LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia -- Sick of the interminable traffic chaos in the Indonesian resort island of Bali? Bored by crowds of Western revelers in the nightclubs of Kuta Beach? Above all, do you want to see the real Indonesia? Then head for Flores, a largely undiscovered island to the east of Bali.
Communications with Flores were transformed in 2015, when the island's tiny airport at Labuan Bajo was enlarged, allowing flights to arrive not just from Bali but directly from Jakarta and Singapore. Suddenly there was an attractive alternative to the previous route to Flores -- deck-cargo class with Pelni, a no-frills state-run shipping company.
Labuan Bajo, once a fishing village on the western tip of Flores, is now a developer's dream and a town planner's nightmare, with hotels and restaurants staking out every meter of beachfront. The town has a wide choice of accommodations, ranging from slickly managed boutique hotels to the local answer to Fawlty Towers.
You could eat Italian at Mediterraneo, but you probably left Bali to get away from Western food. So head instead for the evening waterside fish market where a dozen ikan bakar (charcoal-grilled fish) stalls compete enthusiastically for your custom. Choose a fat grouper from the icebox, its jet-black eyes and red gills attesting that it was swimming only a few hours ago. Then sit back with a cool Bintang beer, taking in the mix of sea breeze and cooking smoke, pungent with chili. Yes, that's your fish you are smelling, the sambal marinade turning to the color of mahogany over the coconut charcoal.
Enjoy the coral snorkeling on nearby beaches if you like. But you didn't come here for that: You came to see the komodos. These dragon-like lizards, which grow to 3 meters in length, are a short boat trip away. They roam freely on two nearby islands, hunting the goats and buffalo that share the islands with them. While they look sleepy enough basking in the sun, they can outrun a human over short distances, and might see a tourist as an easy alternative to the usual diet. So you need a guide from the ranger station, ready with a stout forked stick to act as a komodo charmer.
Now it is time to head east from Labuan Bajo, 100 km drive on stomach-churning, winding roads in search of the remains of the little people, sometimes called Hobbits. These humanoids, barely a meter tall, lived here 50,000 years ago, hunting elephants (which, fortuitously, were also very small) and the giant Timor rat. Their bones have been excavated from a cave at Liang Bua. A small museum has plaster casts of the skeletons unearthed by archaeologists, together with pigmy elephant and giant rat bones. Archaeologists continue to dispute whether the Hobbits were stunted homo sapiens or a separate species of humanoid.
Still impatient for new sights and experiences? What about some local history? In the 1930s Sukarno, destined to become independent Indonesia's first president, was exiled by Dutch colonialists to Ende, then the most substantial town in Flores. It lies on the south coast, and was the site of a Portuguese settlement in the 16th century. The house where Sukarno lived for several years is now a museum, where you can see memorabilia -- his walking stick, the documentation of his marriage to a local woman, and the subsequent divorce papers.
Textiles are central to local customs throughout Flores, but in the eastern part of the island they dominate social life. Every village turns out handwoven tie-dyed fabrics, with the traditional patterns defined in blue indigo and rust-brown natural dyes. Visit a village and show some interest in textiles, and an impromptu market gathers within moments, the weavers insistently pressing their handiwork on you. Global collectors have long valued eastern Indonesian textiles.
Feeling sentimental for the time when the motivation for foreign travel was contemplating the sheer majesty of nature, embodied in mountains and lakes? Flores has 13 volcanos, eight of which remain active. However, the most spectacular exhibition of nature is the tricolored lakes at Kelimutu, halfway between Ende and Maumere. The lakes are black, bright blue and green, and change color depending on nearby volcanic activity. You might be lucky enough to see the stunning red variant. Like all the best tourist spots, the experience involves climbing long flights of stairs. No need for a gym workout today.
If Maumere has an impermanent feel for such a large and long-established city, the explanation is that a 1992 tsunami flattened much of the town. The tourist rush is still some years away, but the excellent Capa hotel is great value, on a prime harbor-side location. If you like your fresh lobster and grouper live from the tank, the Golden Fish restaurant awaits. Just check the address first. It is harbor-side, but hidden behind a row of Chinese shop-houses. Pass through the living room where the family is grouped around the TV, past the fish tanks, then up the uneven stairs to a gorgeous balcony overlooking the harbor.
In the hills behind Maumere, another legacy of the colonial period awaits: the Bikon Blewut Museum. Priests were as important as traders in the colonial period -- first the Portuguese Roman Catholics, then the Dutch Protestants. Converting the heathen was just one aspect of the colonial burden. The priests were also scholars, sent to the end of the earth, often for a lifetime. Spare time -- there was plenty of it -- could be devoted to studying the exotic natural environment, so different from Europe.
Tourists become sparse as you travel further east, but there are rewards for hardy travelers. The Lamalera islanders harpoon whales from a longboat, providing a sight straight out of "Moby Dick." When there are no whales about (that is, most of the time), they put on harpooning shows for tourists.
If traveling in the island at Easter, do not miss the Easter service at Larantuka. This seems to be taken, direct and unedited, from the Portuguese passion processions of the 16th century: Chanting hooded figures carry revered statues, threading through intense crowds of penitents and supplicants. Schedule three days (and nights) if you want to experience the whole shebang, but that requires endurance. Don't forget you are not in Bali any longer: black clothes and no bare shoulders please! Book your accommodation well in advance: Larantuka sees these surging crowds just once a year, and does not cater for the peak season. For the truly devoted, discomfort and self-denial are part of the travel package.
It is a reminder that Flores is where western discovery and colonialization began in Indonesia. The dual mission of the 16th century Portuguese colonists was religion and trade, both of which were enforced on the local population, ready or not.
Trade was not just about bringing spices back to Europe. This was part of an intricate commercial network linking Flores with the island of Timor (which the Portuguese finally left only in 1975), Melaka (then called Malacca) in Malaysia, and Macao, now part of China. The trading routes have gone, but the religion remains. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, but 90% of the population of Flores is Catholic.