Amongst divers, the name Raja Ampat is uttered with reverence. This archipelago of 1,500 islands in northeastern Indonesia is part of the Coral Triangle, which contains some of the richest marine biodiversity worldwide. Which is why, I was anxious when my husband planned for us to spend our honeymoon there. One step away from getting my diving license after a couple of lessons in a Mumbai swimming pool, I was keen to explore the underwater world, but I hoped I wouldn’t be spending all my time under the surface. Turns out there are a surprising number of things to explore in the region, even for those who don’t want to take the plunge. Landlubbers will find a rich culture, warm people, and breathtaking landscapes.
Manado, the largest city in North Sulawesi, just west of Raja Ampat, is an ideal base for travelling to the region’s islands. Although its marine life is much less impressive than those of the surrounding islands, this former Dutch stronghold has plenty to offer visitors. Girdled with purple hills and an impressive coastline, it is charming, if somewhat scruffy around the edges.
Manado has several options for shopping for supplies, eating out, and even a vibrant nightlife dominated by karaoke bars. The food is splendid. Minahasa cuisine is spicy and unlike in the rest of Indonesia, pork is eaten widely in North Sulawesi since its residents are mostly Christian. Feast on babi tore, crisp pork belly, or ragey, barbecued pork on skewers, at simple roadside eateries or at the more upmarket Raja Sate BBQ at Jalan Boulevard, which also serves great goat curry and prawns in pineapple. Manado harbour has a range of seafood options. Try a budget fish barbecue or go to Wisata Bahari for some fresh crab. Bak MieChie has the best noodle soup in town, both cheap and nourishing. I developed a taste for tinutuan, a savoury breakfast porridge with vegetables and meat that tastes better than it looks. Sip on the celebrated Manado black coffee at any coffee house in town or travel to Rumah Kopi Gembira, 40 kilometres from Manado for the best brew. (Meals for two at most restaurants in Manado cost between IDR128,000- 277,500/₹600-1,300; at a simple, local joint, it is possible to get a meal for IDR42,700/₹200.)
Indians can avail of the visa-on-arrival facility at Manado International Airport (30-day tourist visa $35/₹2,300). From India there are several daily flights available, with a layover in Singapore. Once in Manado, visitors can get around by Bluebird, the local taxi service, or mikrolet, a minivan service. Ferries to islands are available from Manado harbour (schedules vary with season and weather; so confirm departure times at the harbour). Most visitors just spend a few hours in Manado stocking up on supplies before taking a boat to an island or a taxi to the Minahasan Highlands, a mountainous area close to Manado. If you need to stay the night, try Minahasa Hotel, which has a main building, cottages up a hillside, and a pool with stunning views (+62-431-874871; www.hotelminahasa.com; doubles from IDR280,000/₹1,310).
Located on the northern tip of Sulawesi, Bunaken Island is the most popular excursion from Manado. There is a public boat that leaves daily between 1-2 p.m. from the canal on the northern side of Manado market (exact departure time depends on tide, duration 45-60 min; tickets IDR50,000/₹235). The public boat only leaves after it is full of passengers, often with accompanying livestock, so buy delicious rambutan and mangosteen at the pier to eat while you wait. If you’re staying at a resort, arrange a pickup from Manado through them or book one yourself (book at Manado harbour; IDR100,000/₹468).
Bunaken Marine National Park is known for its phenomenal 50-metre coral wall. The water is so clear that there is a feeling of vertigo as you swim over cliffs on the edge of the reef and look down a sheer drop (entry fee of IDR150,000/₹701 will be charged by your dive resort, waterproof permit tags must be carried at all times). Unless you are a strong swimmer, do not venture out to sea without a guide or fins as the current can change quickly.
Get a scooter from your resort and explore the village and secluded coves on the island’s eastern side. Go on a night walk past shrubs full of fireflies. If you are lucky, you may spot the nocturnal tarsiers, the world’s smallest primates. Since trails are unmarked, go exploring after dark only with a guide.
Mamaling Souldiving is a secluded property with a handful of private cottages on stilts set among mangroves (+62-852-40000169; www.mamaling.com; doubles from €50/₹3,735). Siladen Resort & Spa is a luxury getaway located on Siladen Island, which is part of the Bunaken Marine National Park (+62-811-4300641; www.siladen.com; doubles from €265/₹19,757). Two Fish Resort Bunaken at Pangulisang beach has pretty cottages and offers diving packages (+62-811-432-805; www.twofishdivers.com; doubles from €211/₹15,600 for 3 nights and 2 days with 2 dives per day).
For cooler weather, head to Tomohon, a charming town in the North Sulawesi highlands, just an hour’s drive (25 km) from Manado (there is a bus every 20 minutes; tickets IDR5,600/₹26; or hail a Bluebird taxi IDR100,000/₹468). North Sulawesi is in the Pacific Ring of Fire and Tomohon is overlooked by twin active volcanoes Lokon and Empung. Just as you exit Manado, look out for an unusual 50-metre-high statue of “Christ Blessing” on your right; it almost appears to be flying off the hillside. At one of the highway canteen-style restaurants en route, stop for a Minahasan buffet of seafood, ferns, water spinach (kangkung), and piquant sambals (chutneys). Getting vegetarian food can be hard since shrimp paste is an essential ingredient in most sauces (buffets for two IDR42,800/₹200). Tomohon is known as a city of parks, and hosts an international flower festival every August. Flower shops line the roads from December to April. Since the area was occupied by the Dutch for over 300 years, it has a long tradition of baking. When we visited in December, the air was scented with the aroma of freshly baked Christmas cookies and cakes, while plant nurseries were stocked with Christmas trees and poinsettia. Do try the pastries at Holland Bakery.
While in the highlands, embark on a hike along one of numerous scenic trails that wind through hills and lakes. Visit Lake Linow, a colour-changing sulphurous waterbody nearby, or take a boat out on Lake Tondano and lunch on freshly caught fish (taxis charge about IDR50,000/₹234 from Tomohon).
Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy visiting Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve, a rainforest fringed by a black sandy beach. Walks with guides offer a chance to spot macaques, tarsiers (only visible from dusk to dawn), and tree-dwelling marsupials called bear cuscus, among the many birds, animals, and plants unique to the region (park entry ₹465; guide fees for 2 hours IDR85,000/₹400 per person, for halfday IDR200,000/₹930 per person; for assistance and information on travelling in the highlands call Dicky Kho +62-812-44037100, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Onong’s Palace has wooden cottages located in the forest with a view of the twin volcanic cones of Lokon-Empung (+62-431-3157090; www.tomohon-onong.com; doubles from IDR420,000/₹1,962).
Lihaga, a short boat ride from Manado, is a pristine treasure that fulfils all the lovely clichés of a desert island. It has snow-white sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, and sunsets that look positively photoshopped. The island is surrounded by a spectacular reef that is perfect for snorkelling. Two locals who manage the campsite, where visitors can pitch a tent on the beach and enjoy complete solitude, are helpful but not intrusive. We learnt from them how to start a fire with twigs, and make a fishing spear. We bought essentials from a Manado supermarket, but most of our meals were fresh fish that the men caught and cooked for us on request. The weather was perfect, so we slept outside the tent under a canopy of stars. The campsite has basic toilet facilities and wooden shelters and benches for those who don’t have tents. If you’re not interested in camping, Lihaga also makes for a great day trip (longboat charges IDR200,000/₹935; guide fees IDR100,000/₹468 per day including campsite charges; to travel to Lihaga, contact Herry Ko +62-813-40662802; email@example.com).
A six-hour ferry ride from Manado, the island of Siau is located in the shadow of Karangetang, one of the most active volcanoes in the region. We enjoyed bathing in the hot springs at the base of the volcano and collecting freshly minted volcano rocks for our barbecue. After sunset, a visit to Karangetang observatory which is on a parallel hill, affords a closer look at the volcano from a safe distance. Siau looks surreal after dark, against the backdrop of the mighty volcano complete with dramatic streaks of molten lava. Another mammoth statue of Christ stands on a cliff on this island, arms outstretched over the bay.
There are several small eateries serving wholesome meals in the front rooms of village homes. Expect plenty of grilled or fried chicken and fish, spicy sambals, and perkedel (derived from Dutch frikkadel) which are potato, corn, or meat patties. For a mild, delicious gravy to eat with rice, ask for the coconut milk chicken curry, opor ayam. Quality nutmeg farmed on Siau’s rich volcanic soil makes for an excellent souvenir. To navigate the island, hire a guide and vehicle or a two-wheeler (guide fees IDR50,000/₹234 per day; two wheeler IDR50,000/₹234 per day; petrol is sold in beer bottles at roadside kiosks).
Hotel Jakarta is the only hotel on the island, located just 200 metres from the port. It has basic, clean rooms (doubles from IDR350,000/₹1,633). To book a village homestay enquire at the harbour office just off the jetty (IDR150,000-200,000/₹700-₹933).
Raja Ampat is an archipelago of 1,500 islands in the province of West Papua. Its name means four kings, referring to its four main islands: Waigeo, Salawati, Bantata, and Misool. Raja Ampat is mostly about scuba diving. All resorts have dive shops attached and many divers opt for liveaboard experiences. To experience local culture opt for a homestay. We spent the New Year weekend in Yenbeser village on Gam Island, camping in the front yard of village elder Pak Martin Makusi’s home, next to an emerald lagoon. The highlight was simple home-cooked meals made from the lushest, freshest seafood including barracuda, snapper, carp, and lobster.
Papuans are a warm and hospitable people. They invited us into their homes, offered us fresh coconut water, took us swimming, and sang a lot of Bollywood songs. At low tide, we went beachcombing, exploring reef tops and beaches that disappear at high tide, and walked on the sandbanks that emerge between Mansuar and Kri islands. Visitors also explore the coral fringed pools of Gam Island or bathe in freshwater springs, exposed at low tide, on Waigeo Island. Some visit the cave believed to be haunted by the ancestors of one of the islanders of Gam.
Planning a birdwatching trip with a guide, we crept through dense undergrowth to see gorgeous birds of paradise endemic to this region. We saw dugongs and dolphins on snorkelling trips. At Misool Island, we visited a beautiful cave with 5,000 year-old paintings and also saw ancient cliff-burial sites nearby.
During the Raja Ampat Festival in October, the government organises free boat rides to Wayag Island (a cluster of islands), a journey which is normally long and expensive (3-4 hours on a speedboat that seats 10; IDR8,000,000-10,000,000/₹37,322-46,653; tourism office at JE Meridien, Sorong, helps visitors join a group trip)i. Pictures of these hill islands surrounded by blue water are lavishly used in tourism brochures and it looks just as good in real life. We hiked to Pindito, Wayag’s highest peak, and took the selfie of a lifetime.
To reach Raja Ampat, fly from Manado to Sorong on Lion Air subsidiary Wings Air (www.lionair.co.id; round trip about IDR 1,703,000/₹7,930 per person). Flights don’t operate every day, and sometimes tickets are hard to book online. We bought them at the airline’s office in Manado. Raja Ampat Marine Park permits can be purchased at the tourism office at JE Meridien, Sorong (IDR1,000,000/₹4,664). From Sorong Harbour, take the Bahari Express ferry to Waisai (economy ticket IDR130,000/₹606; VIP ticket in air-conditioned cabin IDR220,000/₹1,026; ferries leave at 11 a.m. on Monday; 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily on Wednesday and Friday; duration of journey 2.5 hours).
To book a homestay in Raja Ampat visit www.stayrajaampat.com. We stayed on Gam Island with Pak Martin Makusi who speaks fluent English and is a valuable resource on everything in the region (+62-821-99824610; doubles from IDR 250,000/₹1,166). Waisai has several affordable options like Waisai Beach Hotel located on Waiwo beach (www.rajaampatlodges.com; doubles from IDR550,000/₹2,565) or the more rustic Warimpurem Homestay, close to Saporkren village (+62-813-54183172; www.stayrajaampat.com/accommodation/warimpurem-homestay; doubles from IDR700,000/₹3,265).
Visitors can also opt to stay at Kri Island, a one-hour boat ride away. Try Kri Eco Resort, which has thatched bungalows on stilts over the water (+62-811-483 4614; www.papua-diving.com/kri-eco-resort-2; doubles from €1,610/₹1,20,000 for 7 nights and 8 days, including all meals) or at the more deluxe Sorido Bay Resort on the other side of the island, (+62 811 480 7610; www.papua-diving.com/our-resort; doubles from €4,100/₹3,06,000 for 7 nights and 8 days, including all meals).
Another option is Raja Ampat Dive Lodge on Mansuar island which like Kri has incredible snorkelling and diving just around the resort (+62361 808 5858; www.rajaampat-divelodge.com; doubles from $2,750/₹1,83,630 for 7 nights and 8 days, including all meals).
This is National Geographic Traveller India’s handy guide to North Sulawesi and Raja Ampat in Indonesia. The guide provides information for 5-6 islands, serving as a launch pad to the region. It contains prices for almost everything, so you can plan your trip and modify it depending on your budget. On the basis of the information provided, the cost of a 10-day holiday on a budget for two is ₹1 lakh, not including airfare and scuba diving. There are suggestions for birdwatching trails, cultural experiences, and relaxing day trips.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Island Hopping”.
The region has more than a quarter of the world’s marine life and a scuba dive here is a kaleidoscope of colour and texture. The water teems with coral, sea fans, giant clams, turtles, octopus, sea snakes, reef sharks, and clouds of iridescent fish. If possible, time a visit for giant manta season (October to April) to see the remarkable, usually solitary creatures, up close in large numbers. However, the area’s remoteness means that dive resorts and liveaboards are usually prohibitively expensive. Here are some ideas to help you save.
Stay at Waisai Located on Waigeo, the largest of the islands, Waisai has the air of a frontier town. It has just one ATM, which is usually out of order, a handful of shops and eateries, and a United Nations Internet van. Usually a jump-off point to more exotic islands like Kri, Mansuar, or Misool, it has lovely stretches of beach and affordable accommodation options (doubles from IDR500,000/₹2,350 onwards). There are a number of dive shops where visitors can rent gear and charter boats.
Homestays On other islands, look for homestays that might be in the heart of a village or on a remote beach. They are a great way to experience an idyllic location if you don’t need frills like air-conditioning and room service. Several homestays even have onsite dive facilities (www.stayrajaampat.com; doubles IDR200,000-500,000/₹940-₹2,350). Carry a warm-weather tent and sleeping bags and negotiate a reduced rate for permission to camp on a homestay’s property. Buy fresh, inexpensive fish from local fishermen or Waisai market and cook it yourself. The kids at our homestay made us delicious dipping sauce with lemon, shrimp paste, and chilli.
Snorkelling Snorkelling at Raja Ampat is as rewarding as diving. You can see several metres down in the unbelievably clear water. Some of our best underwater memories are from snorkelling trips, which didn’t cost us a thing. Pack your own mask and fins and snorkel off the pier or pay for a boat and guide to take you to good spots.
Lynn Hilloowala is an artist and contemporary art specialist, who loves museums, snorkeling and exploring cities after dark. Now mum to a toddler, she takes him everywhere from holidays in the Himalayas to whale watching in Sri Lanka and most recently to hawker food heaven in Penang, Malaysia.