Happy isles of Batavia

Locals dine at Eat N Eat on Bangka Island.
Locals dine at Eat N Eat on Bangka Island.
Candy-coloured houses are typical in the villages of Belitung.

Candy-coloured houses are typical in the villages of Belitung.

There's more to Indonesian beach holidaying than Bali. The archipelago includes an array of undiscovered island gems. Julietta Jameson visits three of them.

"The current architectural fashion in Jakarta is 'Mediterranean'," says our driver as we pass by one of the many new luxury apartment developments in Indonesia's capital.

I keep judgmentally quiet, thinking he actually means "Italianate", and not in a good way but in a gaudy, McMansion way. And once we reach our destination, Ancol Marina, I no longer know what to think. Not even the nouveau riche of 1980s San Souci would have attempted such monstrosities as that which we see there.

Ancol Marina is still a traditional fishing port, but also a dock for ostentatious pleasure craft, ferries and the site of a fun park. It's also the place where, on the water's edge, the ultra-wealthy are building gargantuan houses taking advantage of uninterrupted views of the Java Sea.

On the day we pass through the marina, someone is in the advanced stages of constructing what appears to be a mini (but by no means small) St Peter's Cathedral - as in the one in Rome - complete with huge domes with gold statues of Christian saints on top of them.

It's aspirational gone mad, which is much like a lot of Jakarta. The capital of a nation rising fast on the back of manufacturing and palm oil is embracing progress and flashy shows of wealth. But they sit side by side with abject poverty and filth. It's a confronting conundrum, the modern Jakarta.

It's one for another time, however, because like those gaudy mansions facing out to sea, we are turning our backs on all that, heading for a holiday on a series of Indonesian islands that reverse the clock on development and Westernisation.

That's the thing about Indonesia: outside Jakarta, Bali and even Lombok, there is off-the-beaten-track adventure, authentic cultural experiences and get-away-from-it-all idylls.

Of course, there are plenty of beaten tracks in Indonesia. But there are still holiday places where only the Indonesians go and which are largely undiscovered by international tourism - and it doesn't necessarily take venturing far from the McMansions to find it.

We are doing an island hop, jumping out of the capital to visit three little holiday gems where the busy, stressed people of Jakarta go for their own getaways.

Our first stop is Kotok Island, only a 90-minute boat ride north from Ancol Marina. We leave the grotesque houses behind, push into the Java Sea, pass through the slick of floating litter, and then the flotilla of colourful nelayan, as the traditional port fishermen are called.

The smoggy city falls out of view and we're into a serene stretch of sea that, after an hour or so, becomes dotted with tiny verdant islands. These are what is called the Thousand Islands group (there are actually 110-138 of them, the exact number depending on who you ask) and, like us, the people of Jakarta use the islands for escapes, the inner ones for day trips, the outer for weekend breaks.

Our destination is one of the outer islands. Kotok is small, only about 40 hectares, most of which is owned by a lovely man named George, who was once a fisherman, then bought some land here, bought some more and created a simple, rustic retreat.

He has a series of cabins on the island but it's hard to tell how many, as several are in disrepair. He has enough for the 10 or so guests we see during our stay (and five of us are one to a cabin).

There is nothing to do here but swim in clean waters, snorkel about or dive in some OK coral and pretty marine life, laze on a little white-sand cove with a book and a Bin Tang beer; if lucky, nab one of the two hammocks strung under shady trees on the beach, or walk the paths that wind through the jungle and link the huts to reception and the dining area.

Simple meals of locally caught fish and kotok (chicken; a small endemic species provides the chef with endless curry variations) and of course rice are dished up in summer camp style: three sittings of buffet served at set times.

There is nothing fancier to drink than beer. But sitting on the pier watching the sun go down, nothing is more appropriate.

The receptionist, Linda, sums Kotok up perfectly: "Every day I wake up and thank the sun and sea for making me so happy," she says sincerely.

Kotok is unadorned simplicity, uncrowded, quiet, beautiful. And it is not for the prissy. Showers are outdoors and cold only, rooms are basic and insect repellent is a must. There is no internet, though great phone coverage.

But it is cheap, feels remote even though it's not and, for those doing extended business in Jakarta or heading there for its incredible-value shopping, it should be a consideration for a change of pace and chill-out.

We venture back to Java on one of George's shipshape tenders to catch a flight to our next destination, the island of Belitung, just east of Sumatra. Belitung gets its name from the mining company Billiton, the remnants of whose past tin-mining scar a good deal of the island's interior.

A more modern blight, palm oil plantations, add to pockets of unpleasantness, but like Jakarta's McMansions, the whole point of Belitung, for tourists anyway, is the outward-looking aspect.

Belitung sees few non-Indonesians. So, particularly for Western women, there are curious stares. But, also, the tall blond male in our group is the subject of many photo shoots with dazzled Indonesians of both genders.

Lonely Planet hasn't even written about Belitung yet. It will soon - the one other group of Westerners we meet there are Australians who live in Bali and escape to Belitung for their holidays and plan to build villas there. Hotels are already going up at a rate of knots.

This is because there are white-sand beaches on Belitung, and some spectacular messing about on boats to be done.

Not far from our hotel is a series of boat sheds/warungs owned by people who, for little more than $50, take small groups out for the day, visiting uninhabited islands for picnicking, swimming, sunbaking and relaxation.

On the day we head out, with a man named Rusty (it's pronounced "Roosty" in his neck of the woods), we are the only Westerners.

There are other boats about, but they are all hired by friendly, happy Indonesians.

The waters off our part of Belitung are dotted not only with sandy islands, but also with enormous granite boulders, pale and smooth, like scenery from a 1960s space sci-fi movie.

Tanjung Tinggi beach on Belitung proper is home to a beautiful array of these granite formations, unfortunately graffiti-marked in parts and littered in others.

But a much-loved 2008 Indonesian-made movie that featured them as a backdrop has brought many Indonesians to the site, and as stunning as the nature is, the festive beachside picnic atmosphere is also captivating.

For a change of pace, Belitung's capital, Tanjung Pandan, is a buzzing Indonesian town worth exploring for typical local shopping and food options. Here our group is in agreement that a humble Chinese restaurant we stumble upon, Mutiara, serves the best - and cheapest - crab dinner of our lives.

Our third and final island, Bangka, is the biggest of the three, just east of Belitung and, for us at least, the most culturally interesting.

Our beach resort is, however, a disappointment. Its bungalows have seen better days, rancid smells waft from drains, and hordes of day visitors crowd the pool and beach. There is also loud karaoke until 11pm. However, there are other options, including homestays in the beautiful little villages of candy-coloured houses that punctuate an interior settled in large part by Chinese brought here by the Dutch colonists as labour and now turned market gardeners.

There are also other coastal resorts and stays. Thorough research is recommended.

There is fabulous food at night hawker markets (Eat N Eat at Sungai Liat is brilliant), curious Chinese temples among a diverse religious life, rickety wood houses where the older generations continue their traditional way of life, and thriving towns full of jeans-wearing youth.

Driving is easy and the scenery ever-changing. But above all, there are the people: friendly, curious, smiling and helpful.

Though there are cultural differences that do make travelling in off-the-beaten-track Indonesia at times confronting and frustrating, it's the smiles and giggles from children, the tooting of horns from the young girls on motorbikes - the welcome - that makes it captivating and memorable.

It's not busy Jakarta. It's not even Bali - that's the point. These islands are fresh, unique and undeveloped. More adventurous travellers might want to see them while they are still like that.

The writer travelled as a guest of the Visit Indonesia Tourism Office.

Three more to consider

The Indonesian archipelago is home to more than 17,000 islands, of which 6000 are inhabited. And to think: tourists gather in but a handful of them. Here are three other out-of-the-way Indonesian island options.

1 Flores Flores is part of the province of Nusa Tenggara, in the south of Indonesia. Highlights include the beautiful crater lakes of Kelimutu, amazing sandy beaches and satellite islands that attract avid snorkellers.

2 Nias Australian surfers know Nias. The island to the west of Sumatra is home to the Indonesian Open Championship of surfing at Lagundri beach. There's great diving off its shores, too. Just be aware: like Aceh, Nias is a fiercely independent part of Indonesia and has resisted Western influence staunchly. That means, of course, that culturally, it's a rich, unusual and vibrant place to visit.

3 Komodo The island is a natural habitat for the largest lizard on earth and a great place for nature lovers. There is terrific diving off the coast, an unusual pink-sand beach and a fascinating cultural experience among the island's human inhabitants.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Jakarta. qantas.com.

From Jakarta there are several airlines that fly domestically to Belitung and Bangka. Motorised boat transfers are included in the cost of accommodation on Kotok Island.

Staying there

Kotok Island (Pulau Kotok): Alam Kotok Island Resort, Thousand Islands. Room prices dependent on season. +62 21 530 5442;alamkotok.co.id.

Belitung Island (Pulau Belitung): Lor In Hotel & Resort, Desa Tanjung Tinggi, Belitung. Rooms from about $90, including tax. +62 0719 24 100; lorinhotel.com/belitung.

Bangka Island (Pulau Bangka): We stayed at the Grand Parai Pool Villas Resort & Spa. However, we don't recommend it.

More information

This story Happy isles of Batavia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.