Arriving on Flores, I have one of those perfect travel moments: when you know that this is exactly where you need to be right now; that this destination has called you to it.
I’ve just put my bags down at our Airbnb pad in the diving town of Labuan Bajo on the west coast of Flores, one of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, when I show our host a photo of a flawless splice of an island that I’d snapped from the plane window on our flight in.
He chuckles and shakes his head. ‘‘That’s Seraya Kecil. I’ve just started building a boutique hotel on it.’’ Not only that, he also knows the Greek family that is opening a hotel next to his in just a few days.
What are the chances? A couple of phone calls later and it’s done. In two nights we’ll be sleeping on that slice of heaven that had seemed like no more than a mirage from above, in a hotel that no one will have stayed in before.
But first we have some island hopping to do. We’ve booked an overnight boat trip through Indonesian operator Perama Tours to take us to see Flores’ terrifying komodo dragons, and to explore this enchanted place that doesn’t appear on the average Australian holidaymaker’s mental world-map, despite being just an 80-minute flight from Bali.
After breakfast the next morning we set off, walking down to the port and onto our wooden boat. We’re greeted by our three crew members, only one of whom can speak (broken) English.
As we set sail, my husband and I scramble up the ladder to the top deck where we laze about on a couple of single mattresses, mesmerised by the sun-speckled water and great rumpled cushions of land sliding by us.
Our first stop is Rinca Island, one of the three main islands of Komodo National Park, where the dragons have a haven from humans. It’s smaller than Komodo Island but we’d heard the landscape is prettier and it’s less crowded. Indeed, we see only four other travellers the whole time we’re there.
We pay our national park fees (about $50 for two) and meet guide Boni, who has been taking travellers around the island for six years. Barely 10 metres into the walk we spot five dragons lying in the shade beneath the kitchen. Hearts pounding, we sidle cautiously behind the two-metre giants, the largest species of lizard in the world. Boni tells us the dragons have lived on the Komodo Islands for millions of years, and that they have more than 50 strains of bacteria in their saliva: within 24 hours of being bitten, their prey usually dies of blood poisoning.
Boni tells us there’s a stable population of about 2000 dragons on this island. I don’t doubt it. For the rest of our 90-minute walk through the jungle paths we see only one more, a stunning female rushing away from us with her bowed legs and thick, muscular tail swishing through the dirt, yet I can feel the dragons’ presence all around me – a rustle of leaves, the faintest swooshing sound.
I imagine them peering out at us from the bushes, sniffing the air with their rounded snouts, judging the best time to attack. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Either way, I can’t say I’m devastated to have to head back to the boat. Especially when there’s grilled fish, fried noodles and half moons of cold watermelon awaiting us on board.
When we’re done feasting, we flop back onto the deck and bask in the afternoon sunshine as we roll gently over waves that eventually lull us to sleep.
By the time we wake it’s almost sunset, and thousands of flying foxes are rushing and chattering overhead. We’re off the coast of Kalong Island (or Fruit Bat Island), where, as the sky turns from yellow to orange, from pink to lavender, the bats leave their home in the mangrove forests in search of fruit.
It’s terribly romantic. At least it is until the other seven boats arrive and two of them start pumping techno music out into the night. Luckily, we’re exhausted by the day’s adventures and escape the alfresco disco by heading to bed in our little bunk cabin at 8.30pm.
We’re up at sunrise the next morning and, after a breakfast of toast, tea and deep-fried bananas, we putter off to Pink Beach, which isn’t nearly as pink as in the pictures we’d seen on Google. Still, we have a terrific time snorkelling over the healthy red coral reef (which is what turns the sand pink) and exploring the beach.
Soon we’re back on the boat, puttering around in the salty breeze. Suddenly, one of the crew crouches, points urgently into the sea and mimics doing breaststroke, so we don our flippers and snorkels and splash in.
That’s when we see a huge, ominously dark shape moving towards us. Three of them, actually. Wait, five! I clutch my husband’s swim shorts in terror for the few moments it takes me to realise we must have arrived at Manta Point, an endangered manta ray hot spot, where the huge, playful creatures flap about by the dozen. Once over my panic, I’m able to enjoy their otherworldly beauty as they glide around below us. It’s an awe-inspiring experience, especially given the lack of other tourists around.
After a long snorkel around Kanawa Island, where schools of tiny silver fish waft around us in iridescent clouds, parrotfish in psychedelic colours nibble at blooms of coral and huge orange starfish sucker onto the ocean floor, it’s time to head to our mirage.
Our arrival on Seraya Island couldn’t get more idyllic. We walk down a jetty suspended above a coral reef then across a stretch of white sand to the seashell- encrusted check-in desk. We’re greeted by Rosi, the beautiful Greek girl whose family has built this resort. She leads us past the pool and over to one of 15 upmarket wooden beach bungalows with palm-thatched roofs.
Our whitewashed room smells like frangipanis but we stay in it only long enough to throw on our cozzies and float over to the beachfront saltwater pool, where within minutes a glass of chilled local rose materialises (there is a more-than-decent Indonesian rose they serve called Plaga Rose).
We stay just like that – sipping, swimming, slowing down and soaking up the island’s natural beauty and simplicity – until it’s time to watch the sunset.
Seraya Hotel is set between the sea and a giant wall of curving 40-metre cliffs, which we climb to get a 360-degree view of the ocean, the neighbouring islands and that huge orange ball as it drops into the sea. We practically swoon at the romantic vista.
Seraya Hotel offers half- and full-board packages and our Grecian-inspired dinner – a tomato-based spicy seafood soup followed by lemon and herb flash-fried mahi mahi with hand-cut chips and salad and a tasty Greek dessert called lokma, a kind of melt-in- your-mouth doughnut – does not disappoint. We eat in their seaside dining room, which is decorated using the island’s natural resources (think lanterns crafted from driftwood, a bar made from an old wooden boat, chunks of coral and hand-painted palm leaf decorations), accompanied by tasteful chill-out music to complete the dreamy tropical idyll.
A postprandial skinny dip in the warm-as-a-bath ocean would have been marvellous, or perhaps a midnight stroll along the island, which is just 1.7 kilometres long and 200 metres wide.
Alas, we simply cannot resist the call of our king-size bed, swaddled in mosquito net, and the sound of the waves rushing up against the sand just metres from our open doors lulls us to sleep.
The day is our last in Flores and we spend it enjoying what this Indonesian paradise does best. The flamingo sunrise, the balmy climate, the remarkable snorkelling (Seraya Hotel provides the gear), those perfect crescents of sand. On our 30-minute journey back to the mainland on the hotel’s blue wooden boat, we trail our hands in the indigo waters and wonder why more Australians don’t know about this gorgeous island. We decide it must really be a mirage – somewhere the rest of the world sees only, if at all, out of the corner of its eye.
The writer flew to Flores courtesy of Garuda and paid for her own accommodation and tour.
Seraya Island Hotel and Resort offers rooms from $150 a person a day, on a half-board basis including boat transfers from Labuan Bajo. See serayahotel.com.
More information: see florestourism.com.
FIVE FLORES EXPERIENCES
1 HOP IN THE HOT SPRINGS
Encircled by jungle and consisting of just two rows of traditional thatched-roof houses and a pair of shrines representing the local Ngada clan’s ancestors, Bena Village is where it’s at for a taste of life as untouched by the modern world. Hike from here to the magical Malanage Hot Springs.
2 EXPLORE THE CAVES
Just 15 minutes’ drive from Labuan Bajo you’ll find Batu Cermin Cave, filled with stalactites, stalagmites, glittering crystals, tiny bats… and if you’re unlucky, bat-eating spiders and deadly snakes. Visit at the right time of day and light will stream through a gap in the rocks and cause the walls to glisten like mirrors.
3 HIKE TO A CRATER LAKE
Hike up Mount Kelimutu at dawn to see the sun rise over its stunning tri-coloured crater lakes, the colours of which vary from green to blue to red depending on the mineral content of the water.
4 WEAVE SOME MAGIC
Flores is famous for its traditional ikat weavings, with each area specialising in its own distinctive motifs, patterns and colours. Aficionados head to Ende on the southern coast of Flores, celebrated for its red and brown Lionese ikat weaving which is sold to collectors all over the world.
5 TAKE A DIVE
Komodo National Park is one of the most diverse marine habitats on earth, with more than 1000 species of fish, 385 species of reef-building corals, 10 species of dolphins and much more, attracting scuba fanatics from all over the world. Maumere Bay in East Flores is another fantastic, and much less crowded, diving area.