May 07 2013
The Flores Sea is dotted with glistening tropical islands. Some are home to high-end dive resorts, others to fishing villages, others still remain blissfully devoid of civilisation. Two islands however draw a steady stream of independent travellers — perched on the rim of Komodo National Park lies Kanawa Island and north of Labuan Bajo sits Seraya Island. But as you may not have time for two Floresian islands, the question is: which island should you pick? Kanawa or Seraya? We recently spent a spell on each — here’s our take.
Let’s start with the bad. Solely by accommodation standards, they are both overpriced. Both restaurants (and resorts for that matter) are ineptly managed — service is ludicrously slow and the dishes that arrive are often not what you ordered.
Continuing with the bad, neither place has regular electricity (generally evening only) and neither resort offers fans in the bungalows. This means the rooms get brain boilingly hot. At both places at least one of us ended up sleeping in the hammock. Neither island appears to have natural water — it’s brought in by boat. If you’re one who likes to have hour-long showers, don’t be surprised by the surcharge for the water you hosed down the drain.
Neither resort has WiFi, ATMs or any other creature comforts. You’ll get a very patchy Telkomsel 3G signal on both.
Now that we’ve got that out of our system… on with the good.
The off-the-beach snorkelling on both islands, Kanawa in particular, is fabulous. Kanawa was in fact the best snorkelling (in our admittedly novice career span) that we’ve ever experienced. Critter-wise we saw sharks, turtles and sea snakes on both islands. Kanawa has a dive shop — Seraya does not.
The beaches are beautiful. The sand is a slightly coarser grain on Seraya, but the main beaches on both these islands are pretty close to rustic A-grade in our opinion. Kanawa makes better use of shade trees, but some of the bungalows are back off the beach a little, while on Seraya, it’s a single row — every one is beachfront.
Off the beach, both islands have hilltop viewpoints. In Kanawa’s case the views, especially at sunset, really are just breathtaking and magical. Seraya doesn’t give you the height Kanawa does, but we loved it all the same. For those looking to see how the locals are living, Seraya has a fishing village on it, Kanawa doesn’t.
Back to the restaurants — and we should note this reflects our experience in shoulder season (April 2013). Kanawa has a far broader menu than Seraya and the food is generally better — especially if you want Western stuff like pizza. That said, we had absolutely mouthwatering fish on Seraya. Seraya’s menu is extremely limited — like, do you want spaghetti or fried rice?
At both places, the prices did not strike us as unreasonable given the location. If you’re a picky eater who flips out when the Coke is warm and the salad comes after the ice cream, take our word for it, you do not want to visit either of these islands. Guests are encouraged to pre-order, but even that yielded poor dividends for us. This probably isn’t as big a deal for adults, but for those with kids, this can be trying. Drinks on the other hand are prompt and cold. Seraya’s booze range was very extensive, encompassing Bintang, Bintang and more Bintang, while Kanawa stretched to wine.
Activities is where Kanawa comes into its own. For starters they have a dive shop. Seraya doesn’t have one. Kanawa also runs daily trips to points of interest like Rinca, Komodo, Makassar Reef and so on. These are competitively priced and because the island is often busy, you’ll generally not have to wait around a day or two for the trip to go. On Seraya, it’s much more a case of roll your own. They list a range of trips on their board, but they go, well, whenever. We had a memorable conversation with the manager where we asked which was the better island to visit for snorkelling. The response: “I don’t know.” Useful. Their trips are, like Kanawa’s, well priced, but also bear in mind that you’re an extra hour away from Komodo here, which means an extra two hours on the boat.
Then there are the rooms. Kanawa has more options — camping, bale bales (basically shacks with four walls that can be rolled up with a mossie net and shared bathroom), old bungalows and new bungalows. Seraya on the other hand, has camping (high season only) and a bunch of rustic huts — hammocks extra and string-up-yourself. There were some solid looking chalets, but they weren’t open for business when we visited.
As already mentioned, the lack of electricity and a fan means the rooms on both islands get very, very hot at night. This actually makes the bale bales on Kanawa a tempting deal — if you’re happy with shared facilities, they’re the best pick. Kanawa’s newer bungalows have a daybed out front and are absolutely worth the extra money. Kanawa has the better bathrooms. Seraya is saltwater bucket for flushing (you fill your own bucket out of the ocean) while at Kanawa it’s all piped in, but the fresh water is rationed at both. Bathrooms at each have open ceilings.
The vibe at Kanawa is much more activities based. It was humming with people, even in April, and there were always things happening — people snorkelling, coming and going, dive classes, kids running around, punters waiting in the restaurant and so on. Seraya is MUCH more chilled out. Guests walk down to the water’s edge to fill the bathroom bucket with seawater, then maybe lay in a hammock for a while.
For us, each has a distinct appeal. We love the accessibility of the tours on Kanawa and the food (when it arrived and was correct) is good. Staff are also sociable and helpful. If you want to do stuff and meet people, this is a good option.
At Seraya, staff are not unfriendly, but they’re just not very interested in helping you enjoy your trip more — but we kind of liked that. It’s very much a DIY kind of place — want to lay in the hammock all day? Do it. It reminded us a lot of one of the old cheap rundown joints that used to exist in Thailand.
For many a choice will come down to price. If you’re on a tight budget, Seraya has the edge, with bungalows going for 260,000 rupiah in low season and 300,000 rupiah during high. On Kanawa you’re looking at 175,000 to camp, 200,000 for a bale bale, 450,000 for an old bungalow and 550,000 for a new bungalow. Yes, you read that right — 550,000 rupiah for a cold water beach bungalow with no fan and limited electricity.
If you’re happy with shared bathrooms and want a more social vibe, go for a bale bale on Kanawa. If you want your own (admittedly grotty) bathroom and can’t afford 450,000, then head to Seraya.
A final word: we stayed at both these in April 2013, and April is shoulder season for Flores. Kanawa was full — we had to change rooms three times in five nights. Seraya was almost empty — three rooms were taken. But the staff at Seraya said that in July and August (peak season) they have 80 people staying there, many camping on the beach. We’d imagine high season on either island to be an extremely different experience to the one we had — frankly, we’d skip it and go next April.
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