and Siladen Island
And check out Ken's Bunaken Marine Park Photo Gallery
It was recently my pleasure to make another dive exploration of North Sulawesi, Indonesia, an area that offers some of the world's most interesting and unique scuba diving. North Sulawesi, and in particular Lembeh Strait, is said to contain the world's greatest diversity of marine life on our planet. A cornucopia of diving options includes everything from precipitous walls and blue water coral reefs to what is considered to be the all-time best critter/muck diving. In this report I strive to give you a feel for the region's unique scuba diving opportunities, as well as to define some of the best quality lodging and diving values currently available. If you like what you read, I hope you will consider visting North Sulawesi yourself, and/or joining me on one of Island Dreams Travel's Conducted Group Dive Tours to Indonesia and the Pacific.
Sulawesi, Indonesia - Straddling the Equator, the large and convoluted island of Sulawesi has a coastline greater than that of the USA. In the south, the remote Tukang Besi Islands and Wakatobi Resort are renowned for their pristine coral reef diving. In central Sulawesi is Toraja Land, home to some of the most unusual primitive cultures still surviving on our planet. In North Sulawesi is Manado, capitol of the region, the area of Indonesia with highest Christian population, and focus of this report.
Gateway Manado - Located in the far northeast portion of Sulawesi, the city of Manado provides a very efficient entry point to the entire region. With a modern new airport, getting to North Sulawesi's great diving has never been simpler. Manado is easily accessed via direct jet service from Singapore, Bali, Kota Kinabalu and other major hubs. It also serves as jumping off point for the diving of Irian Jaya and Raja Ampat. The burgeoning port city of Manado and the neighboring city of Bitung are striking for their bustling economy, many Christian churches, and diverse populace living together quite peacefully.
Resort Options - Once in the Manado area a selection of lodging options awaits you, ranging from simple inexpensive dive lodges to 4-star hotels and resorts with their own in-house dive operations. From Manado you have access to blue water coral reef diving in Bunaken Marine Park, or critter and muck diving in nearby Lembeh Strait. As they are only a couple of hours apart by an easy car/boat transfer, my recommendation is that you partake of both. On previous visits I have reported on other resorts in this region, as well as renowned Kungkungan Bay Resort, which we at Island Dreams are still very pleased to represent. But on this trip I was able to revisit and evaluate the continuing evolution of Lembeh Dive Resort, as well as to have first-hand experience of Siladen Resort & Spa. This report will provide you with detailed analysis of both lodgings and their diving operations. Always keeping an eye towards topside touring and spa highlights, I also highly recommend the rejuvenation to be found at the lush and contemplative Gardenia Country Inn, located in the highlands above Manado.
Lembeh Resort - Located across Lembeh Strait from Kungkungan Bay Resort, this attractive up-scale property just keeps getting better. Remarkable for its thoughtful design, and the way it has been so cleverly and naturally integrated into the cove and hillside of its setting, Lembeh Resort's lush gardens, careful landscaping, and waterfront vistas make for a truly spectacular dedicated dive resort. Built with stone and exotic local woods, the spacious guest rooms have Balinese-style bathrooms, and wide ocean view balconies. Public spaces include the pleasing two-story dining room, ocean-side swimming pool and deck, dive shop, dockside gear storage with individual lockers, and a spacious, well-lighted camera preparation area with individual cubicles each equipped with charging facilities.
A definite asset is the fact that Lembeh Resort's diving services are handled by Danny Charlton's Critters@Lembeh. Their capable boatmen and highly experienced divemasters, coupled with efficient western-minded management, guarantee you the finest diving experience to be had in North Sulawesi. If there is any downside to be noted for this property it is that the hillside setting requires a bit of walking up and down stone pathways between the rooms, public spaces and dive areas. (There is the option to request a lower level room, or one of the new Gardenview rooms that are on sea level). For my part I soon become accustomed to the additional exercise and came away from Lembeh Resort thoroughly impressed.
Siladen Resort & Spa - Siladen Resort currently has 17 guest rooms, with three more luxury beachfront rooms planned for the 2015 season. The individual guest bungalows are private and serene. Built with rich native woods and stone, they have high ceilings with recessed lighting and modern high efficiency air-conditioning. The king-sized four-poster beds are firm and inviting, and include excellent LED reading lamps. Of course, twin bed rooms are also available. Each room includes coffee and tea service with plenty of complimentary drinking water. The bathrooms are Balinese-style semi-open-air with good showers and plenty of hot water. High quality shampoo, body wash and moisturizing cream are provided.
Built in a semi-circle around a lovely fresh water swimming pool, the public spaces are spacious and carefully designed. There are multiple bars, comfortable lounging areas, and even a slate pool table. The circular, open-air restaurant offers sweeping views of the pool, gardens, beach and the sea. On occasion, the dining tables are moved out onto the beach, for a memorable luncheon, served ocean side under the shade of an immense almond tree. For a truly festive evening meal, the dining room is sometimes moved to the main beach, for a BBQ under the stars, complete with a flashy bartender juggling flaming bottles.
Siladen Resort's Italian ownership is most clearly expressed by the superb dining experience offered. The local staff has been trained by a gourmet chef from Italy and the results are marvelous. The cuisine is varied diverse blend of European and Indonesian fare, with a wide array of choices offered at every meal. There is always a great fresh salad bar, homemade soups, and fine breads and pastries baked in-house. The main dishes include meat, chicken, fish, pasta (cooked to perfection, of course), and vegetarian selections. Freshly-caught tuna sashimi and even fancy sushi rolls were sometimes served. My only personal complaint is that every lunch and dinner included a groaning board of exotic desserts, including double chocolate cake, fruit tarts and pies, multiple flavors of mousse, an excellent flan, and many more. Of course, I just took the fresh fruit. ☺
Siladen Saturday Night - On one very special evening the resort transformed the dining room into a lush jungle scene, complete with giant palm fronds, vines, flowers and banana trees. The meal was creative and superbly executed, though as you can see, it was not a vegetarian affair. A live band brought in from Manado was excellent, playing everything from local folk songs to Delta blues. I did my part by wearing my best sarong, and ended up sitting in with the band on a couple of tunes. What a great party!
Gardenia Country Inn - Located in the small village of Tomohon (City of Flowers), the 45-minute drive from Manado to the Gardenia Inn takes you from the heat and humidity of sea level to an altitude of 900 meters, and a completely different environment. The air is pleasantly cooler and drier, and a different set of flora and fauna are evident. Set well back from the road beside an intriguing Buddhist temple, Gardenia Inn is artfully sited amidst manicured gardens, a rushing mountain stream and lively koi ponds. A selection of outdoor and semi-open nooks, platforms and small grottos are perfect for serious relaxing, reading, walking, bird watching and private meditation. Services include massage, day tours, and an excellent restaurant that specializes in a remarkable BBQ dinner that one cooks to taste on a gas burner built into your table. If all the contemplation is too much for you, the bungalow rooms also include a TV set, VCR, and a selection of contemporary movies are available. Gardenia Country Inn is a perfect spot for a romantic get away, a place to banish the symptoms of jetlag after the long international flights, or better yet both at once. I look forward to visiting Gardenia Inn again myself.
Diving Lembeh Strait - Of course, the main impetus for divers to visit North Sulawesi begins with the extreme biodiversity of the marine life in the waters of the Lembeh Strait. The term "muck diving" may have originally been coined in Papua New Guinea, but it is an accurate description of the typical dive site's appearance as one backrolls in at a favorite Lembeh Strait spot such as "Hair Ball." The diver is initially met by a daunting expanse of seemingly featureless black volcanic sand. This depressing marine landscape is only randomly broken by small pockets of sponge, perhaps an anemone, or as often an old shoe, burlap bag, or scrap of newspaper. At first blush, the uninitiated might seriously consider climbing right back into the boat and looking for another place to dive.
Expert Dive Guides - But this is where the sharp eyes of the region's superbly trained dive guides come into play. Initially schooled by dive guide extraordinaire Larry Smith (RIP), these fellows (and now some women) have become world-class fish finders. With the eager assistance of these talented dive guides, Lembeh Strait reveals itself to be one of the richest repositories of marine life on Earth. In fact, the guides' eyes are so good that you will want to bring a magnifying glass underwater, and/or your longest macro lens, to fully appreciate all the marine life they have to share with you.
Underwater Photographer's Paradise - As a result of the extraordinary marine life and "photo-sensitive" guides, many Lembeh dive travelers are avid underwater photographers, with the focus on macro. The good resorts further cater to photographers' specific needs with well thought out camera prep areas, boat crews trained to handle cameras, and by providing various photo pro months during the year. Experts such as Denise Nielsen Tackett, Larry Tackett, Burt Jones, Maurine Shimlock, Steve Fish, Berkeley White and others are occasionally available to accompany divers on the daily boat trips, sharing tips and spotting critters, and to provide advice on how to improve your u/w photo results. On my own guided groups, I strive to make the travel as hassle-free as possible, and then enable my guests to maximize their diving and photographic opportunities, offering advice and assistance as needed.
Don't Miss the Night Diving - - Over my decades as a diver I have made hundreds of night dives. Sadly, I'd come to the point where I really did not like night diving much anymore. They seemed mostly about too many divers flashing and thrashing about with little in the way of unique creatures to enjoy. I'd end up just swimming around in the dark with my lights off to enjoy the bioluminescence. I'm glad to report that night diving in Lembeh Strait and Bunaken is definitely not boring. Whether a boat night dive, or off the beach in front of your resort, a night dive here is packed with excitement, crazy creatures, and wonderful photo opportunities. So try to limit to a group of no more than four divers, add in an experienced guide/critter-spotter, and you may well have one of the best dives of your life.
Manado, Bunaken, and the Northern Islands - Perfect complement to a Lembeh Strait visit, is an add-on stay in Manado, there to experience the blue-water and coral reef diving of the justly renowned Bunaken National Marine Park. Generally, the transfer between the two areas is accomplished via a simple two-hour car ride. By special arrangement it may be done via boat transfer, possibly to include two dives in the remote Northern Islands along the way, home to some of the healthiest and most beautiful coral reef I have ever seen. Please note that there is an additional charge for such a boat transfer and it is very much season and weather conditional. There is also the excellent option of spending a few nights at Gangga Island Resort and diving Bangka and the surrounding islands, which are more or less equidistant between Lembeh and Bunaken. Learn more here: Gangga Island Resort and Spa
Bunaken Marine Park - In existence for some years now, Bunaken Reserve is probably the best-known scuba diving site in Indonesia. The good news is that it still lives up to its nickname of Bunaken Sea Garden. After the muck diving of Lembeh, most striking and satisfying for me is Bunaken's beautiful blue water, visibility often in excess of 100 feet, and schools of fishes. Here you may swim amidst colorful tropical reef fishes - pyramid butterflyfish, redtooth triggerfish, bannerfish, Moorish idols, and the like. Equally pleasing is the opportunity to encounter pelagic animals such as shark, eagle ray, and Napoleon wrasse, all while swimming along coral reefs adorned in soft corals, sea fans, and big sponges. The Bunaken dive guides are now equally as adept as those of Lembeh, and able to show many of the same exotic creatures to be found in nearby Lembeh Strait. Bunaken too has immense biodiversity, including pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, orangutan crabs, devilfish, ribbon eels and much more, all with the background of a healthy coral reef and clear water.
Topside Touring - Before departing the Manado region, it should be noted that there is some interesting topside touring to be done. A recent highlight for me was a repeat visit to Tangkoko National Park. We walked through virgin rain forest, listened to the rich sounds of the jungle, glimpsed a hornbill returning to its nest, a cuscus in the treetop, and spied upon dozens of black-crested macaque monkeys as they made their evening camp in the treetops. At dusk we were led to a huge strangling fig tree with a hollow interior where we met, at point-blank range, the Tarsier monkey. Small enough to sit in a teacup, this tiny nocturnal primate has very large eyes to enable hunting its insect prey in the dark. The Tarsier is terminally cute, strongly reminiscent of the friendly version of the little monsters in the movie "Gremlin." For me it was very much worth the hour-plus drive and steamy jungle trek to see them face-to-face. If you can tear yourself away from the diving, give Tangkoko or one of the other topside day tours a try.
The Bottom Line - My love of Asia and Indonesia is well known and this most recent trip to North Sulawesi only added to my appreciation of this wonderfully diverse and fulfilling dive travel destination. I was pleased to see that Bunaken Park still serves up good blue-water diving. Siladen Resort & Spa has added a level of comfort and Epicurean delight that was previously undreamed of in the Manado area. The pristine areas of Bangka Island and beyond leave me hankering for a Sanghie Islands live-aboard expedition. Lembeh Strait remains an underwater photographer's ultimate playground. Above all, I came away highly impressed with Siladen Resort and the collaboration of Lembeh Resort and Critters@Lembeh. North Sulawesi has two of the most attractive and effective dive resorts I've ever seen, and combining the two makes for a unique and extremely satisfying dive holiday. The bottom-line, for me, is that I can't wait to go back. Group Dive Tours to Indonesia
Island Dreams will create a custom Indonesia itinerary offering you maximum diving value, plus the option of rewarding topside touring to Bali and beyond. A wide variety of diving and touring options can be customized to suit your taste, budget, and time constraints. Contact the adventure experts at Island Dreams for complete details.
Follow these links for more Indonesia information:
- Indonesia Dive Report - Manado, Bunaken, and Lembeh
Island Dreams owner Ken Knezick has made numerous, extended research trips to Indonesia. Read his most recent review of diving opportunities in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, with first-hand reports from Murex Dive Resort and the excellent new Lembeh Resort.
- Lembeh Strait Photo Gallery
- Wakatobi Found -- A First-Hand Report from Wakatobi Resort
- Beneath the Dragon's Realm - Exploring Komodo Park
- Conducted Group Dive Tours to Indonesia
- Return to: Explore-Indonesia.com