The paradox of writing about hidden gems is that by drawing attention to the gem, you take away its hiddenness. But I can describe Pulau Macan, also known as Tiger Island, with a clear conscience, confident that the values and vision of the resort can withstand anything a little publicity may bring. Those values — environmentalism, mindfulness and cooperative living — will stay intact despite the increased attention from tourists.
Today, it takes some digging to discover Pulau Macan, one of the 110 terrestrial oases that make up the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) north of Jakarta — but that could change in the future. I found Pulau Macan by happenstance, seeking an alternative when a visit the Gili Islands turned out to be too expensive for a weekend trip. But what began as a budget-conscious consolation prize proved to be a first-rate vacation all its own.
A Good Start
The Pulau Macan experience began before we even left Jakarta. Gathered in the morning heat at Ancol Marina, we were greeted by a waiting speedboat and a smiling host who issued Dramamine to the seasick-prone. Eighty-three kilometers separate Pulau Macan from Jakarta, a distance that takes anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours to navigate, depending on ocean conditions and the boat.
Our trip out was speedy and smooth, though the return, on a much smaller boat, was quite bumpy.
Rough seas notwithstanding, the boat trip can be just as enjoyable as island time, the trash-strewn waters of Jakarta turning to infinite ocean, which suddenly lightens from indigo to azure as emerald islands appear on the horizon.
Once we docked at Pulau Macan, it didn’t take long before the island started to feel like home. A quick tour gave the lay of the land: a central clubhouse plus eight cabins. Each stand-alone structure had a private bathroom, except the red brick and “eco” cabins, which accommodate two parties apiece. Every choice has its unique charms and quirks, so those heading out should describe their needs, whether it be romance, something family-friendly or protection from mosquitoes.
Sleeping accommodations are comfortable across the board, though I’d advise turning in on the early side, since the mornings bring dazzling sunlight along with rooster crows, songbird trills and the noisy activities of early-rising guests.
Dive Right In
With a tropical playground to explore, I made sure to be well-rested. The primary island pursuit is snorkeling. Pulau Macan supplies masks, flippers and water booties, so there was no excuse not to give it a try. With masks strapped on, we waded out into the sun-warmed water (Beware the small beige fish near shore — they bite! Painless but a bit startling), and let ourselves tune out everything above sea level.
Underwater, white sand peaks stretched out everywhere before the monochrome landscape ended, replaced by blossoms of coral and explosions of sea urchins, swarming with fish and other creatures, some colorful and some camouflaged, indistinguishable from their backdrop. It was thrilling to see a lump of sand suddenly become a living creature.
Staying close to the island provides a wonderful snorkeling experience. But, feeling more adventurous, we decided to swim out until the crystal shallows dropped off into dark blue depths. These ridges, with massive islands of coral marking the underwater cliff, provided an endless supply of sea life to witness.
Following the curve of the ridge away from the island, we soon reached The Deserted Island, an undeveloped sanctuary owned by the resort, which offered solitude, quiet and exquisitely exhaust-free air.
Wanderlust unsatisfied, we each hopped on a paddleboard, or piled into the charmingly dilapidated wooden rowboat, and headed out into the open sea for some island-hopping.
Back on the Island
We found land activities to be available, but limited. The clubhouse provides board games and a billiard table (there is only one stick, so be ready to share), plus there was a beach volleyball net and an on-site masseuse.
The masseuse, perched by his spa hut at all hours awaiting customers, is perhaps the least discovered aspect of a largely undiscovered island. For only Rp 150,000 ($16) for an hourlong massage in an idyllic stilted hut overlooking sparkling ocean, I couldn’t fathom that only two guests, myself included, signed up for the service. Of course, that could have been related to our host’s description of the masseuse during the tour: “He’s rather blind, rather deaf and tends to be quite rough.” I did find the massage a bit on the forceful side, but that was an invigorating juxtaposition to the storybook tranquility of the setting. And if I wanted less intensity, I only had to touch his hand and he lightened up.
With all that relaxing, I worked up an appetite, easily sated by Pulau Macan’s all-you-can-eat dining program. Expect seasonal fruit at breakfast, and a wide selection, including vegetarian-friendly options, at lunch and dinner, plus platters of hors d’oeuvres that materialize on the sundeck each evening near twilight.
Adult beverages cost extra, but the prices beat most Jakarta bars — Rp 30,000 for a beer, Rp 60,000 for a cocktail — and you also have the option to bring your own alcohol for a nominal corkage fee. Though the bar closes at midnight, you can sit out on the deck sipping drinks with new friends as long as you’d like, just keep track of your tab (the honor system is taken seriously here).
Perhaps the best part of meals at Pulau Macan was their communal aspect. You can request to eat apart from the group, but I recommend taking full advantage of this excuse for companionship. It’s an invaluable opportunity to meet people you might never have encountered otherwise, people from wide-ranging cultural, geographic and educational backgrounds, people with rich stories and open minds. At minimum, these communal meals allow you to witness the myriad paths a human life can take, and at best, you might meet someone whose friendship weathers the bumpy trip back to Java and becomes a mainland ally.
Back to Basics
Pulau Macan is not a luxury resort, but it doesn’t pretend to be. In fact, it’s the quirks — the hole-ridden water shoes, the tied-together snorkeling masks, the uneven rowboat oars — that create its comfort. Pretense yields to authenticity, conveniences give way to community, and you find yourself luxuriating in the modesty of an unheated shower, grateful that your BlackBerry’s reception is too spotty to be useful. There is a simplicity that most of us long ago drowned out with the noise of modern life.
It’s because of this pared-down approach that the trappings of the resort recede and the larger ideas — the ones so big they easily blend into the background — return. Sitting on the dock after dinner, looking out into the black ocean and blacker sky, we let our eyes pick out more and more stars. The stars, the marine life and the unfamiliar sense of peace allowed us to just be for a moment: These are the fruits of patience, a patience that’s nearly extinct in bustling cities, but a patience that can not only be restored, but can be found thriving in places like Pulau Macan.