Bali may be a favourite destination among Aussie travellers, but the nearby islands of Flores and Sumba are hidden treasures just waiting to be uncovered
I’m staring at a big, heaping pile of Komodo Dragons. I say ‘pile’ because the eight or so seven-foot lizards are lazily lumped around in the shade, with one’s head on top of another’s tail on top of another’s foot in some sort of subverted prehistoric friendship circle that, unsurprisingly, isn’t warming my heart in the slightest.
Apparently, this is how the largest lizard on Earth spends its days. The Komodo Dragon is venomous, swims, runs 20 kilometres an hour, eats buffalo and monkeys, and has been known to attack and kill humans, but the creatures I am looking at are wearing their apathy and slothfulness like a badge of honour. Fair enough, Komodo, you do you – I’m not one to argue with a cannibalistic predator.
Would I consider myself a lover of amphibians? Definitely not. Am I an avid adventure traveller? Not unless said adventure includes regular naps and a sundowner at the end of each day. So you might ask why on Earth I am wherever on Earth I am, although by now you might have guessed.
I’m on Rinca Island, one of the three islands that make up the Komodo National Park in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region, and the reason I’m here is pretty straightforward – I’ve never been before. I can’t say the same about Bali, and that’s why this time around I’ve bypassed the popular resort isle, just a short plane ride away, for a four-night stay on the nearby island of Flores, gateway to the Komodo National Park.
Flores, and all of Bali’s sister islands in the Nusa Tenggara province, for that matter – Lombok, Sumba, Sulawesi and Sumatra, to name a few – have long lived in Bali’s shadow. While nearly half of all tourists to Indonesia visit Bali, where tourism has boomed since the 1970s, the rest of the islands in this string of Indian Ocean pearls remain relatively untapped by tourism. Astounding, given each island here is equally if not more beautiful than its famous sibling, and certainly more untouched.
It’s a good thing, then, that AYANA Komodo Resort opened in September. Located just outside Flores’s capital, Labuan Bajo, the new luxury resort is a welcome piece of paradise within a paradise – a Russian doll of respite, worlds away from the ever-increasing chaos of Bali. And you don’t even have to be interested in visiting ginormous reptiles to enjoy it.
On my full-day boating adventure to the Komodo National Park we make a snorkelling pit-stop at Komodo Island’s Pink Sand Beach, and in the warm, shallow water see baby sharks gliding. A few minutes later we come up close and personal with a turtle enthusiastically nibbling seagrass and algae on the ocean floor, mere metres from the shoreline.
By the time we get to a Maldivian-style sandbank in the middle of the ocean, I’m smiling from ear to ear underwater as we join the colourful fish swimming in their reef playground before Manta Ray spotting from the bow of our speedboat. And this is just another day in Flores – an island known for having some of the best diving in Asia.
Returning to the sanctuary of AYANA Komodo Resort salty, sun-soaked and satisfied, I merely have to pick a spot, any spot, in the resort to get front-row tickets to see the star of the show – a 180-degree panorama of calm azure ocean punctuated by small islands. It’s just before sunset now and I’m tempted to sit in the open-air, top- floor lobby with its endless ocean vista, but that’s before I discover UNIQUE Rooftop Bar – a space that puts Seminyak’s bars to shame and leaves me gob-smacked. Time for that sundowner I mentioned earlier? Don’t mind if I do!
Another favourite spot for watching those magnificent fiery Indian Ocean sunsets is Naga Bar – a charming island-chic shack at the end of the snaking pier. UNIQUE might have the high-voltage ‘wow’ factor, but Naga serves up the romance. The ocean scenery on display at AYANA Komodo is a bonafide gift from the Gods that has far exceeded my expectations, and it is, unsurprisingly, the absolute focus of the resort.
As for what’s in store inland, that’s a little more complicated.There is little infrastructure in Flores outside of Labuan Bajo, and the poor roads limit even the most patient of traveller’s ability to explore, a shame given the island is dotted with beautiful volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls and towns offering rich culture, traditions and handicrafts.
While the government is working to improve the roads and I’m already convinced Flores is a place worth visiting, if currently just for its ocean offering, AYANA’s move to open such a large resort (there are 205 rooms) before the tourists have truly arrived, is ambitious. During my stay, the resort is unbelievably quiet and it’s apparent the word is not yet out on Flores. It doesn’t help that there is no international airport… yet.
“To be the first one is always risky…nobody wants to be the first one!” AYANA Komodo Resort General Manager Fernando Arroyo says. “I think it was a very bold and wise move from our owners to open… it’s a domino effect when it comes to hotels. One, two or three chains open, and the others will just follow.”
If Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s word is anything to go by, Arroyo will be right. In 2017 Widodo named Labuan Bajo one of the country’s target destinations in the government’s ‘10 New Balis’ tourism strategy – a plan to replicate the economic effects of tourism in Bali, nationally. And with Flores’s first five-star hotel now open, this pretty island could finally capture some of the high-end clientele that visits Bali every year.
He doesn’t need to convince me. I spend my days at the resort in a lazy haze, sauntering from the pool to one of the three restaurants to the spa and back to the pool, mirroring the inertia of my amphibian counterparts.
It’s no accident that I don’t spend much time in my room, which leaves much to be desired in the way of design and decor. There is a sense it has been rushed and thrown together the glimmer of luxury found in the bathroom quickly forgotten thanks to an all-consuming, contrived coastal palette of cream on cream and the addition of kitsch coral and seahorse adornments not seen in interiors since the 1990s. There isn’t a coffee machine or much in the way of a minibar, and while the rooms aren’t terrible, they’re not at the five-star standard I would expect, either.
The saving grace is – here I go again – that view, generously granted to every single room in the resort. Request a room on a high floor to make the most of it, or better yet opt for one of the 13 corner Full Ocean View Suites, which are huge and have in- your-face ocean panoramas up there with the qualias of the world.
After four days on Flores, I may have had my fix of ‘Flowers’ island, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of Nusa Tenggara, and I have time for one more stop: Sumba.
Home to multi-award-winning Hotel of the Year resort, Nihi Sumba, Sumba’s rolling green hills, petite Sandalwood ‘sea horses’ (that you can ride on the beach and in the ocean), beautiful beaches and incredible surf make it an island utopia that is still, again, under-explored by Australians.
Nihi Sumba is a luxury surf retreat made famous in part by its world-renowned ‘private’ wave, ‘God’s Left’. Just 10 surfers per day are allowed on it, and spots are booked months or even years in advance. For this non-surfer, though (see previous comment about adventure travel), I discover Nihi is equally dreamy to sunbakers and tube-chasers alike, and a big part of that is the emphasis the resort puts on the natural environment, sustainability and island exploration.
Oh, and the luxury factor may have a little to do with it. Giving all new meaning to ‘spa time’, at Nihi Sumba I experience a Spa Safari – a half-day unlimited treatment pamper session in a remote, cliff side location away from the resort. Bliss? at’s not the half of it.
Nihi’s 33 villas are just as exclusive, and my ocean view villa is one of the most beautiful I’ve stayed in. But, like my experience on Flores, it is the untouched environment that really lingers in my mind long after check-out, and as I make my way to the airport, I’m even more perplexed than I was before as to why tourism isn’t exploding here.
Maybe it’s because Bali is beautiful, too. Maybe it’s because there is a certain comfort in returning to places you’ve been before. Or maybe it’s because Komodo Dragons are kind of scary. Whatever the reason, I’ve experienced first-hand the immense beauty to be found beyond Bali’s shores, and if Widodo’s vision is anything to go by, the time to discover these island treasures is now.