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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.