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August 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Villa Markisa, Tulamben, and Bali, Indonesia

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from the August, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

After a March liveaboard voyage from Sorong to Kaimana aboard the Dewi Nusantara, my buddy and I planned to kick back in Bali for a few days, a stop often made by liveaboard divers. The flights from Kaimana took all day, and ironically, we arrived in Denpasar when the king of Saudi Arabia arrived; police had closed roads, and traffic was nuts. After two-and-a-half hours of driving, we pulled up to the Villa Markisa in Tulamben, were shown to our beautiful master bedroom in the main building, and finally got some sleep.

Villa Markisa, Tulamben, BaliUpon awakening, I opened the curtains to a gorgeous view of the gardens and the ocean. Nina showed us to breakfast and some much-needed coffee; office manager Made walked us around the lush grounds. Villa Markisa (the Indonesian word for passion fruit) is not your standard Tulamben hotel. Though it's next door to Seraya Secret, it's far more high-end, from accommodations to food to the dive services. The décor, for example, features Indonesian carvings and fabrics, rich natural woods, and contrasts the textures of glossy stone with the rough-hewn. Showers are large, with rainforest and hand-held showerheads. The resort's infinity pool ends in a round bubbling section with jets of water to soothe aching muscles. There is even a small spa where you can get a relaxing Balinese massage.

The dive operation was terrific. Unusual for Tulamben, Villa Markisa has two boats that whiz you to sites never more than 10 minutes away. You wade and swim out to the boat, which staff has already loaded with all your gear; at dive sites, you backroll in. Dives are usually at 8:00, 10:30, and 2:30, with night dives either by boat or by shore. Between, I could return to my room.

The house reef is largely a muck dive featuring harlequin shrimp, many juvenile emperor angelfish, peacock mantis shrimps, and ribbon eels. It's important to be comfortable with current, and, like all muck diving, to fine-tune buoyancy so you don't trail a cloud like Pig Pen from "Peanuts."

Some sites, like Batu Niti Reef, combine muck and reef, and at Batu Beleh Reef, I was enchanted by an ornate ghost pipefish that our guide, Noris, found, drifting like a scrap of pale lace. Selim, a muck site with patch reef, revealed gurnard; shortfin, zebra, and spotfin lionfish; a fantastic purple and white paddleflap rhinopius with a face only its mother could love, and a huge pinkish lacy scorpionfish, Ambon scorpionfish waddling over the dark sand, a golden winged pipefish, all kinds of eels, including a charming banded Napoleon snake eel, two thorny seahorses (one gravid), and all kinds of mantis shrimp, peacock, pink-eared, keel-tailed, and small checkered-eye. A pair of cuttlefish rested in the sand, while downslope helmet gurnard snuffled around. Other divers saw a wonderpus. Wow!

It's typical of Tulamben hotels to mandate full board with your package, which means the captive audience has to eat whatever is put in front of them. At Villa Markisa, the food is excellent, with imported specialty meats; an organic garden for local herbs and vegetables; and home-made breads. Breakfast offers either Indonesian breakfast (mie goring or nasi goring, topped with a fried egg), or western breakfast of breads, eggs and additions like chiles and mushrooms, and fresh local juices and tropical fruits.

The lunch menu offers lasagna, an abundant shrimp sandwich with wasabi dressing, homemade wonton soup bursting with fish-filled wontons, and beef saté with coconut rice. The dinner menus, with something for vegans to carnivores, were served buffet-style -- unless you asked for the romantic table for two by the water -- and included lemon chicken, pork schnitzel, tuna sashimi, and a variety of veggies, rice, and potatoes. For dessert, one could enjoy tarte tatin with ice cream, chocolate mousse, or tropical fruit.

One can stay in a simple room, or a full villa, smallish one-bedroom bungalows, or our choice, the Master Bedroom with its cathedral ceiling and huge outdoor bathroom with jacuzzi tub and rainforest shower. The website, www.villa-markisa.com, allows you to view the resort with 360-degree views to help you decide. I enjoyed lolling on the balcony daybed, writing my log while listening to waves lap the shore.

Perhaps the most magical dive was a 6:30 A.M. dive on the USAT Liberty. This 1918 ship transported goods for the U.S. Army and was torpedoed in 1942. Since subsiding between 120 (40m) and 15 feet (5m), she has become festooned with abundant soft corals. A huge wreck, she's almost 400 feet long (124m), with towering superstructures to vast hull cavities. Noris found us ringed pipefishes and five leaf scorpionfish roosting on the wreck. A school of bumphead parrotfish, some real brutes, greeted us as we entered and again on our safety stop. But most magical were the varied views of the wreck, a stage set that changed every time we moved along it. The early hour let us avoid crowds and tour the entire wreck, and thanks to the boat dive, we didn't have to backtrack to swim to shore. Water temps were around 82°F (28°C) on most dives, with a few thermoclines.

Map to Tulamben and Padang Bai in Bali, IndonesiaWe moved south after four nights to dive the Padang Bai area with the always-excellent Geko Dive and ended our month-plus trip with a stay at the luxurious and enchanting Amankila, which I reviewed in the August 2014 issue of Undercurrent. Amankila, like all Aman resorts, is exquisitely designed in a combination of regional and modern architecture; the furnishings and decoration feature rich woods, local carvings, and fabrics, and the villas are stocked with all the comforts one needs. Spa services are available either at the spa or your villa, and we were upgraded to a villa with a private pool for clothing-optional swimming. Amankila's famous three-tier infinity pool is huge (but one needs a swimsuit!), and its bar and restaurant are stunning. Down the steep hill on the black sand beach is another large pool commanding a private beach retreat.

Rating for Villa Markisa, Tulamben, BaliHaving dived with Geko Dive before, I emailed owner Cedric Saveuse, who proposed four dive days with two dives per day; we shared the boat with friends from the U.K. whom we had arranged to meet in Bali. Our first dive day began at the Padang Bai jetty, a muck dive no deeper than 50 feet, and like most pier dives, featured garbage as well as wonderful creatures, like two "Indian walker" dragonets (dactylopus dactylopus) hauling themselves along on their finger-like pectorals, flashing blue-spotted dorsal fins. Dive guide Kanox found us three leaf scorpionfish on the first dive, while I found an enormous black-and-white frogfish. When we dove the jetty a few days later, conditions were entirely different: water was 77°F (25°C) instead of 82°F (28°C), and vis was pea soup. It was a great dive, but I was glad of my thick wetsuit and hooded vest.

An earlier start the next day allowed us to zip out (aided by two Yamaha 200 HP four-stroke outboards) to Gili Biaha. The conditions were too hairy for safe diving -- we are adventurous, but not crazy -- so we went to nearby Gili Tepekong for two beautiful dives in sparkling water over gorgeous meadows of lush stony corals. Upon our descent, we were greeted by a pair of large hawksbill turtles. The sensation of drifting over an underwater landscape covered with stony corals and darting, dazzlingly colored fish, was mesmerizing. Dive two featured more current (some of which we had to swim against), a swim-thru that began at 50 feet and ended at 85 feet, a sheer wall (with more current), and for relaxation at the end, another "meadow" of stony corals and another hawksbill. Water was a high of 82ºF, with thermoclines in the low- to mid-70°s, so bring a hooded vest. Perhaps the most magical dives were at the island of Nusa Penida, where at Toya Pakeh we rode a pleasant current over acres of hard and soft corals teeming with brilliant fish. The current was just perfect for a gentle ride, the sun sparkled on the vivid corals, fish darted and danced, and I felt hypnotized.

Gekodive boats at Padang Bai beachGeko boats have a full O2 setup, and staff has ample technical expertise in diving. Geko is a little more expensive than the cheapest Padang Bai operation, but its great service and safe operation is worth it. My only gripe with Geko isn't really its fault: the sandy beach leaves your feet grubby.

Geko can arrange more than diving; they work with several hotels and smaller resorts, such as Bloo Lagoon (www.bloolagoon.com), an all-villa eco-resort (around $200 per day for two people), the Alila Manggis (small rooms, big resort, about $150 per night per room -- www.alilahotels.com/manggis), or smaller places for less money. Amankila is a splurge, starting around $850 per night, although it is so magical that it satisfies my sense of value (www.aman.com/resorts/amankila). Another diver told us he loved his $57-per-night hotel on the beach in Padang Bai as well! Most Indonesian hotels also bill a 21-percent government tax and service charge. Forewarned!

P.S. Villa Markisa's service went above and beyond. When we transferred from Tulamben to Manggis on the south east coast of Bali, I left a couple of hooded vests hanging in the dive shop; they washed, folded, and delivered them to me at Amankila a few days later, going out of their way. How kind was that?


-- A.E.L.

Our undercover diver's bio: A.E.L. dives around 150 dives yearly, keeps returning to Bali for its culture, food, and diving, and lives part of the year in Bonaire.

Divers CompassDiver's compass: One can easily transit to Bali from Hong Kong ... We booked Villa Markisa through Secret Sea Visions (secretseavisions.com), and it came to around $250 per day per person for everything (diving, room, food, Nitrox) except wine and massages. Geko Dive (gekodivebali.com) came to around $100 a day per person for two-tank boat dives, Nitrox, lunch, transfers to and from the hotel and great personal service. Amankila costs a small fortune, but is paradise.

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