A Closer Look at Labuan Bajo

December 1, 2013 frvtravel

The name Flores has been bandied about a lot over the past couple of years as the next Bali or the next major Indonesian tourism destination. Long-term Bali expats have uprooted and moved there, people from all over the world have been snapping up land, and the airport runway has just been lengthened to receive larger aircraft. So why is all this happening? FRV’s David Trauts flies the one-hour route from Bali to Labuan Bajo to find out for himself.

Text and photos by David Trauts

Labuan Bajo (LBJ) is the capital of the West Manggarai Regency in the northwestern part of the island of Flores, and is about 650 kilometres from Bali. A number of airlines fly there from Bali including a small jet run by Aviastar airlines which I boarded on a very sunny morning last month.

Touchdown revealed the almost finished, new airport that has a very avant-garde look about it, sitting behind the simple, 70’s style, existing Komodo airport terminal. This modern airport terminal, slated to be finished this month, is the first clue as to what is going on in this part of the world.

Met by Man—that’s his real name—I jump in his vehicle waiting outside the terminal and head to the Bintang Flores Hotel, just south of town, where I am booked to stay two nights. The proximity of everything in LBJ is the first thing that strikes me as we drive the three minutes to the centre and then to the Bintang, which is another less than five minutes from there. The Bintang Flores Hotel, which is in the same group as the famed Bintang Ramada in Tuban, Bali is a four star hotel on a road and stretch of beach that looks like was created at some point in the past to be the new Nusa Dua hotel precinct of LBJ. There are a number of starred hotels along this stretch. The Bintang Flores is a comfortable, clean and friendly hotel and came recommended by a number of people who knew LBJ well. They didn’t let me down—it was indeed a very comfortable hotel.

Now, from my experience, one of the better ways to get to know a new place quickly is to look around at land for sale, so that’s exactly what I did. There is definitely a land rush going on in LBJ. It wasn’t long ago that land was priced at next to nothing in areas near town, and why wouldn’t it be? There was nothing there, no utilities, no roads, no actual reason to be there, but over the past 10 years there has been a surge in diving and Komodo dragon spotting and slowly but surely people have been arriving from all over the world and from all over Indonesia to visit, to invest or to set up shop. The Indonesian government too has also been taking a position and investing in this part of the world to help it become another Indonesian tourism jewel.

I wondered before arriving what people did for work around LBJ and it didn’t take long to realise that selling land was right up there with diving and Komodo dragon spotting support. Everyone seemed to have a piece of land to sell. Before I knew it, there were people lining up to show me around all the nooks and crannies the local area had to offer and there was definitely a lot to see. Breathtaking ocean views and beautiful, blue water vistas quickly became common place as I was taken to remote locations or shown pieces of land right in town. It appears the land rush began in earnest about five years ago and prices are now showing that demand is outstripping supply and are definitely on the move. There are still some good prices to be had, but I will leave that for you to find out for yourself.

Click to view slideshow.

The town of Labuan Bajo is a particularly pretty fishing port. Fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries are tied up at the wharf while larger cruisers and yachts are at anchor in the bay. Islands dot the seascape close to the mainland and a new promenade is being built in front of the shanty-style homes of the original settlement. It’s a charming place and the houses and stores painted in bright colours help give the town a real Caribbean feel. Some of the majority Christian locals wouldn’t look out of place in Jamaica too with their rastafied hair styles and cool attitudes.

Everyone seemed to have a piece of land to sell. Before I knew it, there were people lining up to show me around all the nooks and crannies the local area.

Good dining is beginning to show its face in town too. Made in Italy opened about three years ago and the Italian cuisine at the restaurant is as good as you would find anywhere. Chef Marco is passionate about his food, uses top quality ingredients and has set the bar very high for other restaurants in town. The strange thing is that the other restaurants opening recently in Labuan Bajo are also Italian. “I wish someone would open something else other than Italian,” Marco told me. “A Japanese, or French, or even a good, local Indonesian restaurant would be great.” At the moment his restaurant is a bustling nerve centre in the heart of town and packed most nights with foreign and Indonesian tourists enjoying the wood-fired pizzas, inventive entrees, pastas and nightly specials.

Things have changed a lot in a very short time in LBJ. “When Made in Italy first opened, the main road out the front of the restaurant wasn’t asphalted and every time a truck passed we would have to clean the whole restaurant because there was so much dust. Thank goodness they paved the road a couple of years ago,” says Marco. Across the road is the Medittereneo restaurant, another notable Italian with fantastic views over the port – perfect for a sunset beer or two. There are other small cafes and restaurants along the main road and most have spectacular views of the port. The deck at the Marlin Diving centre is also a nice option. There is a lot of room for more restaurants in LBJ and without doubt restaurateurs from all over will be heading that way to open them soon.

Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the Komodo National Park. The park consists of three large and 29 smaller islands with an area of 1733 square kilometres. In 1991 the area became a UNESCO World Heritage site and recently was added to the list of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Scuba diving is very popular around the islands and boats can be chartered from Labuan Bajo by the day or for longer periods. Many say that the biodiversity and richness of the area makes it one of the best places on the planet for diving.

Komodo dragons are another huge draw-card for the area. The world’s largest lizard, growing up to three metres in some cases, can be found on a number of islands including Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Flores itself. According to Ronald at Lagona Divers, a dive centre at Bintang Flores hotel, Rinca is the best island to see the dragons as they are easier to find than neighbouring Komodo Island.

Labuan Bajo was one of Indonesia’s best kept secrets until recently. It has something for everyone looking for a relaxing holiday, a thrill seeking diving trip or as a base for a trip around the islands of the Komodo National Park. Nightlife is almost non-existent, besides places like the live music venue Paradise just out of town or the restaurants and bars on the main street for sunset drinks. However, the beauty of the area and especially to the north of town, which is newly zoned for tourism, and the friendliness of the local population make it an easy and carefree place. It’s only a matter of time before LBJ, just like Bali or Gili Trawangan before it, becomes the next big thing in Indonesian tourism and with that, a very good place to live.

How to get there.
There are daily flights from Bali with Aviastar, Transnusa, Wings (Lion), Merpati and Sky. Garuda Indonesia will have direct flights from Bali starting early December 2013 and Jakarta sometime in the future.

Bintang Flores Hotel
Jl. Pantai Pede,
Labuan Bajo, Flores
Tel: +62-385-244-3755

Made in Italy
Jalan Soekarno Hatta, Labuan Bajo, Flores.
Tel. +62-385-41366

Read more...

Previous Article
San Francisco Days and Mandarin Oriental Nights
San Francisco Days and Mandarin Oriental Nights

Rachel Love visits the dynamic city of San Francisco, where she rides across...

Next Article
Asia Diving
Asia Diving

Ask any diver worth his weight in lead dive belts and he’ll tell you some of...