FLORES – BEACHES, VOLCANOES AND HIGHLAND VILLAGES
The large, unique island east of Bali is less well known but just as fascinating to visit
The Indonesian archipelago has the most islands in the world – 18,307, enough to take many of them for granted. Yet Flores has maintained a unique, diverse nature and culture. Sharing the waters with the country’s top tourist destination, Bali, an hour and a half away by air, Flores offers at least as great a variety of reasons to visit.
The island, meaning flowers in Portuguese, is in East Nusa Tenggara province, part of the Lesser Sunda Islands east of Java. Colonized by Portugal, it belonged to the Dutch until it was packaged into Indonesia when the country gained independence in 1945. The Flores population of 1.8 million is predominantly Roman Catholic. Many are fishermen and subsistence farmers growing rice, maize, sweet potato and cassava for their own needs, or coffee, cloves, cocoa, vanilla or cashew nuts for sale. A few have found their fortune in tourism, serving the growing number of visitors.
What’s special about it? Let’s call it “the five reasons to visit Flores”.
- The landscapes alone are enough to fill up your camera’s memory cards. Quiet beaches come in an array of colours – stony, soft sandy black, white, even pink – and are plentiful enough to watch the sunset or sunrise from without having to share the view with anyone but local fishermen. From the beaches you can travel uphill on snaky roads and be on a pine-fringed mountain in an hour. The rice terraces are dramatic. The colours of the crater lakes are surreal. Forests come in many shades of green, through mangrove, bamboo and rainforest. And then there is the lunar terrain of the volcanoes, great for adventure-seekers and trekkers. Numerous uninhabited islands lie off the coast of the fishing town of Labuan Bajo.
- The highlands are inhabited by tribes, and the island is ethnically very diverse. The tribes of the Manggarai, Ngada and Sikka live in districts of the same names. Many of those going to church on Sundays still believe in other forms of spirituality and the supernatural. They are proud of their tribal identities, practices and rituals, and are happy to share them with visitors. Flatland dwellers have a different reality, from the friendly Muslim fishermen who aren’t shy to invite you into their homes for coffee to Indonesian Rastafarians in beach shorts who might have you think you’re in the Caribbean.
- Exotic land fauna and marine life. On the island are a few rare endemic species such as giant rats and hanging parrots. Flores scops owls are shy but can still be spotted in the wild. Nearby Komodo National Park, besides the famous dragons, has over 1,000 species of fish and more than 350 species of reef-building corals. Simple snorkelling around the islets off of Labuan Bajo brings you close to sea turtles, rays, reef sharks, lobsters and all kinds of fish.
- Flores has a pleasant climate for holidaying, with only two seasons: rainy or dry (from June to October). During the dry months, sunlight is strong on the beaches but temperate sea breezes cool things down. Air is warm but not too sticky. In the tourist-friendly towns in the highlands, though, you may need warmer clothes for when temperatures drop into the teens.
- Flores is one of the better destinations for Indonesian coffee, with arabica beans heavy in body and chocolaty, floral and woody notes.
And it’s much less touristy than Bali or Lombok!
It’s best to stay overnight in Moni, a town at the foot of Mount Kelimutu, and start out around 4am the next day to catch the best lights on the lakes and their mystical morning atmosphere. An hour on the road winding through the mountain’s evergreen rainforest will expose you to Jurasic Park-style plants, and once you’re high enough, to the green rice paddies below. It’s an easy 30-minute hike from the parking area on a partly paved trail with viewpoints and resting areas until you reach the top at 1,640m. Near the top, amid a landscape dotted with low green shrubs, monkeys hang out and look for food. Keep your distance from them.
When done with the town, head offshore. On Komodo and Rinca islands are the endangered Komodo dragons endemic to the two islands. These carnivorous lizards can grow up to 3 metres long, are excellent swimmers and can run at speeds of up to 20km/h. They have venom that can bring down a water buffalo in one bite, have super flexible jaws and can swallow 80% of their body weight in one meal. They roam freely around the islands and the only way to see them is to trek. You’re not allowed to go by yourself and will be accompanied by a park ranger.
After the offshore excursions, return to LB, pick a restaurant at waterfront Kampung Ujung Road and feast on fresh barbecue seafood. For a more upscale dinner option, catch the sunset at a restaurant on the hill overlooking the bay. A stunning experience to end a beautiful journey.