The Karimunjawa Archipelago, just a two-hour fast ferry journey from Jepara on the North coast of Central Java, is by no means undiscovered as the islands are a popular long weekend break for prosperous Javanese. But, this is still a great detour off the standard tourist trail and you’ll be charmed by this intriguing destination, with only a few frustrations to (easily) brush away.
Looking back on a relaxing five nights on the main island, I can't help feeling that the place is going through a minor identity crisis. Kariminjawa hasn't quite decided yet if it wants to commit to being a "destination", but instead sits squarely on the fence between the simple life of a pure Javanese fishing community and that of a fully paid-up member of the banana pancake trail.
So, here's my "State of Play" on Karimunjawa tourism, as at September 2013.
THE ISLAND DOESN'T HAVE 24 HOUR POWER. OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!!
No we're not – the power thing is a non-issue. It's 220V AC from 6pm-6am, and the island is powered by rice and sweat for the rest of the day – get with the programme and stop complaining.
So, choose Fan, not AC. The islands are amazingly mozzietastic, but point your fan at your bed at night, and you should stay bite-free as I did for five nights. it's a no brainer – with 12 hour power, AC is a waste of money. Yes, it is annoying when the power cuts off the fan an hour or so before you want to get up, but you get used to it.
By the third day, you know which fridges in which shops stay coldest for the longest when you're sharking after a still-chilled isotonic "Orange Water" at 10am. Island life people – go with the flow...
Tobacco advertising is clearly still big business in Java – as you walk down the main drag, just look out for the freshly concreted white metal poles, topped off with cigarette brand signs. Each one marks a shop or homestay so simply step off the ferry, walk into the village and start asking.
I stayed at Pelangi Karumun (approx 1km from the ferry terminal, on the right just after Puri Karimun). Owners spoke little or no English, but were genuinely hospitable and I had a lovely "chat" with the head of the family as he returned from prayers one day. All of the rooms open onto an open-fronted common area, with self service tea/coffee morning and evening. Perfectly OK – a few small ants, but the common area was kept actively clean with various family members stopping by every couple of hours. 130,000, fan.
The homestay had the DNA of brilliance – had this been Thailand then the courtyard would have comfy sofas, plants, hammocks, a shelf of paperbacks, but Pelangi Karumun isn't quite there yet – just bare tiles and hard seats. Sociable though – as the week went on other travellers gravitated towards Pelangi Karimun: First the Swiss-German trio who started at Hotel Escape, but found it overpriced, then a friendly pair of French/French Canadians.
Fellow traveller Emily went for the proper "homestay" experience, getting a fan room with western toilet for 75,000. I can't remember the name, but it's the one with the pink and white painted tree concreted into the front porch, on the left as you walk into the village from the terminal.
Lonely Planet-mentioned Puri Karimun homestay has the funky colours, intimate courtyard vibe and a sniff of dial-up quality wifi, but falls at the last fence with an underpowered fridge pushing out warm Bintangs even at 11pm after 5 hours of power. And, when we wandered past on Hour One Day One, they weren't prepared to sell AC rooms as fan-only. Deal breaker, sorry.
Food, drink and entertainment
The Alun Alun
Like almost every village, town and city in Java, the Alun Alun is the centre of community life. On Karimunjawa, daytime saw the open space used as a drying area for thousands of tiny fish laid out on mats, but by dusk, it clears for the arrival of the food carts.
There's not much choice, but cheap and tasty is still on the menu, with the highlight being a grilled fish stall. Mum sells and preps the fish, dad cooks, daughters do rice, sauces, waitressing and bills. It was excellent – prices varied night to night but first time out we managed 50,000 for a big fish (enough for 3) covered in spice paste then grilled and served with both a fresh Satay sauce (tangy sweet and light on the peanuts), a fresh chilli sauce and boiled rice if you want it. There's a good Nasi Goreng cart, plus one for drinks, and another for dessert – grilled bananas with cheese and chocolate.
Elsewhere, the main village crossorads has a sit-down place (we christened it Nasi Goreng corner) which was average, as well as a cart pushing out greasy but oh-so-good 12,000 rupiah Martabak Telur (fried egg and spring onion pancakes) as the perfect starter, then an hour later Martabak Manis (sweet chocolate pancakes) as dessert.
Next to the sea wall, halfway between the ferry terminal and the village You have to give Cafe Amore full marks for picking a market and running straight at it. It's the only "Western" joint in town, with tables, chairs, a comfy lounger and a neat garden. Most importantly it's open all day, which is no fun for the lovely but clearly very bored teenage waitress, but great when you're wandering around the vilage at 2pm as we were, trying to find ANYTHING open. So, Cafe Amore has somewhere to sit, relax and eat a hot lunch or watch a classic Indonesian sunset and, most importantly, it has cold Bintang, (except for Day 5 when we drank it all). Downsides? It also has small portions, high prices, the odd bit of creative accounting on the bill and the dreaded +10% tax on everything.
You could go to Cafe Amore, but why not try the port Warung for a cheap local alternative? The menu is laksa tofu with rice, chilli coated boiled eggs, cold omelettes and ati ampela (chicken hearts). A big thank you to Emily for "persuading" me to try the latter – overcooked, but dense, meaty and tasty. There's also fruit, iced tea, the standard selection of bakery/packet coffees and very friendly staff – a pleasure to start each day here.