Like the United States, Indonesia is huge. Its 17,000 islands stretch from Sumatra in the west to West Papua in the east, more than 2,500 miles apart.
To fly from Singapore to the port city of Makassar at the southwestern tip of the island of Sulawesi takes more than three hours.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we opted to take in some of the world-famous diving and snorkeling along the coral reefs in Bunaken National Park.
But Sulawesi is the world’s ninth-largest island. To get to Bunaken, we had to fly 587 miles from Makassar to the city of Manado on the northeastern tip of the island.
From the airport, it’s a 30-minute ride to the port and a 45-minute boat ride to the Bastianos Dive Resort.
Like Alaska, some of the best places in Indonesia are notoriously inconvenient to access. Is it worth the trouble to take the plane, the van and the boat to get to Bunaken?
If you’re a diver, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Divers are not the only adventurers that show up on the island. But the small resort, with fewer than 25 rooms, is set up specifically for those who want to explore the nearby reefs and check out the coral, the fish and the plentiful sea turtles in the area.
“Most of our guests are serious divers,” said resort manager Paul Ross. Ross and his wife, Caroline Pohl, both are certified diving instructors with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
For most people, scuba diving is the closest they will get to walking in outer space. It’s an incredible sensation to explore the undersea world in an essentially weightless state.
As our boat from Manado got closer to shore, you could see the house reef, which is just off the beach from the resort. No boat is required to check out all the coral and fishes — whether you’re diving or snorkeling.
“Our reef really is lovely,” said Caroline Pohl. The house reef is one of more than 30 dive sites around the island. Many of the best sites are accessible in less than 10 minutes by boat.
On arrival, our boat backed into the beach and we stepped off into the water for the walk to shore. Because Paul and Caroline both are dive instructors, they can get you in the water with the scuba gear quickly.
Even though we were just snorkeling, we went out with the divers and the resort provided a snorkel guide. That way, we saw the best coral, tropical fish and turtles near the surface. The divers saw everything there was to see down to about 60 feet.
My favorite feature at the dive sites was the coral walls that dropped off rapidly to the chilly depths. As a snorkeler, it was easy to swim around the edges of the wall and see thousands of fish swimming in and around the coral structures of the reef.
The sea turtles were a real bonus on our trips. Sometimes they were hanging out on a flat place in the reef. At other times, they were actively chomping at something deep in the coral. Mostly, though, they were swimming by — taking in the scenery.
Everything at the resort revolves around diving. Almost everyone signs up for the morning boat at 8:30 a.m. Some divers bring all their own gear (except the dive tanks). But others, like us, used the resort’s gear, including masks, fins and snorkels. Other divers in the group signed up to use the resort’s air regulators, buoyancy-compensating vests or BCs, weight belts and other gear that’s essential for a good dive.
The morning boat includes a two-tank dive, so you’re back in time for lunch. Depending on the weather, divers can sign up for the afternoon boat at 3 p.m. It’s a one-tank dive.
Although it’s not mandatory, everyone tended to gather at dinner around a single table to share notes about the day’s dive. That includes the fish you saw, the visibility, a review of pictures if there was a photographer on board and stories of other diving adventures.
Other guests at the resort included a diver from Malaga, Spain. He was on a nine-month journey around the world, including many exotic dive locations. A couple from Munich had all their own gear, including some fancy cameras for well-lit close-ups of the fish and coral.
Most divers stay for a week, to get in a good selection of dive sites. Our three-day stay was something of an oddity — but that’s the time we had for a glimpse of Bunaken National Park.
Is it worth the boats, the planes and the van rides to get here? Bunaken National Park isn’t on the way to anywhere. Rather it’s at the end of the road. But to a diver, or any explorer, the end of the road is where the real adventure begins.
[Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of photographer Simon Birner’s name.]