No exploration of the world’s largest archipelago is complete without a stay in Bali. But venture beyond and Indonesia has a wealth of wonders that rival some of the most famous in the world. Cecilia Yee and Kathryn Gardner report.
When it comes to Indonesia, Bali remains top of mind but intrepid travellers are waking up to Java, a still somewhat untravelled realm replete with paddy fields, coffee plantations, active volcanoes and historic sites. Mount Bromo, at 2,329 metres, is the new go-to destination in East Java, while Borobudur Buddhist stupa and temple complex is the number one must-see in Central Java.
With 10 days to hand, it’s easy to get all three of these Indonesian hotspots on your itinerary, taking in Borobudur and Mount Bromo before heading to the beaches of Bali for some welldeserved downtime. Alternatively, each destination makes for an easy and enjoyable weekend getaway.
Garuda Indonesia offers daily flights through Jakarta to the bustling city of Yogyakarta in Central Java and from here you are just an hour’s drive from your first destination – Borobudur Buddhist stupa and temple complex. The single largest Buddhist structure anywhere on Earth, Borobudur dates back to the 8th century and is famous for its nine stacked platforms and bell-like domes (stupas) containing Buddha statues.
Often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it’s impossible not to be drawn to Borobudur’s mystical lure, and the remarkable attention to detail that went into its construction. Like Angkor, Borobudur was lost for centuries – hidden under layers of volcanic ash and thick jungle growth – only to be unearthed in 1814 under the auspices of the then governor of Indonesia, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. After extensive restoration, Borobudur was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. You can opt for a guided tour or simply purchase an entrance ticket and make your own way. Since there’s only one site to explore,
Borobudur is much easier to take in than Angkor but just as mind blowing. Set as it is in the heart of the verdant Kedu Plain, the backdrop of mighty active volcanoes only adds to the experience.
The fact that there’s an Aman resort – the Amanjiwo Resort – just down the road from Borobudur is, in my book, a deal clincher. Amanjiwo’s luxurious suites offer up wonderful views of the temple complex, and there’s a spa, stunning pool area and great food. Visit www.aman.com. Mesa Stila Resort, just 45 minutes from Borobudur, is an excellent alternative with vast, family-friendly villas. A former coffee plantation,
Mesa Stila specialises in fitness, health and wellness but has also remained true to its roots. The resort still produces its own coffee, grown and roasted onsite. Visit www.mesahotelsandresorts.com.
Volcanic Mount Bromo
Next stop, still way off the beaten track, is Surabaya in East Java. You can fly from Hong Kong to Surabaya direct with Cathay Pacific and from there, it’s just a five-hour drive to the Tengger massif, home to one of the most awe-inspiring mountains in Indonesia: Mount Bromo.
At 2,329 metres, Mount Bromo is not the highest peak in the massif but, sandwiched between Mount Batok and Mount Semeru, it stands out majestically. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, its top has been entirely blown off and its crater spews white, sulphurous smoke.
Guides drive you up to the viewpoint at Kingkong Hill (a better, less frequented option than Penanjakan Hill) and it’s best to get there before sunrise, ahead of the other tourists and local hawkers. In the pre-dawn hours, you glimpse the mountains in silhouette, a hint of smoke and hundreds and thousands of stars above. As the sun rises, the magical, almost ethereal landscape gradually reveals itself.
Next up, your guide will drive you down to Laut Pasir, the sea of fine volcanic sand surrounding Mount Bromo, where locals and their horses wait to escort you to the crater. Here, should you opt to hike the 30 or so minutes to the summit, you are rewarded by truly magnificent views across Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park.
While there are a surprising number of five-star hotels in Surabaya, Hotel Majapahit, with its immaculate landscaped gardens, gets my vote. An imposing colonial mansion built in 1910, it retains its old-world charm, while boasting modern facilities and a superb spa. Visit www.hotel-majapahit.com.
The biggest tourist destination in Indonesia – possibly in South East Asia – Bali can’t promise you a desert island experience but it has not lost its fabled paradisiacal appeal. The combination of friendly people and a magnificently visual culture, infused with spirituality, truly engages visitors. For this reason, getting there is easy: Cathay Pacific, Garuda Indonesia and Hong Kong Airlines provide direct, daily flights to and from Hong Kong.
Some 144 kilometres east to west, and 80 kilometres north to south, Bali’s diverse topology takes you from the active volcano Mount Agung in the east, all the way to the low plains of the south, and across the lush forests and stepped rice paddies of the island’s centre. The beaches of the north are mostly black sand, while the tourist beaches of the south are white, and the entire island is surrounded by coral reefs, making it perfect for diving and snorkelling.
If you’re in Bali simply to relax, swim and eat, stay in Nusa Dua, a secure, purpose-built tourist enclave at the island’s southern tip. The white-sand beaches are wonderful – long and safe for swimming – and water-sports activities abound. The ‘real’ Bali of rice fields and small villages is a good drive away but, should you feel like getting out and about, a boat trip to Serangan Island (Turtle Island) is a must. As the name suggests, Serangan is a turtle conservation area, and the glassbottomed boats allow for non-invasive observation of marine life.
Nusa Dua is home to many of Bali’s large, all-inclusive and family-friendly resorts but if you want some time away from the kids, check out Kayumanis Villas. This adult-only property is an oasis for couples wanting to relax in the privacy of their own private villa. Visit www.kayumanis.com.
With a few days to spare, if you’re seeking a little culture, head to Ubud, a charming village set in the cool mountains of southern central Bali. It represents everything that attracts people to the island, from the scenic rice fields and plunging valleys, to the thriving arts-and-crafts communities.
I like to stay at Alila Ubud. Visit www.alilahotels.com. Located on top of a gently terraced mountain, with magnificent views over the Ayung River Valley, this idyllic little getaway provides a peaceful atmosphere for those who want to escape and just relax. Who says Bali – or Indonesia for that matter – is all about the beach?
Flight Centre Hong Kong specialises in tailor-made travel experiences, the widest choice of airfares and unique products, and 24-hour emergency assistance. To book your getaway, call 2830 2776, visit www.flightcentre.com.hk or drop by the retail stores in Discovery Bay, Central, Happy Valley or Wanchai.