West Flores: So much more than Komodo dragons

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(CNN)When Komodo National Park was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, this lesser known region of eastern Indonesia became an overnight travel sensation among wildlife buffs keen to see Komodo dragons -- the largest lizards on earth.

Fifty kilometers east of Komodo, the western shore of Flores has become a springboard for the dragon hunters.
The airport in Labuan Bajo, once a ramshackle frontier town on Flores' west coast, serves as the closest landing strip for Komodo -- and has even been renamed Komodo Airport.
    Most travelers fly in from Bali, spend a night in town, then hop on a boat trip over to the famous isle. At best, they'll do a quick detour to the technicolor coral reefs of the Flores Sea.
    But those who rush off are doing themselves a disservice.
    From waterfalls straight out of paradise, to an island full of flying foxes, to stylish new eco resorts and a surprisingly sophisticated dining scene -- there's much more to see in western Flores than Komodo dragons.

    Rising dining and hotel scene

    "There was only one real restaurant in town (five years ago)," says restaurateur Marco Bertini. "Now there are probably 20 good places to eat."
    Labuan Bajo has a "Wild West" feel to it -- with an Islamic twist.
    The roads are broken, dust gets churned up in the air and the Islamic call to prayer resounds from tinny loudspeakers in the still of the night.
    But it's worlds away from how it looked and felt when Italian chef Marco Bertini, owner of Made in Italy -- an al fresco restaurant that serves lobster bisque and handmade ravioli -- moved to Labuan Bajo in 2010.
    "Flores is moving so fast -- the development I've seen in the past five years is the equivalent of 20 years' development in other parts of Indonesia," Bertini says.
    "There weren't any roads back then -- just rocks and mud. There was only one real restaurant in town. Now there are probably 20 good places to eat."
    In addition to a rising dining scene, this part of the island has started to attract investors and hoteliers.
    A raft of new hotels has opened in Labuan Bajo, ranging from basic backpacker haunts like the Gardena Hotel to four-star properties like Bintang Flores Hotel.
    The best places are located on the picturesque hillsides like Selini on the Hill (a suite for $53, per night) and Bayview Gardens Hotel -- with lush tropical surroundings and sweeping views of the portside district and island-studded waters of the Flores Sea.

    Gardena Hotel, Jl Yos Sudarso, Labuan Bajo, Flores 86554 Indonesia;

    Bintang Flores Hotel, Jl. Pantai Pede Labuan Bajo, Flores Indonesia;

    Selini On The Hill Villa, Gang Perikanan Lama no. 77, Labuan Bajo, Flores Indonesia;

    Bayview Gardens, Jl Puncak Waringin, Labuan Bajo, Flores 86554 Indonesia;

    Waterfalls and hobbit-like skeletons

    The 17-meter Cunca Rami Waterfall is an ideal day trip from Labuan Bajo.
    Moving inward, the interior of Flores is a lost world of cloud-ringed mountains, extinct volcanoes with crater lakes and hyper-fertile valleys pockmarked with proto-industrial villages and archeological sites.
    In 2004, scientists excavating a cave near Liang Bua, 115 kilometers east of Labuan Bajo, discovered the skeletal remains of three-foot-tall hobbit-like creatures known as Homo Floresiensis.
    They lived on the island some 20,000 years ago and are thought to be an extinct species of human.
    About a 45-kilometer drive southeast of Labuan Bajo, Cunca Rami Waterfall makes a dramatic introduction to Flores.
    The road snakes up a thickly forested ridge, rapidly degrading in quality the further east it goes.
    It ends at the truck stop of Werang; from there it's a challenging hike up to the waterfall.
    Every store in Werang is fronted by wooden stands stocked with Arak, an Indonesian liquor made from palm sap in bamboo distilleries and proofed to 60 percent.
    It has an acquired taste and can be lethal to consume.
    The hike includes a slippery track down a very steep slope as well as crossing several streams and waterlogged rice paddies.
    It's about an hour's trek before you reach the huge clearing in the jungle where the Cunca Rami Waterfall cascades 17 meters down a cliff spiked with swiftlets' nests.
    It collects in a 30-square-meter natural pool filled with meter-long algae and river prawns.
    The water is refreshing and there are rarely other visitors in sight.

    Island hopping

    The recently opened Seraya Hotel represents a huge leap over the barebones dive resorts presently found in Flores.
    The streets of Labuan Bajo are lined with travel agents and diving outfits offering day and overnight trips to the hundreds of pristine sand-ringed islands that lie offshore.
    Bertini is one of the boat tour operators. Aside from his terra firma restaurant, he owns a refurbished shrimp boat called Made in Italy.
    It houses a fine-dining restaurant that can seat 10.
    It features a seven-course degustation menu matched with champagne, cocktails and wines -- topped off with a glass of 25-year-old Zacapa rum, Italian chocolate and Cuban cigars.
    His boat tour includes stops at Kanawa and Angel Islands -- on the edge of Komodo National Park -- where sugar-white beaches are surrounded by turquoise waters in which coral and tropical fish are abundant.
    On Kalong, a pimple of land set inside a bay on the east coast of Komodo, tens of thousands of giant flying foxes emerge from mangroves at dusk and fly east to Rinca hunting for food.
    It takes the colony 20 minutes to complete the pass, while their deafening chirps engulf the night sky.
    Earlier this year, father and daughter team Yannis and Rozalin Vlatakis, hoteliers from Greece, opened a sophisticated eco-resort on the little island of Seraya.
    The Seraya Hotel (where a bungalow costs $320 per night with meals and boat transfers from Labuan Bajo) represents a huge leap forward from some of the bare-bones dive resorts presently operating in Flores.
    It has a whitewashed al fresco restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean fare, a night-lit swimming pool surrounded with beanbags, 23 air-conditioned beachfront bungalows with Balinese-style outdoor bathrooms and a two-bedroom villa with plunge pool set on a hill.
    "The second I saw this place, I fell in love it," Yannis Vlatakis says. "It reminded me of the Greek Islands -- before the development."

    Seraya Hotel & Resort, Seraya Kecil Kecil, Labuan Bajo, Flores NTT Indonesia; +62 385 41136

    MadeInItaly - Ristorante Italiano, Jl Soekarno Hatta Flores - Komodo, Labuan Bajo, Flores 86554 Indonesia; +62 38 541 366

    How to get there:

    Garuda Indonesia flies twice a day -- at 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. -- from Bali to Komodo Airport at Labuan Bajo for 1,730,000 Rupiah ($131).
    Pelni, Indonesia's national ship passenger service (Jalan Raya Kuta 299, Kuta, Bali; +62 361 763 963) sails from Benoa Harbor in Bali to Labuan Bajo three times per month. First-class sleepers are 440,000 Rupiah ($33).
    Cuna Rami Waterfall lies 45km from Labuan Bajo. You can rent a scooter in Labuan Bajo for 70,000 Rupiah per day ($5.30) or a car and driver for 700,000 rupiah ($53).