Indonesia is the "Eden" of underwater life: there are more fish species here than any other place on Earth. North Sulawesi, east of Borneo, is one of the golden destinations there for snorkelers and divers.
Western tourists are welcomed warmly in this predominantly Christian area. Silkair's comfortable nonstop from Singapore to Manado takes 3 ½ hours.
While visas are available on arrival, we suggest that you obtain one before you go. On our second trip to Manado, we were forced to pay what amounted to a $300 bribe in order to get the visa (the official demanded $500, but we negotiated it down a bit), and other tourists reported similar stories. Having an Indonesian visa in advance would have avoided this problem.
Two clusters of islands about 1 ½ hours from Manado stand out: Bunaken Marine Park, northeast; and the Bangka Island/Lembeh Strait group to the north. They are both well-known to divers, but they also offer superb snorkeling.
Our favorite is Gangga Island Resort, in the Bangka area, pictured here:
To be able to sleep in a comfortable bed in a charming cottage near the shore, have delicious and varied a la carte meals, and snorkel several times a day nearby on reefs with literally thousands of colorful fish and acres of pristine hard and soft corals, is close to heaven for us. Click here to listen to local Gangga singers
A few imperfections common in Indonesia: flotsam (trash) in the water, some mosquitoes (though supposedly no malaria), and it's warm enough that you need to use the air conditioning to sleep. But the staff is utterly charming, and the overall impression for us was very positive; this resort offers very good value by world standards.
The resort and dive shop welcome snorkelers and include them in every boat trip, for a reasonable $40 a week charge. There is a house reef with lots of variety, though not as dramatic as other nearby reefs.
We have seen lion fish, Titan triggerfish, big Napoleon wrasses, several types of angelfish, blue triggerfish, and much more. The reefs here are in great condition and have been largely spared coral bleaching; cold deepwater currents upwelling nearby protect them. That also means a 3 to 5mm full wetsuit sure feels good in spite of being so near the equator.
The dry (best) season is from March or April to October. We prefer late March, or September/October, a less busy period, and also less expensive.