Best known for its port connecting the islands of Java and Bali, Banyuwangi is popular with surfers keen to catch a break at world-renowned Plengkung beach and adventurers who want to marvel at the blue-fire views at Ijen crater. Recently, however, increasing traffic from aircraft and fast ships has made the region more accessible to a larger number of visitors, enhancing its reputation as a popular destination.I am amazed when I land at Banyuwangi Airport and see that it has been renovated to become the first green airport in Indonesia. Located in the middle of fields, the interior of the airport has been designed in an open style to allow the natural breeze to blow in through its wooden latticework.
First I head off on a safari in Baluran National Park, located in Situbondo and easily accessible from Banyuwangi. Nicknamed ‘Little Africa in Java’, there are 511 plant species, 28 mammal species and 234 bird species in the 25,000ha expanse, which stretches for 14km. I use a rental car to explore the park, spotting thousands of yellow butterflies and exotic-looking jungle birds, and passing through the ‘Evergreen’ section, where the plants remain verdant even during the dry season.
At the end of the road, we arrive at Bekol savannah. Behind a grassy meadow of around 300ha stretches Baluran mountain, which rises 1,247m above sea level. The savannah also has jujube trees (Ziziphus mauritiana), dubbed ‘Raisa trees’ because this location was used as the backdrop for a music video by Indonesian pop singer Raisa. In the afternoon, it is usually possible to see herds of wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and banteng cattle (Bos javanicus javanicus).
“At the moment the rainy season is making the area very green,” my guide, Eko, explains. “Come again during the dry season from April to October when everything is dry and the savannah turns yellow. It’s just like Africa!”
Approaching nearby Bama beach, we meet many long-tailed macaques that have fun © JustinRayboun / Shutterstock; © Yunaidi Joepoet 1 2 walking around the car. In the shrubs, there are several deer (Cervus timorensis) looking gallant with their towering antlers. Suddenly, Eko points to four green peacocks (Pavo muticus). Their blue-green feathers are magnificently shiny, the males proudly sporting their long tails that open like fans during mating season. “Peacock mating season is in October and November,” adds Eko. It is the first time I have seen peacocks in the wild, and I cry out loudly in delight. Unfortunately, this makes the peacocks fly away.
Another area well worth visiting for a very different reason is Glenmore, home to a cocoa plantation that produces absolutely delicious chocolate. The Glenmore name is believed to have originated with a Scot who sought asylum in the Netherlands but was sent to this area some time in the 18th century. The plantation and cocoa-processing factory can be visited at Doesoen Kakao.
Two types of cocoa are produced at the 1,500ha plantation, fine-flavoured Criollo and the more common Forastero. “Criollo is the best type of cocoa in the world. Growing it is very difficult, but it has the highest price. It can be worth three times more than Forastero,” explains Indah Novita, Marketing Manager at Doesoen Kakao. The seed is dried, roasted, separated from its skin, the fat and dregs are removed, ground into powder and it is then processed into cocoa powder or chocolate. Around 90 per cent of the cocoa is exported to Europe and Asia.
I enjoy a mug of Glen’s Choco Hot chocolate drink in the café for only Rp 10,000. The aroma is fragrant, the chocolate is frothy, the flavour lingers pleasantly in my mouth and there are no dregs at the bottom of the mug.
Most Instagrammable Spots
Instagrammers are drawn to De Djawatan forest, near Benculuk town centre on the edge of the main road. In the past, it was used for railway management, but it has now been transformed into a visitor destination because of its hundred-year-old raintree (trembesi) forest, which resembles Fangorn Forest from Lord of the Rings, or the Dark Hedges from Game of Thrones. Young people arrive with selfie sticks, and couples come for their pre-wedding photo shoots, while children ride around the forest on rented horse-drawn carriages. I have to venture to the middle of the forest just to take photos away from other people.
Banyuwangi is nicknamed ‘The Sunrise of Java’ because the sun’s rays first hit the island each morning at this special destination. I get up early to witness the first sun at Syariah beach, a memorable moment during my trip and an energising way to start a day of sightseeing. In the past, this area was called Santen Island, but last year the local government changed its name in order to create a halal visiting area, with separate places for men and women, no alcohol on sale and facilities for Muslim prayer
For the adventurous, the electric-blue fire of Ijen crater and its one-kilometre-wide intense turquoise lake are not to be missed. There are midnight hikes to fully appreciate the magic of Ijen, where flames fuelled by sulphuric gas leap up to five metres into the air in the largest blue-flame area in the world. Expect a two-hour hike to reach the rim of the crater, followed by a 45-minute journey down to the bank. The volcano’s stunning turquoise lake is recognised as the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world.
Another photogenic destination is Muncar Harbour, the second largest fishing harbour in Indonesia after Bagansiapiapi and home to colourfully decorated traditional fishing vessels of all sizes. More than 90 per cent of the fisheries production in Banyuwangi is from here. On the large ships, the captain’s seat at the top is carved like a king’s throne, while the back of the seat is decorated with a face, commonly of an Islamic cleric, a president or a child of the ship’s owner.
Also popular is Bangsring Underwater, known as ‘Bunder’, where visitors can enjoy the beauty of Banyuwangi’s underwater treasures. This stretch of coastline was previously in disrepair because of blast fishing and potassium use that damaged the coral. In 2008, Ikhwan Arief, the leader of the Bangsring Village Fishermen’s Group, initiated a programme of nature conservation and education for fishermen to help the coral reef grow again, and the fish began to return. Since 2014, Bunder has been developed for maritime visitors. “Our conservation efforts won the Kalpataru prize in 2017 in the category of Environment Saver,” says Ikhwan.
I take a two-minute boat ride to the Floating House (Rumah Apung) and am delighted to see a big school of angelfish, each about the size of my palm. I go snorkelling, spotting coral that appears to be growing healthily. Visitors who cannot swim can rent snorkelling equipment and a life jacket, and be taught how to snorkel by a local guide who also acts as photographer.
I end my final day in Banyuwangi with a visit to Red Island beach (Pantai Pulau Merah), which has become an icon for the region’s tourism industry. The white-sand beach stretches for three kilometres and, as the name suggests, features an island, a hill that rises to 200m. The two- to three-metre-high waves are particularly popular with beginner surfers.
Visitor safety is ensured by a team of lifeguards. “We are the only ones in Banyuwangi who have a lifeguard tower on the beach. The tower and the lifesaving equipment are all from the local community,” states the lifeguard coordinator, Suyitno. “There are 14 lifeguards who are ready to protect the safety of visitors.”
Red Island beach truly lives up to its title when the sun sets on the other side of the highlands. The water at low tide makes a reddish reflection which is fired from the sky onto its smooth powdery sand. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful sight, one of so many I have experienced during my travels in Banyuwangi. Seeing this amazing area as simply a gateway between Java and Bali fails to do it justice – there is so much to see and explore.
JAKARTA TO BANYUWANGI
Flight Time 1 hour, 40 minutes
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
From Colours May 2018
5 Senses – Taste SLAPPING RICE
A popular culinary speciality is sego tempong, literally ‘slapping rice’. It consists of hot rice with boiled vegetables such as cabbage, green beans and cassava leaves. Side dishes include squid in black sauce, omelette, fried chicken, fried prawns, tofu and tempeh. What makes this dish special is the super-spicy raw chilli sauce that accompanies it, made with rose tomato (tomat ranti). This is where the dish’s name comes from: the sauce is so spicy, it feels like one is being slapped (ditempong).