Flores, the island given a pretty but incongruous Portuguese name by its 16th-century colonists, has become Indonesia’s Next Big Thing. The serpentine, 670km Trans-Flores Hwy runs the length of the island, skirting knife-edge ridges, brushing by paddy-fringed villages and opening up dozens of areas few tourists explore.
The island is a cacophony of smells, swinging between coffee roasting in the hills, clove cigarettes, exhaust fumes and the unmistakable scent of the ocean. In the west, Labuan Bajo is a booming tourist town combining tropical beauty with nearby attractions such as Komodo National Park, superb dive spots and white-sand islands.
The east is attracting an ever-greater number of travellers chasing smouldering volcanoes, emerald rice terraces, prehistoric riddles, exotic cultures, hot springs and hidden beaches. Away from the port towns most people are nominally Catholic. Many more are part of cultures dating back centuries, living in traditional villages seemingly unchanged in millennia.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Flores.
Kelimutu National Park is a Nusa Tenggara must. Its centrepiece is Gunung Kelimutu, crowned by three startling lakes that shift colour thanks to dissolving minerals. Try to swallow your outrage at locals paying only 10,000Rp entry and lap up the ethereal beauty instead. Alert local guides if you dream about the sacred lakes – apparently siren-like spirits have lured people to their demise, which can be avoided if the right prayers and offerings are made.
About 5km west of Pantai Paga, look for a small, partially paved road that runs for 2km through a cocoa plantation to a stunning double bay. Facing a promontory are two perfect crescents of sand; one protected and another with views out to sea. Eat grilled fish (50,000Rp) at Blasius Homestay, or stay in the basic bamboo accommodation (rooms 200,000Rp).
The greatest local site is actually 20km west of Ruteng near Cara kampung. The legendary Spider Web Rice Fields are vast creations shaped as implied, which is also the shape of Manggarai roofs that fairly divide property between families. For the best view, stop at the small pavilion, pay 25,000Rp and ascend a dirt path to the main viewing ridge.
These uninhabited islands are as diverse as they are beautiful. The mangrove isle of Pulau Ontoloe hosts a massive colony of flying foxes and a few Komodo dragons, while Pulau Rutong and Pulau Temba boast picture-perfect white sand and turquoise waters. There's great snorkelling near Pulau Tiga, Pulau Laingjawa and Pulau Bakau, but wherever you visit, you won't be disappointed.
Resting on Inerie's flank, Bena is one of the most traditional Ngada villages. It's home to nine clans and its stone monuments are the region’s best. Houses with high, thatched roofs line up in two rows on a ridge. They're interspersed with ancestral totems including megalithic tombs, ngadhu, (thatched parasol-like structures) and bhaga (miniature thatched-roof houses). Most houses have male or female figurines on their roofs, while doorways are decorated with buffalo horns and jawbones – a sign of family prosperity.
The limestone Liang Bua cave, where the remains of the Flores ‘hobbit’ were famously found in 2003, is about 14km north of Ruteng. Archaeologists believe that the lip along the entrance permitted sediment to build up as water flowed through the cave over the millennia, sealing in human and animal remains. Listen out for rumours of more recent, sacred sightings.
Wawo Muda (1753m) is the latest volcano to emerge in Flores, exploding in 2001 and leaving behind a mini-Kelimutu, complete with several small crater lakes coloured variously burnt orange, yellow and green. Pine trees charred by the eruption stand in isolated patches, and there are spectacular views of Gunung Inerie. The area is best visited in the wet season from December to March, if the trails are not too muddy. The lakes usually evaporate in the dry season.
The charming seaside village of Sikka is one of Flores’ first Portuguese settlements. Its kings dominated the Maumere region until the 20th century. The big draw is the gorgeous, narrow Catholic cathedral that dates from 1899. The open windows in the arched, beamed eaves allow the sound of crashing waves to echo through the sanctuary.
Tucked into the jungle like a beautiful secret at the foot of Gunung Inerie, this traditional village is only a few hundred metres from Bena and much more intimate. Four welcoming clans live here in a baker's dozen homes. You'll see four ngadhu and bhaga and houses decorated with depictions of symbolic horses, buffalo and snakes. Photography is welcomed by most; leave a donation of at least 20,000Rp. Hire an ojek from Bajawa for 100,000Rp return, or walk from Bena.