Sulawesi’s Sparkling Port of Call

NOVEMBER 29, 2011

Wahyuni Kamah

I have been to several port cities in Indonesia, but have never been especially impressed with any of them — a harbor in this country tends to be, well, dirty. But on a recent trip to Bitung, a port city on the northeastern tip of North Sulawesi, I found an exception. Bitung is the cleanest port I have visited in the country.

As a kid, I used to think about Bitung as a hub for people traveling to and from North Sulawesi to Jakarta. On my recent mudik (homecoming holiday trip), I finally paid a visit to the 30,000-hectare city. The nearest major airport is in the provincial capital of Manado, about a half-hour’s drive from Bitung.

The road to Bitung is smooth, with a nice view throughout the drive. Bitung is tucked into the foot of Dua Saudara Mountain and as I rode toward the city I could clearly see the mountain. I also saw many of the traditional wooden stilt houses of North Sulawesi along the way. As in most villages in the province, residents’ yards are well-manicured and neat, and coconut trees dot the roadside and neighborhoods.

Entering Bitung, I was instantly struck by a feeling of cleanliness. On Jalan Sam Ratulangi, the main road and, indeed, through most of the city, I didn’t see a single piece of litter. There seemed to be trash bins for both organic and inorganic litter every 10 meters, as well as road sweepers working throughout the day. Bitung has received four Adipura awards from the government for its community-wide cleanliness since 2007. Banners hang throughout the city, calling on its 135,000-plus citizens to keep the city clean and to live healthy lifestyles. Big trees line the roads, casting dappled shade.

Situated beside the waters of the Lembeh Strait, downtown Bitung is flat and the buildings are a blend of old and modern architecture. The modern edifices are simple, concrete and usually two or three floors and function as both residences and commercial spaces, while the old buildings are one- or two-floor houses with zinc roofs. Bitung is largely populated by Christians, but a few mosques are also peppered across the cityscape.

For newcomers to the village, finding a place to eat may be a little problematic, especially those who seek halal food. But most residents are happy to recommend their favorite halal restaurants — and their suggestion will likely be Rumah Makan Tude, which famously serves grilled tude, a tasty local fish.

As a port town and crossroads of the sea, residents of Bitung are a mixed bunch. Besides the locals, there are many people from Maluku, to the southeast, and Sangir, an island more than 200 kilometers north of Sulawesi.

I normally don’t ask police officers for directions — just a force of habit, I guess — but when a friend and I were looking for how to cross over to Lembeh Island, we asked an officer at the entry of a port, who gave us a polite, correct and useful answer — information that I rarely find when querying most on-duty officers.

As the province’s largest port, Bitung’s busy harbor has an abundance of container ships, commercial fishing boats and passenger ferries. The port area is enormous and clean, which continued to be a delightful surprise offered up by the village. To support its mariners, truckers and longshoremen, the city provides rest areas for workers of the shipping industry (something of a rarity). Some rest areas can be found near the port.

Bitung borders the Maluku Sea to the southeast and the Pacific Ocean to the east, making the port safe from the big, open ocean waves common to the south side of Java and Sumatra, as it’s protected by Lembeh Island in the east.

I wanted to visit the huge island of Lembeh, which can be seen from the village’s port. The pier for crossing over to Lembeh Island is situated in the back of Ruko Pateten complex, a busy market where, like many bazaars in Indonesia, you can find almost anything from high-end electronics to snacks. And despite being a market, the area is clean. Even the pier is clean, and the water beneath it is clear. Traditional boats line the docks and are the mode of transportation for people who live on Lembeh Island.

Boats to Lembeh embark based on the availability of passengers — a boat leaves when it is full, otherwise it waits for more passengers. We decided to hire a boat, which was about Rp 350,000 ($38) for a four-hour trip.

The Lembeh Strait — the waters between North Sulawesi and Lembeh Island — is a popular site for divers. The view all the way to Pantai Pasir Putih on Lembeh Island is breathtaking — from the strait, Bitung’s hills push toward the sea, and at their base lies resorts, local villages and small ports. The water is dark blue, indicating its depth. Usually I am a bit nervous to travel by boat in open waters, but sailing on the Lembeh Strait is different, as I can still see the green of coconut trees on both sides.

With good weather, we reached a beach situated in North Lembeh in about 45 minutes — white sand stretches for about 200 meters and the beach is managed by the locals. There are some basic changing rooms and showers, while huts for sleeping are the only “resorts” on the island.

The entrance fee to the beach for locals is Rp 5,000 and Rp 15,000 for foreigners. The beach offers a nice view of Lembeh Strait and there are not many visitors.

The waves aren’t strong in the clear waters off Lembeh, but they still managed to pull me from shore.

“Don’t ever come to swim in the wet season — the waves are rough and high,” the man who manages the beach told me.

As I was swimming, I had my first glimpse of imperfection — some of the coral reefs had been destroyed and previously unseen litter was washed ashore by the waves. For me it was disheartening and the only blemish on the otherwise pristine coast of North Sulawesi.

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