Famed for its lush landscapes and World Heritage monuments, central Java offers plenty of diversions for naturalists and hedonists alike, says Natasha Dragun.
Bali may be Indonesia’s top resort isle, but when it comes to cultural attractions, Java – the central region in particular – holds all the trumps. Dominated by rice fields and volcanic peaks, the region has a landscape as rich as its history. Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim empires all made their mark here before the Dutch moved in during the 17th century, leaving behind some of the archipelago’s most enduring monuments and attractions. Here’s the inside track on what to do and where to stay in the heart of Java.
WHAT TO DO
Take a City Break
Although many of central Java’s attractions are spread across the countryside, they’re all easily accessible by car from major cities. Yogyakarta makes one of the most interesting bases. The capital of the Republic of Indonesia from 1946 until 1950, Yogyakarta has long been regarded as a cradle for traditional Indonesian culture. Today the city also seethes with a youthful energy, evident in eye-catching street art, hip galleries and museums, and stylish boutique accommodation. The heart and soul of the city is the kraton, or Sultan’s palace, located in the centre of town and responsible for nurturing the development of a thriving arts scene – everything from batik and ballet to drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. Opposite the kraton, Jogja Gallery gives you a glimpse of modern Javanese art, with exhibitions showcasing Indonesia’s hottest up-and-coming artists. Although slightly out of town, the Tembi Contemporary art gallery is worth stopping at for its cutting-edge exhibitions; it’s opposite a small guesthouse, useful if you don’t want to drive back into town. Jogja Gallery is at Jl. Pekapalan 7, Alun-Alun Utara; www.jogja-gallery.com . Tembi Contemporary is at Jl. Parangtritis KM 8.5, Bantul; www.tembicontemporary.com .
Tour Borobudur at Sunrise
About 40 kilometres out of Yogyakarta, Borobudur attracts tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year, making it Indonesia’s most visited site. The world’s largest Buddhist monument, and a World Heritage Site, Borobudur has a surreal setting atop a small plateau surrounded by jungle and flanked by a pair of active volcanoes. The monument itself dates back to the 9th century, and comprises six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, each adorned with intricate bas reliefs (some 2,672 in total) and more than 500 Buddha statues.
Escape the crowds and visit the site at dawn when the rising sun lifts the mist off the jungle and casts the monument and surrounding mountains in a fiery orange glow. See “Manohara Resort Hotel” further along this article for more.
Climb Mount Merapi
It may be Indonesia’s most active volcano, having erupted 68 times since 1548, but Mount Merapi still manages to attract curious tourists with its lava lakes and sulphuric smoke. From the base-camp town of Selo, tour operators organise guided treks up the mountain, departing around 3am and getting you near the summit in time to watch the sunrise.
For those wishing to get hot under the collar, a number of agents offer trips to check out Merapi’s lava stream. And for a more distant though no less appealing view of the volcano, make a beeline for the Merapi Golf Course , set 800 metres above sea level and enveloped by palm trees and blossoming bougainvillea.
The region’s other World Heritage Site, Prambanan offers a taste of Java’s Hindu traditions. A series of massive temples dating back to the 10th century, Prambanan sustained significant damage in an earthquake in 2006. A portion of the entrance fee goes towards restoring the damaged temples, but the repair work has been slow, and some of the majestic towers remain closed to visitors. Still, it’s easy to spend an hour wandering among the monuments that remain, and if you time your visit right, your tour can end at the park’s open-air theatre, where ballet performances of the Ramayana (an ancient Hindu epic) take place during a full moon between May and October.
WHERE TO STAY
This stunning 34-villa resort is by far the most luxurious accommodation in the Borobudur area. Set amongst verdant rice terraces and palm trees, the resort takes its design cues from the Buddhist monument it overlooks, with circular limestone buildings, soaring bell-shaped rotundas, and an amphitheatre-style pool offering breathtaking views over the Kedu Plain.
The suites feature four-poster beds, terrazzo floors, and furniture hand-carved from coconut wood. All rooms have a private garden terrace, and some have individual plunge pools. Don’t miss out on sunset drinks in the Rotunda Bar, followed by a semi-alfresco meal overlooking jade-green paddy fields to Borobudur and the distant peaks of Merapi and Merbabu.
The Amanjiwo address is simply Borobudur, Magelang. Call (62-293) 788-333 or visit www.amanresorts.com .
Hyatt Regency Yogyakarta
On the outskirts of Yogyakarta, the Hyatt Regency, too, takes architectural inspiration from Borobudur – its 269 rooms are set in tiered ashen blocks, and some come with domed roofs and stone carvings. While the rooms are modern and comfortable, the real allure is the hotel’s 24 hectares of lush, landscaped gardens set adjacent to a popular nine-hole golf course. Pull up a perch by the lagoon-style pool and enjoy vistas of Mount Merapi in the distance. Jl. Palagan Tentara Pelajar, Yogyakarta. Call (62-274) 869-123 or visit www.yogyakarta.regency.hyatt.com .
Manohara Resort Hotel
It may not be the fanciest hotel in the area, but the Manohara scores points for its location – it’s the only lodging on the actual grounds of Borobudur, less than 200 metres from its historical Buddhist monument. Be sure to sign up for the hotel’s Sunrise Tour, which is not a tour at all, but merely gets you access to the grounds before the gates officially open to the public. For about US$15 you receive a torch and the privilege of being one of only a handful of people allowed to climb the monument as the sun rises. When you’re done exploring, which should be about the same time as the crowds arrive, wander back to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the gardens.
For more information visit www.borobudurpark.co.id .
Losari Coffee Plantation Resort & Spa
A ninety-minute drive north of Yogyakarta, the Losari Coffee Plantation Resort & Spa is one of central Java’s hidden gems. Set on the grounds of a coffee plantation that was active during Dutch colonial times, the beautiful resort features 24 villas nestled amid rolling orchards of palm and papaya.
As hard as it may be to leave your villa – designed with teak beds, sunken marble tubs, and private verandahs – the resort has an enticing array of diversions. Take a plantation tour, enjoy a spot of mountain biking, or bliss out at the resort’s indulgent spa. Afternoon tea can be taken in the old planters’ mansion, dating back to 1828, but don’t miss out on a meal at Java Red restaurant, where inspired Indonesian and Western dishes are made using fresh, organic vegetables grown onsite. When you check out, be sure to pick up a bag or two of the plantation’s organic robusta coffee beans.
Magelang, Central Java. Call (62-298) 596-333 or visit www.losari.info .
Like this? Read more at our travel section.