"Florence? That's awesome!" was the typical reaction I received when I told friends I was going to Flores.
I had to quickly correct them that my destination was an island in East Indonesia, not Italy, though it still drew a blank look.
For the uninitiated, Flores is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, an island arc extending east from Java that includes Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and Komodo.
To be honest, I was not sure what awaited me there either.
A conversation with Arya, a fellow Indonesian who happened to be a travel enthusiast as well, sparked the idea of a trip there.
He had decided to spend more time travelling in the archipelago instead of overseas because he believed there was so much to explore - right in our backyard.
So a mission was born - we would get to know other parts of Indonesia beyond Bali and Yogyakarta.
East to Flores
The small plane we took from Bali's capital, Denpasar, hovered at some 4,600m. From my window seat, I saw the flat islands slowly give way to sharper silhouettes as we flew eastward.
Forested mountains jutted towards the sky, and as we made our descent to Labuan Bajo in the north-west of Flores, we saw corals lining the island's curved shoreline - giving the sea different gradations of colour, from light green to turquoise to deep blue.
The island life
Our first destination was nearby Kanawa Island.
There was a boat going there every day at noon from the port. We shared the space with our meals as the boat/resort crew loaded bananas, fish, eggs and potatoes on board together with our luggage.
About an hour later, Kanawa's white sand beach and pristine blue waters came into view.
Rustic bungalows pepper the island. They are for guests who choose to stay overnight and are prepared for the simple life.
Electricity was only available from 6pm to 11pm and we were rationed 50 litres of fresh water each day - more than enough for a quick shower or to wash a couple of clothing items.
Kanawa is a perfect spot for snorkelling as the water is calm and clear. During low tide, we saw starfish stranded on the beach, forming a new constellation.
Right behind our accommodation, there were low hills from where we could get a bird's eye view of the island and witness a vermillion sunset.
It was our first day and we were already in awe.
In search of dragons
The next morning, we decided to go island hopping to Rinca, where we hoped to get a glimpse of komodo dragons, as well as to Padar. Both islands are located within the Komodo National Park.
Rinca was drier compared to its more well known neighbour, Komodo Island.
We spotted a few komodos - the last descendants of the dinosaurs - lying low under the trees.
They seemed docile, but don't be fooled. Our ranger told us that even though Rinca dragons are relatively smaller than those on Komodo, they tend to be more ferocious.
He recounted an attack the previous year on a veteran ranger, who had stopped to examine a dying deer - a victim of a komodo.
The ranger was not aware that there was a second komodo lurking nearby until it appeared suddenly and bit his ankle. Thankfully, he had a pail that he used to hit its nose and chased it away.
We decided not to push our luck, bade farewell to the dragons and made our way to Padar. The island was bare, except for a boat that had reached it before us.
A steep, 30-minute hike later and we were rewarded with a magnificent view of three gorgeous bays - perfect bowls of blue water with a rim of white sand. What a precious little place this deserted island was.We said goodbye to Komodo National Park and headed back to the main island of Flores.
On our way back, dolphins swam around our boat, not wanting to miss the morning sun.
Colourful road trip
The driver we hired, Pak Donatus, was already waiting for us in his MPV by the harbour. A little man with kind eyes and a signature round hat, he turned out to be great company.
As we navigated the snaking roads of Flores, he pointed out numerous mountains and seas. He not only knew the owners of most of the hotels and restaurants we passed by, but also whom they were married or related to.
We visited the spider web rice field in Cancar and made a stop to a villager's house nearby. The women were grinding coffee beans with a wooden pole and soon we were sipping cups of steaming coffee.
Meanwhile, we were amused by a pig, a chicken and a dog having a conversation in the yard - almost like a scene from the book, Charlotte's Web!
We journeyed on to the town of Ruteng, where we stopped for the night. We decided to wake up early to catch the sunrise and were rewarded by the view of sprawling rice fields turning golden and the town lying serenely in the shadow of mist-covered hills.
Our road trip took us to gorgeous Ranamese Lake, Aimere - where traditional rice wine distillation is a household business - as well as Bajawa and Moni, famous for the three-coloured lakes on nearby Mount Kelimutu.
The colours of these volcanic lakes change unpredictably, from navy to green to turquoise and even pink.
The lakes are sacred to the locals, who believe that spirits reside there. They hold regular ceremonies, during which rice of different colours is thrown into the lakes as offerings.
Our road trip came to an end the following day when we reached Maumere, the largest town in Flores. We had not only fulfilled our goal of exploring our homeland, but were also awed by its vast reserves of natural beauty.
We were definitely coming back.
- We flew from Denpasar in Bali to Labuan Bajo on WingsAir.
- The best time to visit Flores is from May to October. During the monsoon season (November to March), the seas can be rough and difficult for boats to navigate.
Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.