My wife and I love scuba diving and have spent our diving vacation in South Thailand (Sarojin - Kao Lak/Similan and Pimalai - Koh Lanta), North East/West Bali (Alam Anda and Matahari), Seychelles (Lemuria and Sainte Anne) and Vietnam (Evason Hideaway – Nha Trang). Since we have had lately gotten into underwater photography, we were looking for different diving experience. We have read about diving in North Sulawesi and were considering either Siladen or Minahasa Resort. Because of the reputation of the Bunaken marine national park, Siladen was actually at the top of our list. We wrote to both places. Minahasa got back to us right on the next day with direct booking rate – beach bungalow and Nitrox available, while Siladen took almost two weeks to response – sorry only garden bungalow and no Nitrox. We took Minahasa’s quick response as a positive sign (although there was then no review in Tripadvisor!), and decided on the south of Manado resort. As it turned out, we are very glad and happy with the choice we made!
After the 12 hours flight from Zurich to Singapore (we again confirm our vote for SIA as the world best airline!) and another 3 hours on Silk Air (little sister of SIA – not as formal but also very pleasant) from Singapore to Manado, we were more than happy to see a local concierge holding a sign with our names on waiting for us at the baggage claim to take care of our luggage – nice touch from Minahasa (if you have been to Bali, you will know how warm welcome this is). Minahasa’s staffs then waited to welcome us after the custom and drove us to the peaceful resort (after over one hour of interesting ride through the city of Manado).
Along the narrow bumpy jungle road (called Minahasa highway), we finally arrived at the small resort with only 15 Bungalows – just what we expected. Although Minahasa is not the Garden of Eden like Matahari in North West Bali (also our favorite), the resort is very well kept and taken care of, however in a more natural way (see their newly released website). As an ideal dive resort should be, this place is in the middle of nowhere - just the jungle and the sea, and is very quiet (except for the weekend when the locals enjoy the day at the next beach). If you come in early June, you may find yourself with other 2 – 4 guests or even nobody else at all for a couple of days. August is then a different story.
The bungalows are spacious, very tastefully decorated, a perfect blend of traditional North Sulawesi style, modern comfort and good taste, and probably the best value we have ever experienced. Besides the large bedroom, you have a separate room with 2 extra beds (good for children) – We used it to store our luggage and to prepare the photo equipments. The half open bathroom is not air conditioned. We had bad experience in Vietnam where the bathroom got extremely hot. However, to our surprise, North Sulawesi climate in June is just very comfortable. The covered balcony in the front is also great for somebody like me who does not really like to sit directly in the sun on the beach. The staffs really pay attention to clean, and decorate the room, especially the bed with different flowers every day. We would recommend that you pay a little extra and choose one of the sea view bungalows. After our daily dive, we just loved to spend our afternoon lazily on the balcony or on the beach right in front of our bungalow.
Food at Minahasa earned a full compliment from us. Not as sophisticate as the Relais & Chateau – Matahari, just simply high quality good food (more delicious than most of the five stars resorts we have been to). Breakfast is a la carte but actually you can really ask for anything. Lunch and dinner is two or three course menu. You have a choice of international, Asian or Italian for each of the course. It is not really surprising that the Asian dishes are very deliciously prepared (Indonesian or Chinese) but the excellent Italian dishes really showed that an Italian cook must have had strong influence on Minahasa’s kitchen. Although we usually had Asian food during the vacation, you could hardly go wrong with pasta dishes there. After a week or so, we had to conclude though that three full meals a day are just too much for us!
Not to forget – the Jungle Restaurant is also an experience one should not miss – be prepared, there are more than plenty of good food to eat up there! And if you have courage (we did), you can ask Dani, the Resort Manager, for a more traditional taste of Minahasa kitchen, namely python, jungle rat, flying fox, wild boar….etc. Having said that, we refused to try ‘the real Minahasa food’ though – ask what it is when you are there.
Diving is what we came to North Sulawesi for and we were not disappointed. The dive center at Minahasa is amongst the best we have known but with some unique quality. We have our own equipments so we did not need anything except the excellent torch for the night dive from the center. The specially built boats are comfortable and well equipped. The boat crews are experienced, very helpful and fun. Pim, the Dutch dive instructor, and Chris, the Sulawesi dive instructor, personally ensure that the guest’s wishes are individually fulfilled and the safety standard is kept at high level. You will be asked daily where you want to dive the next day. There is no fixed schedule – diving trip is organized based on what you would like to do. If you take UW picture, ask for Michael as your guide – without his eagle eyes, we would not have had all the special macro critters in our picture collection. Now what is unique about Minahasa diving? – You get on the boat where all your equipments already loaded and prepared with maximum of another 2 – 4 guests, and take a pleasant ride to Bunaken (1 hr. 15 min) or local sites (10-15 minutes). When you get there, you can listen to the briefing, take your time putting on your suit and gears, checking the equipments – plenty of time and space to do so and then slowly getting into the water with help from the crews - You are really on vacation and there is no hectic rush - no hurry here – quite contrast to the typical dive boats we have seen.
The Bunaken walls are spectacular, healthy with corals and fish and vary in characters. Here you have a chance to encounter big creatures (turtle, Napoleon, white tip, Jacks, large school of snappers, etc.) as well as macro lives. We would, however, recommend that you spend a good amount of time on the Minahasa’s local reefs as well. Malcolm with its wonderful mini wall (there are lives there which you will not find in Bunaken) is absolutely first class. We have heard divers who just came from Raja Ampat live aboard saying how special Malcolm was. We took our time watching Sepias laying eggs on the thick coral slope at one of the local reefs – quite an experience. We also never got sick of diving at Bethlehem – Secret Bay in Bali is pale in comparison – Night dive is a must there. Whether Bethlehem can really rival Lembeh as the name says (Better-than-Lembeh), we will let you know next year.
By the way, there are many other activities to do in North Sulawesi e.g. river rafting, jungle tracking, local market (My wife cannot stand the sight of the living ‘real Minahasa food’ at the market though). Although we were interested in the local culture, we were just too addicted to scuba diving. Nevertheless, we took our last day off from diving before the long flight home and did the Minahasa highland tour. Again, the resort tailored the tour according to our interest. We did enjoyed the tour but be warned though that this is North Sulawesi and not Bali – The roads are extremely bumpy!
The little spa deserves some words as well. Well, it is nothing compared to Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, or Everson Hideaway – But a simple relaxing massage just before watching the sun quietly going down is quite an irresistible alternative to end your day.
Before having dinner, we usually joined Dani (the resort boss) and Pim (the dive instructor) at the pool side bar around 7 pm for the best Mojito in Asia (mentioned in one of the Sulawesi picture books). Navel, the bartender, really slided and slowly crushed the local fresh limes in the cocktail glass for his famous drink. The resort boss, Dani, is also quite different from the typical hotel manager who would just have a couple of small talks with you and be gone. We had in fact a lot of fun over a couple of ‘the best Mojito in Asia’ with Dani, Pim and the diving friends we met there.
There is nothing complicate, pretending nor even sophisticate about Minahasa Lagoon Resort. It is the combination of great healthy dive sites, excellent dive center with personal touch, real comfort with tradition, outstanding food and last but not least nice people which make Minahasa experience so special in our memory. Similar to Matahari in Bali, the staffs at Minahasa have been working there for a good part of their lives. You can feel that they enjoy having you there and want to make your vacation a real pleasant one. We were extremely comfortable with the simple, sincere and friendly way how the staffs took care of us. And that is what we valued most during our stay at the Minahasa Lagoon Resort.
Next June, we plan to stay at the Lembeh Resort for a week and see how Bethlehem measured against the Mecca of muck diving……….then we will return to Minahasa for another 10 days or so before heading home.
Thank you for reading our long review and hope it has value to you – The Minahasa team deserves it.
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