Pulau Macan, Jakarta

A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2012 issue of South China Morning Post’s Lifestyle tabloid.

Past the choking smog of Jakarta and the garbage-strewn waters off its northern coast, there are islands that offer an escape from the Indonesian capital and hectic cities like it.

Pulau Macan, also called the Tiger Islands Village and Eco Resort, is one of the more popular ones offering sanctuary to weary travelers, honeymooners, families and even eco-volunteers. I came at the behest of a friend living in Jakarta, who thought we both deserved a few days of fresh air and frolicking.

Sun deck.

The island is accessible by a two-hour chartered ride from Ancol Marina, though we were delayed by engine trouble, in a seasick voyage later compensated for by one free cocktail at the resort’s bar.

The one-hectare paradise is owned by former forestry minister Adi-Warsita Adinegoro, developed — some say preserved — by a family friend and do-gooding expatriate named Roderick Des Tombe, and the architecture designed by an Australian. Since opening in 2006, it has become one of Jakarta’s best-kept secrets.

(Note: We later met Roderick at his newly renovated bar called Beehive, as he turned out to be the friend of our friend, Cipta Croft-Cusworth, who is within four degrees of everyone in Jakarta and who was celebrating his birthday at said bar that evening. I made sure to tell Mr. Des Tombe that we had just come from “his island” and that we loved it, and that we were hopeful that a presence of a blender would yield better pina coladas for us.)

Driftwood hut

Pulau Macan’s charm lies in its simplicity. Expect dirt-lined paths through rambling thickets to get to any of 10 living areas that make spartan wood furniture, shell accents and mosquito-net canopies romantic. Even the outdoor bathrooms are rustic but tasteful. Huts overlooking the water cost as much as 2.08 million rupiah (HK$1,700) while the cheapest accommodations — pitched tents — go for 1.39 million rupiah (HK$1,136) for a package of two nights, three days.

The resort’s environmental message is spelled out in the old water bottles reworked as lamp lights, the signs encouraging three-minute showers to conserve water, down to the fact every inch of the island and surrounding sea spills with natural beauty.

Tour leader Mimi Heryanti, who has been working for the resort for two years, summarized the eco-experience as such: “You go back to nature and use as little energy as possible.” I took this to mean both the island’s low electricity usage — it uses 90 per cent solar power from panels latched onto the dock’s alcove — and the blissful lethargy that even the hardiest of workaholics will no doubt sink into.

Days consisted of leisurely deciding whether to engage in various water sports or lie on a futon in a hut overlooking the sea, getting a Rp 150,000 massage from a male masseuse, who later appears as your waiter.

The package includes full use of equipment, from the selection of snorkels and partly tattered aqua shoes to a wooden rowboat and two kayaks that you can use to get to a smaller, uninhabited sister island just 20 metres away, with white pebbly sand that mirrors the main island’s. To seasoned divers, the coral reefs may not be the most picturesque, but this is understandable given the ecosystem is still healing from dynamite fishing and pollution.

Our nights, meanwhile, were spent playing pool and board games at the clubhouse or lounging on the many canvas couches and chaises on the communal sun deck, drinking lukewarm beers under the stars.

I would recommend sticking to beers and sodas, as the cocktails could be a hit and miss. The pina colada was watery, with pineapple chunks bobbing around the glass, and the gin tonics were too sweet. But the Caipiroska mint defied expectation.

The food is borderline vegan, with ingredients from the island’s own organic garden whipped into gourmet fare such as creamy celery soup and eggplant parmigiana by chef Ibu Tera. However, meat-eaters can take heart that the black chickens pecking away in the garden aren’t just for display.

Perhaps the one blot on my experience was the prevalence of sea urchins, which stained whatever goodwill I had built towards the ocean. For a few minutes, I broke the tranquility of the morning by screaming into my snorkel whenever I encountered malevolent clumps of urchins on the coral bed, fearing I would become another tourist needing first aid after falling prey to their venomous spikes.

As a comeuppance of sorts, we asked to eat some fresh sea urchins, the quivering flesh like gummy caviar, which the staff brought to our hut on a plate with some limes. Fortunately, they taste more pleasant than they look.

The resort maintains its cozy, community-oriented feel by keeping its guest list small — four at the minimum and 30 maximum. Socializing is unquestionably wholesome, as rowdier guests will get stern warnings or will be met at the bar by a padlocked fridge.

And if humans aren’t good company, the resort’s pets will be. There are two cats named Soekarno and Hatta, after Jakarta’s eponymous airport, who like a good stroke. Shadow, a personable black retriever, is known to doze on the sand as you do the same on the hammock, and to accompany guests on late-night trips to the outhouses.

Heryanti says the entire island can be chartered for 9.8 million rupiah on weekdays and 14.7 million on weekends, with a minimum of 15 people. I immediately added it to my list of probable wedding spots.

A South African mother of three, sunbathing on their deck while her children splashed in front of her looking for blau stars in the low tide, was right when she said, “This place is such a gem.”

At the end of our stay, I contemplated asking my friend to stay another night, maybe two. A list of room prices for such last-minute decisions was proof that other people had felt the same.

Still, it was a cheerful exit, with guests hugging each other, clinging to the cookies we got as farewell tokens, and the staff waving at us from the dock as our faster, sturdier boat sped away. Everyone I asked on the hour-and-a-half ride back to Jakarta said they would return someday, hoping to disappear and then emerge refreshed from a tiny paradise.

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