With only 15 days in Indonesia before the end of our adventure, we were looking for an amazing experience to end on a high note. During our last few days in Japan, we floated around a few different options. We looked at helicopter tours, sky diving packages, fabulous hotels and hot air balloon rides before settling on our inevitable choice – an amazing dive trip. Indonesia is home to some of the world’s best diving – we’ve read many arguments back and forth debating some of the Indonesian areas vs. Sipadan, Malaysia (the best place we’ve ever been) as the top dive location in the world. It was a no-brainer.
We hadn’t planned far enough in advance, so all of the liveaboard boats (well, the ones with acceptable safety records) were full. There are two famous, world-class diving areas – Komodo and Raja Ampat. We started researching and quickly found that Raja Ampat was going to cost an arm and a leg if we couldn’t find a liveaboard. Like, $5,000 for 7 days. And for $5,000 you get to stay in a thatch hut, sleep under a mosquito net with no electricity on a thin foam mattress, “shower” with a bucket of room-temperature salt water and eat rice and grilled veggies. And dive 3-4 amazing times per day. We debated it for a long time – we had roughly that much left in our absolute-maximum budget. But ultimately, we decided that we couldn’t justify spending that much to toss and turn, sweaty, under a mosquito net. Maybe in the beginning of our trip, but not now – we’re tired of sweating ourselves to sleep.
And that’s when we found Angel Isle Resort, like a message from heaven. We actually learned about it from a travel agent we contacted, trying to book a dive boat. She offered Angel Isle as an alternative way to dive Komodo. When we started looking at their pictures, then their prices, it was a no brainer. This was exactly the kind of trip-finishing experience we were looking for, but at a palatable price. We sent in an email inquiry via their website, which began a 3 day email chain that ended when we bought last-minute flights at the airport and set out for remote Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Kath, owner of Angel Island, promised to have a car there to pick us up on arrival.
The car was there (not always the case, we’ve found) and took us straight to a boat. The boat left immediately, with just us as cargo. About 45 minutes out to sea, we came upon the tiny island paradise of Angel Island. There were 7 snorkelers in the water when we arrived, a good sign for the diving to come. We disembarked from the boat and were greeted by a friendly face, one we’d get used to over the next 4 days. Staff rushed aboard, grabbing our bags before we could get to them and they disappeared. The friendly guy (we never did learn his name) took us on a quick tour of the island, showing us the 2 private beaches, the restaurant and culminating with our bungalow, #3.
The interior of bungalow 3.
When we set foot inside our room, it took our breath away. With apologies to the Alila Goa and the Meriton World Tower in Sydney, Angel Island was the most beautiful place we’ve stayed in the nearly 14 months that we’ve been traveling. The ceiling, as you can see in the picture, is at least 20 ft. tall at its peak. Out of the frame is a huge space holding a desk, a wardrobe, a bench seat and a 40″ flat screen with DVD player. The king-sized bed sits on a raised platform in the middle of the spacious room. And that’s leaving out the best part – through the door, visible behind the bed, is the bathroom. Outside, behind a 10 ft. stone privacy wall is the toilet, a vanity with 2 sinks and an outdoor shower. The weather in Indonesia is warm, so showering outside felt great.
Our bags had apparently raced through a shortcut and arrived before we did. The friendly guide showed us how to work the TV, DVD player, shower and answered our other questions, then left us alone with instructions to come to the restaurant at 5pm to sign up for diving. We had about 2 hours to kill, so we read through the hotel booklet, including a menu. Angel Island is all-inclusive except for alcohol, so you just ask for food when you want it. I immediately asked for fish cakes.
At 5, we went down to sign up for diving. We met with Ernest, one of the owners (Kath and Ernest are from northern England and started Angel Island in 2002. And he informed us that we were, in fact, the only guests at the moment, this being the Komodo rainy season. Their next scheduled guests would arrive on our departure date, so we’d have the run of the island for our entire time. And we did – but it didn’t mean they skimped on staff or attention. We were informed that we could have our meals brought to the room if we’d prefer, rather than eat with the mosquitoes in the restaurant. So we did.
The next morning, we got up and went diving with Kath. Again, we were the only guests, so we had her to ourselves. We told her about my inability to see a manta ray – Anna has seen 3 this year, but I’m always looking the wrong way and have never seen one. So she changed our plans on the spot (she’s the boss, so she can do that – not many dive trips are run by the decision-maker) and we headed for a dive site she knew we’d see some mantas.
And we did – 7!, to be exact.
Since it was just us, we don't have pictures of the actual manta we saw. But here's someone else's good manta photo.
We couldn’t believe our luck – but it wasn’t luck, apparently. Kath had seen 6 at the same site the day before. Between dives, Ernest (who’s also the chef) had sent along an apple pie for us to snack on. This is a recurring theme at Angel Island – snack time. Between dives, a snack. After the second dive, lunch. Then, after lunch, another snack. When you get back to the island, a snack is waiting for you. I swear, we were eating 6 times per day. Again, I was in heaven.
Anna on the dive boat with her apple pie.
That night, we ate room service in our room again and watched a movie. Diving is exhausting! The next morning, during an enormous breakfast, I brainstormed with Anna, trying to figure out what I wanted to see next. Since Kath had come through with mantas, I figured she was up for a challenge. So when she arrived to wrap up breakfast, I jokingly told her that I wanted to see a dugong (manatee). She scoffed – so I changed my challenge to a whale.
We boarded the boat, surprised to find 4 new divers. They’d booked a dive trip from the mainland with Reefseekers, Kath and Ernest’s dive shop. They wouldn’t be staying on the island, but would be diving with us. I was a bit dismayed – it was nice to dive with just Anna and Kath – until Kath whispered that Ernest would be taking them out so we’d have her to ourselves. We headed into the northern part of Komodo for about 2 hours before we started putting our gear on. After we were dressed, Kath took Anna and I aside and started our dive briefing. Anna’s back was to the water, with Kath and I facing her. When, all of a sudden, a whale breached the surface, not 30 yards from our boat. “Shit!” yelled Kath, in her semi-Scottish accent. “I nearly shit me pants!”. We were all in awe – the massive mammal was heading straight for our boat. It was gone before we could blink, emerging a moment later 50 yards on the other side of the boat – it must have gone right under us. We were nearly to the dive site, but all thoughts of moving on were forgotten. Kath ordered the boat to turn and follow – we watched the whales – it turns out there were 2 of them – surfacing about 100 yards away, coming up to spout every 2-3 minutes for about 20 minutes.
It's not good, but this is the best I could do. That's part of a whale.
As the whales escaped from sight, Kath turned to me and demanded to know what kind of magic I was working. I wanted to know the same thing of her – she called the mantas, now the whales? I was excited for the inevitable manatee sighting. Of course, that sighting never came. In 9 years as a dive master at Komodo, Kath and Ernest have seen a dugong a total of twice. But it didn’t matter – I’ll never forget the humpback whale jumping less than a hundred feet from me.
The dives that day were great – rather than try and get from point A to point B – the usual objective of a dive – Kath was content to just find one area with great marine life and let us swim around there for an hour. It’s not how I would choose to spend every dive, but it was a nice change. I’m definitely not doing these dives justice – we were seeing turtles, reef sharks, moray eels, schools of smaller fish, shrimps, lobsters and the occasional octopus. With only Kath and each other to keep track of, it was very relaxed but filled with great sightings.
That night was more of the same – watching the sunset from our verandah, fleeing inside to our luxurious quarters when the mosquitoes emerged, then calling for a massive room service dinner before falling asleep absurdly early. Oh, and 4 or 5 snack-times per day.
The sunset from our private beach.
On day 4, we dove again, this time with only 2 of the 4 from yesterday. Kath had given us the option of going to see the Komodo dragons (Rinca Island is the only place in the world they’re found) and doing some 2nd-class diving or continuing with the great diving of the previous two days. It was a tough choice, but we opted for the great diving. In fact, we repeated the manta dive (the other 2 people hadn’t ever seen one) and saw 8 this time. Another great day – no whales, no manatees but a fitting end to our year full of underwater adventures.
After another room service feast, we slept late on our last morning, refusing to give up our romantic getaway. We checked out at the last possible moment – the boat was anchored, waiting for us – before heading back to the airport and on to Bali for the last week of the trip.
Angel Island - our own slice of heaven. At least for 4 days.