11 July 2011
What's the opposite of "The Big Durian"?
When I signed on for this Jakarta gig… wait, I didn’t actually “sign on”. It was more the case that no one else especially wanted to come here, and everyone else has skills that could be put to value in another location. Lacking both skills and a compelling reason to be somewhere else, I ended up with the short straw. And it’s been just fine, but when I agreed to come here, I knew that I would have little opportunity for sightseeing. As a result, I can hardly claim to be an expert on Jakarta. Beyond the few crowded streets I’ve become familiar with during my commute, a couple of restaurants and bars, I don’t know much about this city, which is known as "The Big Durian" - a fruit famous for its luscious flavor and its outhouse stench.
But last Saturday and Sunday I had no commitments, so it was my one chance to see something beyond the streets of Jakarta. Although it’s not rare for Jakartans to take the short flight to Yogyakarta or Bali for a weekend, I wasn’t feeling quite that ambitious. Somewhere in my research I ran across a reference to Pulau Macan, an eco-resort (whatever that means) located just a couple of hours by boat from Jakarta. Short of a full-on adventure to Komodo or Papua New Guinea, Pulau Macan looked like a perfect rustic getaway from the noise, pollution, and crowds of the city. I contacted the resort, made my reservation, and bright and early on Saturday morning, I queued up with a smallish crowd of perhaps 25 other folks and boarded a comfortable speed boat, bound for a tropical island.
We were seated in comfortable airline-style chairs below deck. A few brave souls ventured onto the outer deck, but the combination of sun and enormous spray as we cut through a 3-4 foot chop brought most people back inside. I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me, a 30ish American living in Jakarta. As it turned out, Matt was both typical of many of the guests (young, professional, smart) and unusual (he works for an Indonesian business, while the majority work for various philanthropic agencies, government offices, and NGOs). Based on a single weekend of sampling, Pulau Macan is definitely geared for young urban professional visitors, as opposed to the funkier backpacker demographic who might also be attracted to this sort of “Gilligan’s Island meets Al Gore” kind of hangout.
Pulau Macan is part of a scattering of low coral atolls known collectively as Kepulauan Seribu, or Thousand Islands. Actually there are a few hundred of them, which combined total an area of only a few square miles – most of the islands are tiny. Approaching the dock at Pulau Macan, it’s clear that anyone with a reasonably good arm could wing a rock from one end of the island to the other. Still, it’s a scenic little place, surrounded by shallow sky blue waters and neat as a pin.
The island is intensely utilized. Swept gravel paths lead through palms and other foliage to a scattering of huts, most of which overlook the water, and which range from the substantial “Red Brick Cabin” to wispy bamboo-shaded lean-tos to a handful of backpacker tents. The real focal point, however, is the common area, which includes a spacious, open air Club House complete with bar, seating and eating areas, and a pool table. Next to the Club House, the Main Hut includes a high thatched roof and a view over the water. Chaises, hammocks, and other comfy seating invite conversation, reading, and naps, while a long, long table extends onto a dock where around 25 guests can be seated for meals. Along the pathways, you’ll find a raised bed garden where they are trying (with limited success) to grow some produce and papayas. There’s a tower where captured rainwater is stored for use in the two common bath houses.
Small artistic touches abound. Although the island has an array of solar panels that provide a small amount of electricity, most nighttime lighting is from tea candles, which are carefully placed inside clamshell sconces next to the paths. The bath houses are whimsical and decorative, with shells and carvings providing a lift to what could otherwise be a grim public loo. Guest rooms are breezy and simple, but comfortable and peaceful.
If you visit Pulau Macan, your tariff will include lodging and four meals: a lunch after your arrival, dinner, and breakfast and lunch the following day. Meals are served buffet style, and the food is wholesome, plentiful, and quite tasty. Imagine home cooking, with a cross between traditional Indonesian cuisine and modern healthy cooking. No one failed to clean their plate.
The whole point of Pulau Macan is to establish a sustainable, low-impact resort, and to my mind they’ve succeeded. This isn’t a place to come for jello shots, karaoke, and parasailing. You can certainly order up a mojito or a beer, and there’s a bunch of snorkeling gear available for use. Lots of guests walked through waist-deep water (that arc of light blue water in the photo at the top of this post) to a tiny adjacent island that features nothing more than a white sand beach and a rustic gazebo. We took a puttering wooden boat out a mile or so to another coral reef and snorkeled there for an hour or so. It wasn't the greatest snorkeling I've ever experienced, but there were fish to see and some interesting coral formations and the barely-cool water was delightful.
The typical weekend visit to Pulau Macan departs Saturday morning and returns on Sunday afternoon. What with reading, eating, chatting with other guests, and napping, the time went quickly and very pleasantly. In no time at all, we were re-boarding the boat and zipping back to Jakarta.
Oh, one more thing: the island was remarkably free of bugs and other critters, although this friendly little guy did show up on the roof of my tent.