Currently being touted as the ‘quieter, more peaceful’ alternative to Bali, Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) has all the holiday pursuits expected of any south-east Asian destination – swimming, snorkelling or diving at scores of white sand beaches, stacks of walking trails and a host of cultural and historical sites within a couple of kilometres of the city.
Yet it is a country that has been burdened by tragedy, with years spent suffering under Portuguese colonial rule and brutal Indonesian occupation before regaining independence in 2002. The capital, Dili, retains many reminders of its mixed history, in the burnt-out buildings with their Portuguese-influenced façades.
But with the recent end of the UN mission, Dili is thriving – and now is the time to time to pack your bag and the little ones, before the tourists hit full-force. Adventurous parents will be rewarded for their trailblazing with empty beaches and friendly smiles, while malae (foreign) children will be spoiled rotten with attention, and bestowed with gifts of fruit, drinks or even chickens!
To give you an idea of what to expect from a holiday in Timor-Leste, here are some Top Picks from our upcoming Timor-Leste Destination Guide by Brooke Leung, mother of Frankie, 5, and Harrie, 2, and current Dili resident.
1. Breakfast at the Beach
Enjoy breakfast at the ‘Portuguese’ beach, Areia Branca, so-named for all the GNR (Guarda Nacional Republicana – or Republican National Guard) officers who used to spend the weekends sunning themselves here. This white sand beach at the eastern end of Dili is a wonderful spot to enjoy a quiet, early brekky against the backdrop of turquoise waters and distant views of Indonesia’s Pulau Alor island.
Walk off your meal with a wander up the street to Cristo Rei, Dili’s ‘Christ the King’ statue, gifted to the capital in 1996 by the Indonesian Government. The 27m high statue of Jesus is 400-odd steps above the city (no doubt your kids will count every last one them!) and has fabulous views. It’s also a great place to visit at dusk. Refresh with a dip at the beach at the base of the statue.
2. Drive-Through Coconuts
Haggling for fresh fruit and vegetables at the markets along the beach at Lecidere is lots of fun. Sellers arrange the produce in neat little piles, and the array of locally grown fruits and vegetables are a kaleidoscopic sight. Papaya, custard apples, watermelon, sweet potato, coconuts and pineapples are just some of the delights available – perfect for refueling during a day of sightseeing. If you have a car or are in a taxi, you can also get ‘drive-through coconuts’ from the sellers, ready to drink and delivered straight to your car.
3. The Reading Room
Sentru Kultural Xanana is a reading room, museum and art gallery, established in 2000 by Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the wife of Timor-Leste’s first President and current Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao. It was aimed especially at the city’s children and young people, many of whom found themselves without jobs and opportunities to study in the early years following independence. The centre is housed in a beautiful old Portuguese building down by the waterfront, and has benefited from a recent transformation: there’s now a wonderful space with kids’ books and activities, Internet, and cosy nooks located at the rear of the new building. It’s a great place for kids to see the history of Timor-Leste come to life, and learn more about one of the nation’s most revered heroes.
4. Christmas in Timor
If you are visiting Timor-Leste in December, the Christmas Nativity Scenes are a sight to behold. Built on every street corner by young men from each neighborhood with materials donated or foraged, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are likely to be decked out in fluorescent yellow robes, adorned in fairy lights and enjoying loud Indo-pop tunes blaring from a hidden speaker.
5. A Micro-Meal
Have lunch or a coffee at Cafe Wesa’e, a ‘micro’ restaurant with the feel of a friend’s lounge room. Serving a daily vegetarian and often vegan menu, the aim of the eatery is to source all produce as locally as possible. Delicious food, juices and single-origin coffees from Cooperative Café Fhamilia. There are also drop in yoga, meditation and pilates classes in the studio upstairs.
6. Cocktails on the Beach
We love Little Pattaya, a Thai/Lebanese restaurant (pita with your pad thai?) along the beach at Meti Aut. It’s the perfect place to enjoy an evening sunset cocktail (the Pink Lady is a speciality) while watching the kids play on the beach.
7. Escape Up the Coast
About 50 minutes drive from Dili, near the town of Liquiça is Cameio Beach, a simple ‘resort’ opened by an Australian, together with her son and Timorese daughter-in-law. They offer permanent tents (US$10-50) under pavilions, overlooking a lovely stretch of coast, and not much else…But that’s what makes it such a perfect remote getaway. There’s also a small beach restaurant and bar serving fresh fish, jugs of sangria and ice-cold Bintang beer. It’s easy hanging out here for a couple of nights for some swimming (with decent waves), reading, and wandering along the palm fringed shore.