Located about 90km off the north coast of Central Java, the Karimunjawa Islands is one of those places that is amazing to visit, yet has few visitors. During non-peak times it is possible to go a full day without seeing another foreigner and this is probably due to the fact that it require visitors to Java to deviate from the normal route through the island which generally goes Jakarta, Bandung,Yogyakarta, Bromo, Bali. But changing up that standard itinerary really allows you to access some amazing places such as these islands.
The main island is large for a remote outpost in the middle of the ocean, measuring about 25km long and 10km wide, with much of the southern section covered in jungle. Sandwiched between the jungle and the southern tip is the island’s main town called Karimunjawa. This is where the vast majority of visitors stay, although it is possible to stay in a floating hotel in the middle of the ocean and at a high-end resort on one of the far flung islands.
The main form of accommodation in Karimunjawa is the homestay, where you are set up in a room in a family’s house and can elect to either eat meals with them or purchase them yourself at one of the local warungs. The bathroom is shared in these homestays, of course, but all of them we inspected were clean and often reserved solely for guests, meaning you may be the only user of it anyway.
The main activities around these parts are snorkelling, diving and cruising around on a motorbike to explore the innumerable deserted white-sand beaches. Snorkelling is usually done by either arranging a boat through your guesthouse or heading down to the dock to find a local fisherman willing to take you out. The going rate is 300,000 rupiah for a five-hour boat ride to the outlying islands of your choice plus 30,000 rupiah per person for snorkelling gear. A variety of dive shops in town offer countless different options for diving on the nearby reefs. On our snorkelling trip we were a little disappointed by the coral bleaching which is underway across vast tracts of the reefs.
Because the main island is so large, a great way to explore is by motorbike, which costs 75,000 rupiah per day to hire — more than you’d pay on the mainland, but worth every single rupiah as the far flung areas of the island have some spectacular beaches. The road is paved all the way to the north of the island, but most of the beaches are down the end of dirt tracks which are signposted but still easy to miss.
Our favourite of these beaches is Tanjung Gelam, a mere five kilometres from Karimunjawa town. Around Pantai Barakuda is a turtle conservation centre where you can observe staff going about their chores such as scrubbing baby turtles in order to remove slime. It’s fascinating stuff.
Getting to Karimunjawa requires a ferry ride from the port town of Jepara, 2 hours by bus from Semarang. All but the cheapest of cheap will elect to take the fast ferry which only takes 1 hour 45 minutes and costs 69,000 rupiah. It departs Jepara on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. If you really must take the slow ferry, it takes six hours and departs Jepara on Saturday, Wednesay and Monday. Neither of these ferries depart if the weather is bad, so it is possible to get stuck on the island or in Jepara should you be unlucky.
Until recently another ferry, the Kartini, travelled from Semarang to Karimunjawa then back to Jepara and generally had a mixed schedule that is hard to decipher. Needless to say, it had stopped running when we conducted our research due to mechanical issues and no one could say whether it would be up and running again. Still, even if it is running, the journey from Semarang on this vessel is not easy to arrange and requires you to head down to the port to buy a ticket.
So is it worth the journey to get to the Karimunjawa Islands? It all depends on what your definition of paradise is. Does this look like the sort of place you’d want to visit?