6 August 2015
VILLA MANALALU – A JEWEL IN FLORES’ CROWN
6 August 2015
On Flores, where tourism is still relatively in its infancy and accommodation can sometimes, at best, be described as “basic” it can be a challenge choosing somewhere to stay. Our experience in Moni, and to a lesser degree in Ende, had prepared us for some potential “roughing it” during our journey from east to west along the Trans-Flores Highway.
We’d chosen Villa Manulalu, just outside Bajawa, for a four-night stay as it seemed to give us an opportunity to spend some time in the magnificent Flores countryside. What we weren’t prepared for was just how much we’d love the place.
The journey to Bajawa
From Ende, we booked a shared taxi to Bajawa, which enabled us to stop off along the way at Blue Stone Beach. As the name suggests there are stretches of this huge beach which are filled with smooth blue stones, which the locals use for building and exporting elsewhere in Asia.
The stretch we stopped at was a lovely, wide, clean and deserted expanse of black sand, with the odd sprinkling of blue stones thrown in for good measure. Mixed with the tropical green of the jungle, the blue of the sea and the hazy, distant mountains this was a stunning tropical scene with a difference. Given that the international airport at Ende is only 10km away this seems like a beach paradise just waiting to be exploited.
We continued along the coast road before it took a turn inland again and up into the mountains. The road deteriorated at regular intervals, switching from fully covered tarmac to craters of cobblestones and occasionally just plain rubble.
Once again we passed through stunning tropical scenery until the conical peak of Gunung Ebulobo loomed ever so closer. It’s one of Flores’ highest volcanoes and dominates the landscape in this area.
And then, after three hours, we reached the village of Mangulewa where we were transferred to Villa Manulalu’s courtesy car and the guest house’s co-owner, Joe.
The 20 minute drive up through the small, local communities was a joy. It coincided with the end of the school day as dozens of young children made their way home. As we drove past them we were greeted with a cacophony of “Hello Meester!!!”, along with wide, grinning faces and waving hands raised in unison. It was impossible to resist turning down our rear windows, throwing our heads outside and shouting “Hello!” to anyone in earshot. And this was typical of how we were treated by the locals, and in particular, the children of all ages, as we journeyed throughout Flores.
As we approached the guest house we had to by-pass another village as the road through it had been blocked. Joe explained that there had been a wedding the day before and that celebrations had continued through the night. Part of those celebrations had been the ritual slaughter of a buffalo and a number of pigs, which was a reminder of how seemingly brutal some of the beliefs in this part of the world are.
And then we arrived at our guest house.
We don’t normally reserve much space on our blog posts for the hotels, guest houses, bungalows and campsites we stay in. After all, we have dedicated pages on the blog which provide a summary of every place we’ve ever laid our head in. But Villa Manulalu and the people who run it were so special that we just had to share our experience there with you.
Owned by husband and wife team, Joe and Jane, the guest house had only been open for five months before we arrived and it was pretty much unknown to the majority of the travelling community. And with just five rooms, it was only full for one of the four nights we stayed.
It’s listed as being in the town of Bajawa, which is on most travellers’ itineraries as a base to explore traditional mountain villages such as Bena and Luba. But it’s actually around 15km outside of Bajawa, and much closer to where all the “action” is. For us, there’s no possible reason why anybody would want to choose to stay in Bajawa itself when this place is on the doorstep.
A breakfast view to die for
The first and most obvious thing that strikes you about the place when you arrive is the sublime setting. And getting up at 6:45 am for breakfast at 7 am was no hardship when we were able to enjoy it al fresco at quite possibly the best restaurant seat we’ve ever sat in. With incredible mountain views ahead and the stunningly conical Gunung Inerie to our immediate right, it was a scene we just didn’t tire of gazing at.
The irrepressible Jimmy
While the ever-smiling Joe and Jane were extremely friendly hosts, it was their manager, Jimmy, who helped to make our time there so memorable. A gentle, unflappable and ultra-helpful person at any time of the day, Jimmy deserves a medal for being….well, Jimmy!
Need to arrange a trek up Gunung Inerie starting at 5:30 am? No problem – Jimmy will arrange the guide, sort out breakfast at 5:00 am, and provide you with bottles of water and some bananas for the trip.
Fancy an extra banana pancake for breakfast because you’re still exhausted after the previous day’s volcano climb? Sure, Jimmy will happily bring one for you – no extra charge.
At a loose end because your husband is spending the morning climbing said volcano? Well just hop on the back of Jimmy’s motorbike and take a trip with him to Bena, one of the local traditional Ngada villages, where he’ll translate your questions for you. No charge, of course.
And so it went on. If only all places in Flores – or elsewhere for that matter – had someone who’d take such time and effort to look after you.
The food and the dining area
Ok, the menu was fairly limited in its size, and the heading on the blackboard should really read “Menu for Every Day” rather than “Today”, but we weren’t complaining. A typical dish of “Manulalu Fried Fish” consisted of a piece of on-the-bone fried tuna with rice, pickled vegetables, a wonderfully fragrant plate of steamed water spinach and a specially requested bowl of fresh and magnificently spicy chilli sambal. To coin a now well-used phrase for our appreciation of good food – it was the dog’s bollocks.
The dining room doubled as a bar area in the evenings, which is where we spent our time as the temperature outside plummeted after the sun went down. Happily, for the pyromaniac in our marriage, there was a gorgeous log fire with a ready supply of logs on hand – and Nicky certainly needed no further encouragement. And the nature of the place meant that evenings would be spent sipping ice cold Bintang beer in front of the roaring fire in the company of other travellers who were just as happy they’d discovered it too. Of course, we were just able to go and help ourselves to the beers and iced glasses from the fridge, just letting Jimmy know what we’d had so he could add it to our overall bill. Class.
Apart from the fact that our room opened up onto a patio area with even more fantastic views, we enjoyed probably the largest and most comfortable bed of our four and half months of travelling to date. The room itself was fairly basic other than that, but it was still clean and fairly spacious.
My climb up the highest and most spectacular volcano in Flores is something that will live in my memory forever. And the view of it from our seated garden area will, I’m sure, be an iconic image of our Big Trip.
When the sky was blue – typically in the mornings – we had the perfect view of the trail I took to the summit. But when the mist and clouds appeared, swirling slowly around the summit, the volcano took on a more mystical quality that really was a sight to behold. It’s a view that’ll take some topping, for sure.
Bena and the Ngada villages
Jimmy also arranged for us to take a morning trek with a local guide through the countryside to visit some traditional Ngada villages, where life has remained pretty much the same for generations. With their traditional thatched houses adorned with buffalo horns and pigs jaws, they were fascinating places to visit.
While we were visiting Bena, which can also be seen from our vantage point at Villa Manulalu, the villagers were erecting a roof on a new house. It seemed like the whole village had a part to play as various people (both men and women) carried raw materials, chopped wood, wound up buffalo hair for twine and helped to erect the roof itself. Meanwhile, other women were stirring huge, bubbling pots of food. It seemed a little voyeuristic to be watching all of this at close quarters but the villagers seem to have embraced tourism as a means to sustain their traditional way of life – as demonstrated by the requirement to sign a visitors book and make a donation.
The Ngada village of Bena
But it was our time within the confines of Villa Manulalu that will define the four days we spent in this area. After the nightmare of our guest house in Moni, it seemed like we were now travelling in some sort of new world where the accommodation actually matches the surroundings in terms of its quality, and great customer service just comes naturally.
And the cost for all of this? Well, how about 350,000 IR (that’s just under £17) per night, including breakfast with a million dollar view! No, we couldn’t believe it either…
What did you think? Have you been to Villa Manulalu or Bajawa? Or maybe you’re planning to visit Bajawa as part of your Flores adventure? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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