CLAMBERING ABOARD AFTER a 20-minute snorkel, I'm disappointed not to have seen a manta ray. But the view from the boat provides solace: Indonesia's Komodo National Park is scattered with green and brown uninhabited islands, and the vast blue itself is a salve for city-sore eyes.
Shouts from others suddenly alert us all to manta rays swooping around the boat; my husband is still in the water, which is gurgling with strong currents, and he swims with them for a good 10 minutes. They glide around him like great prehistoric birds, giving him the highlight of his trip.
Komodo National Park, which is located just off Flores Island, can be like that. The truly amazing stuff creeps up on you, just when you think you've missed out on something that was hyped in the brochure.
We're at Makassar Reef, a stop on our day trip to Komodo Island, the focal point of a trip to Komodo National Park. We've come from Kanawa, an island with a house reef so good it was hard to leave.
With no cars, just one chilled-out resort, beaches bursting with marine life offshore, and some vertiginous viewpoints, the 28-hectare Kanawa is a destination in its own right. It is the closest affordable place to sleep without staying on Komodo itself, where official national park accommodation is on the drab side.
But now we've come to Komodo to see those famous dragons. Things are more regulated here than elsewhere, because the creature is a potential killing machine. The Komodo dragon is the world's largest lizard, growing to around three metres long, and although their main diet is deer, they have been known to attack humans.
A guide asks us to select a trek - short, medium or long - and grabs a worryingly useless-looking stick before accompanying us along the route. We see three or four drowsy dragons; thankfully, nothing creeps up on us.
But plenty more of the beasts lope around the walk's start and end points. The park's kitchen keeps them interested, so everyone has a good chance of seeing them, unlike the often elusive mantas.
On the way back to Kanawa, we sink into the wooden boat's beanbags and savour the scenery. Perhaps the dragons have inspired our imaginations, it's all very fairy tale and medieval looking, with desolate craggy rocks and windswept barren islands for kilometres.
We stop at Pink Beach for another snorkel. (Earlier in the day, we also snorkelled at Batu Bolong, and were greeted by a turtle as we idled up to the popular dive spot.) The sand here is flecked with pink, and the coral and fish make getting wet again worthwhile, though the currents are strong. The waters surrounding Komodo and Flores are renowned for their unpredictable and dangerous rips; stay close to your boat, particularly if you're drift snorkelling or diving.
While we came for the snorkelling and the dragons, we are unexpectedly surprised at how much we love Kanawa Island itself. We have to move twice as the place is almost booked out but we just don't want to leave; the bungalows are basic and rustic, with the cold water showers and lack of fans redeemed by comfortable daybeds and hammocks on their verandas with sea views.
Roughing it rewards us with views of white sand beaches and world-class snorkelling a stone's throw from our (admittedly rather hot) room. We saw a shark flitting around in the shallows before we'd even alighted from the boat on our arrival. We spend an afternoon hiking to a viewpoint - accompanied by bleating goats - and discover breathtaking 360-degree views.
At the end of each day, we might not be able to sip the cocktails we'd find in Bali, but we enjoy tucking into Kanawa's thin-crust pizzas, one of the culinary highlights here.
We push on and head to Seraya Island. If we thought Kanawa was roughing it, Seraya is even more of a test. The rattan huts at the only resort along the deserted beach are tiny and hot - there are no fans, and there are only a few hours of power in the evening. A sunrise of vivid oranges and pinks truly makes the hardship worth it.
Meals at Seraya consist of fish and more fish. This is old-school travel, right down to filling our own bucket with seawater for flushing the toilet.
But stumbling down to the ocean where colourful fish swim just a few metres from shore only convinces us that electricity is, perhaps, overrated.
Labuan Bajo in Flores is just over an hour's flight from the international airport in Denpasar, Bali. Carriers flying the route daily include Wings Air, Trans Nusa and Merpati. It's a 10-minute drive to the pier and a 60- to 90-minute boat ride to Kanawa, the best departure point for Komodo National Park.
If you're short of time, head straight from Labuan Bajo airport to the harbour. Negotiate with a boatman to start your adventure directly from here. You can visit Komodo as a day trip, but if you've already made it here, it's worth making the effort to get to Kanawa for a few nights of tropical escape.
While you're there
We hired a boat with other tourists from Kanawa, and paid 350,000 rupiah (HK$247) each for the day for the trip to Komodo. Do it with a larger group if you want to pay less.
Kanawa Island Resort (kanawaislandresort.com) is located less than 90 minutes by puttering boat from Labuan Bajo, the main town in western Flores with flight connections to Bali. Basic wall-free huts with alang-alang roofs and blinds are the closest offerings to the water, and have shared bathrooms. Deluxe rooms include daybeds and private cold water bathrooms (basic rooms with shared bathrooms are 250,000 rupiah, for two, and deluxes are 550,000 rupiah, including breakfast and boat transfers).
Flores and Komodo are malarial, so either take prophylactics or ensure you wear repellant if you don't use a mosquito net - particularly if you sleep outside.
While we picked up an occasional internet signal here on our phones, it was patchy; prepare for a digital detox. If you'd prefer to dive than snorkel, an operation works out of Kanawa.
Seraya Island Bungalows (serayaisland.com) are even more basic: 260,000 rupiah in the low season and 300,000 rupiah in high season. You can take a trip to Solobo Island for more lovely snorkelling (we saw a turtle here) but it's a longer journey to Komodo. The internet and phone signal are even worse than Kanawa.
Waecicu Eden Beach Hotel A 10-minute boat ride from Labuan Bajo takes you to Waecicu Eden Beach Hotel, a great little getaway on the mainland. We hired a canoe to paddle across the bay to a secluded and relaxing beach. Rooms start at 300,000 rupiah.