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Labuan Bajo will be the first port of call for most first-time visitors to Flores, whether arriving by boat or plane. While we want to love it, like many port towns in the world, it just isn't very lovable. It's a small but quickly growing place, with plenty of construction thanks to so many new hotels and restaurants going up, and plenty of dust to match.
The area of most interest to travellers is the port and its immediate surrounds, where you'll find all your boating needs, a wet market and plenty of travel agents, shops -- even a wine outlet -- and a growing number of chic cafes and restaurants. It's really your one-stop-shop for all your travelling needs in Flores, so stock up here! Western-style food, toiletries and other modern conveniences all become rather thin on the ground after you head for the Flores interior or out to the islands. The road running from the port is one way and it is dead easy to flag a bemo or ojek, but most points are within easy walking distance. Bear in mind the bemos stop running at night, so if you're staying at one of the edge of town places, you'll need to get an ojek or taxi back to your hotel after dinner.
The port is the jumping off point for Rinca and Komodo islands along with a handful of other islands in the Bay of Bajo such as Kanawa and Bidadari. Any diving or liveaboard operation with a presence in Komodo will have an office in Labuan Bajo, and there are plenty of dive operators to choose from. It also marks the completion (or starting) point of the popular Lombok-Sumbawa-Komodo-Flores boat trips. You'll regularly see the bay with a good number of liveaboard boats at anchor, clearly illustrating the old adage that, "You get what you pay for!" when it comes to boats. The port hosts boats big and small and a new container terminal (which is sadly beginning to block the view from some of Labuan Bajo's restaurants). Regardless of where you're headed you'll be told where to go to get aboard; if you're going nowhere, take in the lovely late afternoon views from one of the elevated bars or restaurants on the slopes behind the port.
Labuan Bajo was once known as a difficult place to find a room, but it now has a pretty decent range of accommodation, from a hostel firmly aimed at backpackers, through to moderately expensive resort-style lodgings -- and there are plenty more on the way. In high season, it's probably still prudent to make a reservation in advance -- at least for your first night, but note many places do not have online presences, so you'll need to give them a call. The standards overall are reasonable and quite competitively priced; while there are a few dumps, overall Labuan Bajo is home to the best accommodation on mainland Flores.
The town has an exceptional selection of restaurants -- Italian is especially recommended, with long-running Made In Italy leading the charge, closely followed by Mediteranneo. Labuan Bajo enjoys a particular popularity with Italians and they are very well fed. Splurge. There's other more typical tourist fare along with a good seafood barbecue night market by the small harbour and plenty of Indonesian standards on hand. Beer -- and wine -- is easily available and not unreasonably priced (at least, by Indonesian standards).
Lastly, Labuan Bajo hosts a domestic airport, which is in a slow process of being upgraded to international. It's also the western terminus of all transport along the Trans-Flores Highway (which runs from Maumere in the east through Ende, Bajawa (almost) and Ruteng on the way to Labuan Bajo).
For those with time on their hands, Labuan Bajo makes for a convenient base to explore outlying areas such as Waecicu and the immediate islands and beaches. There are also waterfalls that can be reached by motorbike -- when you hire a bike it should come with a map, so ask if it doesn't.
By Stuart McDonald.