A Guide To North Sulawesi, Indonesia

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A Lovely Planet contributors Sarah and James have spent the last month in North Sulawesi, checking out the best dive spots and exploring this lesser-known Indonesian destination. Here is their guide to the province.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James

Sarah & James

 

We’d actually never heard of North Sulawesi, a province in Indonesia, until last year. This destination, however, kept coming up as a ‘must visit’ area from locals and travellers eager to share their experiences.

Offering beautiful lush highlands, rich culture, crystal clear waters and world-class diving, yet rarely visited by many tourists, our bags were packed!

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Onong Resort

Getting There/Around

Singapore is the most direct international hub, which services the 3hr flight to Manado.

Flying within Indonesia is easy, with carriers Lion Air, Garuda Indonesia, Silk Air and Nam Air. Expect delays on the budget airlines, so leave time between any connections.

On land it’s cheap to get around – local apps Go-Jek or Grab (similar to Uber and motorbikes) really helped us.

A 10-minute car ride generally costs 10k IDR (£0.50) alternatively download the Blue Bird app for the metered taxis or hop on the local shared buses.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Getting Around

Getting Around

 

Manado is generally used as a stop-over unless you like shopping malls, lots of them! For a reasonably priced hotel choose the quirky, but no frills Istanaku 2, at 300k IDR (£16) for a room including breakfast.

 

Bunaken Island 

For our first dive location, we jumped on a local ferry at Pelabuhan Manado (Manado port), destination Bunaken Island.

Travelling with the locals, sitting amongst supplies of rice and eggs for a quick 45-minute trip, once you eventually depart.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Taking The Ferry

Taking The Ferry




For a more luxurious arrival, charter a private boat at 450-550k IDR (£24 – £29) or organise with your resort.

Resorts and homestays line the East and the West of the island, with the local village in the middle.

Daniels Homestay was our pick, a charming resort and dive shop, at 500k IDR (£26) per bungalow including all meals. Diving at 930k IDR (£48) for two dives a day.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Daniels Homestay

Daniel’s Homestay



Take a stroll around the town and explore the colourful streets. Stop at Novita’s homestay for an iced tea “Es Teh” an Indonesian favourite.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Bunaken

Bunaken


For an evening of chilled Bintang (Indonesian beer) or palm wine head to Deco Stop where a fun local band will be taking song requests of local and commercial hits until early hours.

 

Siladen Island

A much smaller island, Siladen, only a short boat ride from Bunaken (15 minutes), is a quieter more relaxing stay with only a few homestays and resorts.

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Onong Resort

Onong Resort



Celebes Divers hosts two resorts both positioned right on the beachfront side by side.

The Onong Resort has all you need, spacious rooms with a gorgeous four poster bed, balcony and hot water shower.

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Onong Resort

Onong Resort

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Onong Resort

Onong Resort

 

For a more refined affair book next door at The Kuda Laut Resort, a gorgeous setting of day beds, sundecks, and a sparkling swimming pool.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Kuda Laut

Kuda Laut

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Kuda Laut

Kuda Laut


The bungalows are beautifully decorated and the best bit… a dream outdoor shower that opens right onto the beach.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Kuda Laut

The shower leading to the beach at Kuda Laut

 

Celebes Divers services both resorts and has excellent facilities, even a camera room for those underwater photography enthusiasts.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Kuda Laut

The camera room at Kuda Laut


The diving here is all about the vertical wall drop-offs with an abundance of Hawksbill turtles, camouflaged critters and towering sponges – all making the diving in Bunaken National Park some of the best in South East Asia.

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - A Giant Frog Fish

A Giant Frog Fish

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Celebes Diving

Huge Sea Fan

Be sure to opt-in for a night dive, to see even more weird and wonderful critters come out to play. It’s truly amazing if you pluck up the courage, but it’s not for everyone.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Celebes Diving - Banded Coral Shrimp

Banded Coral Shrimp


For the non-divers, snorkelling here is great. Both Kuda Laut and Onong resorts offer snorkel trips and also a spa service. 

There’s also a variety of day trips from the island. We joined a morning of dolphin watching and we were not disappointed! We found a super pod of hundreds of Spinner dolphins who gave us an incredible show for over an hour and a half, living up to their name, twirling and spinning out of the water to impress their spectators.


Minahasa

Central Minahasa is a unique stop between dive destinations Bunaken and Lembeh, accessed by taxi (1hr) from Manado. Offering a huge variety of local activities from water rafting, volcano and waterfall trekking, to culinarily experiences not for the faint-hearted at the local Tomohon market.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Tomohon Market

Tomohon Market

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Tomohon Market

Tomohon Market

 

Staying at The Mountain View Resort, the experienced guides tailor activities to your interests, so we quickly had an itinerary to suit.

Our local guides Mikel and Egi, always on the hunt for new experiences, discovered a new waterfall only known by a few locals. With a 50 minute trek through tight corners and sloping terrains, we made it to the beautiful setting of Pararangen Waterfall, the first tourists to visit this waterfall, ever!

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Pararangen Waterfall

Pararangen Waterfall



Restaurant We’Lu is the best lunch stop, with views of the active Lokon twin volcanoes. The food is delicious and there’s even a viewing platform to get the perfect Instagram snap like mine.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - We'lu

We’lu


If you’re interested in these very active volcanoes, visit the monitoring post which shows recent activity still recorded using Seismographs.

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Volcano Monitoring

Volcano Monitoring



For a walk with more views, Bukit Kasih or Love Hill, an active sulphuric hill will offer just that. If you trek to the very top you’ll find not only stunning views but 5 praying places for 5 different religions.
Using the hot water from the volcanic hill, foot spas and massages are on offer at 75k IDR (£4) for 1 hour to soak those trekking feet.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Bukit Kasih

Bukit Kasih

 

To continue the theme of relaxation, we drove to local natural hot spring, Ranolewo, to join the locals who come here to soak their sore muscles after a long day at work. With temperatures of a hot bath, it’s a relaxing and perfect way to end the day.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Ranolewo Hot Springs

Ranolewo Hot Springs


The Lembeh Strait  

Leaving Minahasa, the journey takes around 1hr 30 in a taxi (roughly 200K IDR / £10.50) to the Lembeh fishing port, and then a short 10-20 minute boat ride across to the island to our final and unique dive destination, The Lembeh Strait.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Lembeh Strait

Lembeh Strait

 

The Lembeh Strait is the ‘Where’s Wally’ of diving destinations and ranks as some of the best diving in the world for ‘muck diving’- unique macro critters found in murky rubbish-filled waters.

The K2 Resort which is staggered up a steep hill on Lembeh Island gives the resort an impressive vantage point over the Lembeh Strait as well as being perfectly located within a 25-minute boat ride to most top dive sites.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - K2 Dive Resort

K2 Dive Resort

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - K2 Dive Resort

The lovely bedroom at K2 Dive Resort


As you descend under the water to reveal a dark sandy bottom, you may wonder why you left the clear waters of Bunaken behind, but look closely and keep your eyes peeled for hidden and insanely camouflaged creatures.

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Walking fire urchin

Walking fire urchin

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Peteredolidia Lautina Nudibranch

Pteraeolidia Ianthina Nudibranch

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Peacock Mantis shrimp

Peacock Mantis Shrimp

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - The Mimic Octopus

Mimic Octopus


We’d recommend a long wetsuit and having a dive pointer to protect and balance yourself from stinging critters lying in the sand. Keep your kicks soft and the sand still so you don’t miss anything!


Coconut Octopus can be found hiding in almost anything they can call home. We were even lucky enough to find a Hairy Frogfish no bigger than a small coin thanks to our guide Oping, which the other divers were very jealous of.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Hairy Frog Fish

Hairy Frog Fish



Jump on a bike to explore this lush island visiting beautiful villages, mangroves and to the famous Jesus statue. Standing at 35m, it is larger than that in Rio de Janeiro, (Christ the Redeemer) which stands at only 30m, cool fact of the day.

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Exploring Lembeh

Exploring Lembeh 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Statue

The Jesus Statue


Top Tips


Outside of main cities, you may hear the word “Bule”, usually used for tourists of lighter hair and skin colour. It is generally not meant to offend, but a way of saying hello.

You’ll be asked for quite a few pictures as you’re considered exotic. Just roll with it. It’s a great way to get pictures as well!

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - Meeting The Locals

Meeting The Locals

 

Language


Get involved and don’t be shy to chat to the locals. Everyone we met was very friendly and generally wants to help, even if the language is difficult.
These useful phrases helped us
Berapa = How much?
Mahal = Expensive
Terima Kasih = Thank you
Satu bir dingin, tolong = One cold beer please
Tidak panas = No hot spice

 

Food


The Beng-Beng chocolate bar, Es Teh (iced tea), Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and Bitung beer can be found almost anywhere and you’ll be hooked before you know it, so enjoy!

 

A Lovely Planet - North Sulawesi - Sarah & James - We'lu

Thank you to Celebes Divers, Mountain View and K2 Dive Resort for hosting A Lovely Planet.

You can follow Sarah & James at Diveinexplore.

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