It’s hard to believe that I’m writing this from Philippines. We’ve been to three islands in two different countries in the past week, and yet I want to talk about the one we were on for only a matter of hours. Why? Because it was freakin’ awesome.
I famously resisted taking a trip to Bali. Ben was adamant, and our compromise was to only spend 8 days on the island. I asked some friends who had been before for some travel tips to help get excited, and they totally came through. A few people gave us the advice to make a trip to the neighboring Indonesian island of Flores to catch a boat tour through the islands comprising Komodo National Park. I was greeted by pictures of incredible hiking views, huge manta rays, and pink sand beaches. Wow. I told Ben about the location, and he was as eager as I to make it happen.
This was no small feat! We’d spent the first four days of our trip to Bali at a beautiful resort on the north coast, which meant a 3-hour drive to the airport the day we departed for Flores. We then stayed overnight at a small B&B near Flores’ airport and left at 5:00 a.m. to meet our boat at the marina.
You see, the only way to access the incredible island cluster is by boat. The islands comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means it is a protected landmark. Any permanent infrastructure would greatly impact the landscape, so visitors and their wanderings are severely limited. Instead of flying onto the islands and staying at a hotel on site, visitors have to stay on Flores and charter boats to take them to the various points of interest. Many boat companies exist with set island itineraries, but by the time we were ready to plan our trip they were almost all reserved (darn our procrastination!) Instead we asked our Flores B&B to help us secure a boat, and, for about twice the fare we would have paid anyway, we found ourselves the lone passengers on a private slow boat.
I am so glad we had the boat to ourselves! It was great to bring our own food, as many swimming accessories as we wanted, and stretch out on either side of the boat. We definitely needed the space to nap after waking up before dawn!
I’ll never forget sitting with my legs up on one of those benches, watching the pristine landscape float by with a warm morning breeze, listening to Shallow on repeat and having a WhatsApp convo with my niece about sustainability and health. In the words of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Tell me something, Girl. Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more? Is there something else you’re searching for?” Well, I’m not happy in this modern world. Sometimes I wish I didn’t, but I do need more. This felt like I found something I’d been searching for.
The downside was that the boat was S-L-O-W. It took 3 hours of slowly drifting past beautiful islands to arrive at our first stop, Padar Island. This island’s claim to fame is the fact that it splinters into four narrow offshoots. A 20-minute walk up a stair path led us to the highest point of the island, where we were treated to views of each leg of land and 5 different bays of crystal clear water. It was insanely beautiful. While Ben and I thought the view was worth the slow boat ride and short hike, Whit had other thoughts. He’d become pretty dehydrated in the short amount of time we were off the covered boat, and would have suffered heat stroke had we stayed out for much longer. He was bright red, lethargic, and really cranky as we pushed him to the peak. We didn’t realize how ill he felt until later, but I’m still glad he saw the magnificent view. He was fine after frequent breaks in the shade with water, but, unfortunately, sometimes he only remembers the negative.
After an hour on Padar Island we made our way to one of the few pink sand beaches on the various nearby islands. There are a few we had heard of, but I was pleased we were being driven to a relatively low-key one. This beach isn’t more popular because the stretch of sand isn’t very wide, but that was totally fine with me. Seeing the pink sand at all was a joy and I was thrilled that the only other tourist boats in the vicinity pulled away as we arrived. It may not be very wide, but we had it all to ourselves! Whit and I snorkeled from where the boat moored to the island, passing tropical fish and coral reef on our way. Once we arrived the view to our left and right was full of color: deep green vegetation, black lava rocks, pink sand, and ombre turquoise water.
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
We only had a short 30 minute break on the secret pink sand beach before taking off for stop #3: Komodo Island. A trip to the Komodo Island is usually the main even for these island cluster day trips. It’s one of the few places on Earth you can see Komodo dragons, an ancient reptile leftover from the dinosaurs. Komodo Dragons can reach 3 meters long and live to be 60 years old. They are fierce predators, chasing their prey down with sheer speed and endurance, then sealing the deal on dinner with sharp, strong jaws. We were required to hire a guide to walk with us through the island’s visitor park trails, which turned out to be great. He gave us some good information on the dragons and their behaviors, and carried a special dragon-fighting stick. That made us feel better.
We didn’t see any wild Komodo dragons on our guided walk through the nature reserve, so our guide took us to the island’s small cafe where a few dragons are always found to be lounging in the shade, relaxing to Bob Marley. Komodo dragons: they’re just like the rest of us.
Stop #4 was to Manta Point, a spot in the middle of the water where two seas meet. Manta rays are known to congregate in the changing currents, and our boat driver expertly found the narrow bit of water and pointed out each dancing shadow he could find.
At first all three of us got ready to go into the water. We each put on snorkel mask and flippers, and Ben and I lowered ourselves into the water and waited for Whit to jump in after us. In an instant our guide started shouting, “Ray! There! Go!” and Ben and I were off without a second thought. He had sounded so insistent and authoritative that I didn’t want to question him! It was incredible to swim after this giant creature and then follow him through the water. Manta rays are massive, imposing, incredibly graceful animals. It was amazing.
It took a few minutes for us to realize we’d left Whit on the boat and to swim back to him. He’d had a great time watching us swim away, and harbored no ill feelings of being left behind. Ben climbed up the ladder back onto the boat first then took my fins so I could follow. Before stepping onto the ladder, though, the guide once again started shouting. Again I tore through the water without a second thought, but this time with no fins and a severely fogged snorkel mask. I couldn’t find the ray. I swam a ways then bobbed in the water, with each member on the boat yelling and pointing in the same direction. Off I go again.
Usually I don’t swim in the ocean unless it’s a certain temperature and I’m in the mood, but this time it was so fun to swim with purpose without even thinking. To just dive in and go. Incredible. And the manta ray? Ooooooooh. They are so cool.
We didn’t back to the marina until 9:00 p.m., which made for three very tired passengers. It was a long day but one of the best of my life. Definitely the best travel day we’ve had in our first full year of full-time travel!
We flew back to Bali the next morning for two days in Ubud. Located in the center of the island where the hills and farmland begin, Ubud is one of the most popular spots in Bali for it’s relaxed mountain vibe. I was equally curious about why everyone loved it and prematurely resentful of the crowds I expected. Ubud was as busy and wild with tourists as I imagined, but it was also wonderful. Some highlights were leaving for the Tagallalang Rice Terraces at dawn after Whit and I both woke up early, shopping at the handicrafts market (and the comfortable, fashionable clothing I was able to find and the snake Whit was able to haggle for), driving our moto out of Ubud to see isolated rice paddies and slower life, and going to POD Chocolate Farm for delicious, custom made chocolate bars (Ben chose dark chocolate with coconut and cashes, I made milk chocolate with coconut and cranberries, and Whit basically chose sugar by adding sprinkles and gummy bears to white chocolate.)
All-in-all Bali was as touristy as I expected and the formerly cultural sites have become absurdly commercialized, but there are some amazing corners we truly, truly enjoyed. I have to admit I’m glad we went.