OK, you're here, you've found somewhere to stay, plus some food and a beer. What next? Well, there's a holy trinity of activities on Karimunjawa - lazing on the beach, diving/snorkelling tours or exploring the island(s) by scooter.
Walking off the ferry on a hot, bright day, with the sea glistening a perfect tropical blue, travel buddies Emily and Julia had one plan – hit the beach, and hit it fast… Except there isn't one. Not in town anyway.
And, this may well be Karimunjawa's Achilles' heel – even in the busy centre of a 'destination' island like Ko Tao, you're only a short stroll away from sandy satisfaction. But, on Karimunjawa, most "mainland" beaches share the same make-up – reef-fringed, extremely shallow, with plenty of rocks and coral. They're protected from the open sea, but often difficult to swim or play around in.
For info, the only walkable beach from the village is a sweaty 2km stroll East of town at Nirvana Laut resort. Most days there is a 12500 entry fee to use the beach and if you're lucky you might get a watermelon juice from the resort, but equally be ready for everything to be closed. Too shallow for easy swimming, but a great sunbathing and relaxing beach with blindingly white sand, coconut palms and a few unpadded wooden sunloungers.
Julia and Meite, all the way from Bremen, were super-productive on day one – tracking down Noor Khoir at Salma Dive shop to organise a snorkelling trip for the four of us. A private charter prices out something like this – 400,000 for the captain and his deckhand, 100,000 for guide Fendi who was friendly and helpful, 30,000 per person for snorkelling gear and 20,000 for "parking" e.g. at Cemara Kecil and Tanjung Gelam, where the beaches are notionally cleaned.
There's pretty much a standard route on the West of the islands, starting with a short hop South and West to Menjangan Kecil for some average snorkelling. From here a long leg North took us to the tiny but beautiful Cemara Kecil, which turned out to something of a "killer island." Emily was unlucky enough to be stung TWICE by small but nasty jellyfish on the long wade-in through the shallows, and Julia stood on a sea urchin in the sand. But, the island is also a stunningly beautiful little place to relax for an hour or so – recommended.
Next up was the only disappointment of the day – an offshore reef of bland coral without much fish life. From there, most trips stop off at Tanjung Gelam for drinks and more beach time, but we skipped this and opted for more snorkelling on a drop-off a kilometre or so from the port which turned out to be pretty good – I saw a mid-sized ray and a nice pufferfish. Finally, before we called it a day, we took a look at Wisma Apung - the intriguing floating homestay which sits in the shallows between the main island and Menjangan Besar. I had wanted to stay there, but this didn't work out – a basic room was quoted at 300,000 and the two French guys we met later reported they didn't have enough water for showers, so glad I gave it a miss. And, though it has the novelty of an enclosed sea pool between the rooms, filled with reef sharks and a turtle, this is obviously not the kindest thing in the world to do to said sharks and turtle.
Overall, the West side of Karimunjawa didn't have the best snorkelling I'd ever seen, but between 4 people this was a fun and inexpensive tour.
Day 3 on the islands and we were up and away early from our usual seats at the breakfast warung, looking for some wheels. Karimunjawa's limited "destination evolution" means that scooter hire is a simple task. No forms, passport-holding, damage reports or insurance are involved – just a quick hello, and the pleasant surprise of a 10,000 IDR discount for renting two at once - 75,000 each, 140,000 for two.
Roads are OK to poor on the main road West and then North, but there are only a few small hills, so ease off that throttle, make sure you go "pelan-pelan" and things should be OK. With 99% of other traffic also two-wheeled, there's no "little fish big pond" feeling either. The biggest danger is probably sunburn – another perfect blue sky day in the Java Sea - first stop was back to the homestay to change into long sleeves.
The longest route runs North and West out of the village skirting the coast for 10km or so before turning inland and towards the East coast. 7km West of the village, after a short but steep downhill hill, is the first destination – Tanjung Gelam Beach. At the turn-off a sweet old lady relaxes in the shade on a bamboo beruga, surrounded by roosters, operating a 2000 rupiah toll gate. It's by no means clear exactly what we get for our 2000, but this is a pleasantly good-natured shakedown, so no complaints here.
After Tanjung Gelam, the road continues on, houses and schools beside, every child calling out happily to you. Petrol is widely available for 10,000 IDR, but human fuel less so – we only spotted one warung in the far North, plus a sign for seafood restauarant a few KM from the main village, which we failed to find on our return. Water, crisps and a fast-melting coconut ice-cream had to suffice for the day trip.
In total it's probably about 25km from top to bottom of the islands (technically, there are two, joined by a short bridge in the mangrove swamp). We passed a mangrove elevated walkway and stopped at both Cemara Beach (not worth it) and Barracuda Beach (likewise) which has one high-end resort but no day facilities. Both the East facing beaches seemed prone to junk washing onto them at this time of year (September).
So, there's not a huge amount to see, but it is always fun to explore, and surprisingly, rural Karimunjawa wasn't too traditional – very few women in the minor villages wore headscarves. We turned around a little way past the airport and retraced our route back to the main village, hungry but happy to have taken a good look around.
Find 5 or 6 days in your schedule and Karimunjawa offers a low-key Indonesian beach experience very different from the regimented lines of sunloungers on the beach at Sanur in Bali – it's the kind of place I'd love to return to in a decade, just to see how it has adapted to increased tourism.
Thanks to Emily for being such great company on the islands, and also to Julia and Miete from Bremen, the Swiss trio of Nick, Regula and Isabel, and to Dominic and Maria, all for tolerating the monolingual English speakers when otherwise pretty much every other tourist on the island could have probably stuck to German!