Not everyone has heard of Labuan Bajo on Flores' west coast. In fact not everyone has heard of Flores, an Indonesian island an hour's flight from Bali. As demand to visit komodo dragons and dive some of the world's best waters in UNESCO-recognised Komodo National Park increases, the launching pad of Labuan Bajo is experiencing growth spurts. The airport was upgraded in 2015 and a new port, shopping centre and fish market are under construction. September also saw the opening of AYANA Komodo Resort, the town's first five-star accommodation. As a result of the boom, there are more places to eat, drink and watch the sunset than ever – and they're almost all on a single, walkable street, Jalan Soekarno Hatta. Here's where to go before the Bali crowd catches wind.
At the southern end of Jalan Soekarno Hatta you'll spot dishes piled high in tempting window displays. Padang food, now popular across Indonesia, originated in West Sumatra and is often served by Muslim families. Simply approach the counter and point to what you want: tofu, offal, jackfruit curry, boiled cassava leaves, whole fried fish, chicken, perkedel potato cakes and unmatchable beef rending (ask for extra sauce on your rice). Eat with your hands (it tastes better), but remember to wash them in the bowls provided first. You'll spend the equivalent of $3 to $6 and become an expert in the nuances of sambal. If you're on the fly, get your food wrapped in brown paper to go. Rumah Makan Garuda is especially good.
Eat like a local
It may shock some to hear that when in Indonesia, the best food is always Indonesian. Although travellers favour Warung Mama, you won't find locals here. They're at rumah makans, eating houses that might not be as sparkling clean, but are more atmospheric. While Warung Mama is a solid, Western-friendly introduction to local food, the real deal is across the road at Blue Corner. Within the peeling pink and blue walls are laminated, Indonesian-only menus with criminally cheap juices, ayam bakar (grilled chicken), veg and tempeh, and the specialty, sop buntut (oxtail soup).
Continue south along the main street until you hit a bridge, just before the road forks left into the Trans-Flores Highway. At dusk a guy sets up a kue putu cart selling cylindrical pandan rice cakes steamed in whistling bamboo cylinders outside his family home, where his wife also sells hot fried tofu and banana. Over the bridge down the left fork are street vendors selling pancake-like terang bulan. Take the right one and you'll end up opposite MadeInItaly at a roadside shack run by Ibu Henny, who specialises in coto makassar (beef and offal soup from South Sulawesi).
Flores' volcanic soil is ideal for growing coffee. The Arabica beans are traditionally processed, using a technique called giling basah (wet-hulled). The best place to try it and buy some to take away is at De'Flo Cafe and Ole-Ole. Owned and operated by enthusiastic university graduates from Jakarta, this tranquil coffee shop caters for travellers with traditional cakes, snacks and ethical handicrafts. Other places for a caffeine fix include Cafe in Hit, where people park themselves outside with free Wi-Fi and refreshing frappes, and Catur'z Kopi Club, Bajo's only dedicated vegetarian and vegan cafe just off the main drag, where you can sample coffee spiked with ginger and take advantage of tables with built-in chessboards.
Healthy and wholesome
What happens when an Italian meets an Australian at a meditation retreat in India? They move to Labuan Bajo and open a Japanese fusion restaurant called Happy Banana. Simone Corrente, previously an actor, and Suman Gubbay, a former media and PR professional, now work with local fisherman and farmers to put together their menu. The couple sent four staff to Bali for three months to train under a sushi master before opening. This fastidiousness carries throughout the menu, with everything from udon noodles to gnocchi to gyoza made by hand. It's also a great spot for breakfast, with salmon eggs benny and chia bowls available in the morning. About 500 metres north is newcomer Bamboo Cafe. You'll also find smoothie bowls here, as well as others inspired inspired by overseas destinations, like the Morocc 'n' Bowl with quinoa and black bean falafels.
Bars & Nightlife
Visiting Labuan Bajo and not spending an evening at Paradise Bar is like skipping the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When you arrive at the top end of town, you'll be met with a stunning sunset, cocktails and live music that varies drastically in quality and genre (it's all part of the fun). There's a party vibe most nights and a small cover charge on Saturdays. Tourists also knock back dinner and drinks at Le Pirate, an open-air, first-storey restaurant and bar with music a few nights a week, movie nights and popular accommodation (check out the Boatel, a 10-room boat moored in nearby Waecicu Bay). For the best sunset, take your own wheels to Tre360 Bar; the rooftop of One Tree Hill hostel that opens at 4pm and frustratingly closes at 8pm and 10pm on weekdays and weekends respectively. It's entirely open, packed with colourful beanbags and has a tiny snack menu, but you're here for the uninterrupted sunset view with the ocean below.
To Pasar, to Pasar
The most popular market is the Pasar Malam (night market), where tables of glistening seafood are laid out for you to choose from. Decide between fish of all sizes, squid, prawns, crab and more, then shop around to find a good price. If you're on a tiny budget, order bakso (meatball noodle soup), fried tofu and either nasi or mei goreng. It's on the dusty soccer field behind the main drag; at least until the waterfront renovations are complete. The nearby Pasar Ikan (fish market) is the place to see what's been hauled in off the boats that morning, while Pasar Wae Kesambi, the produce market a little further out on Jalan Batu Cermin, is filled with fresh fruit and vegetables displayed on tarps and hanging from makeshift displays. It's buzzing with locals from around 7am, and there are plenty of snacking opportunities.
StayCiao Hostel is our budget pick with a panoramic, open-air dorm overlooking the ocean (from $15 per person). The Harbour Master Suites at Bayview Gardens boast breakfast served on the balcony and outdoor bathrooms (from $120).
AYANA Komodo Resort is Bajo's first five-star hotel. Rooms start at $690 and there are six restaurants and bars, a private 250-metre jetty and a pool on Waecicu Beach.
To get there: Local budget airlines and Garuda Air fly direct to Komodo Airport from Denpasar, Bali. Flights start at $85 and take one to 1.5 hours.