Exploring Belitung, the “Seychelles of Indonesia”

For more than a century, the Indonesian island of Belitung has been mined for its tin. But visitors to its boulder-strewn shores will soon discover a wealth of scenic splendor and just-caught seafood to boot—not to mention the comforts of a new five-star beach resort.

Photographs by Christopher P. Hill

Left to right: A view of the beach at Pulau Lengkuas from atop the island’s 19th-century lighthouse; a covered pathway leading to Sheraton Belitung’s Island Restaurant.

“It’s as beautiful as the Seychelles, but a lot more affordable,” says Frenchman Thierry Bratic as I follow his gaze along the empty beach toward a headland piled with smooth granite boulders. He’s not the first person to make the comparison with that distant Indian Ocean archipelago; Belitung, situated at the confluence of the South China and Java Seas, has worn the “Seychelles of Indonesia” epithet for a while now, especially since its starring role in the hit 2008 Indonesian film Laskar Pelangi (“Rainbow Troops”) propelled the island into the national consciousness. The water is indeed limpid, the sand pale and soft, and everywhere you look along this tantalizing stretch of coastline, huge weather-worn boulders stand in meditative arrangements that bring to mind an oversize Zen garden.

After an initial visit in 2018, Bratic and his Indonesian wife, Ani, were so enamored of Belitung’s scenic splendor and low-key charm that they decided to move here a year ago, recently opening a restaurant and boutique in Tanjung Pandan, the main town. While the Covid crisis has put a damper on business, the couple are optimistic the island’s emerging tourist scene will eventually get back on track. “I can’t think of a place I would rather be right now,” Bratic says. “There is so much potential here.”

I don’t have to look far to confirm this sentiment. Our conversation is taking place on the grounds of the island’s first five-star resort, the Sheraton Belitung, a low-slung 164-room property that soft-opened in September. Surrounded on three sides by a private forest reserve on Cape Kelayang, it’s a bellwether development for an island that only recently began courting international hospitality brands — a Fairfield by Marriott hotel opened in Tanjung Pandan in early 2018, followed less than a year later by the debut of a four-star Swiss-Belhotel resort on nearby Tanjung Binga Beach. With a spot on the Indonesian government’s “10 New Balis” tourism master plan as well as direct flights from Kuala Lumpur and a Singapore service in the works, Belitung, pre-Covid, seemed poised to become Indonesia’s next must-see beach destination.

There’s every reason to believe it will be again once the borders reopen. Roughly the size of Lombok — or six times that of Singapore — but with a fraction of the population, Belitung has natural beauty to spare, particularly along the northwest coast where most of the resorts are concentrated. The Sheraton itself sits back from a private 1.8-kilometer-long beach that looks out to a scattering of granite outcrops and islets, one of which, Pulau Lengkuas, is dominated by a 19th-century Dutch lighthouse. The sunsets are sublime. Forty minutes away on the outskirts of Tanjung Pandan, Lake Kaolin is pure Instagram bait — an abandoned kaolin (white clay) quarry filled with hallucinatory turquoise waters. And in the far south, a pair of massive granite monoliths called Batu Baginda rise from the jungle like prehistoric sentinels, begging to be climbed.

Left to right: A water feature at Sheraton Belitung; Batu Belayar, a rock formation off Cape Kelayang.

Yet it was another set of assets that drew early visitors here. Smugglers and pirates once took advantage of the island’s sheltered coves. Malay and Chinese traders bartered for ironwork. Stamford Raffles, who headed Britain’s brief occupation of the Dutch East Indies in the early 19th century, was enticed by Belitung’s strategic position on the sea route between Sumatra, Borneo, and Java, and deemed the island as good a candidate for permanent British settlement as Singapore. As for the Dutch colonizers, it was all about tin, a metal that had been extracted by Chinese miners (under the auspices of the Sultanate of Palembang) on neighboring Bangka since the mid-1700s. Belitung, too, proved to be rich in the stuff, and in 1860, a private Dutch mining company called Billiton Maatschappij (Billiton being the Dutch pronunciation of Belitung, also spelled Belitong) was granted a lease over the entire island.

“If one plunged his arm down into the shallow alluvial surface … it would emerge shimmering, smeared with tin,” writes Andrea Hirata in Laskar Pelangi, his best-selling autobiographical novel (upon which the aforementioned film was based) about growing up on the island in the 1970s. “Belitong beamed of shiny tin, like a lighthouse guiding ship captains.”

Hirata grew up in a poor village in tin-rich East Belitung at a time when the Dutch operations had long since been nationalized. His book — a bittersweet tale about perseverance, brotherhood, and the importance of education — chronicles the inequities of life on an island governed by the state-run mining company PN Timah, whose near-feudal grip on Belitung ended in the early 1990s following the collapse of global tin prices.

Bangka and Belitung, which broke off from South Sumatra to form their own province two decades ago, still account for a third of the world’s tin supply. But large-scale mining has ceased on Belitung. Today, the island is looking to diversify its economy through agricultural expansion, aquaculture, and — in no small part thanks to the enduring popularity of Laskar Pelangi, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages — tourism.

The opening of the Sheraton marks a major milestone in that direction. Nevertheless, I have the place pretty much to myself; only a few other beach-starved guests have braved the 60-minute flight from Jakarta. So, while I can’t comment on what the vibe will be like when it becomes fully operational in the months ahead, I can at least report that the owners’ commitment to a sustainable future for Belitung runs deep. The surrounding 365 hectares of forest have been set aside as a wilderness preserve, protecting an essential habitat for jelarang (Malayan giant squirrels) and an endemic species of tarsier. The resort has also established an off-site sea-turtle hatchery and is conducting mangrove surveys and research into dugong conservation.

Paved in local granite and fronted by an infinity pool, the A-frame lobby at the Sheraton Belitung looks across a kaolin pond to the resort’s beachfront restaurant and bar.

Sustainability is built into the design as well. Minimizing the carbon footprint of imported materials wherever possible, the developers have made good use of locally sourced bricks, granite, and the rattan-like stems of a woody plant called lenggadai, which cover the soaring A-frame ceiling of the Sheraton’s open-air lobby. Dozens of driftwood logs have been reshaped into dining tables. The spa utilised native botanicals such as pandan and peppercorn. And hidden out of site is a rainwater catchment and water treatment facility. The general manager tells me the resort is meant to serve as a model of resource efficiency for future development on the island, with conservation bona fides by way of an eco-certification from the Green Building Council Indonesia.

It’s also supremely comfortable. The guest rooms and suites occupy a series of two-story buildings arranged in an arc around vivid blue ponds sculpted from kaolin. Balconies and terraces sport freestanding black terrazzo bathtubs for those keen on an alfresco (if not entirely private) soak, while uncluttered interiors are accented by grass mats, woven bamboo fish traps, and antique porcelain plates recovered from a long-ago shipwreck. There’s also a pair of beach villas at the secluded north end of the property. They’re still under construction during my visit, but it doesn’t take much imagination to picture how fabulous they will be.

My unofficial guide during my stay is Fulgentius Leonard, a convivial young man hailing from Kalimantan who joined the marketing team at the Sheraton in August. After polishing off a lobster omelet at the resort’s glass-walled Island Restaurant, I meet him on the beach for an island-hopping tour in a local fishing boat. Our first stop is Pulau Lengkuas, where we clamber around on a jumble of boulders before tackling the 12 flights of spiraling, rust-flecked stairs to the top of the lighthouse, a cast-iron tower that was shipped over in pieces from the Netherlands in the 1880s. At 57 meters, it’s the tallest structure in Belitung, with untrammeled views in every direction. I attempt to channel Willem Dafoe’s grizzled lighthouse keeper in The Lighthouse — “Arr, Fulgentius, yer fond of me lobster, ain’t ye?” — but it’s hard to play cantankerous when you’re surrounded by so much tropical eye candy.

Left to right: The Dutch lighthouse at Pulau Lengkuas has stood on the island since 1882; the lighthouse’s current caretaker.

From there, we motor back in the direction of the cape for a snorkel. I don’t manage to spot any of the sea turtles or dolphins that Fulgentius says frequent these waters, but the shallow reef we stop at doesn’t disappoint. Finning down to the coral bed, I swim though clouds of flirty green chromis and past schools of yellow tangs, earning the rebuke of a particularly territorial triggerfish. Then it’s on to nearby Pulau Kelayang, a Jurassic-looking setting of creeping ficus roots and hulking boulders that form caves, tunnels, and hidden pools. Lunch awaits at an empty warung (food stall) on the shore, where one of the resort’s chefs is grilling a small mountain of seafood over coconut husks. I devour my second — and third! — lobster of the day while gazing across the water at a megalithic pile of granite called Batu Garuda, or “Eagle Rock,” so named because of its raptor-like profile.

The next day, Fulgentius drives me into Tanjung Pandan for a look around. “Belitung is a close-knit community, and there’s no crime,” he says as we zoom over a rainbow-painted bridge and past tidy tin-roofed homes. “People leave their houses and cars unlocked. It’s that kind of place.”

An orderly town with a handful of genteelly moldering Dutch-era buildings set around a central traffic circle, Tanjung Pandan is home to almost a third of the island’s 300,000-strong population. It’s friendly enough, though it’s not likely to register on the tourism radar any time soon. After parking the car, it takes us all of an hour to run through Fulgentius’s check list: the clocktowered former headquarters of Billiton Maatschappij, now a bookstore; the famous (if overrated) shrimp-broth noodles at Mie Belitung Atép; the cloth-filtered coffee at Kopi Kong Djie, run by the same family since the 1940s; and the ballroom of the Billiton Hotel for a peek at the oldest Chinese shrine on the island. The ancestral altar of a 19th-century coolie trader and opium farmer named Ho A. Joen, it’s a relic of a time when Belitung’s mines were worked by thousands of laborers recruited from southern China by way of Singapore and later Hong Kong. Most returned home when their contracts expired, but some chose to settle. Today, about 12 percent of the island’s inhabitants are of Chinese — primarily Hakka — ancestry.

Seafood lumpia (spring rolls) at the Sheraton’s Island Restaurant.

Fulgentius also takes me to a shop selling batu satam: jet-black “stones” about the size of a small walnut. Known to science as tektites, they’re actually spheroids of once-molten glass ejected from the crater of an ancient meteor strike. Early tin miners unearthed so much of the material here that the Dutch gave it another name: billitonite. (One Dutch geologist who was living in Java at the time of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa speculated that the curious orbs had fallen from the moon.) Today, they’re sold as charms, jewelry, and meditation stones.

Back at the resort, I join an eco-printing workshop at the on-site boutique. This is where I first meet Thierry and Ani, who own the shop and also help organize the Sheraton’s watersports activities. Eco-printing is a natural dyeing technique that coaxes the natural pigments from plants with heat, and Ani designs a range of linen tunics, pareos, and pillowcases that bear the process’s unique botanical stamp. My own efforts amount to a haphazard arrangement of leaves and flowers on a scarf-size strip of cotton, which I’m then instructed to press, line with cling wrap, and roll into a tight bundle, ready for Ani’s steamer.

I may be responsible for the saddest-looking piece of fabric to come out of that shop, but at least I get a dinner invitation out of it. The couple bills their place, Le Jardin, as the first French restaurant in Belitung; for all I know, it’s the only standalone Western restaurant of any description on the island, not counting the inevitable KFC and A&W outlets. For Belitung, it just might herald a gastronomic watershed moment.

Of course, there’s good food at the Sheraton, especially the seafood, which the chefs buy direct from local fishermen on the beach each morning. (The kitchen’s take on Belitung’s sweet-spicy fish soup, sup gangan, is divine.) But if you’re feeling carnivorous, the 30-minute drive to Le Jardin is well worth it. With a sand-floored alfresco dining area punctuated by umbrellaed tables and a bossa nova soundtrack, the restaurant wouldn’t be out of place in Bali. And the meat is terrific. Thierry orders me a mixed grill of perfectly seared Australian rib eye, lamb chops, and New Zealand tenderloin accompanied by pommes frites and a trio of housemade sauces: béchamel, foraged mushroom, Belitung pepper. Though this leaves me with no room for dessert, my host insists that I try his île flottante, or “floating island” — a dollop of meringue afloat in a sea of custard.

Light as air, it’s an appropriate finale to my stay on the island, and by the time I board my plane back to Jakarta the next morning, I know that I, too, have fallen for Belitung.

 

The Details

Several domestic airlines maintain daily flights between Jakarta and Tanjung Pandan’s H.A.S. Hanandjoeddin International Airport, including Garuda Indonesia’s low-cost arm Citilink. AirAsia’s Kuala Lumpur–Belitung service is currently on hold due to the pandemic but is expected to resume next year, as are discussions with Jetstar about a direct service from Singapore.

Nightly rates at the Sheraton Belitung Resort (62-719/800-0999) currently start from about US$70, so it’s well worth paying extra for an ocean-view room or suite.

Thierry Bratic’s Le Jardin (62-811/710-0260) restaurant is located across from the Fairfield by Marriott in Tanjung Pandan.

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Out of the Blue”).

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