Of all the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, Java is king. It may not have the beaches of Bali, the jungles of Kalimantan, or the remoteness of Papua, but it’s the heart of the country, a heart with more drive and energy than any other island in this vast archipelago. With 120 million people crammed into an area half the size of Great Britain, Java is one populated place. And with such unfathomable human resources, it’s no wonder that the nation’s political and economic past, present and future are decided within its shores. For many, Indonesia quite simply begins and ends with Java.
Jakarta, the capital, is a colossal metropolis with all the problems of a city vastly overstretched; it won’t grab your attention for long unless you’re a mad shopper or über-urbanite. But the rest of the island has offerings that shouldn’t be ignored. A string of volcanoes lace the island like fiery rubies. Some are docile giants, while others blow their top at the drop of a Javanese fez; Gunung Bromo is a must for any visitor. Pounding the southern coast is the Indian Ocean; a magical sight, but it can be dangerous for swimming. There are, however, some fine beach enclaves, such as Pangandaran, Java’s premier beach resort, and world-class surf breaks at Ujung Kulon and Alas Purwo National Parks. Java’s calmer northern side hides less-developed tropical islands. Inspired by such natural beauty, and influenced by Hindu-Buddhist, Muslim and Western invaders, the Javanese have over the centuries created temples and kraton (palaces) of unique splendour. The Buddhist temple Borobudur is an architectural wonder and some of the oldest Hindu temples in Java can be found in the lofty Dieng Plateau. Cultural Yogyakarta and Solo are perfect places to sample Javanese art.
If Jakarta is Java’s financial and industrial powerhouse, Yogyakarta is its soul. Central to the island’s artistic and intellectual heritage, Yogyakarta (pronounced ‘Jogjakarta’ and called Yogya for short), is where the Javanese language is at its purest, Java’s arts at their brightest and its traditions at their most visible.
The dazzling offshore archipelago of Karimunjawa, a marine national park, consists of 27 coral-fringed islands that lie about 90km north of Jepara. The white-sand beaches are sublime, swimming is wonderful and the pace of life as relaxed as a destination defined by coconut palms and turquoise seas should be.