The Hidden Charms of Java’s Wild East

A land of soaring volcanoes, lush landscapes, and epic surf breaks, Banyuwangi may not have the drawing power of neighboring Bali, but it lacks for nothing when it comes to raw beauty and creature comforts.

Photographs by Martin Westlake

Left to right: A surf guide from Jawa Jiwa G-Land on the shores of Grajagan Bay; a view to Mount Ijen in the highlands of Banyuwangi.

Sparks danced from the driftwood fire into the sultry evening air. Beer in hand, I gazed across the water toward a long line of breaking waves, beyond which Grajagan Bay’s western headlands were darkening under a cirrus-streaked sky tinged pink by the setting sun. “Magical, isn’t it?” said Chris Byrne, poking at the fire with a stick.

As remote as it is picturesque, Grajagan might be unfamiliar to most non-Indonesians. But ask any serious surfer about G- Land, as the bay’s eastern fringe is known in board-riding circles, and they’ll likely be able to point you straight here to Plengkung Beach, in the wilds of East Java. Like the ancient forests of Alas Purwo that rose behind us, G-Land is a thing of legend.

From April to October, Indian Ocean swells peel around Grajagan’s southeastern point to create one of the world’s longest and most challenging reef breaks. As Byrne, an Australian former pro surfer who now runs a surf school in Bali, described it, “You get these perfect left-hand barrels that tear over the reef. If the gods are smiling and the different sections of the break line up, you can get a wave that’s two kilometers long.” Shaking his head, he added, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

And that would include me. No surfer, I had come here with photographer Martin Westlake on the final leg of a weeklong exploration of Banyuwangi, a region that has emerged over the last decade as Java’s go-to nature and adventure destination. Plengkung may be best known as a surfing beach, but it’s also home to Jawa Jiwa G-Land, a new glamping retreat that I was keen to check out. Byrne, the property’s non-resident surf instructor, had arrived just hours before us, driving over from Bali (via the ferry crossing at Gilimanuk) with a couple of clients in tow. Over the crackle of the fire, he recounted how G-Land was “discovered” in 1972 by a Californian surfer who spotted the break on a flight from Jakarta to Bali. Within a few years the first surf camp had opened. The rest, as they say, is history. But even all these decades later, this untamed shore at the edge of one of Java’s last remaining jungles provokes a palpable sense of discovery.

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Cast your eyes across a map of Java, and you’ll find Banyuwangi at its easternmost corner, so close to Bali’s Prapat Agung Peninsula that the two islands seem to touch — as indeed they once did before sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. Stretching for some 100 kilometers along the strait that separates it from its more famous neighbor, Banyuwangi is the largest regency (or provincial subdivision) in East Java, a vast patchwork of fields, plantations, villages, and forests that stretches inland to the volcanic highlands of the Ijen Plateau. It is here, where the first rays of dawn touch Java, that local legend says the world rose from the sea. This is also where the island’s last Hindu kingdom survived until colonial times, with traces of that earlier culture still evident in the traditions of Banyuwangi’s original inhabitants, the Osing people.

With its volcanoes, hidden beaches, surf breaks, and a fertile landscape in every shade of green, the region has plenty going for it — a fact not lost on Abdullah Azwar Anas, who recently completed his second five-year term as Banyuwangi’s bupati, or chief administrator. Just 37 years old when he assumed office in 2010, Anas is largely credited with putting his regency on the tourist map. One of his first priorities was a new airport, for which he hired renowned Indonesian architect Andra Matin to build the country’s first sustainably designed airport terminal. A profusion of new festivals and events followed. Among them is the Tour de Ijen, an international cycling race that takes in the steep mountain roads leading to the Kawah Ijen crater, whose turquoise sulfur lake is Banyuwangi’s marquee attraction. Hotels have multiplied accordingly, as have tourist numbers, soaring from about 500,000 annually a decade ago to a pre-Covid high of some five million.

The seaside swimming pool at Dialoog Banyuwangi, which overlooks the Bali Strait.

“I am from Bali, but I hadn’t even heard of Banyuwangi for the longest time,” I Putu Agus Susenayasa, the general manager of Dialoog Banyuwangi, told me over coffee at the hotel’s breezy Casabanyu restaurant. “But it’s changing fast. This isn’t just a backpacker stop anymore.”

Dialoog, which opened in 2018 above a black-sand beach to the north of the regency’s main city (also called Banyuwangi), is a sign of the times. Developed by the folks behind Bali’s Alila resorts, the 116-room property comprises a trio of clean-lined buildings fronted by an expansive palm-studded lawn that unfurls down to a seaside swimming pool and bar. The guest quarters are a study in simple sophistication, with daybeds on their balconies and a soothing neutral palette accented by carved Osing-style headboards and swatches of local batik. The ocean-facing rooms and suites are the ones to book, as the hotel’s ace in the hole is its view of the Bali Strait and the mountains of northwestern Bali beyond. You can begin your day watching the sunrise from your bed.

Hot-stone massages and spice-infused body wraps are available at the small spa, while the well-executed menu at Casabanyu ranges from Italianish (pizza, pasta, eggplant piccata) to elevated renditions of Banyuwangi specialties like ayam kesrut and pecel pitik. They also make a mean mango sorbet.

Left to right: Dialoog’s Casabanyu Restaurant, whose menu includes local specialties like ayam kesrut, a tangy chicken soup made with tomatoes and belimbing sayur.

Left to right: The clean-lined buildings at Dialoog Banyuwangi rise above a palm-studded lawn; the same hotel’s restaurant manager.

Left to right: Raw krupuk crackers at the old market in Banyuwangi; Osing-style headboards adorn the rooms at Dialoog.

This being a weekday in the midst of a pandemic, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The few guests I did meet had either flown in, like us, from Jakarta, or driven down from elsewhere in East Java. Understandably, they were content to stick to their rooms or lounge around the pool. Martin and I, however, were keen to explore our surrounds. Among the outings offered by the hotel were half-day jeep safaris to the grasslands of Baluran National Park (in the adjacent regency of Situbondo) and picnic lunches at a local coffee plantation. I opted for a boat ride to an empty little island at the head of the Bali Strait, where, after snorkeling around a meager patch of coral, our visit was cut short by a torrential downpour. We arrived back at Dialoog an hour later, still dripping.

The skies were clear the next day when we ventured into town on our own. Home to just over 100,000 people, Banyuwangi is a clean and orderly city, though one with little in the way of sights apart from a lively old market street and the leafy grounds of the Pendopo Sabha Swagata Blambangan, the official residence of the regency’s bupati since the late 18th century. But we did enjoy an unexpectedly good lunch of fish and chips at the Banyuwangi International Yacht Club. Despite its posh name, this recent addition to the Boom Beach marina area is a cheery affair filled with nautical bric-a-brac and funky murals. And though our table on the terrace overlooked berths that were conspicuously bare of yachts, the club’s chatty Italian manager was upbeat about their post-pandemic prospects. He implored us to revisit when things returned to normal, sealing the deal with complimentary shots of housemade coffee liqueur.

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From the coast, we drove into the hills for a two-night stay at Ijen Resort & Villas. A trailblazer in the local hospitality scene — it opened in 2002 — this bucolic property bills itself as “The Hidden Paradise,” and rightly so: it took a couple of detours and several phone calls for us to find the place. It’s also undeniably Edenic. Set deep in the foothills of the Ijen Plateau, the resort’s rooms and pitch-roofed bungalows (each of which houses two or three suites) are enveloped by four hectares of manicured lawns and lush, dewy gardens bristling with tree ferns, ti plants, yellow trumpet vines, palms, and frangipani. You could get your money’s worth here just taking in the views from a lawn chair or the kidney-shaped swimming pool: the scenery drops away to an amphitheater-like bowl of terraced rice paddies backdropped by the forested flanks of a chain of volcanoes: Raung, Ranti, Merapi. At 640 meters above sea level, the air is cooler than on the coast, and filled with birdsong. The only other sound was the clip-clip- clip of conical-hatted gardeners on their haunches shearing grass by hand. It was utterly tranquil.

Left to right: The gardens of Ijen Resort & Villas overlook terraced rice fields and the distant volcanic cone of Mount Ranti; a villa bedroom at the same resort.

Left to right: One of the sarong-clad staffers at Ijen Resort & Villas; a tree-shaded two-story villa on the property.

The smoking cone of Mount Raung as seen from the caldera of Kawah Wurung on a sunrise visit with Ijen Resort & Villas.

It’s this idyllic setting that convinced owner Yanto Soedjianto to build out here in what must have been an even more remote locale two decades ago. A native of the neighboring regency of Jember, Soedjianto moved to France for five years in the late 1970s before relocating to Bali and eventually opening a travel agency that catered to French and Belgian tour groups on overland excursions across Java to Bali. Creating a comfortable base for them within reach of Kawah Ijen — the trailhead is a 50- minute drive away — was a natural next step. His resort has since expanded from 10 rooms to 45.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, western Europeans still accounted for the lion’s share of guests here. Service standards and facilities are calibrated accordingly. The food — honey-glazed beef ribs; oxtail soup — was solidly good, and my generously proportioned suite sported teak parquet floors, an outdoor bathroom, and a marshmallow-soft bed positioned under a cathedral ceiling. High up in the rafters lived a big blue tokay gecko, who would poke his head out from time to time to keep me company.

Even without the prospect of a predawn hike to Kawah Ijen, one could easily spend a couple of days here chilling out, trekking around the hills, and soaking up the scenery. Which was just as well: Ijen was off-limits during our January stay due to coronavirus precautions. As an alternative, the resort arranged a sunrise visit to another crater, Kawah Wurung, rousing us at 3:30 a.m. for the 80-minute drive around the flanks of Mount Ranti. There was no hiking involved, nor any fumaroles to be seen. Wurung is inactive. But it’s certainly scenic. Standing on a ridge in the soft crepuscular gloom, we watched as the first rays of dawn brightened a broad basin of volcanic hills carpeted in wild grasses. Cows grazed lazily in the meadow below, and beyond the western rim of the wider Ijen caldera, Mount Raung, in the throes of a minor eruption, cast a plume of ash and steam into the morning sky.

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Pleasant as the highlands were, it was time to move on to Banyuwangi’s southern coast. The drive toward Muncar, the second largest port in East Java, was uneventful, but farther south the road became a Google Maps–defying series of detours and zigzags until we reached the outskirts of Alas Purwo National Park, where fields of corn and cassava gave way to a dense canopy of lowland rain forest.

Sprawling across more than 43,000 hectares on the regency’s Blambangan Peninsula, Alas Purwo — the name means “first forest” in Javanese — is one of the island’s last great wildernesses, a varied ecosystem of monsoon forests, mangroves, and coral-fringed shoreline that harbors langur monkeys, muntjac and sambar deer, banteng (wild cattle), three types of sea turtle, more than 250 bird species, and even a few Javan leopards.

Past the park gates, we stopped to stretch our legs at a Balinese-style temple half-hidden in the woods, a relic of the days when Hinduism held sway in these parts. A hornbill flew overhead, which I took to be a good omen. There’s a deep vein of mysticism associated with Alas Purwo, whose forest caves have long attracted wandering ascetics. Tales of ghosts and other apparitions abound. It is, however, too late in the day to spot the herds of banteng that graze in the savanna of Sandengan, a swath of grassland located deeper in the park at the end of a dirt track. Climbing a viewing tower, we were rewarded only by the sight of a single brown bull that quickly disappeared into the underbrush.

Left to right: Inside a tent at Jawa Jiwa G-Land; dusk falling on the safari-chic property.

The road, narrow now and overhung by leaning shafts of bamboo, eventually tapered out at Plengkung, where a clutch of rustic surf camps provide the park’s only accommodation. Jawa Jiwa G-Land is something different. Opened in 2019, it comprises half a dozen chic safari-style tents, all outfitted with mosquito-netted poster beds, outdoor swing chairs, and en-suite bathrooms. According to Matt Rumley, the Australian owner, it’s still very much a work in progress thanks to coronavirus-related delays. But more tents will be added in the months ahead, along with a swimming pool, lobby, and a gazebo beach bar. By the time the World Surf League’s championship circuit returns to G-Land in June 2022, he expects to have completed a 300-square-meter tented restaurant and a small spa.

But you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate a stay here. I spent the next day happily wandering the beach, swimming in the shallows at high tide, and watching for birds. Wildlife was never far away. Deer regularly traipsed through the forest-fringed property, and at night, I was lulled to sleep by a chuckling chorus of frogs and cicadas. And then there were the macaques, who would think nothing of raiding your tent should you leave the door open, as one of Chris Byrne’s clients discovered to her dismay. A few of the pesky simians even ventured into Jawa Jiwa’s little restaurant one evening, not that I could blame them: the cook’s chicken burgers were delicious.

As we reemerged from Alas Purwo on the way back to town, we toyed with the idea of turning west toward the mangrove forests of the Segara Anakan River or the beach at Pulau Merah or even the outer reaches of Meru Betiri National Park, where the last confirmed sighting of the now-extinct Javan tiger was recorded in 1976. But there just wasn’t enough time. Besides, as any besotted traveler will tell you, always leave something for the next trip.

Surfers heading into Grajagan Bay.

The Details

Getting There

Banyuwangi is an hour-and-forty-minute’s flight from Jakarta, and just a short hop — or much longer drive — from southern Bali.

Where to Stay

Dialoog Banyuwangi
doubles from US$125.

Ijen Resort & Villas
doubles from US$70.

Jawa Jiwa G-Land
doubles from US$150.

 

This article originally appeared in the March/May 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Far Side of Java”).

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