Wakatobi: Pristine Coral

I had my doubts about Wakatobi because they made it clear that pelagics, i.e. big fish like sharks, are not commonly spotted in Wakatobi. Plus, unlike Manado to the north, it wasn’t quite known as a muck diving area, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect.The only thing I knew was that the water was an unbelievably clear blue.

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It wasn’t just bubbles that I saw. As promised, the reefs were all incredibly pristine. There was rich marine life all over…

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… with beautiful sea fans like this Gorgonian below.

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My camera wasn’t set right and I was too lazy to figure out what was wrong. It’s a pity because it’s makes the water look murky when it’s really just the sunlight filtering down. Some of the sea fans got really big…

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… so it was no wonder that fish liked to hide behind them, like this batfish with the weird-looking eyes.

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Batfish are pretty common and they’re very friendly. Occasionally, one would follow us like a dog, occasionally going up to sniff at our fins or such.

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But here’s the only place where we saw isopods on batfish. Check out the bug-like creatures hanging out near this one’s eye. Our dive guide assured us that it was a symbiotic relationship, with the batfish providing transport and the isopod parasite-busting services. I found it quite bizarre and wonder how the isopod even manages to clamber onto the batfish’s face.

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Back on the reef, there was plenty of pristine coral, like this soft coral that I think looks like purple cauliflower. Sometimes it appears slightly yellow, making it cauliflower curry!

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There were other soft corals that sprouted what looked like tiny little flowers – lots of bunches of stinging buds!

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Then there were the pretty electric blue sea sequirts that were so delicately outlined against the coral backdrop.

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It wasn’t all just staring at corals. There were many things to see in, near and around the coral, like the divers in this photo with the terrible settings. I promise that I’ll learn how to use my camera properly underwater – at some point.

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In the coral were clams that somehow managed to always wedge themselves deep within so only their purple lips can be seen.

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Then those who hang out near the coral are the ones like my favourite juvenile harlequin sweetlips with its adorable polka dotted pattern…

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… and the six-banded angelfish with its dizzying arrangement of dots and stripes.

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Hanging out around the coral was the cuttlefish, which were hard to spot from afar as they change coloration and pattern to blend in just so with the coral. It’s definitely not easy to see this one at first glance!

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And the other usual suspect hanging out near the coral was the great barracuda. Look closely and you see its scary teeth. We’re glad that it didn’t hang around that much in our dives.

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Wakatobi: The Resort

Wakatobi is a stunning resort. It’s set in remote Southeast Sulawesi on a little island with nothing else except a little village accompanying it nearby. The water was always a beautiful deep blue, proof of the clear water that heralded good visibility on all our diving days. The resort consists of a longhouse for a reception area, media room and library/lounge with small huts scattered round as guest rooms. They have beautiful luxurious villas too, complete with private swimming pool and direct beach access, which alas we couldn’t afford.

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One jetty is all you need for a resort this intimate, especially when there’s a bar right at the end.

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But wait, more important is the restaurant nestled in the greenery round the bend of the island.

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It’s has an open verandah concept with buffet service, which is great for busy times especially at breakfast and lunch when people don’t linger too long as there’s beautiful diving ahead.

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The food was pretty varied and inventive considering that it had all been flown in together with us. Only the fish and local vegetables were sourced in the area. Breakfast the usual selection of cereals, fruit, baked items, eggs done any style and pancakes made in front of you. Lunch was slightly more lavish, with a good selection of appetisers and salad, hot mains with both western and Indonesian selections and daily pasta (gnocchi, ravioli, et al) made to order. It was a pity that the Indonesian food was completely non-spicy, but the awesome sambal ulek made up for it. Dinner was were they pulled out the stops, with exciting appetisers such as super fresh tuna sashimi, deep-fried prawns wrapped in noodles (done dim sum style) and feta cheese and tomato profiteroles. This was followed by a good selection of western and asian mains. What we looked forward to was always the night’s roast. Memorable ones were the chicken done Indonesian-style, the meltingly tender lamb ribs (best I’ve had in a long time), and the tasty beef roast. There was also a nightly station that served up something interesting, like vegetable tempura cooked to order, sop daging, or crepes suzette flamed to order. Desserts were decent too, with at least one local option reminiscent of the kueh kueh we get in Singapore.

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Accompanying the delightful food was a delightful view of the ocean and amazingly warm and attentive service. One night, we sat outside under the stars on the beach for a romantic dinner. I grabbed a sop daging from the soup station and forgot to take a spoon. Before I could get up to take one, a waiter had come round, scanned our table in the dim lighting, and come straight back with a spoon. There people are mind readers! They were always so helpful and eager to please, yet not ingratiatingly so. Lovely!

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Most evenings we were at the resort enjoying the sunset. There were plenty of deck chairs and seats under umbrellas to lounge at…

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… but we preferred to go to the jetty bar…

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… where we ordered strong but rather bad cocktails at US$10-12 each. That’s the only thing that’s remotely worth complaining about. The good thing is that we saved money by not ordering anymore after that!

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And now for the room. We stayed in the cheapest option: the garden bungalow, which was more than enough to meet our needs. I somehow forgot to take a picture of the outside, each hut on stilts had a little sand garden with two deck chairs to lounge at and an ample front balcony to sit at and to hang wet gear. The inside had a canopied king-size bed where the staff expressed their creativity in towel art.

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Check out this cute monkey. I was so sad when I sat on the bed and it toppled over. But that didn’t detract from the comfortable stay we had, of course. The housekeeping staff were very sweet too, sending us an extra jug of water “just in case” when we were out of drinking water.

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Each night before going to bed, we made sure that we analysed our tanks for the next day’s diving with nitrox. This is a special blend with more oxygen so that we could stay slightly deeper for longer. There was plenty of space in the clean and well-organised dive centre and the place was so well-run that even our individual cups were washed and then topped up at the start of each day. We didn’t even need to fill them ourselves!

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And the diving? Before each dive, there was a briefing complete with hand-drawn map of the dive site and explanation of the currents and what to expect in the 70 minuteswe were underwater (yup you didn’t see wrong, dives here are looooong).

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And here’s a teaser to show you what it’s like, stay tuned!

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Wakatobi: Getting There

Wakatobi made sure that we were very well taken care of from the get-go. When we arrived in Bali, there was someone waiting to escort us out through the VIP channel and make sure that we make a smooth transfer to our hotel in Bali. It was really good to whizz past the long immigration line and have porters push our big heavy bags out to meet our hotel rep. I’m surprised that they had this service from our flight into Bali as it technically wasn’t yet part of the trip. I’m definitely not complaining about it though. They provided the same helpful reception the next morning with complimentary porterage services and the use of the VIP lounge in the domestic terminal. After a short delay because SBY had been flying past the area that morning and they needed to clear the air space (!), we took off in a little 40-seater propeller plane! We flew past blue sea and beautiful islets and coral atolls, hoping that Wakatobi would be just like that.

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Of the four islands that make up Wakatobi National Park – Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko – we landed at the airstrip on Tomia. This was the only town on the island, it was that remote.

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There’s actually a small airport on Wangi Wangi, presumably a larger island, but transfers between Bali and the resort take longer because the flights connect through Makassar and the boat ride to the resort is longer. The resort simply built its own airstrip on Tomia and run chartered flights direct from Bali.

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This suited us just fine because having your own airstrip means that your fleet of SUVs comes right up so your guests can saunter straight from plane to car. What a great idea!

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Before we had a chance to break a proper sweat in the hot sun, we were whisked off past the welcome sign…

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… with our luggage and all the supplies for our week at the resort following closely behind.

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The next stop was the jetty, where we piled onto one of the Wakatobi dive boats and enjoyed iced ginger soda on the short 15-minute ride while the friendly staff briefed us on our stay. We could already see that the water was going to be amazing as it was a beautiful clear turquoise at Tomia jetty already.

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At Wakatobi jetty, it was even better. The water was clear blue…

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… and the white sand was perfect against the backdrop of lush vegetation.

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More beautiful pictures to come!

Bali and Beyond: A Quick Stop-Over at Kuta

It was time for a dive trip after staying dry for so long. We wanted to tick off our bucket list and chose Wakatobi, a resort in South Sulawesi. Getting there involved taking a chartered plane from Bali, so we were more than happy to spend the night before somewhere near the airport. I chose Quest Hotel Tuban, just 5 minutes away from the airport and newly opened in Mar 2012. Its opening offer was USD57 (S$75) for a standard double room. I thought we might as well take a chance on it since we’d only be spending one night there.

We were pleasantly surprised when we got there because they gave us a free upgrade to a deluxe room. It was nicely furnished with modern though rather flimsy furniture, but at that price, I’m not complaining.

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The service at the hotel was great, from the friendly faces at the complimentary hotel pickup to reception and masseuses. We ordered an in-room massage at no extra cost over the in-house spa price and paid about IDR 150,000 (S$21) for a 45 minute full body massage while DC had his foot reflexology (IDR 100,000 or S$14) while watching TV.

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The room had plenty of space for all our dive junk to quite easily spread out, plus several cable channels on TV.

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The toilet was decent, just don’t expect a bathtub. One problem with the shower was that it tended to get really hot, it had a cycle of being cool and then getting hotter and hotter and then back to cool again. So you have to set it so the hottest point is about manageable. It takes some getting used to. Also, the finishings really are quite flimsy and the place is already starting to show signs of wear. The doors, in particular, are rather thin, so bring earplugs and hope that your neighbours don’t talk too loudly at night. We were there just two months after opening and the door stopper in the bathroom was starting to show signs of rust. A lot of the finishings were rather poor, for example plastering not done flush to the ceiling or to the floor skirting (we’ve been noticing these things since we’re in the midst of renovation work for our own place at the moment). I suggest going now when the hotel is still new and definitely not a year later.

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And the rest of the hotel? It’s small but decent. The pool looks quite big. It may be cold though, because it’s in the shade much of the day. There’s also a buffet breakfast with the room charge with a decent enough selection of Indonesian and western selections, from American-style items complete with egg station to chicken porridge with local toppings. Unfortunately, the chicken porridge had so much msg that it gave me a headache. I suggest taking more from the fruit selection instead.

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Quest Hotel Tuban
Jl. Kediri No. 9
Tuban 80361, Bali, Indonesia
Tel: +62 361 764009
Email: TubanInfo@Quest-Hotels.Com

We took the complimentary hotel shuttle to the beach to have a walk and look around. Kuta beach is the same as it’s always been – plenty of folks sitting around on the dull brown sand. Maybe it was because we went at dusk, but there was a slightly depressing atmosphere about the place, especially as the street vendors half-heartedly pushed trinkets and hawked cold Bintang beers in our general direction.

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Maybe it was the omnipresent MacDonald’s sign that reminded me what Kuta represented – mass market consumption – that made it that way.

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So we ducked in a mall to look for some reprieve. (Yeah right, we were just hungry, that’s all.) The most promising place was a rustically decorated restaurant overlooking the beach, Segara Seafood. Seeing that the area was so touristy, we were worried that it would have awful food, but it was surprisingly good! DC had a decent rendition of sop buntut (oxtail soup) with very tender oxtail in a generous portion together with carrot and potato. It was nicely flavoured with a touch of spice and there was a reasonably spicy chilli paste to go along.

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I went for the gurame goreng (deep-fried whole freshwater fish) that came with awesome chilli sauce. It’s not as hot as the one for ayam penyet, but was along the same lines of flavour – lightly cooked chilli paste with belacan and tomato. The deep-fried fish itself was excellently done – crispy enough to eat the tail and the fins, yet tender and juicy inside. I liked the side of plenty of raw vegetables as they lent themselves well to mopping up the yummy sambal. In the background is a generous side of pelecing kangkung, essentially boiled “water spinach” topped with more of the excellent chilli-tomato-belacan sambal.

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Overall, it was a great choice. The food was good and generally priced at about IDR 70,000 (S$10) onwards for the Indonesian dishes. Drinks were reasonably priced too, and my coconut was massive. We enjoyed watching the sky darken over Kuta beach from our little perch. It was a nice place to chill out and go back for an early night to catch an early flight out.

Segara Restaurant
Discovery Shopping Mall (Beach Front)
Jl. Kartika Plaza (80361), Kuta
Bali, Indonesia
Tel: +62 361 769613

Tiong Bahru Bakery

This little bakery had quite a bit of hype in the papers. One reviewer said it had the best croissants in Singapore, and another said that the French baker is one of the top five in Paris. We found ourselves here at 8.30 in the morning behind a 10-minute long queue. Thankfully it wasn’t too long a wait and we spent the time checking out the displays. Like this rather silly display-only bread.

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They got Forty Hands to do the coffee here, and the prices of the various brews are displayed very cleverly on canvas bags hung on the wall.

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People were buying more and taking away large boxes because of the sunk cost idea – if you’re going to spend so much effort getting here early and queuing, you might as well buy more. The trays of baked goods were coming out at a fast clip and were snapped up equally quickly.

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It wasn’t just the famous croissants going like, er, hot cakes, but also the less breakfast-like fare like chocolate or lemon tarts, and the flan (essentially a harder set custard pie).

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Check out the cute name cards. They print the details on one side and the other side is a bun picture. Really adorable on the cake stand.

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So we got the croissant ($2.50) and the pain du chocolat ($3.20) since it was the star feature. The croissant was so pretty with its precise cuts. The layers were doughy like bread rather than like puff pastry, and were wonderfully light and crisp. The bites didn’t shatter in the mouth and make a big mess. This is a big plus for people like me! The chocolate croissant was similarly textured and the chocolate nice and dark, though not quite worth the extra 70 cents as it was a rather small bit of chocolate. The cereal baguette ($4.20) and sugar brioche ($2.80) were pretty good. S, who’s French, said that they’re pretty authentic and as good as in Paris. Be sure to grab some butter and salted caramel from the side board to go with your pastry. On less busy days there should also be jam, but on our visit there wasn’t. It was all good quality stuff, the butter and salted caramel, so we were very happy!

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To round off, we had two tarts. The lemon tart ($6) was bracingly tart (!) and nicely citrusy. I liked how the pastry stayed really short. It was either masterfully made, or didn’t have the time to get soggy.

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The chocolate mendiant ($6.50) was good too. It was thick chocolate mousse atop a nutty orange-flavoured syrup. Decent, but I’d like the chocolate to be dark rather than plain.

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See? Quite decent, right?

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Overall, it’s expensive but good. I’m not sure how well they’d hold up if bought in the evening and eaten the next morning, like how most of us buy breakfast for the next day. I had the raisin danish ($3.50) the next morning. Toasted, it was pretty decent, but way too small to justify spending what would otherwise buy a bak chor mee.

Tiong Bahru Bakery by Gontran Cherrier
56 Eng Hoon Street, #01-70
Singapore 160056
Tel: +65 6220 3430