play for us while we dined.
If you eat in house, all you pay for are the ingredients, so it’s an amazing deal, especially given the quality of the food and skill of the chef. There are Asian, Western and Balinese specialties to choose from, and enough variety that we didn’t run out of new dishes to try even eating lunch and dinner there for 5 days. If you visit Bali, assuming you will eat duck, and that the chef is even half as talented as the one at Sungai, if you see Bebek Betutu on the menu, order it. It was a leaf-wrapped whole slow-roasted duck stuffed with Balinese spices, accompanied by crispy fried peanuts, vegetables and sambal. It’s the kind of dish that you’d travel all the way around the world to have again (and don’t think we’re not tempted!). We ate the leftovers for lunch since it was too much to finish during one meal, and it was equally delectable the next day.
What really makes a place special though is the quality of its people, and you cannot find more helpful, delightful and engaging people than those who work at Sungai. No request was too much to ask and they personify the concept of service with a smile. By the time you leave, you feel as if you are more a friend than a guest, though the team is always respectful of your privacy.
Cremation ceremonies in Bali are extremely important because it is only through cremation that the soul is released, and the family spends a great deal to honor the deceased. There was a cremation while we were in Cepaka and we had the opportunity to attend some of the festivities. The villagers gathered for a commemoration and prayer ceremony with music the night that we arrived and the cremation took place the following morning at the edge of an open field where stands were set up with food and flowers, and musicians banged on large brass gongs. One of the local women told us that after the morning activities they will all head to the beach to complete the ceremony by casting an effigy of the deceased into the sea.
We walked to the next village, enjoying the sight of children heading to school in their tidy traditional uniforms that reflect Balinese style with batik shirts replacing the standard white ones. We greeted the shop owners and villagers whom we met on the way. We had an even more enjoyable village visit a couple of days later when Made took us around Cepaka, even bringing us to his lovely home where we met his wife and young son, Putu. Since most Balinese are Hindu every home in Bali features a temple for private worship that can trumpet the status of the owners, with quite elaborate ones in the homes of the more affluent families. There are three worship areas in each temple to honor Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Made’s temple was large and handsome, with exquisite wood carvings, mosaic floors and stonework. A banner in front of his house announced the schedule for English classes. Made teaches English classes twice a week in his home to help his community.
We started the day with a 6:30 am visit to the local market, where locals buy food and housewares. For working women, too busy to cook or to make the eye-pleasing food and flower offerings that Balinese leave everywhere with their daily prayers, there are prepared sauces and pre-packaged offerings, as well as all of the ingredients required to make your own. In addition to a variety of brightly colored sweets, we found apples, long beans, jackfruit, cabbage, papaya, sweet potatoes, cooking and sticky rice, chilies, flowers, spices and the snakeskin fruit also known as salak.
We returned to Sungai Gold for breakfast and then headed off to visit the kindergarten in a strong but mercifully brief burst of rain. The classroom held 36 children, who regaled us with a song about the features of the school. When we arrived the children were learning about cleanliness and the environment, and they also study reading, writing and counting. We handed out pencils, which many of the students immediately stashed in their pencil boxes, and gave a large box of pens to the teacher, who planned to distribute them to the older students.
We passed a priest with a white headdress and Made informed us that the distinctive colorful headdress that most Balinese men wear is called a destar. All white ones are worn only by priests, while males wear ones that are predominantly white when visiting their temple and wear multi-colored destar in different styles depending upon the occasion. Traditional Balinese do not have surnames; families are identified by the temple with which they are affiliated. First names, which can be the same for males and females, are based upon one’s caste and birth order. For example, in the most widespread caste, Wayan or Putu is first born and Made denotes second born, so we met many Balinese with these names.
We spent most of our time relaxing in the villa, however we did venture out a few times. One day we took a day tour up north to Lovina with a young man named Putu, who drove and guided us. Putu war born in Cepaka and had spent a couple of years working on cruise ships before returning to work at Sungai. He pointed out his home on the main street and his family’s home temple is large and elegant. We enjoyed a lovely scenic drive passing verdant rice terraces, volcanic mountains and crystalline lakes. We stopped to admire clove trees with their white flowers and cruciform seeds, and parked overlooking three lakes, Tamblingan, Buyan and Beratan, before visiting Pura Ulun Danu Beretan, a temple dedicated to an agricultural deity. The Meru – a tiered tower with sugar palm thatched roofs – is a shrine to the higher deities, and the number of roofs (always an odd number) depends upon the status of the deity. This temple is widely visited by worshippers as well as a popular site for tourists due to its prime location on the lake. The 11-tiered Meru sits on a pavilion floating on the lake surrounded by brilliantly painted dragons. The temple complex is extensive with a playground for children, boats for rent and many handsomely adorned buildings and religious statues. A French couple had dressed their cute little girl amusingly in a red silk brocade cheongsam for their visit.
After admiring the serenity of the temple, we continued north to Lovina, on the north coast. It was a larger town than we expected, but we found a quiet spot beneath a tree at water’s edge overlooking a small fleet of multicolored outrigger fishing boats to consume the packed lunch we’d brought from Sungai. On our drive back south cheeky macaques with white beards and moustaches lounged on the side of the road, trying to cadge treats from passersby. We stopped at GitGit Waterfalls and joined a local guide to visit 2 of the 3 falls. It’s easy to do it yourself because it’s an easy walk on well maintained boardwalks, but we were happy for the additional guidance and the guide didn’t cost much. There’s a pair of falls in a tall cave as well as a higher single waterfall a short distance beyond the twins, ensconced in a sensual landscape perfumed by coffee, vanilla, clove and cacao bushes and trees.
One evening we ventured out in the late afternoon to see the sunset at Tanah Lot, a picturesque temple on a beach not far from Cepaka. Hordes of people visit the temple at sunset, so Made arranged for us to have drinks at the Pan Pacific, which has a sleek bar overlooking the temple grounds. We enjoyed some yummy snacks and drinks along with the sunset before heading back to the villa for dinner.
When we returned to Bali after our diving expedition, we stayed at the Jimbaran Puri Bali which is located on a lovely white sand beach at Jimbaran Bay. We chose this location due to its quiet setting and proximity to the airport. It’s a lovely, luxurious hotel, though in our view it could not match the experience we had at Sungai Gold. I had received some spa credits with our booking, and I took full advantage, scheduling a desperately needed mani-pedi and a Thai massage to work out the kinks. We also went a little crazy and booked a romantic dinner on the beach in a private bale. They picked us up at our villa in a golf cart to take us to the beach where our server showered us with flower petals as we entered the bale, before giving us a traditional Balinese blessing. Then he led us to two exceedingly comfy beanbag chairs facing the sea, where we were served champagne and canapés. When dinner was ready, we retired to our beach bale lit by about a zillion candles and open on the ocean side for the view, and enjoyed a delicious multi-course dinner with music. An abnormally portly bullfrog hopped around under the table for awhile adding some comic relief.
Breakfasts at the Jimbaran consisted of a mouthwatering buffet with just about anything you might possibly want including cooked dishes, further enhanced by a nearby lotus pond teeming with small fry. We hugely enjoyed watching a stately Java Pond Heron hunt the fish, savoring his breakfast as much as we did ours. We spent most of our time enjoying our pool and reading.
Due to our flight schedule, we had an overnight stay in Singapore before the 18 hour flight home, so we decided to take advantage of it to dine at Jaan. I had been there once a few years ago and wanted Stu to experience it. We stayed at the Raffles Hotel, due to its storied history and great location. It’s highly atmospheric, but at those prices, you can get much better value and facilities at some of the more modern hotels. However, the concierge did secure our dinner reservation at Jann, which was indisputably the highlight of our stay. Situated on the 70th floor of the Swisshotel‘s Stamford Tower, it was one of the finest dining experiences we’ve ever had, even improved from my first visit. Expect your ears to pop on the elevator ride. The room is smart and full of glitter without being at all tacky, but it’s the views that knock your socks completely off if you happen to be wearing any. I just managed to keep my pantyhose on. We had probably the best table in the room by the window with panoramic views of the harbor. Service was gracious and flawless. The wine list is exceptional and at corresponding prices. We chose the 7 course tasting menu to try as many dishes as possible and there wasn’t a course that didn’t deliver an extravaganza for our taste buds. Chef Julien Royer even came out to present the wagyu beef. We left satiated but not overstuffed and totally entranced. We could not have chosen a better way to end an extraordinary trip.
SUN. SEP 8 – FRI. SEP 13: SUNGAI GOLD – CEPAKA
www.bali-villasungai.com +62 812-3962-478
WED. SEP 25 – FRI. SEP 27: JIMBARAN PURI BALI BY ORIENT-EXPRESS Jalan Uluwatu, Jimbaran, +62 361 701605 http://www.jimbaranpuribali.com/web/pbal/jimbaran_puri_bali.jsp
FRI. SEP 13 – TUE. SEP 24: KOMODO FOCUS - BIMA TO LABUAN BAJO
www.thearenui.com Siska +62 (813) 28784 512
TUE. SEP 24 – THU. SEP 25 JAYAKARTA SUITES
http://flores.jayakartahotelsresorts.com/ +62 (0) 385 244 3688
2 DAYS KALONG ISLAND TOUR (24-25SEP)
DAY 01: LABUAN BAJO – RINCA VILLAGE – KALONG ISLAND - LABUANBAJO
DAY 02: MIRROR CAVE – LABUANBAJO
FRI. SEP 27 – SAT SEP 28 RAFFLES 1 Beach Rd.
http://www.raffles.com/singapore/ +65 6337 1886
Jaan Swisshotel 2 Stamford Road ▪ Singapore +65 6338 8585