If you’re anything like me, you’ll be on the lookout for some genuinely amazing and pristine snorkelling within a short flight from Singapore. Kid-friendly, easy and adventurous at the same time. Guess what? I’ve found it.
Bunaken Island is off the northeastern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. With the help of Trip Advisor, I chose a resort that looked suitable for our family of five, with kids aged ten, seven and four. After that choice, everything was easy.
The flight from Singapore took us direct to Manado where our resort driver met us. While it’s a small city of only 500,000 people, Manado is the real deal. Traditional horse-drawn carts are still used for transporting people and attempt to hold their own against thousands of motorcycles and rusty, exhaust-belching trucks. In a sure sign of a city without adequate disposal options, we were faced with the depressing sight of garbage cascading into the oil-slicked port. Snaking its way through boats large and small, it ominously floated out to sea to begin its evil turtle-choking work. At that point, I wondered about my choice.
Arriving at Bunaken
Happily, as soon as we pulled away from the port, the garbage diminished and the archipelago of the Bunaken Marine Park presented a fascinating picture. The island of Manado Tua towers above the ocean, complete with its own wisp of cloud masquerading as an exhalation of volcano smoke, an echo of its fiery past.
Bunaken Island, the little sister of Manado Tua, is crescent-shaped and relatively flat. It consists of vertical greenery, with a smattering of small villages and dive lodges clinging to its edges. Our resort, Bunaken Cha Cha Nature Resort, came into view with its white façade and roofline built in the local Minahasan style. As our boat slowed and we puttered closer, the vibrant, living reef became visible through the crystal clear waters.
First, we tiptoed over the reef flat in our resort-issued booties to our accommodation. Set in a lush garden, our two rooms were linked by a private verandah, complete with loungers and an amazing ocean view. The rooms were charmingly rustic, with everything we needed including air-conditioning and an open-air shower.
Full board is included in the price at Bunaken Cha Cha, and Raf, the Irish-Italian owner, had most meals with us at the large communal table. He was happy to chat and answer all our questions too. The food was fresh and delicious – a mix of local Sulawesi dishes and the occasional Western item.
It was the starfish that lured me in; the sand flat was positively seething with the tiny creatures. It was a very positive sign that the snorkelling in front of the resort might be excellent. So before the suspense killed me, I waded in. Nervous of squashing the abundant coral, I quickly slid into knee-deep water to swim the rest of the way to the reef drop-off. The shallows offered up a collection of fish that any large aquarium would be delighted to host, and I congratulated myself on choosing so well. The house reef at Bunaken Cha Cha was officially amazing.
Dusk was approaching, and many of the reef creatures were out and about, feeding. In the first five minutes alone, I came across more outlandishly coloured tropical fish than I could have imagined. Then I spied a larger shape materialising from the gloom, and recognised the lackadaisical, flowing tail movement of a shark. The sleek, harmless and perfectly sculptured black-tip reef shark inspected me before darting behind an enormous coral and out of sight. I was so excited to see a shark here, as I’m aware that the shark-fin trade is making them harder to find. Although some illegal fishing still takes place, it seems that Bunaken Marine Park is largely succeeding in protecting its inhabitants.
We had the resort’s large snorkelling boat all to ourselves. Our guides showed us the best places and even entertained our kids on board the boat when they got tired. Our favourite snorkelling site was “Turtle City”. The moment we flopped into the water, our guide was pointing out turtles, which were often located just over the reef drop-off. As we coasted along the surface, the beautiful star-shaped motifs on the backs of the ancient creatures were illuminated in the bright sunshine, with a background of dusky, unending blue as a backdrop. Our kids were able to easily swim with the turtles as they peacefully finned along, feeling no danger from us.
Bunaken Island is surrounded by deep, deep water. The water drops from the reef at one to two metres down a vertical wall as deep as 1,600 metres. The water was so clear that we could see at least 35 metres into the inky depths, and the myriad sponges and colourful soft corals attached to every inch of the vertical wall proved irresistible.
It had been 12 years since our last dive; in that time, we had bought a house, had three kids, moved from Asia to Australia, sold a house and moved back to Asia! As I stuck the regulator in my mouth and inelegantly rolled backwards off the boat, I tried to recall what I was supposed to do. I was already descending towards the reef when I remembered: breathe!
With my breathing under control and any sign of panic gone, I followed the dive master down the wall. My expert guide, born and bred in Bunaken, pointed out every kind of salty beast from huge Napoleon wrasse to tiny orangutan crabs. One turtle was actually asleep in a small indent in the reef wall and continued to snooze there while I inspected her at close range. The dive master, who had barely said a word on the surface, was clearly in his element as he showed me the vast hidden treasures of his island’s ocean.
While I dived, a snorkelling guide was engaging the rest of the family, and even our four-year-old daughter was delighting in spotting Nemos and swimming out over the drop off into the turtle’s realm. During breaks, everyone revelled in the joy of flinging themselves off the bow of the boat.
Bunaken has a couple of local villages, and we strolled through the centre of the island to check these out. The path through the interior revealed a fascinating mix of coconut palms, scratching chickens, banana trees, bougainvillea gardens, kids playing soccer and naughty black piglets. Motorcycles and motorcycle utilities (bahjais) were the only vehicles. We discovered that, for a small fee, the cargo can be unloaded from the bahjai and five tired tourists loaded on instead for a trip back to Cha Cha Resort.
We departed via a glassy ocean on a day so perfect it felt almost contrived. Right on cue, our boat was joined by a pod of dolphins. They rode the bow wave and rolled over to look at us, perhaps pondering the question of who had provided this free surfing opportunity. As we edged away from the islands, the dolphins peeled off, seemingly unwilling to give up paradise and go the way of the mainland. Given the choice, I’d do the same.
We had two nights left in Sulawesi, so we decided to head to Tangkoko National Park. Here we took a guided walk at dusk into the forest to see one of the world’s smallest monkeys, the tarsier. We were rewarded with half an hour’s close-up viewing of the furry, gremlin-like animals before the wild called them and they leapt off into the forest to do what tarsiers do.
Black-crested macaques are found only in Sulawesi, and our dawn trek to see them was equally satisfying. A troupe of about 30 monkeys went about their business, feeding, grooming and bickering, ignoring our family in their midst.
Our final stop was the Minahasan highlands town of Tomohon. Apart from its volcanic beauty, Tomohon is famous for its market, selling bush foods such as cooked fruit bats, whole bush rat kebab, and, disturbingly, dogs. I struggled with my cultural prejudices as I politely observed the fare and tried to suppress my nausea.
This holiday had certainly satisfied its brief. We had found breathtaking snorkelling, it had been easy to get to, and we had managed some family adventure, too. Exhausted on the flight home, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Images scrolled through my mind one after the other: frolicking black monkeys; local kids in their frangipani tree; our son duck-diving down to a spectacular reef. When I dozed, I dreamed contentedly of an unspoilt paradise on my doorstep and my family that loved it.
• Don’t visit Sulawesi if you need luxury. The accommodation in Bunaken Island is comfortable and on a small scale; other areas are less developed.
• If you’re going to Tangkoko, bring mosquito repellent and long sleeves and pants.
• The resort has limited kids’ snorkelling equipment. Bring your own good quality equipment; it will make it easier for your beginners! A pool noodle to hold onto for support while they snorkel can help.
• Some old sandshoes will help kids wade out to the boat, as potentially dangerous shellfish can found in the reef flat. Booties are supplied in adult sizes.
• Bunaken Cha Cha has interconnecting rooms available, although these require climbing some steep stairs. Choose the rooms closest to the beach.
• We visited off-peak in June and paid around US$2,200 for five nights at Bunaken Cha Cha. This included all meals for our family of five, airport and boat transfers and our two rooms. The snorkelling and diving boats are at additional cost, but reasonably priced. Snorkelling from the beach with your own equipment is free and truly world-class.