The effortless luxury of the Wakatobi experience begins before you even leave Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, Indonesia, the gateway to the resort. Upon initial arrival in Bali, a Wakatobi representative will greet you as you exit the immigration area. He’ll usher you to the baggage area and whisk your bags (and you) through customs. After spending the night in Bali, your private charter flight to Wakatobi aboard a Garuda Airlines jet leaves around 8 a.m. the next morning, and you’ll wait for departure in the domestic terminal’s first-class lounge.
My dive buddies and I were lucky enough to visit this legendary resort, nestled into a quiet corner of southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia earlier this year. We awaited our own departure anxiously for the two-hour flight from Bali to the Wakatobi Maranggo Runway on Tomia Island, which was purpose-built by Wakatobi in 2001 to easily deliver visitors to the resort. From there, it was a short boat ride to the resort itself, just off Tomia on tiny Onemobaa Island, also called Tolandona Island. The name “Wakatobi” is actually derived from the first two letters of the four nearby islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko.
The resort came into view as we rounded a corner, and from first glance it was everything we knew it would be. Tidy thatched-roof bungalows hugged a sandy white shore. Palm trees swayed in the wind, and dive boats rocked on the gentle waves slapping the long jetty. We stepped ashore and approached the longhouse, home to reception, a gift shop, classroom, a lounge and the PADI Five-Star Dive Center.
Wakatobi consciously combines five-star service with a pristine natural environment that blends seamlessly into the island. There are over 20 acres of greenery, well-manicured but not fussy, and the grounds feel very close to nature. Monitor lizards skitter about and countless butterflies flit from brightly colored plant to brightly colored plant. Each morning, gardeners rake the sandy pathways, winding from the longhouse to the restaurant. In the evening the lights dim so that the brightest illumination comes from the Milky Way overhead, easily visible with so little light pollution.
As for our group, we were eager to check in and gear up for our welcome dive. But first, we headed to our rooms along those sandy jungle pathways.
After we checked in, we peeked at our accommodations for the week. Our comfortable oceanfront rooms were two among 24 hand-built bungalows, sitting oceanfront or tucked among the greenery. The wide veranda and beachfront hammock invited afternoon naps. The air-conditioned dark-wood interior, with beds draped in mosquito netting, offered cool respite from the day’s heat.
Best of all, the oceanfront bungalows feature an outdoor shower room, with high stone walls and plenty of privacy. To further encourage guests to unwind, there are no TVs in the rooms. While there is Wi-Fi, the signal is really only strong in the longhouse. It’s best to just pack up the phone and the laptop for the week and enjoy unplugging — trust us. Beside the bungalows, those looking for a true splash-out can choose one of the resort’s four private villas. Each offers a prime sunset view, and two have a private pool.
After unpacking our bags and checking out the week’s program of resort tours, marine biology presentations and Indonesian cooking classes, we had two items on the agenda: lunch and an afternoon dive.
The Food, the Glorious Food
I’ve been lucky to find dive companions who share the same priorities when we travel: the timing of our next dive, and the timing of our next meal (not necessarily in that order). We made our way to the breezy, open-air dining room for lunch, and promptly decided that (barring the diving) our favorite part of each day would be mealtime. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style, while white tablecloths come out for dinner.
We sat down that first day to our choice of a number of hot dishes, including Indonesian specialties like mee goreng and nasi goreng. There were pastas, chicken, fish and vegetarian dishes. There were umpteen salad choices as well, plus soups, fresh fruits — if you’ve never tried mangosteen, do so immediately — and vegetables, and homemade desserts. The dining room staff knew us by name almost immediately. They worked hard to fulfill our special requests, from vegetarian to vegan food, all week, and made sure we were happy (and stuffed). After overeating for the first of many times that week, we were ready to hit the water.
Time to Dive
Impressed as we were with the resort, we were ready for the main event. In the heart of the famed Coral Triangle, our expectations for Wakatobi’s dive sites were high. Two of our group of three headed over to the dive center to get ready for a checkout dive. The exceptional Kaz Diun, who’s been with the resort for about eight years, was our guide for the week.
Staffed by 14 instructors and five divemasters from around the world — and speaking a total of nine languages — the PADI Five Star Dive Resort caters to all sorts of divers, and works hard to make sure you don’t have to. If you’ve brought your own gear (we did), you’ll set it up in your locker how you like it. From then on, the dive staff will move it back and forth from the boat to the shore for you. They’ll also wash it and switch your tanks.
After a show of our cert cards and a discussion about how many dives (as many as possible) we’d like to do and where (everywhere), we were ready to go. The resort usually conducts three dives a day, at 7:30 am, 9:30 am and 2:30 pm. On Wednesdays, guides replace the 2:30 pm with a night dive. Other than the House Reef, dives are conducted from one of four dive boats, all named the Wakatobi I, II and so on. Our boat for the week would be the Wakatobi IV.
Our Favorite Site
“If you ask me at any time what my favorite dive site is, I will always say ‘the next one,’” says Kaz after a few days of diving glorious sites such as Fan 38 West, Table Coral City and Roma. We’ll cover a few of our favorites in a later article, but among many beautiful sites, Roma stands out. As divers descend over the site, a gigantic pink rosette coral comes into view, teeming with large schools of fusiliers and triggerfish swimming about. Hard coral in general is spectacular at this site. Small fans play host to pygmy seahorses — eagle-eyed Kaz spotted one right away. The site itself is a pinnacle, rising nearly to safety-stop depth. Reef fish compete with turtles, banded sea snakes, schooling barracuda and jacks for divers’ attention.
While Roma was certainly a standout, it was by no means the exception. Wakatobi offers an incredible variety of reefscapes, from hard-coral gardens, to walls, to waving soft corals. It’s a great spot in general for macro photography, but turtles, schooling snapper and trevally are common as well. Corals shine in the shallows, so snorkelers needn’t miss out on all the action, either.
Getting into the Groove
As our week progressed, we fell into an easy routine. After breakfast it was time for a morning dive or paddleboard session. At the spa, we put ourselves in the capable hands of the resident masseuse. We spent the time between dives lazily swaying in a hammock or relaxing on the verandah. Happy hour at the Jetty Bar, aptly at the end of the long jetty, meant cocktails and bar snacks as the sun went down. The service was without fail exceptional. Everyone was friendly, knowledgeable, competent, eager to please and capable without being over-solicitous. The dining room staff especially was friendly and helpful when it came to our special requests (more mangosteens, please). On one of our last nights, we dined with Valentin Maeder, the resort’s executive director.
“Wakatobi is as much about what’s not here as what is,” he told us. After nearly a week of unobtrusive pampering at the spa, of quiet nights punctuated only by the sounds of insects and waves, of hushed hellos to other guests on the sandy path, and uncrowded, pristine dive sites, we couldn’t agree more. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to unwind from the pressures of everyday life. There’s no ringing phone, no TV, no busy schedule, no distraction, no music even, except at dinner. There’s just the sun, the sea, the butterflies, the beach and the reef — and it couldn’t be better.
Where is it:
Wakatobi Dive Resort sits on a secluded shoreline on tiny Onemobaa Island (also called Tolandona Island) in southeastern Sulawesi. It’s accessible via a private charter flight from Bali and then a short boat-ride from Tomia Island. Although it’s remote, the outside world is just a call, text or email away via satellite link, terrestrial connection or cell.
How to get there:
Wakatobi guests should arrive in Bali at least one night prior to departure for the resort, as the private charter flight leaves from the domestic terminal of Ngurah Rai International Airport at around 8 a.m. Flights to and from the resort are scheduled on Mondays and Fridays.
When to go:
Wakatobi is a year-round destination. Average air temperatures are 86 F (30 C). Water temps range from 79 to 82 F (26 C to 28 C). Visibility is rarely less than 100 feet (30 m).