CNBC Travel

The most beautiful Indonesian island you've probably never heard of

Ron Gluckman, contributor
Flores' crater lakes.
Caroline Pang

From the veranda of the Ayana Komodo Resort, a long wooden pier snakes into the rugged sea off Waecicu Beach. At sunset, the sky explodes with fiery showers of color. It's a perfect picture for the Instagram Age, with dozens of delicious, chocolate-chip shaped islands sprinkled across the horizon.

The five-star resort opened in September 2018 outside of Labuan Bajo, a small town on the western end of the Indonesian island of Flores.

Islands dot the landscape off of Labuan Bajo.

It's part of a massive infusion of infrastructure designed to distinguish Flores from Indonesia's other 18,000 islands, including the country's most famous Bali island. The ambitious plan is fittingly called: Ten New Balis.

Announced by the Indonesian government in 2016, the plan was met with great fanfare — and for good reason. Bali has become a global icon, attracting 40% of Indonesia's foreign visitors, many who venture no farther.

A secret no more

Expanding tourism to other sites and islands is a goal of President Joko Widodo, who was soundly reelected last year.

Progress is visible everywhere around Labuan Bajo. What was once a small fishing village is now supercharged with boom-town zeal and non-stop construction of restaurants and hotels.

Flores is home to hot springs and caves, including Rangko Cave (shown here).
Sirintra Pumsopa

A long-time favorite of the diving world, the tiny town has two dozen dive shops, according to Benedikt Schaefer at Blue Marlin Dive.

"It's world famous, and rightfully so. You can do different dives every day," he said.

Though the plan outlined 10 locations to transform into tourism capitals, four were chosen as "priority destinations" — Borobudur, Mandalika, Lake Toba and Labuan Bajo. Because of booming Labuan Bajo, the entire island of Flores is receiving a tourism lift.

Komodo dragons and Starbucks

A new airport opened in Labuan Bajo in 2013, and it is already slated for expansion into an international hub.

The town's harbor is in the midst of a $2 billion overhaul which ushered in another upscale hotel, Inaya Bay Komodo, that opened in late 2019.

It's in a huge complex with a swirling spaceship design that is reminiscent of a smaller version of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands, and it features the first Starbucks in hundreds of miles.

Even more important are the new boat terminals that are designed to welcome yachts, ferries and cruise ships.

Padar Island is a favorite spot to visit from Labuan Bajo.

The island-dotted waters around Labuan Bajo are already packed with boats, a fleet estimated at several hundred, according to travel agent Ndiwar Kewali, owner of Komodo Dominik Tour.

Like others around town, his business focuses upon nearby Komodo Island, home to the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard and undisputed superstar of Flores tourism.

Labuan Bajo's airport was formerly called Mutiara II to distinguish it from Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie Airport on the nearby island of Sulawesi. But nobody would confuse the two today.

The dragons have definitely put this place on the map.
Anna Karas
director of public relations for Ayana Komodo Resort

Arrivals at Labuan Bajo — mainly from Bali and Jakarta — land at a quaint airport looking like something from Hollywood blockbuster, Jurassic Park. The walls and shops are decorated with giant murals of Komodo dragons.

"Everyone comes for the Komodo dragons," noted Anna Karas, director of public relations for Ayana Komodo Resort. "The dragons have definitely put this place on the map."

A dragon-sized controversy

A major tremor of dismay rocked the area last year when public officials announced plans to close Komodo National Park. Outrage inflamed the town.

"Everyone is against it," said Kewali. "I don't believe it will happen. It's just talk, politics," he added.

Flores is one of less than five islands in the world where Komodo dragons live in the wild.
Aprison Photography

"If they close the park, it would hurt so many people," said local guide John Bhago. "It would be a disaster."

Soon after, the plan was withdrawn. But Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, governor of East Nusa Tenggara, stirred the pot with a proposal to push visitation fees to $500 per person to limit lizard tours to high-end tourists. He later suggested they be increased even more, perhaps to $1,000.
Entrance fees currently start at around $11 per person.

A major tourist draw, Komodo dragons have a famously venomous bite and are known to occasionally attack humans.

As this dragon-sized controversy continues to grip Labuan Bajo, around the lush tropical island, adventurous visitors are intrigued by sights that have drawn travelers for centuries.

Exploring Flores

The Portuguese first arrived in the early 1500s, giving the island its name, which translates to "flowers" in Portuguese.

Popular with backpackers for decades, idyllic Flores abounds with lush foliage and striking volcanoes, highlighted by the famous three-colored crater lakes by Mount Kelimutu.

With so much emphasis these days on cultural and ethno-tourism, Flores is home to an array of authentic tribal villages with rich folklore and fantastic weaving traditions.

On a road trip from Labuan to the old villages around Bajawan, guide John Bhago points out a cascade of stunning churches. Flores is the most Christian part of the world's most populated Muslim-majority nation.

Even more surprising than the soaring steeples and colorful depictions of Jesus and Mary, is seeing them alongside mosques.

"In Flores, everyone lives in harmony," he proudly noted.

The spider web rice fields in Flores, Indonesia.
Tanutkij Wangsittidej

A must-stop is Ruteng — if only for a hike to the hills above Cancar Village — to savor the breathtaking views of the famed spider web rice fields.

Framed by mountains, the fields tilled by indigenous Manggarai people resemble enormous cobwebs, or as another tourist quipped "alien landing fields."

Ruteng is also home to hot springs and the Liang Bua cave, where the remains of a unique species, called Homo Floresiensis, were discovered in excavations in 2003. The remains of Flores ancient ancestors are sometimes referred to as "hobbits" as excavations showed the people were just over one meter tall, much like the fictional characters in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Traditional villages of Flores.
Courtesy of Ron Gluckman

Dozens of traditional villages can be found around Ruteng and further east to Bajawa, with thatched-roof huts and communal areas seemingly unchanged for centuries.

Bena is especially picturesque; it sits on a green plain with dazzling views of Mount Inierie, the largest volcano on the island. The houses are topped with hand-made spirit figures, like warriors, animals and tiny houses.

A spirit figure atop a tribal village house.
Courtesy of Ron Gluckman

Bena and some of the major villages can feel a bit tourist-trodden, but it's easy to arrange homestays and treks to more distant villages.

Room to grow

Driving around the island demonstrates Flores' vast tourism appeal and equally immense needs. Roads are few, and hotels and restaurants are mostly basic.

Connecting the dots from Komodo Airport to these distant rice fields, cultural villages, volcanoes and gorgeous beaches will require tremendous investment.

A woman weaving textiles in Bena.
Bruno Guerreiro

"Growth in Flores has been massive," said Lydia Susanti, guest services manager at Puri Sari Beach Hotel, which like most in Labuan Bajo, is in the midst of expansion.

"Tourism on the island is booming, but we really need to make sure all the island benefits, not just Labuan," she said. "We're unprepared — in terms of human resources, education and training," added Susanti, who grew up in Ruteng and has worked in tourism around Indonesia.

Still, she concedes an undeniable freshness in Flores.

"In terms of infrastructure, this is definitely not Bali. But in terms of nature, it is more."