My wife and I recently spent a week in Manado diving at the world-renowned Bunaken Marine Park. We had booked a dive package with Thalassa Dive Centre (a PADI 5* dive centre and possibly one of the best-run outfits in Asia) and we were given a choice of three different accommodations. We could either stay on-site at Hotel Santika, or we could stay nearby at the 4 Fish or at Bahowo Lodge. After consulting the respective websites and, more importantly, the other reviews on tripadvisor, we were convinced that Bahowo Lodge provided us the best value for money and would be the best accommodation by a long shot.
To summarise briefly, Hotel Santika was essentially like any other hotel you'd find around the world and we were told that the 4 Fish did not even have air-conditioned rooms. By way of comparison, not only did Bahowo Lodge come with all the mod-cons essential and conducive for comfortable travel (good air-conditioning, hot water, clean rooms, fresh sheets), the food at the Lodge was also fantastic, with a mouth-watering spread laid out for us every evening.
Upon arrival in Manado (after a 3 hour delay from Jakarta), we were greeted by Tom, Phil and Paula's ever-smiling driver, and ushered to the waiting car. The Lodge itself is located some 15km away from the city but due to the appalling road conditions, the journey can take between 40-50 minutes by car. As our flight from Jakarta had been delayed by 3 hours, we were concerned that we would not be able to get dinner (it was 9pm at the time). However, our fears were allayed upon arrival at the Lodge as there was food available and Phil wasted no time in bringing out the nasi goreng (fried rice), chicken sate (grilled chicken skewers) with sweet peanut sauce and some stir-fried vegetables.
The room that was prepared for us was also very comfortable and clean, with a firm queen-sized bed and fresh sheets laid out. Most importantly, and as alluded to above, the rooms were made up to Western standards, with all the mod-cons required. A short word on the hot water though. Although there was hot water available for our showers, we found that the hot water did run out after some time. As we were the only guests in residence at the time, there was still ample hot water for us to use, but we wondered how this might have been different if the Lodge was at capacity. Nevertheless, as we had been informed of this by Phil and Paula in advance, we were conscious to be a little bit more judicious and expedient in our showers.
As we had come to Manado primarily for the diving, we spent the bulk of the day away from the Lodge. Each morning, a simple breakfast consisting of home-made toast and eggs (done any way you like it) would be prepared for us. Although we would have liked more variety in our choice of breakfast, we were nevertheless satisfied by the quality of the food overall. In any event, we usually found ourselves downing our food quickly in order to get to the dive centre in time for the 8am dive! After breakfast, Tom would be waiting by the car to chauffeur us down to Thalassa Dive Centre.
The dive centre is located in the next village, approximately 10 minutes away by car. As transportation to and from the dive centre were provided for readily, we were therefore unconcerned about staying "off-site" from the dive centre. In the evenings, Tom would again be waiting at the dive centre to take us home after we had completed our diving for the day. We found this arrangement to be very flexible and accommodating. All we had to do was to indicate at the start of the day the number of dives we were expected to be doing, and Tom would be waiting at the dive centre for us upon the conclusion of our activities.
Upon arrival back at the Lodge, we would almost always be greeted very enthusiastically by Phil and Paula's two very adorable golden retrievers, George and Poppy! A previous reviewer had mentioned that a love for dogs was essential when staying at the Lodge. Whilst we are unsure as to whether this would indeed be the case for all guests, we would add that George and Poppy certainly helped to make our stay extra memorable, and playing with the dogs was undoubtedly a most enjoyable way of unwinding at the end of a long day.
Dinners were always a treat for us as well. Sultje, Phil and Paula's wonderful miracle-worker cook, would prepare the most amazing spread for our dinners, from freshly caught groupers or chicken sate to stir-friend papaya leaves and aubergines. And to complement all this, her very own home-made sweet peanut sauce and dabu-dabu (take in small quantities only!) Evening meals were always wonderful and, with Phil and Paula joining us, we also thoroughly enjoyed the conversations around the table - especially the stories of how Phil and Paula came to be living in this tiny, remote corner of the world, and the sort of work they are doing in the village.
For those of you concerned by a lack of activities to be had apart from diving, we can say that there was never a shortage of things for us to do whilst at the Lodge. Phil and Paula's extensive library of books and DVDs (Downton Abbey ftw!) kept us occupied in the evenings and, for the non-divers amongst you, we were told that various tours to surroundings areas such as the Minahasa highlands or Manado city itself could very easily be arranged through Phil and Paula.
Perhaps most importantly, we were especially heartened to see for ourselves the work that Phil and Paula are doing in and amongst the 110 families of Bahowo village. From setting up a local clinic to sponsoring the children's education at the local primary school and organising various activities for the whole village, we have come to realise that Phil and Paula are an integral part of village life in Bahowo and an important source of employment for the team (made up primarily of locals from the village) working at the Lodge.
For this reason alone, we believe that Phil and Paula deserve all the support they can get and we would strongly recommend that anyone desirous of a holiday to these parts should eschew the other run-of-the-mill establishments in favour of Bahowo Lodge. In our opinion, this necessitates no sacrifice on the part of the guest at all as, for all the reasons proffered above, the Lodge is run to a very high and efficient standard, with Phil and Paula's personal touch giving it that extra something you will not find elsewhere.
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay and were glad to have been able to meet Phil, Paula, George, Poppy and the rest of the team at the Lodge. We look forward to returning there the next time the diving bug bites again.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.