Indonesia – North Sulawesi

It’s Sunday 27th September 2009 and six of Kingston & Elmbridge’s finest are off on an exotic holiday to the Far East to dive and enjoy new cultures, cuisine and climate. I said exotic… The expedition is made up of Ros Hepple, Bret Champion, Sandra Argent, Gill Wilson, Kevan Tulip and myself.

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The check in at Singapore Airlines, Heathrow, Terminal 3 is the most painless I have ever experienced – no queue, straight in, no quibble about weight allowance. We are all up to the usual tricks, regulators in rucksacks etc. No fuss, waived through as royalty, the beginning of how it was to be, fabulous!

Enter the biggest plane I have ever been on – a double Decker A380 Airbus with upstairs and downstairs – I was ushered through to a bucket seat with personal TV screen, there must be a mistake… I’ll just keep quiet. Service with a smile, steaks, curries, meal after meal, snacks, complimentary wine, latest selection of new film releases, TV shows, a blanket, a pillow, a smiling air hostess… Wow! Economy took on a whole new meaning!

All of us compared reading material – I had Dan Brown’s recent publication, ‘The Lost Symbol’, the girls had various trashy novels, Bret was reading this huge book about 4 inches in depth with a massive title ‘Hitler’. He was boning up on a subject his daughter is studying at school!! Thank goodness the passenger next to him wearing the skullcap did not notice.

The flight was on time, thirteen hours later we arrived at Singapore – the cleanest and tidiest airport in the world. Ninety minutes later and we were on our connecting Silk Air flight to Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. A seamless and efficient journey.

We arrived at Manado Airport and gathered our luggage. The one and only hitch of the entire holiday came to the fore. Kevan’s dive bag was missing, all the passengers had left the airport and one identical dive bag bearing the name Peter Garrett remained. Fortunately, a couple of phone calls and an hours delay led to the retrieval of Kevan’s bag. Mr Garrett continues to receive travel advice text messages to this day; I made it a priority to send him a friendly greeting the moment I got back from holiday. What a buffoon!

I was feeling rather chipper when I arrived as I was now a millionaire having changed £100 sterling for one and a half million Indonesian rupees. The 50K notes were burning a hole in my pocket. The wad was bulging in my trousers – the cash that is?

A smooth transfer and 40 minutes later we arrived at the Santika Hotel, Utara, North Sulawesi. The hotel’s natural surroundings and beautiful greenery create a serene ambience for leisure travellers. Holidaymakers wake up to a breakfast of warm pastries and espresso from the coffee shop and can spend a relaxing day by the outdoor swimming pool and have cocktails delivered from the bar. There are plenty of diving and snorkelling opportunities at the nearby beaches. The Santika Hotel has its own Thalassa Diving Centre and is the ideal base for divers. The resort and dive centre can be found on amongst waving palm trees and lush mangrove forests, in the middle of the famous National Park of Bunaken which is one of the most diverse areas in the world in terms of underwater life. We just dropped off our dive equipment and their staff did the rest. Our diving holiday in North Sulawesi was unforgettably wonderful; whether diving in Bunaken and Lembeh Straits or just making a short trip to the Bangka Archipelago, with our experienced and hawked-eyed dive guide, ‘Fat James’ who appeared to be about 16 years of age. In fact he was a waif in build and 28years of age, married with a daughter named Floren. Our day boats were spacious and comfortable. Our diving days were full of surprises and encounters with special marine creatures.

Diving in North Sulawesi:

Specialists claim that in Bunaken National Park alone, one can find over 58 different genera of corals and an estimated 2000 species of fish. This count becomes even higher if you add the extra species that can be found in the Bangka Archipelago and Lembeh Straits. Because three big water masses come together; the Pacific Ocean, the Sulawesi Sea and the Indian Ocean, a wealth of nutrition exists to feed the numerous species. The tidal currents and the diversity in underwater “landscape” also contribute to the richness of this underwater paradise. The tidal difference is about 2.2 meters (8 feet) and therefore most dives were drift dives. The temperature of the water ranges between 26 and 29 degrees Celcius (79 -85 Fahrenheit). Lovely and warm uhmmmmmmmmm!

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Giant Frogfish, Hippocampus & Mandarinfish

Sightings included: Sharks, Barracuda, Huge Turtles, Giant Frog Fish, Mandarin Fish, Sea Horses, Cuttle Fish, Coconut Octopus, Scorpion Fish, Lion Fish, Porcupine Fish, Box Fish, Puffa Fish, Morays Eels, Ribbon Eels, Manta Shrimp, Eagle Rays, and Blue spotted rays in addition to new variety of Clown fish, damsel and anthias.

During our stay we were privileged to be able to go on a local jungle safari where we saw two rare species of monkey: The Booted Macaque and the Tarsier Spectrum.

Booted Macaque

The Booted Macaque of the Sulawesi island, Indonesia. The Booted Macaque Monkey is active during the daytime and spends most of the day in the trees. The Booted Macaque is an omnivore and feeds on figs, buds, invertebrates and cereals.

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Tarsier Spectrum (the world’s smallest primate). Endangered species.

Well our diving and resort centre holiday passed in a flash and next we travelled to Singapore, a very new and exciting city, and an independent state since 1965, when it became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation, having formerly been a port of Malaya.

We took in a tour known as ‘The City Experience’ which showcases the contrast between old and new and the blend of East and West. We experienced the history, culture and the lifestyle of multi-racial Singapore, the exciting heart of New Asia. We visited the Colonial district for a view of Padang, The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and The Merlion – a mythical beast, Singapore’s original half lion, half fish. Our next stops were Little India, Chinatown and a Gem Factory, to admire the best of Asian craftsmanship. The last stop was a visit to the 52 hectares of primarily jungle and gardens, the famed Botanic Gardens.

Our second jaunt was to the world’s largest observation wheel – The Singapore Flyer.

Standing at stunning 165m, the Flyer is the height of a 42-storey building – that’s some 30 metres taller than the famed London Eye. Taking a flight on this £500m wheel is a one-of-a-kind experience you wouldn’t want to miss. It’s the only place to see Singapore’s magnificent cityscape. As the wheel turns, you’ll be treated to a visual 360° feast of iconic and historical landmarks and views from the Marina Bay to the Singapore River, Raffles Place, Merlion Park, Empress Place and the Padang. There is no other place in Singapore that offers these breathtaking, panoramic views. Besides spectacular views of the entire Marina Bay, visitors are treated to other points of interest around this landscape of water and gardens, such as:

Raffles Place:

Raffles Place, Singapore’s main Central Business District, is situated south of the mouth of the Singapore River. Originally known as Commercial Square, it was named after modern Singapore’s founding father, Sir Stamford Thomas Raffles, in 1858. Retailers in the district soon gave way to the rapid development of finance houses and major banks in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Fullerton Singapore:

An internationally acclaimed five-star luxury hotel located near the mouth of the Singapore River, The Fullerton Singapore was converted from Singapore’s historic general post office building to one of Singapore’s most prestigious hotels.

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Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Located at the picturesque waterfront overlooking Marina Bay, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay is Singapore’s most exciting performance arts venue to date. Housing a 1,600-seat concert hall, a 2,000-seat theatre and several recital rooms, theatre and rehearsal studios as well as outdoor performing spaces, the dome-shaped complex also boasts a shopping mall, cosmopolitan food outlets and an arts library.

Merlion Park

The Merlion, a half-fish half-lion hybrid, is a commanding presence standing 8.6 metres tall on the south bank of Singapore River. The Merlion originates from the legend of Sang Nila Utama, a prince who named this sunny island “Singapura” (Lion City) after sighting a lion upon his first arrival to Singapore’s shores. The majestic Merlion has since become a popular tourist attraction for visitors.

Singapore River

Once Singapore’s lifeline for trade, where early immigrants worked and lived, and stevedores unloaded cargo from ships and bumboats, the Singapore River has been given a new lease of life with the development of art venues, alfresco dining, entertainment and retail in conserved shop-houses. Highlights on the banks of the River include popular tourist attractions such as Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay.

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The cuisine of Singapore is often viewed by people as a prime example of the ethnic diversity of the culture of Singapore. The food is heavily influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and even Western traditions since the founding of Singapore by the British in the 1800s. It would take me pages of mouth watering explanation to describe the variety of mesmerising dishes on offer. We ate street food one evening and it was excellent and very affordable.

Finally, a huge thank you to chief organiser Ros. An outstanding trip and an opening of eyes for all of us of the opportunities and desirability to travel again to the Far East.

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