White sand scrunches under my feet when I alight the boat, on Indonesia’s Gusung Island. It is part of the larger Flores Island where I’m staying at the AYANA Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach.
I first tread a water-washed pathway studded with creepers and low-hanging branches and then descend a wooden ladder to enter Gua Rangko, or Rangko Cave. Inside, stalactites in green, rust and purple ring the roof, and tourists heartily splash around in the cold waters of the natural pool. I instantly regret not taking my swimming lessons seriously, for I had now found myself at the mercy of a life jacket in the 16-foot-deep waterbody. It is, however, in moments of adversity that I’m often compelled to step out of my comfort zone, and this was no different. A few failed attempts later, I shed both, my life jacket and inhibitions, navigating the circumference whilst floating on my back, unfazed by a colony of bats hanging above.
The ancient-looking cave was discovered by locals only a few decades ago and I’m glad I signed up for its exploration—a 30-minute, scenic car ride from AYANA to the fishing village of Rangko, and then another 20 minutes on the ferry, where I was treated to a split-screen view of ominous clouds on one side and bright sunshine on the other.
Flores translates to “flower” in Portuguese, a name given by the island’s 16th-century colonists. I’ve gotten here after an hour-long flight from Indonesia’s booming tourist magnet, Bali. As I’m being driven to the fishing town of Labuan Bajo where AYANA was built last year, my eyes trace the belt of the deep blue Flores Sea running parallel to the serpentine, mountain-slicing highway. The heady scent of the ocean whisked with that of roasted coffee (Indonesia boasts plantations galore) engulfs me and stilt houses blaring old Bollywood numbers come into view. A little while later I see AYANA Komodo Resort, my address for the next three days. It is the only five-star hotel on the secluded Waecicu Beach, and I instantly take to its futuristic architecture, particularly the honeycomb-like balconies and angular edges.
On my first evening, I head to the hotel’s UNIQUE Rooftop Bar, adjacent to the plush 11th-floor lobby entrance. Sipping kemangi mango lychee, a concoction of basil-infused mango syrup, I submit to the intimidating expanse of blue, punctuated with coral beds, yachts, a snaking pier and the conoidal Kukusan Island. As the sea swallows the cinnabar sun, lampposts lining the beachfront Kisik Grill light up, accentuating the sunset drama.
Whether it is the fresh catch at Kisik or the buffet spread at Rinca, food here is an extensive affair. In Rinca, looking out at sparrows dancing on the patio, what I truly relish is the spread of tangerine jam on freshly baked sunflower bread. I also dig into tuna tataki, a Japanese preparation of the fish served alongside a seared duck’s heart. Dark, rubbery and bitter, it tastes like sin. But the real Japanese deal awaits me at HonZEN on the ninth floor.
“You from India?” Agnes, my server quizzes me. I nod. “I love Shah Rukh Khan,” are the next words the 20-year-old blurts out as she motions me to the teppanyaki table, where I’m the sole audience to some Japanese-style cooking. The chef appears soon enough. Armed with cutlery, he tosses spatulas and knives into air, like a magician casting a spell with his wand. Metal tongs clink against the flat iron griddle as slabs of meat sizzle and grill in sauces and vegetables. Unagi—freshwater eel—drizzled with teriyaki sauce is the first dish up. Tender and sticky, it melts like butter in my mouth. A bowl of Japanese fried rice cooked with Wagyu beef follows next. Belly brimming with food, I retreat to my room and doze off, but only after gazing at the sea-inspired ceramic decor pieces lining the whitewashed walls.
Next morning, much to my dismay, I learn that the property’s private speedboat is under maintenance which means I won’t be able to spot Komodo dragons at their only home in Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What good is it to bein the neighbourhood of the largest land reptile if I can’t even spot them? I’m dejected, counting only on my maiden snorkelling lesson as a potential mood elevator.
“Draw a deep breath and jump,” asserts my snorkelling instructor Syl, alias Sylvester Stallone as he calls himself. Adjusting my snorkelling mask, I plunge into the sea from the private diving deck. Led by Syl, I swim past starfish, beautiful schools of fish and colourful coral reefs—some shaped like giant droplets, other like wedding bouquets. The blue waters seem endless, and while snorkelling in these waters what I’ve always known hits me: how there is this whole different world teeming with marine life beneath ours, and I’m grateful to have paid a visit. When my time on this island comes to an end, it feels much like a short-lived summer romance. Exciting, fleeting, filled with warmth.
Flights to Flores Island from India fly regularly with at least one stop in an Indonesian city like Bali or Jakarta, but are subject to last-minute rescheduling or cancellation. Indians don’t need a visa to visit Indonesia. (www.ayana.com/labuan-bajo/ayana-komodo; doubles from $295/Rs21,000.)
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.