Discover the charms of Southern Toba
Explore this relatively untouched part of Indonesia
Samosir Island is probably the first thing that comes to mind at any mention of Lake Toba in Sumatra.
It is a familiar and comfortable Indonesian travel destination, set in the largest volcanic lake in the world.
But Southern Toba - an area relatively unexplored by tourists - has its own charm.
It offers the same - or perhaps even more spectacular - views of Lake Toba than Samosir Island, but away from the noise of the city.
Throughout our three-day trip in August to the villages lining Southern Toba, we did not meet another tourist.
Southern Toba is easy to get to. First, the direct flight from Singapore to Kualanamu International Airport in Medan - the capital city of North Sumatra - will take you less than 11/2 hours.
After that, hop on a 50-minute domestic flight to the Sisingamangaraja XII International Airport in Silangit.
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For the coffee connoisseur
You must have heard of Indonesian kopi luwak (civet coffee). It is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, and can go up to US$500 (S$ 690) for half a kilo.
At Sumatera Lintong Coffee, a coffee plantation and shop in the village of Nagasaribu, coffee cherries are fed to wild luwak (civet cats) which pass the beans out.
Their droppings are collected and the beans are sent for thorough cleaning. They are then roasted manually over charcoal for about 12 minutes.
Try your hand at it and watch the yellow beans turn into a beautiful dark brown. After that, sit back and enjoy as the fragrant coffee is brewed for you.
The medium roast retains flavour well, is smoother and less bitter than regular coffee. And here, the kopi luwak beans and coffee powder are sold for just 100,000 rupiah (S$9.80) for 100 grams.
For the seeker of authentic local experiences
Head for the village of Onan Runggu, where I harvested the sweetest pineapples I had ever tasted.
We were told by the farmers that the secret lies in the volcanic soil. Also, no fertilisers or pesticides were used, which probably explains why the fruit was teeming with ants.
My slight unease was replaced by excitement when the top of the pineapple was sliced off and the juicy yellow flesh greeted my eyes.
These pineapples are distributed throughout Indonesia but are not exported.
But visitors can pick them in 30-minute sessions and your haul will set you back by only 10,000 rupiah a kg.
At Bakkara Traditional Market, locals with young children in tow do their grocery shopping while traders lay out their goods on mats.
It was good to visit Bakkara on a Wednesday, the market day. The market in each village opens only once a week.
This place is definitely not for the squeamish, as chickens are slaughtered and feathers plucked in front of you. Fish swim around in buckets and look ready to jump out any time.
For the nature lover
The unobstructed view of Lake Toba and Sibandang Island from Huta Ginjang - a hill 1,500m above sea level - left us in awe.
It is not hard to see why it is used as a starting point by paragliding groups.
The two-way Damri bus to the site at Huta Ginjang is available six times a day for 29,000 rupiah.
Even if you are not religious, Salib Kasih - translated as the Cross of Love - is worth a visit. The monument, commemorating Dr Ludwig Nommensen who brought Christianity to the Batak people, requires one to climb 600m of stairs.
The view along the way was just as stunning as it was at the peak. The slightly cold air was incredibly fresh and the woody smell of the surrounding towering pine trees was a refreshing change from the exhaust fumes of the city.
There are also great spots for taking photos along the drive, like Tipang Hills and Bakkara Valley.
Although Lake Toba looks impressive during the day, one unforgettable highlight of Southern Toba came at night. From our accommodation, Tipang Mas homestay, the sky was dotted with thousands of stars.
I never pegged Lake Toba as a place for star-gazing, but as the villages were shrouded in darkness, the skies greeted us with a magnificent view of the Milky Way. We even spotted two shooting stars that night.
TIPS FOR THE FIRST-TIMER
* Do travel in a group. I recommend renting a van and hiring a guide to take you around. Unfortunately, many of the abovementioned spots are still quite remote. Roads in the rural villages are winding and rather inaccessible, with the lack of street lamps or road signs.
* Have at least one Bahasa Indonesia speaker in your group. Many of the locals do not speak English.
* Bring insect repellent. I became food for the mosquitoes, sustaining about 10 bites each day.
* Be prepared to rough it out. Do not expect the comfort of five-star hotels or a breakfast buffet wherever you go. While the homestays available are liveable, most of the villages do not have hot water to bathe in.