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Two amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia

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I’d never been to Indonesia.  To be completely honest, it’s never been a country that rated highly on my “to do” list.  It’s almost like it’s close proximity to Australia was one of the key forces driving me away from it, preferring the lure of long-haul destinations, rather than those under my nose.  I also think it’s because the mere mention of the word Indonesia makes me think of Bali, a location that I’ve really no interest in (despite many of my friends loving it!)

But then I had an opportunity kindly provided by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism, who are placing increasing strategic importance on the value of inbound tourism to their country. It seemed like finally, it was time to give it a go.

This time, the lure was that of remote islands and locations less travelled.  This was a chance to see the real Indonesia.

two amazing day trips in northern sulawesi

As part of this program, myself and a group of like-minded travel writers were given a whirlwind tour of some of the lesser known parts of this country.  This gave us a chance to see parts of Indonesia that have been almost untouched by travellers and to spread the word a little further afield.

We saw so much and yet didn’t get to spend an enormous amount of time in any one location.  What we did see, however, was a country privileged with some incredible natural beauty.  What Indonesia lacks in infrastructure and services, it more than makes up for it with some of the most gorgeous oceans, lakes and nature reserves.

We started our week-long trip in Manado, the capital of Northern Sulawesi, and a city I would really describe as the gateway to other places of interest, including Bunaken Island and the Minahasa Highlands.

Here are two amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi that I highly recommend.

Go diving or snorkelling on Bunaken Island

Bunaken Island is known as one of the leading dive sites in the world.

I’m not a diver and I’m the first to admit I’ve never really been much of a snorkeller either.  But it’s simply not possible to go to Bunaken Island and not be converted to snorkelling at least!  One word is all that is necessary to describe this area.  Stunning!

If you are looking for diving locations, check out this guide to diving in Indonesia.

We headed out to Bunaken Island from the Tourism Harbour of Marina Plaza on a private boat.  Our guide tells us that the boats won’t leave from this jetty during the months of December and January.  This is due to high winds, seas and storms.  If the rock wall that has been built around this harbour is an indicator of how high the seas get, then I’m guessing you would not want to be out on a boat in the open water during these times.

The guide also notes that there is another port closeby where money will buy just about anything, including a boat transfer out to the islands during the rough weather months.  Catching such a boat would clearly depend on the level of risk you are willing to take.

I’m all about safety first, so was rather glad to be told this information.  Speaking of safety, I was happy to note that there were plenty of exit points off this boat and that there were personal flotation devices on board, in the event of an emergency.

It’s a glorious day as we head off on our one hour journey towards Bunaken Island.  Along the way we get to move around freely in the boat, with some of us taking up residence on the bow, allowing those fresh sea breezes to keep us cool.

Heading to Bunaken Island - a day trip in Northern Sulawesi
Hanging out with the boat’s navigator on the roof of the boat

The ocean seems to have a personality all of its own, changing from crystal clear to teal green to a striking blue all in a matter of metres.  We pass fisherman and their trawlers, heading back from a morning of deep sea fishing. Other men are out in their low canoe boats, hoping for a catch to feed their family back home.

A local fisherman making his way back home Bunaken Island
A local fisherman making his way back home

The downside of being in such beautiful waters is that any imperfection is easily noticed.  Indonesia has a real problem with rubbish, and it becomes evident just how much when you see the amount of bottles and other items clinging together in a matted mess on the surface of this otherwise beautiful water.

It’s a reminder that no matter how beautiful your natural surroundings, it can only last as long as those who preserve it.  As we continue on our trip with our guides, we all do our best to remind them not to throw their rubbish away.

Heading to Bunaken Island
A  boat – perfectly alone in this gorgeous setting
Bunaken Island shoreline
Closeby Bunaken Island
Bunaken Island Indonesia
It’s high tide as we approach the island

Time to get our snorkelling gear

We pull up to the jetty and head to the little timber huts to collect our snorkel gear.  The men take one look at my feet and know my size without having to ask.  Now that’s definitely knowing your craft!

Making a quick turnaround, we get back on the boat and in a couple of minutes, and about 50m offshore, we have arrived at our snorkelling location.   The reef here is home to three areas that are identified as Current #1, #2 and #3.

They are aptly named as the current is indeed quite ferocious and I make a mental note to make sure I keep the boat in sight.  Our driver is well aware of this and on several occasions actually moved the boat closer to the drifting group.

Diving in

If I could have seen my eyes when I took my first view of the reef beneath me, I just know they would have been as big as saucers.  I know I have limited experience but this was the most beautiful reef I have ever seen.

When the very first sea creature I see is a powder blue starfish attaching itself tightly to a rock, I am in heaven.  On more than one occasion, I found myself circling back to just admire this starry animal of the sea.

It was alive with colour.  So many fish species and so much coral in differing shapes and colours.  No turtles came my way but I know others in the group were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one.

This reef sits on the edge of an enormous shelf, adding to the mystique of the sea.   I shiver just a little as I pass over the reef and find myself floating off the edge and into the inky-black nothingness.  I imagine this is where the divers get their buzz.  Not me! It freaks me out more than just a little bit, so I quickly turn around and head back to the comfort of the yellows and oranges of the reef.

Snorkelling on Bunaken Island
The snorkelling was awesome
Reef on Bunaken Island Indonesia
Couldn’t resist just capturing the crystal waters above the reef
Snorkelling boat at Bunaken Island
Snorkelling around Bunaken Island. Photo courtesy of Skye Gilkeson from The Fit Traveller
Underwater snorkellers at Bunaken Island
A few of the gang hanging around underwater. Photo courtesy of Skye Gilkeson from The Fit Traveller

Tip:  Be a sustainable snorkeller, ensuring that the coral and fish are left untouched.  There is a great deal of coral degradation in Indonesia, so all of us play a very important role in protecting it when we are there.

Authentic Indonesian food on Bunaken Island

The Indonesian diet is a simple one.  Lots of fish, vegetables and rice.  On Bunaken Island, we ate parrot fish, something that is known to those who fish on the reef but not often eaten on the mainland. Fresh coconuts are also abundant and always on offer as a refreshing drink after a morning of snorkelling.

Bunaken Island coconuts
Our welcome coconut drink before lunch
Lunch at Bunaken Island
Chicken curry
Fresh fish on Bunaken Island
Fresh fish

Getting to Bunaken Island

We flew from Jakarta to Manado, using it as a base to visit Bunaken Island.

It’s a relatively quick trip out to the island, just remember to watch the weather forecasts before you leave the mainland.

A variety of private operators, hotel/resort operators and the public ferry all go to Bunaken Island.  Some are more favourable to dive trips, so you just need to ask around.  There isn’t a huge amount to do on the actual island, and whilst there is a resort there, just note they are fairly minimalistic.

Tangkoko Nature Reserve

The Tangkoko Nature Reserve on Mount Tangkoko is located about two hours from Manado.

Enroute you will travel through some beautiful areas of banana tree plantations and the ever-present palm trees.  Rolling hills and valleys break up the village scenery.  The road into the jungle can be a little precarious, with many parts only accessible by one vehicle at a time (in either direction).

We drove to the reserve on a bus, which on more than one occasion had to stop, reverse, or get as far over to one side of the road as possible, to allow a car travelling in the opposite direction to get through.  Sitting on the side closest to the edge of the mountain, there were a few moments of mild terror as I looked at how close we were to the edge!

Thankfully, for me anyway, size won out, and the bus would tend to make its presence known, making the smaller cars reverse back down the mountain to allow us through.

Seeing the Black Macaques for the first time

The Tangkoko Nature Reserve is the main place of residence for Black Crested Macaques, and it is heavily protected to ensure their ongoing survival.

Upon our arrival at the reserve, a ranger took us into the jungle in search of the Macaque and the Tarsier, the smallest living primate.

Before long, the ranger makes a move to the right, off the main walking track, and beckons us to follow.  Sure enough, just a little bit further in, a group of Macaques are playing around.  There are babies, right through to the elder statesmen, and I’m completely enthralled with them all.

I have to pinch myself that I have come so close to them all.

I should also note that these monkeys are not fed by the rangers, nor kept captivated in any way.  The Rangers spend so much time in the jungle with them, that they learn their patterns and their behaviours and are able to locate them when necessary.

TIP: It’s a good idea to wear long pants and sleeves, as the mosquitoes can be a little over friendly.  Failing that, ensure you have some very good repellent with you.  Take water as well.  It’s Indonesia, so the humidity is high generally, but a brisk walk into the jungle will highlight it even more.

The Black Macaques - Amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi
This guy just sat and posed like a supermodel the entire time
Two black macaques - Amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi
The female monkey was grooming the male. It was pretty amazing to watch the whole process.
Tarsier monkey Tangkoko Nature REserve - day trips from Northern Sulawesi
The tiny Tarsier monkey

Getting to Tangkoko Nature Reserve

Manado was our base for this visit to Tangkoko Nature Reserve.  Because this is a reasonable drive from Manado, I would recommend doing this as a day trip.  We actually did it immediately after our half day on Bunaken Island, and it is simply too much to squeeze into one day. We just didn’t get enough time to enjoy the surroundings, including the Black Beach that is close by the reserve.

For the adventurous, you could hire your own car, otherwise just talk to local tour operators and join an existing tour.

Where we stayed

We stayed at the Mercure Manado Tateli Beach Resort, about 30 minutes drive from the centre of Manado.  This hotel offers some well-needed respite away from the maddening traffic of Manado and even has access to its own private beach.  It has a beautiful pool area to relax in after a day sweltering in the Indonesian heat, and a reasonable buffet breakfast for guests each morning.  The rooms, despite being generous in size, are looking a little tired.  Wifi, as was the case with almost every hotel we stayed in, had intermittent wifi at best.

Or, if the Manado Tateli Resort doesn’t look like your style, you can find other places to stay around Manado.

The lobby of the Manado Mercure Tateli Beach Resort Hotel
The lobby of the Manado Mercure Hotel
Private beach at Manado Mercure Tateli Beach Resort
Private beach at sunrise

Two amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi

Both of these places highlight the contrasting beauty of Northern  Sulawesi.  Bunaken Island sees you enjoying all of the marine life that these warm waters offer.  Whether you snorkel on the surface and dive deep below, you will not be disappointed that you put this wonderful location on your travel itinerary.

The Tangkoko Nature Reserve couldn’t be more different.  Deep in the jungle,  the monkeys live under the lush green canopy that keeps them protected from both animal and human predators.  It’s hot and sticky, but there are not many other places in the world where you can enjoy the company of such incredible animals at such close range.

Visit Northern Sulawesi

The areas of Northern Sulawesi are not high on the list of “places to go” for most travellers.  As such, there are many hidden gems here.  There are limited tourist numbers (which is awesome in so many ways), but it is an area which will grow in its popularity over time.  Gorgeous locations such as Bunaken Island can’t stay hidden forever.

Whilst a growth in tourism will bring some much-needed money into the local economy and infrastructure growth will almost certainly follow, it will also bring crowds and other associated changes.

If you are someone that loves to travel a little left of centre and chase authentic experiences then a visit to Manado is a must.
Interested in learning more about other great dive spots in Indonesia? Why not grab a copy of this great books?  Click on the images for more information.

Let others know about these great destinations too by saving it to your Travel Boards.
Get on board these two amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi. Do it now before everyone learns about the secrets of this Indonesian island!

I really appreciated being able to visit these great spots as a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism.  All commentary and opinions are definitely my own.

66 thoughts on “Two amazing day trips in Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia”

  1. Truly It was incredible the way you have explained all these things, it is beneficial for each every one of us. Actually I came across your article and found it very useful. Thank you for letting us know.

    I am going to follow your article on my next trip.

  2. Enjoyed the post, especially seeing the black macaques (never heard of black macaques). We’ve only been to Sumatra but that was many years ago – have to go back to Indonesia.

    Frank (bbqboy)

  3. Great post and pictures – I’m sure you will remember this trip for a lifetime!

  4. Wow, wow, wow. I knew Indonesia was one of the most beautiful places in the world but these photos definitely reiterate that. The shots from the boat are spectacular. I would love to see the monkeys up close like that, especially the cute little Tarsier ones. ;) What an epic adventure.

  5. It’s funny I always have a bit of a panic when I first put my snorkel mask on but once my head goes under water, I get so calm! I can imagine how big your eyes must have been at the sight of that gorgeous water!

  6. Beautiful photos! I can’t believe how clear the water is – I’ll have to add this to my bucket list :)

  7. RobRob @TravelLatte(.net)

    Coincidentally, the second post I’ve read recently on Sulawesi. Must be a sign! You’ve definitely got us looking at ways to fit it into next year’s SE Asia itinerary – especially if we can meet that cute little Tarsier monkey!

  8. Hi Kerri,

    Indonesia is on my “To Do” list as well. I really like your photos and thank you for sharing your experience. I love how the clean the waters look along with the beautiful scenery. The animals look adorable, you are lucky you got some awesome captions of them!


  9. Its so nice that the Indonesian Government want to showcase destinations outside of Bali. And that water looks divine – I would love to dive there!

  10. Great tips! I’ve never thought to visit Northern Sulawesi but it looks amazing. I might have to add this to my list of places. It looks like a blast!

  11. The clarity of your pictures did a great job transporting me to Indonesia. What kind of camera do you use? And I love your quote “The ocean seems to have a personality all of its own.” That captures the way I see the ocean in Asia, it’s so dynamic and inconstant. Monkeys scare the shit outta me, can’t believe you got so close with them! They seem huge from the look of the pics! Indonesia is really high up on my to-do list but its nice to see some recommendations apart from Bali. Thanks!

  12. Actually Shayan, they don’t keep their beaches and landscapes clean at all. That’s why I referenced the rubbish issue in this post. They have a significant issue with rubbish.

  13. Thanks Amanda. It;s amazing how many people don’t think about the safety aspects at all. I actually chose not to go on another boat trip (on another day) due to it being highly unsafe. I don’t think most people understood, but it was really bad !!

  14. Hi Dani…the above water photos were not Go Pro. There are two Go Pro photos in the post, of the underwater snorkelling. These were taken by Skye Gilkeson from The Fit Traveller, who was on the boat with me.

  15. How do you do to take such pictures from a moving boat? :) Are you using a Gopro for the underwater pictures?

  16. I got married in Bali and was….underwhelmed by how crowded and dirty it was but I loved the Indonesian people and would be interested in returning! The waters look so calm and crystaline and I have a biiiiig crush on pretty water so that seems absolutely heavenly!!!!

  17. Amanda Williams

    Wow, it sounds like you had an amazing time and I would love to go snorkelling on Bunaken Island. I like the way that you have highlighted safety when it comes to taking boat trips – so important (especially where health and safety laws may not be what they are at home). And the food looks lovely!

  18. This is an amazing destination. I’ve always wanted to go to Indonesia but can you believe that they don’t let in Pakistanis? Yes, I’m a Pakistani.

    It’s crazy being another Muslim country.

    I would love to know how you got the invite from them and who the contact person was so I can also get the opportunity to travel there on official visa at least.

    I like the fact that Indonesia keeps their islands and landscapes clean and have responsible tourism attached to it. Thailand needs to become more like that (that’s where I live).

  19. We are going to Borneo in September and were going to hit up Bali for a week or two before we have to leave, although after reading this we should really check into more of the not so touristy places like this! Absolutely beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  20. Carol Colborn

    !Amazing to see those Macaques. The tarsiers are in Bohol Island of the Philippines, too. But I understand they are not monkeys

  21. Wow! That picture of the lone boat on the ocean was absolutely gorgeous! I completely understand about your thought on long-haul over short-haul, its the idea that it will be more exotic the further away you go, but then it seems like you’ve surprised yourself on this incredible trip! I really want to head out there and check it out, especially since it’s so close to Malaysia!

  22. Indonesia has always been high on my list – when I head back to SEA (which I hope is sooner rather than later) it’s going to be one of the first places I go. What a wonderful opportunity you had – your pictures are gorgeous!

  23. I just came from Sulawesi a week ago but not in Bunaken Island. Indonesia is a diverse country. You will always have something to do. Even in Sulawesi, I can stay for a month.

  24. Sharmistha | thatgirlslifestories

    Wow! Such a beautiful place – I am going to put this on my bucket list now :)

  25. I felt the same too, Indonesia was never on my list because it’s close to my home country too. But of course, I’d love to visit there some day. Great pictures, made me miss jumping in tropical waters ;)

  26. There is certainly more of the Northern Sulawesi types of places over there. Still need to write up where else we went, which was also off the main tourist destinations.

  27. I will be honest with you, Indonesia has never been on my list as well, but after reading this article and looking at those photos my interest has been awaken. We recently started snorkeling and those places look great to have a peek at the marine life.

  28. Stunning photos! I’d love to explore more of Indonesia. I really enjoyed the natural landscape, wildlife and food when I had a holiday in Bali. There is so much more and this looks perfect

  29. Northern Sulawesi looks stunning! I didn’t know much about this area, but love the look of the snorkeling! I’m a bit of snorkeling addict, so that looks right up my alley!

  30. It is interesting to read about both of these places,a s you say they are not the typical tourist stops in Indonesia. The wildlife on the entire archipelago seems to be quite amazing. I’ll look for some of your other posts from the trip.

  31. Like you, Indonesia isn’t high on my list. And i’m not particluarly keen to get to Bali, even though my friends always tell me to book a flight. Hehe. From you post, Sulawesi seems more of my vibe. I like that it’s not crowded with tourists yet and has so many things to offer in terms of interesting nature daytrips. Thanks for sharing! :)

  32. I must admit that Indonesia has never been high on my must visit list either. Which really is a shame as it is close to Australia (where I live) and from what you have shared, offers so much to the traveller. I really really really want to go see the Black Crested Macaques!!

  33. We’re the same as you! We’ve never been to Bali or Indonesia, despite its close proximity to Australia. We are going there in August for a friend’s wedding though and hope to see some of the lovely scenery. Your trip sounds amazing. Love all the nature shots! I hope we can explore some of Indonesia’s hidden treasures in the future!

  34. Wow! Everything about this trip looks amazing. I guess the Tourism bureau has the right idea…I’m ready to book!

  35. I think most travelers just head to Bali when they go to Indonesia (which is exactly what we did). However, now that we’ve been there, we are itching to go to more of Indonesia! I think there are a lot of unknown and hidden gems for us to explore (like Sulawesi… I’d never heard of it before!)

  36. Sabrina barbante

    Wow, sea looks like crystal! I think that these areas of natural paradise to be protected should increase responsible and sustainable tourism, trying to attract a different kind of ‘mass’, eager both to visit and to protect these areas. Will I’ll visit Indonesia soon, thanks for this post!

  37. My partner and I are planning to go to Indonesia next year, and after reading this, northern Sulawesi is on our list! We love snorkeling/diving. It would be amazing to see all that bright coral! The Tangkoko Nature Reserve looks amazing as well. Pinning this for later :)

  38. Kerri I am amazed that you live in Brisbane and have never dived. All that incredible water wonderland to explore. Would love to dive off Manado as it is supposed to be amazing. Looks fabulous. Glad you had a great time

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