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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Karimunjawa virgin paradise

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Where Fish Outnumber Phones

Karimunjawa is a newly discovered untouched virgin paradise, said to become the “next Bali”

Guests from the Kura Kura resort on Menyawakan Island walk on the beach at Krakal Island

IT was an hour before sunset on the remote Indonesian archipelago of Karimunjawa, a scattering of 27 tiny islands in the Java Sea, south of Borneo. My husband, Carsten, two children and I were on a turquoise outrigger canoe, paddling along the shoreline of the island of Menyawakan, which was lined with clusters of mangroves. Looking down into the clear, shallow water, we spotted a black sea cucumber that wound its sinuous way along the sand like a snake.

Gliding toward a bouquet of sea anemones, Carsten spotted three small clown fish darting playfully among the waving fingers of the anemones. “Nemo!” shouted my 4-year-old, Cosima, awe-struck. For at least five minutes we all watched, mesmerized, as my husband tickled the biggest of the three. It stood its ground as the others hid behind it. As the sun went down in glorious shades of pink and red, and Carsten continued to cavort with a creature that seemed more cartoon than fish, it felt as if we had crossed over to another world.
Karimunjawa IslThis sort of dreamlike encounter happened more than once during our five days in September exploring Karimunjawa, an off-the-map spot with a population of about 10,000, many of whom still make a living from fishing and cultivating seaweed. For years an in-the-know destination for snorkeling and scuba-diving, the islands have recently begun to attract more and more travelers looking for an escape from the endless white noise of modern communication.Some of the first recent visitors to venture regularly to these islands were adventurous expatriates living on Bali, fed up with the island’s explosion of traffic and villas. “Quiet, secluded, incredible massive living coral heads and pristine islands,” Ben Ripple, one of those Balinese transplants and the owner of the Bali-based organic food company Big Tree Farms, wrote in an e-mail about Karimunjawa in the ’90s. “Like the Maldives with no tourism.”

That’s not quite as true today. Word travels quickly in today’s world — even about a place with spotty Internet service — and in the last two years Karimunjawa has seen the number of visitors, both domestic and international, substantially multiply. “Just three or four years ago the ferries to Karimunjawa were almost empty,” said Cristiano Riccio, the Italian-born general manager of Kura Kura, the archipelago’s only luxury resort, set on the 54-acre island of Menyawakan. “Now they are almost always full. A lot of new small guesthouses are popping up on the main island. During last year’s high season we had almost 70 people here at one time.”
Before a Swedish expat opened a few rustic bungalows on Menyawakan in the late ’90s, it was home only to seasonally breeding turtles. But the more people came, the less inviting it was for the turtles. By the time the Italian hotelier Pietro Tura bought the island in 2007, and a year later opened the Kura Kura resort, there were none left.
The resort offers modest luxuries — air-conditioning, fresh Italian pasta in its central lobby restaurant, which fronts a pool and a line of bungalows — though no Internet or phones in the rooms. But thanks in part to Renato Ticozzi, a dive master who last year created a space in the island’s lagoon for the turtles to lay eggs, the turtles have now returned.

“There are over a hundred of them,” said Mr. Ticozzi, a wiry Italian in his late 50s with skin weathered to a nut-brown hue. He explained that much of the archipelago is anational marine park, designated by Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry. But despite its official status, the park hasn’t been managed properly. “There’s definitely too much commercial fishing going on here,” he said, “but the park doesn’t even have the money to pay for petrol for the rangers to check out and enforce the waters.”Still, Mr. Ticozzi remains positive. The variety of coral life within the park is some of the greatest he’s seen in his 25 years of diving around the globe, from East Africa to the Mediterranean, he said. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has conducted research in the area, there are nearly 250 species of reef fish and 100 species of coral that thrive in the waters around Karimunjawa.
“About two decades ago a group of research scientists came here to study the area’s rare sea eagles,” Mr. Ticozzi said. “One of them snuck away to do some snorkeling and discovered Karimunjawa’s amazing world of corals.”
In spite of all this underwater excitement, many of the guests at Kura Kura stay above sea level: napping on lounge chairs, reading books, conversing. There were several young Italian couples at Kura Kura who were clearly on their honeymoon. Others were not so easy to figure out.

I asked one of the guests, Lorraine Williams, a thirtysomething English woman who was visiting with her husband, how she had found herself here. “I was scrolling through travel forums searching for remote islands with little tourism and deserted beaches and I came across it,” she answered. She went on to say that they were enjoying the amenities of Kura Kura but were glad that they had booked a few days in a homestay on the main island of Karimunjawa. “It was far more rustic,” she said of both the homestay and the main island in general, “definitely for backpackers only. But I’m glad we had the chance to meet and speak with locals.”
A few days earlier, on our own quest for local culture, we hired a boat to take us to the main island’s small port town, also called Karimunjawa. As we approached the harbor, we motored by several bright blue fishing shacks perched on stilts. Hovering over the huts ahead of us was the turquoise dome of a mosque. A dozen or more colorfully painted traditional wooden boats were tied to the small wharf.
Though we were the only tourists in this small village, the locals seemed unfazed by our arrival. For the first half-hour or so we parked ourselves beside a few distinguished elders, who wore traditional black fez-style caps, sitting on a sky-blue bench that wrapped around the trunk of an enormous banyan tree. No one spoke English, but in rusty Indonesian I asked about the current state of tourism. All were pleased with the increase of revenue and jobs, but more than one worried about the increase of illegal fishing, for which they blamed organized boat tours from Java.
As we wandered through the town, we found that almost half of the spare but colorfully painted homes lining its dusty streets had been recently turned into homestays. Just outside the town center, on a road toward the harbor, we found Karimunjawa’s first tourist cafe: Amore, a beautiful antique Javanese one-room house surrounded by blooming potted plants set back on an expansive lawn that stretched to the ocean.
“We never predicted how many people would come here so soon after our opening last May,” Amore’s slender Javanese manager, Samekto Prawirohardjo, said in Indonesian. “We’ve had a lot of foreign expats and travelers, especially at night.”
Another jaunt, which we took along with a dozen other guests on one of Kura Kura’s boats, brought us to the nearby island of Cemara Besar. No larger than a few tennis courts, it wasn’t really much more than some pine trees on a spit of sand. The surrounding waters were so shallow that for the last 10 minutes we had to wade through clear blue water to a semi-submerged sand bridge that led to the island. Halfway there, I spotted a perfect white sand dollar, partly obscured in sand. I picked it up and excitedly showed it to my daughters. “There’s another one,” exclaimed Cosima and pointed to another sand dollar, in front of her foot.
I soon realized that we were surrounded by thousands of sand dollars, many of them blending in with the fine white sand — it was like coming across a field filled with four-leaf clovers. My girls, too young to appreciate how unusual the moment was, just kept picking up the fragile aquatic coins as we continued toward the beach.
Navigating a Remote Archipelago
High season in Karimunjawa is from May through October. During the rainy season, winds and waves make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to travel to the islands.
The best way to get to Karimunjawa is to fly to Semarang, Java, from either Bali or Jakarta and then either take the weekly ferry from Semarang to the island of Karimunjawa or have a car take you to the nearby city of Jepara, where there are ferries that leave five times a week. (A one-way “V.I.P.” ferry ticket from Semarang costs 165,000 rupiah, or $18 at 9,000 rupiah to the dollar; from Jepara, it’s 90,000 rupiah, or $10;
Alternatively, charter planes fly from Semarang airport to Karimunjawa daily at noon; $210 each way (U.S. dollars preferred for flights and hotels).
The only truly upscale resort in the archipelago is Kura Kura  (62-823-251-967-47 ; on Menyawakan, with 15 cottages and 21 pool villas; rates from $185 a person, including breakfast and dinner. Boat transfers from Karimunjawa harbor or the airport are an additional $70.
A more affordable and low-key option recommended by several Bali-based expats is the recently renovated Nirvana Laut on the main island (, which offers backpacker-style bungalows and suites starting at about $65 a night including a simple breakfast.


Kura Kura resort employees paddle out to pick up guests on Krakal Island.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 27, 2012, on page TR8 of the New York edition with the headline: Off Java, a Watery Wonderland.


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