TRAVEL NOTES FOR INDONESIA - BUNAKEN
- N. Sulawesi - [AUGUST 2009]
Bunaken Island is a remote island located off the coast of the North West Sulawesi region. It's a popular dive and vacation destination, and it is part of a large underwater marine preserve. As far as diving goes in Bunaken, the main attractions are the steep walls and bountiful coral reefs. There are also some pretty hefty currents from time to time, so drift diving is often the name of the game. Here you will come across all sorts of reef fish, turtles, reef sharks, pelagics and macro creatures. In general, diving Bunaken and the surrounding marine preserve are known for having a great level of bio diversity.
The first dive we did in Bunaken was a drift dive along a steep wall. The currents were very notable, which is good for drifting, but it can also make it difficult to stop and admire the scenery. During this dive we just let the current take us along for the ride as our dive guide pointed out some sharks and turtles lurking in the distance. Diving among these grandiose natural underwater features, we are reminded on how small and insignificant we are as divers, just a speck in the vast deep waters that surround us.
Most of the other dives we did were also drift dives, with some beginning or ending in calmer waters with coral reefs to enjoy. There were also a few shallow dives along the coasts of the various islands in the area which offered good macro life and almost no notable currents.
During our stay at Living Colours resort we met a lot of great people, and it was a great place to talk about and hear other people's adventures. It seemed like a lot of people were diving in the morning and then they would do other activities during the day, or just do nothing at all. Bunaken is a very relaxing place, and it's a good place to just do nothing if that is what you enjoy doing.
Off the coast of Bunaken you can see Manado Tua which is a volcanic island. There are tours that go to the island to climb Manado Tua. Both Manado Tua and Bunaken are part of the Bunaken/Manado Tua Marine preserve. In order to dive in the preserve you must pay a fee (around $20 US) and obtain a medallion which you carry with you while diving there.
In all the diving was pristine and beautiful, and the diversity of coral and marine life rival that of any other dive locations around the world. In Bunaken you will find diversity in marine life as well as diving conditions. If you are looking for a sample-platter of diving experiences, this is a great place to visit.
GETTING TO BUNAKEN:
If you are starting from Lembeh or Bitung as we did, it only take a few hours (2 - 3) by car to get from the East to the West coast of the N Sulawesi land mass; not a big problem. This makes it a very easy possibility to visit both places in one trip. The transports for the various resorts offer to meet you at the airport, so it was easiest for us to have each resort pick us up at the airport (Manado airport - MDC) and drop us back off t the airport where we would then connect with the next transportation. During our trip we stopped at the airport to meet transfers 4 times, but it worked out well.
In order to get to Bunaken Island you must take a boat from Manado. The taxi picked us up at Manado airport and then dropped us off at the boat port. The boat ride from Manado to Bunaken took about 45 minutes.
Arriving in Bunaken, the boat transfer pulled into some mangroves at the resort. We waded through ankle-deep water to get on to the beach. It's a good idea to expect to have to get wet or wade through water when traveling this region. It's just part of the experience. The island of Bunaken itself is small and relatively undeveloped. That is not to say they don't have the amenities that travelers come to rely on (we had wireless internet at our resort) but things are located far and between, and things are very rustic. The employees at the resort were very friendly, helpful and very professional.
Bunaken...See the maps... See how to get to Bunaken...
DIVING & SLEEPING @ THE LIVING COLOURS RESORT (Bunaken Isl)
The Living Colours Resort is located on the east coast of Bunaken Island, very near to 2 Fish resort. When you arrive you have to wade through the mangroves to reach the beach where the resort office is located. After checking in, you must climb a very steep set of stairs (picture on left) which is set in the side of a rock face, in order to get to the bungalows which are located on top. The stair climb can be a little brutal, especially after a long day of diving or traveling, but once on top the views are beautiful.
The bungalows at Living Colours are rustic and they have all the amenities you want (except air conditioners in the rooms). There is a standard mosquito net over the bed, running hot & cold water and a toilet in the bathroom, and the rooms are equipped with electrical outlets. Each bungalow also has it's own private front porch overlooking the ocean. One thing to note is that the walls of the bungalows do not go all the way to the ceiling, so there is always an opening between the outside and the inside. This was a factor because it allowed bugs to get in with no problem. But in general the bungalows were in good condition and fairly comfortable.
The dive operation at Living Colours is well run and the dive staff is knowledgeable and professional. During our stay there were mainly two boats that would set out daily for diving. The boats were in good condition and they were big enough to accommodate about 12 divers comfortably. The dive guides gave safety briefings before each dive, and when we were in the water they did a good job at keeping track of their groups. There were camera rinse tanks on the boat, which was great for us, but we thought it was unusual that nobody else had cameras. Also there are showers and equipment rinse tanks back at the resort, as well as a dive-equipment storage room. The dive staff takes care of all the loading & unloading of the boat, so you only have to relax and enjoy.
FOOD & ENTERTAINMENT:
The eating area at Living Colours is located on the top section, right at the top of the giant stair case. They serve a mix of Indonesian and western style food in a buffet style. Food is included in your stay, but any additional beers (there's a fridge in the eating area... honor system) are sold for a price. It's a good idea to get to dinner early because while we were there it seemed that the food (especially the popular dishes) would disappear very quickly. A few times we showed up towards the end of food service and there was not much left except some leftover side dishes. We were generally happy with the food they served us, but it was not anything special in my opinion. Mostly rice and chicken with a few other things to accompany. But given the circumstances of the remote location it's understandable that cooking for a group is not a simple task.
GETTING TO N. SULAWESI (MANADO/ BUNAKEN/ LEMBEH):
In order to get the N. Sulawesi region in Indonesia where the Lembeh Strait and Bunaken Isl are located, you must first get to Manado airport (MDC). Manado is located on the west side if the N. Sulawesi region, on the side that faces Bunaken. It is the jumping off place for getting to either the Lembeh Strait or Bunaken marine park. For this reason it is fairly easy to dive in both locations over a single visit and still be able to fly in and out of the same airport.
Once you are in Manado airport it should be easy to arrange your resort to meet you and transport you back and fourth. A boat is needed to get to both Bunaken and Lembeh Strait, so it is best to make your arrangement directly with the resorts ahead of time. Round trip transfers should run about $50 to and from each resort for a small group of people.
Getting to Manado (MDC) airport can be a little difficult, especially if you are trying to plan other connections and other flights on a larger itinerary. This is because there are only a few airlines that fly directly into Manado. The two main airlines that fly into Manado are Silk Air and Air Asia. There are also private airlines available, but I don't know too much about that. Silk Air flys to Manado on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday leaving from Singapore (SIN) airport. Air Asia flys to Manado on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, flying out of Kuala Lumpur (KUL). Air Asia seems to have slightly cheaper ticket prices but much worse connection times than Silk Air. Silk Air is much easier to make connections with because their flights leave early and late in the day.
There are lots of airlines and combinations of airlines that you can take in order to get to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore (those two airports make connections to Bunaken in N. Sulawesi). Leaving from the US there were some good deals on China airline, Delta, American Airlines as well as Continental and others. It's important to make sure you account for all the travel time and connections when booking your flight. When we planned out trip it was daunting trying to figure out which flights to take, and it started to consume a lot of time trying to book the best flight for the best price. It eventually became apparent that we could either save a couple hundred $$ or save 15 hours in travel layovers. Eventually the extra cost for a good connection seems well worth the price.
Leaving from New York (HPN) Westchester County Airport, we booked our flight with American Airlines. We made connections in Chicago (ORD) and then in Tokyo (NRT) before flying to Singapore (SIN). The cost from NY to SIngapore (SIN)was about $1200 and then about another $400 to get from Singapore (SIN) to Manado (MDC). Total price was about $1600 round trip per person. It takes about 26 - 28 hours to get from NY to Singapore, so you lose 2 days in travel time by the time you get to Manado.
In my research it seems that most popular route goes from US to Tokyo to Singapore to Manado (via Silk Air).
WHEN TO TRAVEL:
You can dive in Indonesia at any time of the year. In general the best times to go are April through December since the rainy season is between the months of January and March. Prices are higher when you travel during high season. However, in places such as Sulawesi, they have favorable conditions at this time so be sure to check the diving season details for your particular destination of choice. The Indonesia liveaboards season is all year round.