Friday, May 2, 2008

Simply the best

One of the Lesser Sundas chain, sitting north of East Timor and east of Bali, Alor is among the more isolated of Indonesia's 17,000 islands. Coral reefs, gentle beaches, a sprinkling of surrounding atolls rising blue against the horizon, green mountains sliding into the mirrored sea: the island is simply beautiful. And Alor offers some of the best diving and snorkelling in Indonesia.

Sebanjar Beach, west of Kalabahi, sports a strip of soft yellow-white sand, fringed with palm trees. A reef, with all the trimmings of branching coral and bright darting fish, sits just under the water. Pura Island juts out to dominate the ocean foreground and Pantar Island, much bigger and much farther away, looms blue in the distance. In Bali the beach would be backed by jam-packed hotels and shops. But here there is just one small concrete-block hut on Sebanjar Beach and resident fishing families mostly ignore that billion-dollar view.

The coast is remarkably litter-free and the ocean is clean and clear. The straits between Alor and Pantar are washed by cold, nutrient-rich currents, and sharks, rays, groupers, wrasse and even dolphins can be seen rushing about.

The diving is relatively inexpensive. Alor Diving is connected to La Petite Kepa, a gaggle of little thatched huts run by a French couple on a tiny island off Alor near Kalabahi. This outfit charges the equivalent of $100 for two dives, including rental equipment, boat trip, snack and marine park fee. The more dives you take, the less expensive each becomes; snorkellers can also join the dive boat for a smaller outlay.

Alor Dive's friendly German proprietor Thomas Schreiber knows the archipelago's waters well (he has lived in Lombok and western Flores) and says Alor diving is the best in Indonesia. He is a useful person to know in Alor and has a fund of stories. It's a beautiful feeling to float around peering at the wondrous shapes and colours of the coral and the fish, then hoist oneself on board, loll on cushions, accept a banana, and enjoy the sight of islands and the water, with hawks wheeling across the hills. More intrepid travellers can hire their own put-put boat for snorkelling and swimming expeditions, for about 600,000rupiah ($70) a day, including lunch and gear hire. Most of the hotels can put people in touch with English-speaking guides who organise such rentals.


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