Raja Ampat (literally “four kings”) is a group of islands off the coast of Papua. It's often billed as the last paradise on earth and a scuba diver's dream owing to the abundance of marine life (75% of all fish species and 537 types of coral) along with some rather unusual species. There are epaulette sharks that walk on their fins, wobbegongs, black-tip reef sharks, turtles, and even dolphins and orcas for the lucky. This combined with the stunning images of the kursts seen on even a cursory google search, cemented our desire to visit these islands.
No surprise that like any paradise they are a bit of a headache to get to. Sorong on the mainland of Papua has an airport, and is the major connecting point when coming to Raja Ampat. We took a Wings flight from nearby Ambon, which took less than an hour and was pretty cheap, but lots of people we met here had taken almost two full days to arrive from Europe. We arrived into Sorong pretty late in the day, by which time the public ferry over to Waigeo, the largest and most nothern of the four principal islands, had already departed at 2pm. We thus spent the night in Sorong at the Waigo hotel. It was a bit old and dated, but totally fine for a pitstop night and even offered a free transit service to the harbor (note this port is not the one closest to the Waigo hotel!).
We coughed up for the VIP ticket on the express ferry. It was another Bahari Express ferry, just like the one we took to the Banda Islands, and almost identical inside too. The VIP carriage was perfectly comfortable with new looking leather seats providing ample leg room, and the ticket cost us 220k each. To be honest Economy (130k looked just fine too, so maybe we wasted our money.) We departed 30 minutes late at 14:30, but still arrived on Waigeo before 4pm.
Note that whilst in Waisai you can buy your entrance pass to the islands for a cool one million. This is admittedly rather hefty, and I've heard that some tourists slip through the net and don't buy one at all, but after all it goes to a good cause in conservation efforts, so you probably should go buy one even if nobody pesters you! You can also buy this pass in Sorong.
Normally your accommodation (which I discuss next), will be able to pick you up from Waisai for a fee of around 400k-600k per speedboat. We were staying on the island of Kri, and the transfer took around 40 minutes. The weather was rainy, and the waves were rather choppy the day we were travelling, which resulted in an interesting ride in the little speed boat. Glad I took a seasickness tablet. On the way back a few days later the sun was shining and the sea was totally fine however.
Whilst there is hotel-like accomodation in Waisei, the largest town on Waigeo, which would be suitable for a one-night stopover if you arrive too late for you homestay to come pick you up, the islands have no public transport between them, so staying on Waigeo is rather impracticle, it's not like you can just hop on a public boat and go visit Gam or Kri for the day...
There are a couple of accommodation options in Raja Ampat depending on your budget. Lots of people that come here are divers, so the obvious choice is a liveaboard, but the downside is of course these are pretty expensive, way beyond what most longterm travellers could afford. The cheaper option, and the one we opted for, is to stay in a homestay.
If you are unfamiliar with homestays, then they offer fairly basic accomodation, occasionally nearby to an Indonesian family. Don't expect too much; mandi dip bathing, non-flushing toilets (sometimes western style, sometimes not), and thatched, fairly open to the elements bungalows are de facto. Nevertheless, all meals (usually fish, of course) and drinks are usually provided, so in a sense it's an all-inclusive resort ;).
The stayrajampat.com website is a good source of info on the different homestay options. There are so many it can be a daunting task trying to choose even between islands.
Even in the homestay range prices are expensive in Raja Ampat compared to elsewhere in Indonesia, so expect to pay anywhere between 500k to 1mil per night here.
We set our expectations low and looked for a homestay with a western pedestal toilet (still non-flushing of course), mosquito nets and raised off the ground mattresses and diving facilities. This led us happily to the Yenkoranu homestay on Kri. Upon arriving and being shown to our bungalow, we were pleasantly surprised. The VIP bungalow is very well built, with a laminate wooden flooring, and glass windows. The bungalows face the beach with the ocean a few feet away, and the bathroom has tiles around the lower wall with a cold shower (not mandi dip), western pedestal toilet and a sink. Not bad by the standards of a homestay. The room was spacious and the bed was fairly comfy with a big mosquito net around it. If you've done any research regarding the homestays on Kri, you've probably heard there are rats here, :s, and yep there are. We saw them running around during the evening along trees near the dining area, and heard them at night scurrying along the skirting boards. It can't be stressed enough, do not leave any kind of food in your room!
The first morning we excitedly walked down the jetty on the doorstep (almost literally) of our bungalow. The water was exceptionally clear, and we could see corals, blue starfish, bannerfish, angel fish, squid and more. This was walking along the jetty! We could not imagine what the snorkeling or scuba would be like. We were not disappointed. The coral was vibrant and the range of fish and number of them was phenomenal. Lionfish, giant pufferfish, black-tipped reef sharks, turtles, giant Napolean wrasse, parrot fish, unicorn fish, and fields and fields of colorful coral all within ten minutes of snorkeling near the jetty. The snorkeling alone beat my previous scuba experiences!
We were lucky with the weather as before we arrived it had been raining pretty solidly for a few days, it's the start of the rainy season, but our first day was glorious. The paradisical vision of fluffy white sand, deserted island beaches, and crystal clear water was wholly accurate. People often say "the sea was as warm as bath water", but in this case it was sometimes hotter than you'd probably want bathwater, and I found myself searching for a cold patch to faciliate cooling off. The bad weather on Monday did have one positive, the clouds led to an absolutely great sunset from the beach on Kri near our homestay:
We really liked it a lot here. The islands still have that yet to be spoiled feel to them.I think this is partly because there are so many little islands that maybe the tourists spread out over them, and you can feel like you have your own little desert island if you choose wisely. Also this is really a diving mecca, so most people are out on boats, not walking or enjoying the beaches too much, which adds to the deserted feel.
When you google image 'Raja Ampat' the postcard picture is that of many kursts hemmed with turquoise waters strewn throughout the ocean. The picture you saw was probably taken in Wayag, which to put it bluntly, is a right pain to get to, not to mention extremely expensive. Lots of backpackers instead opt for Fam or Piaynemo, which provide the same picture postcard view, but on a slightly smaller scale, and which is nearby and (relatively) cheap to get to.
A group of 6 from the homestay wanted to do this, so we arranged a trip encorporating some diving along the way. Being fairly inexperienced scuba divers, we were a little worried about not going with PADI, but Robin (Rubin??) from the Wobbegong dive shop at the Koranu Fyak resort seemed pretty good and patient. Admittedly the equipement is a little worn, so if you have the means to do so then bringing your own gear wouldn't be a bad idea. The trip cost us 1,550,000Rp per person in total including the trip to the viewpoint on Fam island, a stopover for lunch on Arborek island, a dive at the Melissa's garden site and finally a dive at Manta Sandy, a known Manta Ray cleaning station. Annoyingly the Manta were not to be seen that day, but the Melissa's garden site was stunningly beautiful, and we were not dissappointed. There are homestays on Arborek, and the island looks very pleasent, much smaller again than even Kri, but there is a tiny shop or two and even a church. The sands look very white and inviting and you'd be close to a couple of good dive sites. We stuck with Kri for the duration of our stay, so I can't comment on the quality of the homestays on Arborek.