Sulawesi Island provides strife-free travels

While Indonesia is known in dive circles for its amazing diversity of marine life, we found the country to be amazing above water as well.

Indonesia is a country with diverse flora and fauna. It contains the third-largest rain forest in the world. Early explorers came to know the islands of Indonesia as part of the Spice Trade Route. Today, visitors will still find clove, nutmeg and cinnamon trees growing abundantly. There are more than 2,500 species of orchids grown in Indonesia.

Encounters with the world’s smallest primate, the Tarsier, can be arranged through a trek to the Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Here, visitors also may see the rare Sulawesi Macaque ape. Bird watchers will delight to know there are more than 700 species of birds in the region.

The local people of northern Sulawesi are friendly to American tourists. With reassurances by fellow travelers that this area was safe for tourists and with the idea of safety in numbers, we signed on as part of a tour group. As the date of the trip grew closer, the threat of avian influenza (bird flu), terrorist strife, volcanoes and tsunamis made our travel plans suddenly seem quite dangerous. Worried and well-intentioned family members tried to discourage the trip because of media reports of beheadings, bombs and war. So, we added trip insurance for protection in the event of calamity.

Parts of Indonesia do carry a risk to American travelers. There are travel advisories for the entire country. However, we felt the trip would be fairly risk-free and safe knowing the northernmost tip of Sulawesi Island had the least amount of strife with rare, if any, outbreaks between various religious groups. The majority (85 percent) of the locals are Christian, with the remaining population (15 percent) consisting of Muslim and Hindu affiliations. Unlike other parts of Indonesia, this area is not known for conflict. Other dive clubs had traveled to this destination and touted its safety and the friendliness of the people.

Getting to Sulawesi is labor intensive but worth every bum-aching minute on airplanes. From the time we left our home for the Minneapolis airport, until we arrived at our first resort, we endured a 33-hour trip. We flew Northwest Airlines to Los Angeles. After a four-hour layover, we boarded a spacious, nonstop Singapore Airline Airbus A340 aircraft.

The 17-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore was a breeze in part because of the unsurpassed seating even in economy class seats. With plenty of leg room, reclining seats, in-flight movies and first-class service, Singapore Air raised the bar so high no other airline competes. Two meals are provided, and these are planned by a contingent of world-renowned chefs. When we were not sleeping, being able to watch free movies from an extensive menu or even to watch the airplane’s navigation on the in-seat movie screen kept us occupied during the long trip. There was plenty of opportunity to stretch our legs and walk around. A 24-hour snack bar provided just the right excuse to prevent leg cramps.

Resting up

On arrival in Singapore, we had a pre-booked room waiting for us at the Ambassador Transit Hotel. It is within the departure transit area of the Singapore Changi Airport. Without having to clear customs and immigration, the weary traveler can relax in a private room, take a nap and freshen up for a minimum booking of $45 per six hours (book early, as these rooms fill fast). Since our layover was slightly more than four hours, we thought it prudent to book a room so we could power nap before the next leg.

The Changi Airport also offers free Internet kiosks, video games, music lounges, a swimming pool and, of course, shopping.

From Singapore, our group next boarded a Silk Air flight (a subsidiary of Singapore Air), for Manado, Sulawesi.

The first destination in our travel package was just outside of the city of Manado. After passing immigration, we were met by the Murex Manado Resort representatives in the baggage claim area (since this airport has only two baggage carousels, it wasn’t hard to locate our transportation). Here, too, was the only opportunity we had to convert money at the airport’s exchange booth.

Ground travel

We loaded up several vans with our dive gear and set out for the Murex resort on a 45-minute nail-biting route in what was to be the scariest automobile ride I’ve encountered. Nascar driving seems safe in comparison. With no lane demarcations, the nicely paved blacktop roads provided three lanes of travel, which weren’t easily discernible for the American tourist — right, left and middle lanes. The middle lane appeared to be for all fast, passing traffic, no matter which direction one was traveling. It seemed as if we were playing chicken at 70 mph. Heed this advice if traveling to Manado: Do not attempt to rent a car and navigate this freestyle traffic. Hire a car service or taxi to take you to your destination. One might consider a blindfold, as well.

The cross-country journey revealed crops of corn growing 12 feet high in fields next to palm tree plantations (for a Minnesota girl, this was quite a sight). Modern industrial plants such as Coca-Cola, as well as two-story Nissan, Honda and Suzuki dealerships sitting next to tin-shed storefronts were present. Christian churches were on nearly every city street. Occasionally, we glimpsed a mosque minaret. Juxtaposed among new Asian-inspired architecture were shanties with rusty tin roofs. Oxen-pulled carts next to sharp new automobiles or motorcycles. It was a fascinating glimpse of the Indonesian culture. The contradiction of old and new was obvious in so much of what we saw. It saddened me to see beautiful rain forests next to the “progress” of industrial smoke stacks and pavement.

The second major city we visited during our Sulawesi adventure was the smaller city of Bitung. En route to Lembeh (pronounced Lum-bay), we were offered a chance to purchase beverages and snacks in a tiny grocery store. No English was spoken and Indonesian Rupiahs were required for all purchases. The local people were friendly and approachable. Tourists are more of a spectacle here; some locals stared as if they had never seen an outsider. When our cameras were spotted, men and women alike clamored to have their photos taken, delighting in the chance to see themselves in the digital LCD screen.

From Bitung, we traveled around and up a mountain to the Bitung Police Pier. At the pier, our group boarded two small dive boats to the island of Lembeh.

Lembeh Island is situated in the Lembeh Straits. Bitung city, on Lembeh Strait, is the largest port in Indonesia, with ships importing goods and exporting cargo of palm oil and spices to the world.

Returning home again via Singapore, we spent a 24-hour layover in this fabulous city. We prebooked a room in the five-star Mandarin Marina Hotel. The hotel itself was modern, luxurious and connected to shopping centers. Our standard room had a view but was small. Size didn’t matter when there was so much to explore.

Singapore itself requires a separate vacation to truly appreciate the destination. A beautiful, extremely clean and modern city, Singapore boasts international cuisine, shopping and a multitude of tourist attractions, including night safari at the zoo, botanical gardens, beaches, a rain forest within the city and several ethnic regions for shopping and sightseeing.

I don’t agree with the person who said “it’s the journey and not the destination.” For my husband and me, it’s the entire experience that makes the vacation — great food, wonderful people, learning new cultures and the opportunity to see new places. In Indonesia and Singapore, we were lucky to experience the adventure of a lifetime.

About the writer: Deanna Constans is a medical office manager at Mayo Clinic. She is an Eyota resident.

Getting there: From Los Angeles, Singapore Air flies to Singapore and has connecting flights on Silk Air direct to Manado, Indonesia.

Where you stayed: Ambassador Transit Hotel; Changi Singapore Airport; Murex Resort in Manado; Lembeh Resort in Lembeh; and Mandarin Marina Hotel in Singapore.

Side trips: Tangkoko Nature Reserve offers treks through the jungle for bird and animal watching, featuring the Tarsier monkey and Macaque ape.

Travel tips: Staying in the Ambassador Transit Hotel offers travelers the opportunity to rest or freshen up after intercontinental flights. Change U.S. dollars to local currency immediately on arrival at the airport. There were few opportunities to change money.

More information: www.lembehresort.com; www.murexdive.com/resort-murex.htm; www.cdc.gov/travel.

About Indonesia:

Indonesia is part of southeast Asia in the Western Pacific. The country is an archipelago including more than 17,000 islands on the equator between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It has more coastline than any other country, at nearly 3,000 km.

The Indonesian Rupiah is the local currency. Bahasa Indonesia is the official spoken language. English is spoken in tourist areas.

Favorite foods of the Indonesia people include Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Satay and fresh fish. Dishes are frequently spicy with hot peppers flavoring much of the cuisine. Some local people of Sulawesi enjoy dishes of fried jungle rat and fruit bat soup.

The island of Sulawesi was formerly known as Celebes. This odd-shaped island is east of Borneo and west of the Moluccas islands. During World War II, the Japanese had control of Celebes island from 1942-1945. There are a number of World War II shipwrecks in the area.

The island is split by the equator and the climate is tropical, with the rainy seasons typically June to September and December to March. Temperature remains steady at 82 degrees Fahrenheit near the coast.

Part of the area known as the “ring of fire,” the region is highly volatile with active volcanoes and unstable with earthquakes. There are more than 400 active volcanoes in Indonesia.

In addition, travelers should be aware that Indonesia’s Acch province was destroyed by the devastating tsunami in December 2005. An earthquake on the island of Java caused destruction in May 2006.

For the latest travel advisories or warnings for Americans visit www.cdc.gov/travel.

Health advisory information including necessary immunizations may be found at the Centers for Disease Control Web site (http://www.cdc.gov/travel/).

See destination information on Lembeh Resort and Murex Manado Resort at www.lembehresort.com/index.html and http://murexdive.com/resort-murex.htm. Complex travel arrangements to Indonesia are best made through a reputable travel agent. A valid passport and visa are necessary for entry.

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One Response to “Sulawesi Island provides strife-free travels”

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