Flores shakes off Bali’s shadow
Labuanbajo in Flores is a ramshackle harbour town that is an excellent base for exploring the epic Komodo National Park. (Sara-Jane Cleland/LPI)
The Indonesian island of Flores used to get by on Bali’s overflow alone, and the trickle of travellers that landed in the sleepy west coast town of Labuanbajo often used it as a spring board to the epic Komodo National Park, then quickly left.
But Labuanbajo is sleepy no more. That trickle has become a river, and the island named “Flowers” by 16th-century Portuguese colonists who were astonished by its lush, fragrant forests, is on the verge of becoming Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot.
It makes sense. After all, Flores is the kind of gorgeous that grabs hold of you tightly. It has empty white sand beaches and bay islands, excellent diving and snorkelling and a skyline of perfectly shaped volcanoes. The 700km trans-Flores highway that connects the east and west coasts skirts knife-edge ridges that sheer into spectacular river canyons, brushes by traditional villages and leads to multi-hued volcanic lakes. For years this tropical jewel box remained a secret, its gems accessible only to those willing to venture off the beaten track. But thanks to steadily improving infrastructure and a maturing tourism industry, Flores is blooming like never before. Most visitors hire a car with a driver and take it all in on a long slow road trip, making sure to linger, before or after among the national park’s Komodo dragons.
Port town boom town
Tucked into the country’s west coast, Labuanbajo is a little, romantically ramshackle bay harbour town that is not so little anymore. In the past three years, the harbour has doubled in size and the population has exploded. These days, visitors from all over the world check into sweet and homey guesthouses etched into the rugged hills – or one of the new tower hotels down the coast – to take in the surrealist sunsets and book passage to the national park. Meanwhile, hundreds of young Flores locals are drawn to Labuanbajo for work, which lends a lively boomtown bustle. While the town’s chief attractions remain offshore, thanks to excellent restaurants like Made In Italy and Mediterraneo there is a growing dining and nightlife scene brewing in this charming town that makes it hard to leave.
Of course, Labuanbajo initially popped on traveller’s radars because of Flores’ 1,817sqkm Komodo National Park, which includes more sea than land, nurtures reef systems that lure an array of underwater life and protects the largest lizard on earth. Komodo dragons are gargantuan swaggering beasts that live on two rugged islands in the national park – Komodo and Rinca. These prehistoric giants grow to more than three meters long and weigh up to 100kg. You can charter a local boat from Labuanbajo for two or three day cruises in park waters, snorkel over pristine reefs, lounge on pink sand beaches and hike on Rinca and Komodo (one and a half and three hours by boat from Labuanbajo respectively).
Rinca, 17 nautical miles from Labuanbajo, gets the most visitors, as the dragons tend to congregate around the park ranger offices and spotting them is easy. But more fulfilling is a day hike on the spectacular and remote Komodo island, 22 nautical miles from the mainland. Consider a guided trek through Poreng Valley on the island’s northeastern flank, where you will likely spot a dragon in the scaly flesh, and up and over Bukit Randolph, a 1,835ft-high peak that looms between two harbours, Loh Sebita on the more exposed northeast coast and Loh Sebita, a sheltered bay further south and west, where your boat can pick you up.