Bunaken: A quick capsule guide to island life

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Nestling in the Celebes Sea to the north of Sulawesi, Bunaken is an island quite unlike any other. An ideal counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of nearby Manado – which is where most likely visitors will be arriving from – it exudes a quiet calm and easy, unrelaxed pace of life which is sure to appeal to seasoned and new travellers alike.

As a world-renowned diving and snorkelling site Bunaken National Marine Park – encompassing Bunaken, the extinct volcano Manado Tua, Siladen, Mantehage, Nain, and Nain Kecil – offers plenty of scope for underwater adventures, while visitors keen to relax will feel at home amongst the island’s distinct mangrove forests and pristine beaches.

Why go?

Because you like peaceful island living or you want to experience one of the finest exponents of the art.

Time seems to evaporate as Bunaken works its subtly magical charms. The welcoming atmosphere, characterised, as with the rest of Sulawesi, by large, toothy smiles and a simple ‘Hello sir/miss’, is instantly appealing and stays can often extend from days into weeks as travellers become locked into Bunaken’s peaceful rhythm.

The timeless island settings are all accounted for – bamboo huts, wandering troubadours with acoustic guitars, palm trees, motorcycle taxis (ojeks), hammocks and fine food – and there are few better feelings than sitting, Bintang in hand, watching the colourful sunset bring another day to a successful conclusion.

What do?

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Bunaken is one of the world’s foremost diving destinations and due to its semi-remote location it attracts divers keen to escape the more crowded waters of Bali and Thailand.

Rumours of passing Manatee and Mola Mola are normally welcomed, although mostly unfounded, but there are still a great many delights to be discovered: sponge crabs and seahorses wind their ways amongst the beautiful corals, while barracudas and reef sharks can also be found roaming the currents.

Divers are spoiled for choice with a number of fine schools operating on the island; Two Fish Divers is especially well-regarded thanks to its 5-star rating from professional diving association PADI. Dives are available dawn through to evening with prices ranging from 400,000R to 1,170,000R and accommodation – rooms and cottages – can also be found on site.

For those after a more relaxed – and slightly cheaper – experience, snorkelling could be the way to go. A day spent trawling the waters around Bunaken is a day well-spent, especially if you head out towards the ocean wall where all kinds of colourful critters can be seen. Snorkelling can typically be arranged at your resort, with rental of masks and fins costing about 60,000R for a couple of hours.

Where stay?

Accommodation can normally be found attached to Bunaken’s dive resorts, with a variety of homestays and guest houses also available.

Try Lorenso’s Cottages, a 15-minute walk from the dock. A genuinely communal affair with bungalows spread around a mangrove forest on the water’s edge, guests can expect an easygoing atmosphere provided by Lorenso and his team.

The man himself is a garrulous host and can be often be found holding court with his guests as he recounts tales of life on the island and Sulawesi’s native Minahasan tribal culture.

Three meals a day, as well as water, tea and coffee, are provided, while transport, snorkelling and diving expeditions can also be arranged.

A four-person bungalow costs 200,000R in the low season (October to May), but expect to pay much more in the high season (June to September).

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When go?

Divers should be aware that Bunaken has a tropical climate, meaning the wet season from November to April brings frequent rain and greatly reduced underwater visibility.

Temperatures rise rapidly for the rest of the year, with barely a cloud in the sky and some fascinating sunrises and sunsets on show as a result.

How get there and away?

Public boats leave daily from Manado’s Bersehati market at 2.00pm with a one-way ticket costing 50,000R. The return trip leaves at 8.30am. Transport can be arranged with your resort. Be warned: although you may one day depart Bunaken there will be a part of you that never leaves.

(SJ say: We’re not overly convinced by the use of ‘because’ at the start of a sentence, Tom. What aren’t we paying you for, exactly?)