Life Travel

Saturday 23 August 2014

Island hopping

There will be dragons, pristine beaches and rich culture. Edel Kennedy is entranced by Indonesia

Edel Kennedy

Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30

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Kelimutu Volcano
A Komodo dragon
Edel at Komodo National Park

I'll eat pretty much anything. Cobra, crocodile, deep fried crickets – I've tried them all. But I draw the line at dog. With a much-loved four-legged friend at home, I couldn't bring myself to eat a canine.

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Luckily I was forewarned the dish on offer at the local festival on the Indonesian island of Flores contained said meat and, as politely as I could, I protested about how full I was, how I couldn't fit in another thing, no, no, not even a little, little piece. No thank you very much.

Unfortunately my travel companion had already eaten a mouthful before realising what it was – but washed down with some local brew, 'arak', apparently it wasn't so bad after all.

The stewed canine was just one of the unusual dishes on offer at a festival in a small village outside Bajawa on the island of Flores where we had travelled for a jump off point to visit the Komodo dragons. The vicious dragons are not known for turning down dog – or any kind of food for that matter – and were just one of the unique things in this region.

While Bali remains the best known and most popular of all the Indonesian islands, those who manage to travel just a little further will be rewarded with pristine beaches, uncluttered roads and a large slice of local culture – and some dragons. Indonesia is 24 hours and three flights away, so a minimum of three weeks is recommended if you want to get to see something outside of the main tourist areas. And being a country of 20,000 islands, there are plenty of options for last-minute flights to more remote parts.

After rocking up to the airport, two hours later and €50 poorer we were on a plane to Labuan Bajo in Flores. The flight is worth it for the views alone – scores of uninhabited islands dot the sea, with just the odd fishing skiff hinting at any sign of life. There are only two islands in the world where the Komodo dragons live – Rinca and Komodo. The former is closer to inhabited islands and has the added bonus of having spectacular dive sites en route. Although they're the closest thing to a dinosaur that you'll see in the wild, amazingly we didn't discover the dragons until about 100 years ago. Now thousands of people make the trip to the islands each year to see them – but you're still not going to be tripping over holidaymakers.

After a morning of diving with a group of Spanish, Brazilian, Chilean and German travellers, we went to see these notorious dragons, who will eat anything they can get their bacteria-ridden saliva and teeth into. Water buffalo, pigs, smaller dragons – even humans – are fair game as far as they're concerned. The largest lizard in the world, they patiently lie in wait before pouncing, using their powerful legs and serrated teeth to tear into their victims. And even those who manage to escape their jaws will only feel lucky briefly because the dragon's saliva teems with more than 50 strains of bacteria and within 24 hours, the stricken creature usually dies of blood poisoning.

Luckily the nine-foot creatures were positively sleepy as they lay in the 30C sun on the day we visited, and the only sign of movement was when they shuffled from a sunspot to shade. But workers at the nature reserve weren't taking any chance and stood on guard with special forked sticks in case one of the dragons took a fancy to a tourist.

The island can be visited within a day – including diving – which leaves plenty of time to explore the rest of Flores.

The island is notoriously hilly with most people crossing it by plane – and at €25 why wouldn't you want to avoid the bone-rattling, 15-hour road journey around corkscrew bends? While tempted, that would have meant missing all the spectacular scenery. Portuguese colonists named it Flores – 'flowers' – and their name choice was because of the deep ravines, bamboo forests and stunning coastal views that still exist today. Because few tourists venture that far, the landscape and culture is utterly unspoilt.

Our hired driver, Max, brought us to his home village to take part in a local ceremony – and to sample some dog – and also to the famous Kelimutu volcano. The still active volcano has three lakes in its craters which regularly change colour. On the day of our visit they were dark green, then milky blue, then light greenbefore turning to brown.

While every trip should have a slice of culture, nobody can visit Indonesia without sampling some of Bali's hotels and beaches. Without doubt, it has the highest standard of accommodation of anywhere I have visited. Two of the best known five star hotels on the island are the Amankila, which is on the west coast, and the Bulgari on the south coast. They love to spoil their customers – and they've turned it into an art form. With the Amankila, guests get the first hint of luxury when they're collected at the airport. Pillows are provided to guarantee a comfortable journey and guests are offered a cooler of drinks, an iPod to choose music from and a wireless router in case they want to check their emails.

The hotel has more than 30 villas with a mixture of sea or jungle views. Some have swimming pools – but all give guests total privacy. The hotel has its own private beach with volcanic black sand and sunseeking guests are brought a constant stream of ice cold water and home-made ice lollies. On the same beach, the hotel hosts private weddings, where a couple can say their vows along the shore. Activities on the island are offered – but with year-round sunshine most holidaymakers travel there specifically to lie on the beach and stock up on some vitamin D.

With the Bulgari resort – located about half an hour from the airport – guests don't even have to bother getting the private elevator to the beach, as each villa has a private pool.

The resort, built and run by the luxury Italian brand, attracts mainly Asian visitors. It hosts a steady stream of Japanese weddings, but it is working hard to attract more European customers.

It is ideal for those who like luxury with everything Bulgari across the resort – right down to the bathroom toiletries.

But while Bali has cornered the luxury market in Indonesia, other nearby islands are snapping at its heels. Lombok, a two-hour boat ride away (or a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia) is Bali's smaller, quieter, neighbour. The island is still relatively undiscovered by many but The Oberoi, Lombok, is becoming popular with Irish honeymoon couples. Lombok's advantage is that it doesn't suffer from the same traffic problems as Bali – and it's luxury hotels are considerably cheaper, making your money go further. The Oberoi, Lombok is spread across 24 acres of tropical gardens and has a private beach with views of the Gili Islands.

Dinner is served by the poolside – it offers, hands down, the best foie gras pate I have ever tasted. And if you want to truly spoil yourself (and let's face it, you will if you're on holiday or honeymoon), you can indulge in a champagne breakfast.

Just a few hundred metres away are the Gili Islands, three small islands which offer diving. Sadly some of the sites have been damaged by the scores of divers who visit each day, with much of the coral now destroyed. However, they're still worth a visit and you can walk the entire way around the 'largest' of the islands in less than an hour.

Overall Indonesia offers something for every kind of traveller – adventure, activities, food, culture, scenery and relaxation. Thanks to several airlines offering flights to most of the major islands, getting there is easy. It's leaving that's hard.

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Unique: There are only two places in the world to see Komodo dragons – Rinca and Komodo. They were discovered just 100 years ago

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