When I opened the map and studied the geographical layout of Sulawesi, I was intrigued by the shape of this unique island. It is said that Sulawesi looks like an orchid and indeed this is an apt description of a truly remarkable place. So, inspired by this fact alone, I decided this was a good enough reason to visit.
Sulawesi was once known as the Celebes. Historically it is famous for it’s spice trade and has always been a great nation of traders, farmers and boat builders and is home to a diverse range of religious beliefs including Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians.
Each of Sulawesi’s four provinces offers the traveler a completely different cultural experience. Choosing to venture into North Sulawesi, I was promised an adventure that would blend coasts, reefs and stunning volcanic highlands.
Arrival in Manado
I always reserve a window seat when flying, and I was lucky on this particular day, to have clear weather. Hanging in the clear blue skies, I had spectacular views over the eleven active volcanoes that span this incredible island. What an introduction to Sulawesi.
It was 6.30pm when I arrived in Manado and night had fallen. The Murex courtesy van pulled into the resort and waiting to greet me in person, was Danny, the manager who casually had his toddler secured firmly to his hip. Over the next three days, I was treated to the most gracious and friendly hospitality, by both Danny and his lovely Indonesian wife, Angelique.
Even though the resort was busy with organized diving groups coming and going, the quality of service and attention to detail, in particular with the food presentation was outstanding.
I had phoned the resort in advance and was assured by Danny, to not make any forward plans, but to simply come for a few nights and he would take care of the rest of my trip. The resort has a van and driver and a local guide available daily. Within 24 hours of my arrival, a plan was arranged for my one week’s stay.
North Sulawesi’s Underwater Playground
North Sulawesi is famous for it’s fabulous diving, however, not being a diver, I chose to hang on the surface and snorkel.
With over 2,300 species of fish and coral and the worldwide claim that Bunaken Marine Park offers some of the richest and most diverse sea life in the world, I indulged in an underwater experience that totally exceeded my expectations.
I had three days of snorkeling, playing and exploring the underwater world. I floated amongst hundreds of spectacular fish of every possible shape and colour.
I was treated to slow sea slugs, colourful sponge life, iridescent coral displays and magnificent sea creatures decorated in ruffles and Laura Ashley look-alike prints. As I explored the reefs of Bunaken I was continuously amazed by the variety and underwater sea life that unfolded before me.
In this area of Northern Sulawesi, there are over 100 dive and snorkeling sites catering to all standards of divers.The most spectacular is the 1500-meter vertical coral wall off Bunaken Island which is, as I discovered, a mecca for serious divers from all over the world.
The marine park is North Sulawesi’s most precious asset in terms of tourism revenue, and I was impressed with the stringent marine environmental policies we had to adhere to when our boat and our bodies entered these azure blue waters. There are no commercial activities allowed in the reserve. In fact, everything from dynamite fishing to live shell collecting is prohibited.
To get onto Bunaken Island itself, a permit is required and proceeds from this contribute towards the protection of the rich marine waterways that is the lifeblood of the local population. The education process has been well established here, and locals and tourists alike follow the strict guidelines ensuring that it is one of the cleanest environments in Indonesia.
Not being a diver, by day three I was looking for something different to do and Danny came up with a perfect answer. His father-in-law Dr Batuna, the owner of Murex and a renown figure on the island owns a farm, which can be accessed by boat and with little fuss he organized a boat to pick me up (with lunch already packed on board) and take me out for the day.
The Enchanting World of Mangroves
First was a tour of the ancient mangroves. We seemed to be motoring on the boat for a good two hours, past some of the most spectacular coastal scenery on the island, before pulling into a secluded and mysterious bay.
To my surprise, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, there was a little dugout canoe party waiting. I had a choice of which canoe to take and about eight friendly, smiling locals at the ready with their long poles and welcoming gestures to accompany me.
The ancient mangrove cruise by a dugout canoe was a fascinating experience. It was dark and still, and every now and then an egret or heron would swoop across the bow of the boat and take its place on the other side of the shallow creek. I have never been that fond of mangroves, but the experience of cruising slowly and quietly through this world of dark gnarled roots and tangled branches and creepers has changed my view forever.
Every bend in the shallow river brought a new and different perspective and was ever changing. What I enjoyed most was the solitude and peacefulness that this ancient area provided.
So much so, that the time slipped away and when we finally decided to return to the boat, the afternoon light had already begun to fade, and I realized I would be returning in the dark.
Unfortunately, I never made it to the farm, but of course, that can wait till next time !
The great thing about traveling to a new destination is you can leave certain things out, so you have a reason to return later. Any intrepid traveler will attest to that travel secret.
Volcano Lands – Minahasa Country
On day four I headed into the volcanic highlands of Tomohon with my trusty local guide, Roy who assured me our first stop would be the famous coffee house which serves “very good coffee” and homemade toast from an open fire.
As I sipped my thick black coffee overlooking the aptly named Madonna Bridal Salon, I was entertained by observing my fellow coffee patrons (all men) who were engrossed in the exploits of the 1960 classic Ben Hur on TV!!
I love the fact that you can transport yourself back in time when you of escape from big cities of Indonesia and sample some of the local life, which seems to move at a pace all of its own. Negotiating our way through a maze of brightly tasseled horse drawn “bendis”, motorbikes and the odd car, we headed to our next port of call and this had a magic all of its own.
The Gardenia – a place of flowers and beauty
When I arrived at Gardenia Country Inn I felt like I had entered into a different world. The setting is reminiscent of an English Cottage Garden Book with prize winning manicured flowers beds, water ponds, lilies in full bloom, tiny wooden bridges crossing petite streams, beautiful lawns and framing all of this is -the backdrop – a towering active volcano.
Instead of being shown to my choice of bungalow, I was served tea and delicious cakes and made to feel welcome and rest and simply take in the views, which were soothing to say the least.
After taking my afternoon tea, I was lead down the path to choose my own private, individual bungalow. The last rays of the afternoon sun softened the garden setting as the resident puppies bounded across the large grounds.
Surprisingly, all the (unoccupied) bungalows had their front doors wide open. Every shuttered window was also open, to take in the fragrance of the gardens and fresh air. I noticed that every room had an arrangement of fresh gardenias, even though the rooms not occupied by guests. Here was a place that really was special.
A feature of the Gardenia is the positioning of meditation day beds placed around the large grounds, which invite you to unwind and relax in this cool mountain environment.
The church bells toll at 6.00pm.
This was a sound I had grown used to hearing in Sulawesi, but when I looked around for the church spire, I was surprised to see a Buddhist Temple perched up high on the hill above the grounds of the Gardenia. I had passed a few mosques on the way into town, so in this tiny remote area of Tomohon, there were 3 religions all practicing their beliefs side by side. A reminder for me of just how diverse the culture, religions and traditions really are in Indonesia.
The next morning I headed into the local village to visit the traditional pasar (market). Here I was surrounded by colors, smells and sounds of a culture existing on a different level that seems incomprehensible to many of us. No produce is wrapped or packaged. Everything is stacked in huge piles; including some of those great coffee beans I had enjoyed so much in the coffee house. For just 10,000 rph (US$1) I filled a big black plastic bag.
I spent the next three days climbing volcanoes and visiting hot sulphur springs complete with bubbling mud pools. I took a look through the Japanese caves, enjoyed a fantastic seafood lunch on Lake Tonado, and even visited the local racetrack and equestrian center, and immersed myself in the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Somehow I managed to pack a lot of living into my one week in Sulawesi and I would encourage anyone who has a love of travel to venture to this rich land of smiling faces, unique beauty and surprising adventures.
Text by Stephanie Brookes
Murex Dive & Live Aboard Resort, Manado
Phone: (0431) 826091,868513
Fax: (0431) 826092, 846267
Tour Guide – arranged by Murex
Gardenia Country Inn – Tomohon