Last month, while the world held its breath over the American presidential election, we had one of the best days of our trip so far.
We chose to visit the island of Flores because it’s far less touristed and rich in natural beauty. One of the places I was most excited about was the little seaside village of Riung, which serves as the gateway to the 17 Islands Marine Park. This national park is a treasure trove of picturesque islands and exquisite gardens of colorful coral.
Getting to Riung is an adventure in itself. In fact, just traveling around Flores requires a bit of grit and a lot of patience. The roads are truly awful and negotiating public transportation or shared taxis can be a real hassle. We traveled with our two new friends from Ende and had a rough experience with the transport situation, but we finally arrived in Riung at nearly 10 pm that night.
We found a great place to stay and arranged for a boat trip through our guesthouse. We were very impressed with the man named Adam who helped us. He was so friendly, giving us all the details and showing us pictures of the boat on his cell phone. We were so grateful for his service after our transport nightmare!
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… a Bat!
The next day we woke up early for a nice breakfast then walked down the road to the pier, where we met Adam. He introduced us to his brother, our boat captain. The captain didn’t speak much English but seemed happy to have us aboard for the trip. His son was also on the boat helping out.
We set off from the little harbor of Riung, watching some tiny islands pass by as we motored to our first stop. The captain turned off the engine as we arrived at a mangrove forest which is home to a huge colony of “flying foxes.”
These animals are actually large fruit bats, and soon the boatmen began shouting and beating on the side of the boat to scare them into flying around. While this behavior grated against my belief that wildlife should be observed and not disturbed, I recognize that they do this to put on a show for the tourists. Admittedly, it was the closest I have ever been to such a massive colony of bats, and it was interesting to see a species that dwells in mangrove trees rather than caves.
An Underwater Paradise
After we had our fill of the bats, we moved on to the next stop. As we passed close to one of the islands, the water changed to an incredible green-aquamarine color. We all exclaimed over the picture-perfect beauty of this place.
The boat stopped near a reef and we jumped in to snorkel. I was immediately impressed by the color and variety of the coral and fish. It was an underwater wonderland and definitely some of the best snorkeling I’ve done. I also have to give props to my homegirl Jola because this was her first time to snorkel, and it was so much fun to share this experience together.
Our Private Island Picnic
We snorkeled the length of the reef and emerged onto a jaw-dropping white beach dotted with sand dollars. The boatman had anchored the boat and was building a fire to grill a huge fish for our lunch. Best of all, there was not another soul in sight— this was our private island for a few hours!
We walked along the beach and then the captain’s son led us on a hike up the ridge. When we emerged at the top, the views were stunning. We saw the incredibly beautiful crescent of shallow water at the head of the beach, as well as the surrounding reefs, tidal flats and islets.
Standing on top of the ridge with our awesome friends, we soaked up the beauty of our surroundings. This was one of those incredible experiences that makes travel worthwhile. We stopped caring about what might be going on with the U.S. election and counted our blessings instead.
Once the sun finally started to get to us, we hiked back down to the beach for lunch. We had worked up an appetite and the spread was beautiful. Our captain had carefully grilled the fish over a wood fire, brushing it often with a blend of oil and spices. Alongside the fish were sauteed vegetables, rice and noodles that Adam’s wife had prepared for us that morning.
The food was delicious but the setting definitely helped. Sitting side by side on a fallen log, we gazed at our private beach while we ate our lunch. I’ll remember that meal for a long time!
After some time to walk the beach and digest our food, we said goodbye to our island and hopped back in the boat. We stopped at another reef for more amazing snorkeling.
We saw a storm blowing in so we turned back to the harbor. None of us were the least disappointed because we had enjoyed such a full and incredible day together.
What makes a trip to the 17 Islands so special is that it’s truly a hidden treasure. There was one other boat at the flying foxes, but once we moved on, we didn’t see anyone else the rest of the day. Imagine sailing through these incredible islands like you own the place! Our trip to the 17 Islands was absolutely worth the hassle of getting to Riung and I highly recommend it.
- Transport: From Ende to Riung, there’s only one public bus that departs at 6 am. Travelcars (share taxis) will charge 100,000-125,000 IDR per person, and you have to wait until there are enough passengers to depart. The car may also be overcrowded. With a group of 4 people, it’s a better deal to hire a private taxi and negotiate (550,000 – 600,000 IDR).
- Accommodation: We looked at 4 different places and chose Sangrila Lodge. It was by far the nicest budget accommodation we had in Flores— clean, spacious and nice. The price was 200,000 for fan room and 300,000 to use air con. The owner “Mentos” prepares an amazing breakfast of banana pancakes with a plate of fresh fruit. His friend Adam is who we used for the boat trip.
- Boat Trip: We paid 500,000 IDR per person, which included chartering a boat, the national park fees, snorkeling equipment and an awesome lunch. You might be able to negotiate this further if you have a larger group, but we thought the price was fair.