This trip report was contributed by San Diegan Elaine Masters, who is a travel writer, podcaster and event host. She invites you to visit her web site Go Easy / Travel Well and read her blog Trip Wellness.
The first time I glimpsed the bizarre creatures that call Lembeh Strait home was at an underwater film festival. At that point, I never imagined that I’d see this colorful marine life in person.
After all, visiting the northern edge of Sulawesi Island in Indonesia isn’t on many luxury travelers’ bucket list. However, the exotic adventures waiting in the notorious waters of Lembeh Strait just kept calling my name.
Getting to Lembeh Strait
Getting to the large capital city of Manado in North Sulawesi from LAX was a 36 hour trip. Layovers, long flights and crowded planes were taxing enough, but the final 90 minutes swerving between motorbikes and trucks along a crowded two-lane road had me questioning my sanity.
We finally stopped moving on the far side of the sprawling metropolis of Bitung, at the end of a village road, where the large wooden gates of Kasawari Lembeh Resort opened. We stumbled into the refuge of an open-air lobby and were welcomed with warm, moist towels and sweet lemongrass tea. From that moment, I knew every hour, bump and jostle had been worth it.
That was our first taste of the personal service and dedication of the Kasawari staff. Our small group soon filled the eight bungalows that circled a central garden. Two larger villas, with private decks and sweeping views of the water, rose above a narrow beach. Each unit had spacious bedrooms, huge bathrooms lined with green Indonesian granite and a front porch for relaxing. We enoyed refreshing air conditioning, as well as ceiling fans, Wi-Fi and plenty of storage space for gear and cases.
Before diving Lembeh Strait each morning, we were welcomed to coffee, light breakfast, and vistas of water bathed with soft sunlight in the upstairs open air dining room. Then it was off to the air conditioned camera room to make sure our gear was ready and place it in assigned boxes that the dive staff took down to the boat. The hardest task was pulling on wetsuits in the spacious dive veranda before toddling off for brief dive orientations.
Most dive trips entail long boat rides to and from various sites, but Kasawari is positioned perfectly in Lembeh Strait. In fact, it’s so close to dive sites that there was barely time to take in the beauty of the jungle rising to distant volcanic peaks before it was time to jump in the water.
We had one dive guide for each three or four divers and their expertise was invaluable. They made it possible for us to glimpse camouflaged hairy crabs and miniscule pygmy sea horses. They also helped coax blue ring octopus from their lairs.
The oddest Lembeh Strait sightings were reserved for night dives. One late afternoon three of us went to see the mating of Mandarin fish. Our task was to sit in on the bottom in about 20 feet of water before a tall bank of Staghorn Coral. As we waited, small fish and pipe worms emerged. Then our guides excitedly pointed as the first few Mandarins peeked from the shadows. Before long, one large female had chosen her first mate and they tucked close together rising and slowly spinning for a few seconds before separating. The mating dance repeated more than a half dozen times before it was too dark to see and we rose to our waiting boat. In the shadows of twilight I marveled at the opportunity and how strange that the fish chose that location – in between large fishing vessels and broken, beached craft – for their home.
Diving, resting and eating
The rest of our stay was a rhythm of diving, resting and eating delicious Asian-themed meals. When our tanks ran out of air, each diver surfaced and slipped out of gear that was lifted onto the boat – a real luxury for anyone used to climbing, tired and soggy with heavy tanks and weights, up a steep ladder onto the deck. While waiting for the group to gather, we were offered hot, moist towels scented with citronella, a mug with our name on it full of fresh water, and choices of pineapple and papaya slices. I think I’m spoiled for any other type of dive trip! In the afternoons, after the third excursion, the staff stood by in the dive room with hot tea and fresh cookies or donuts. Luxury indeed.
Diving two to four times a day, even in shallow and warm waters of Lembeh Strait is tiring. The body rebels at lifting 40 or so pounds, breathing a strange if fortified mix of oxygen and being submerged for hours daily. I took full advantage of the affordable, strong and scented massages in the intimate resort spa.
One afternoon I played hooky from diving and five of us met with a guide from Safari Tours to look for the famed Tarsius monkeys in the Tongkoko Nature Reserve, about an hour’s drive into the jungle.
We doused generously with mosquito repellant at the entrance. The jungle is home to prickly plants and microscopic mites called gonone that seek out warm areas on bodies. I can testify to their painfully sharp bite.
If you go, be sure to wear long pants, socks, and closed-toed shoes. We carried umbrellas, as it was raining intermittently, and that helped keep the mosquitoes at bay. Any discomfort was forgotten when we stood at the base of one large tree. In the late afternoon dusk we soon spied one, two and then three tiny Tarsier monkeys blinking into the remains of daylight. These endangered species can be found in the Philippines as well, but we were fortunate to see this tree, one of five only in Tangkoko that are home to Tarsiers.
Another monkey that’s on the critically endangered list is the indigenous Crested Black Macaque. They are sheltered in the reserve and we saw several loping through low branches. The reserve is also home to many rare birds. Seeing those takes a different and more protracted dedication than our one afternoon foray, but early morning tours are available from guest houses near the park entrance.
Life outside the resort
On our last afternoon, my partner and I ventured over to the nearby Lembeh Hills Resort a short walk on the other side of town. The village road was narrow and paved with gravel since it rains daily this time of year. (October is the start of the rainy season.) There are many churches in the small town and in North Sulawesi generally, where the different religions co-exist peacefully, sharing holidays and celebrations. A small boy followed us on his bicycle. A potato chip vendor rested on top of a fence. Uniformed students chanted lessons from their classroom, and more than one family waved from their porches, asking us to take pictures.
The Lembeh Hills Resort is aptly named. Its 23 villas and suites are tucked into the hillside. A vanishing-edge pool sits next to an open-air bar and restaurant. A large dive changing area and a well-stocked camera room were empty next to stairs leading down to the water. The boat area was a wide pier that wrapped along the contour of the beach with inviting lounge areas. It was all very western in feel and would demand strong legs to get between rooms and diving. A golf cart met us halfway, but I was more interested in walking slowly to better enjoy the views.
On our last morning before leaving for the airport, we arranged to visit the local fish and farmers market. Five of us loaded into a car and headed out at 6:15am with one of the resort staff. After paying an entry, we wandered between lengths of black fishing net drying in the sun and joined the milling crowds.
The farmers market is along a narrow road near the docks. Before I knew it, we were led through dark and crowded passageways. Spices, hanging tufts of bananas, freshly slaughtered chickens, and huge, studded jackfruit were laid out on tables next to electronics, housewares and DVD vendors. A bag of sliced jackfruit made a sweet and chewy snack for the ride back to Kasawari.
Getting home from Lembeh Strait, Indonesia
I can’t say enough about Singapore Airlines and its smaller, Silk Air affiliate. Would I book an international flight on an American airline with their baggage fees, reluctant customer service and in-flight charges? Not if I can help it. Our food choices, service and entertainment selections made it hard to sleep on the trip home.
As we settled into our seats my partner whispered, “I’d like to spend more time in this part of the world.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Note from Elizabeth: If you like diving in tropical water, don’t miss this post about snorkeling in Palau and Yap.
Note from Elaine: I want to thank the trip’s organizers, Chuck and Roz Nicklin. It was our second dive trip with them and the last public group tour as they’re now in retirement mode. As a significant, pioneering underwater videographer, Chuck, always draws together interesting and dedicated bubble blowing shutterbugs.