North of Jakarta, stretching a slow arc through the languid Java Sea, lie verdant specks of tropical islands—hundreds of them, a lush green ribbon dubbed Pulau Seribu, the Thousand Islands, by locals. Azure splashes and crystal tides, soft sands and starry nights, beaches tailor-made for bungalows and Instagram post—this is the getaway overworked souls of the city dream of.
But in all these swarming islands lurking just an arm’s reach fom Java’s chief city, one gets all the buzz. In all these little specks of tropical droplets, one little star blazes brighter than the rest.
Pulau Macan—“Tiger Island” in English—is the seat of all the swirling hype, the prince of the mini-archipalago, the hope that these islands might one day rise from a mere backwater secret of so-so resorts providing Jakartans with a so-so alternative to Bali getaways, and transform the Pulau Seribu into an Indonesian destination of their own merit.
It’s got the trendiest website. It’s run by an enterprising European ex-pat. It’s nearly impossible to get a room in the high season, and it’s the only Eco-certified resort in the entire Thousand Islands.
Pulau Macan had been in Andy and my sights for nearly two years.
So when our seven-year anniversary rolled around and our waiting list landed an unexpected open room, we jumped at the chance. We tackled and lassoed and pinned that sucker to the ground, actually, wrote our names all over it and transferred the cash. Before we knew what was happening, we found ourselves on a bustling Jakarta pier on a very sunny and very sweaty Saturday morning ready to board the two-day-one-night excursion to the resort buzzing in the ears of all Jakarta.
After all the wait and all the hype, Tiger Island, here we came.
But first, we had to find the boat. I squinted into the sun. Andy glanced around and yawned. We looked for a free space of concrete to set our bag—a few square feet not covered in slushing port water or rotting food scraps or flip-flopped feet of the crowd. “Hmmm. I mused. This is… pretty normal.”
From the marina, Pulau Macan isn’t so different than the slew of others resorts—dozens of speedboat launches milling with hundreds of groggy Jakartans lugging backpacks around a concrete wharf, hoping to somehow find the right pier in the mass of taxis and bullhorns and motorbikes, in the piles of luggage and veggies and water and beer being loaded into the holds, in the midst of cell-phone selfies and sunglasses-and-Tylenol hangovers from Friday night.
It was an inauspicious start.
For all its hype and environmetal-friendly branding, for all its ex-pat management and online banter and word-of-mouth buzz among the vacationing elite of the city, Pulau Macan’s weekend away starts nearly the same as the rest of the Thousand Islands.
Thirty minutes of small talk and questions, sweating and squinting in the sun, trying to look natural while trying to pin down the boat to the swankiest resort, finally brought us to the right place: an unassuming, narrow little craft with just enough room for the passengers, and a handful of very young and very quiet porters ushering everyone aboard.
With the rest of the passengers already dozing in polite vinyl benches or seagazing through tame plastic windows, Andy and I managed seats in the back. The very back. I’m talking hold-on-tight-‘cause-you’re-right-next-to-the-screaming-outboard-motors kind of back, right there with the luggage, smiling in full blast of the morning sun, island-breeze-slamming-our-morning-faces kind of back seat.
“Best seats in the house,” Andy nodded to me, a satisfied fist bump to confirm it.
As the water churned from the stern, we witnessed firsthand the transformation of the Java Sea. The shift happens gradually, but it dawns on you suddenly—sometime after you finish greasing on the sunscreen, sometime after you grab at your hat flitting of your head in the speedboat breeze, but somewhere before the sea-sick passengers start milling out of the cabin for fresh air. It happens about the time the container ships give way to fishing skiffs—the moment you realize that not even Jakarta’s megalopolis port and pollution can taint the entire Java Sea, and the blazing glory of a hundred green specks of land sprinkled north from the shore hold the escape you were longing for.
By the time the engines cut their whine and our boat’s phone-photo barrage began, we’d cruised some ninety minutes into the heart of the Thousand Islands, and somehow found our way to the fabled Pulau Macan, home of the hype and the eco-resort, nest of the elite and the expense, and subject of my current fascination with resort cultures.
You see, I was never raised the resort type. I’m a Missouri boy—wake up early on Saturdays to paint trailers and split wood and clean carburetors, the kind who needed calloused hands and dirty nails to prove manhood, the kind who heard “beach resort” and thought “last resort” for a slew of big-spending show-offs with more money than common sense trying in vain to find meaning in life.
But here I was, nearly two years into a teach-abroad experiment in a city whose population dwarfed that of my entire state, and that of seven surrounding states, probably, and sampling resort culture like a connoisseur.
Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned over the past two years: Resorts ain’t all the same. For one, you have the young resort. This guy’s full of jetskis and banana boats and dreadlocked guides selling you rentals and lessons on surfboards and scuba gear and those weird water-shoe-jet-packs that let you hover over the sea in a fire-engine spray of water. Buffet tables and loud pop music, sunburns and Red Bull and Coca-Cola.
Then you have your country-club resorts with tennis courts and infinity pools and lounge-chair drink service. Nights here come ushered in with karaoke and stiff drinks, small talk about stock markets and European cruises. Champagne for the ladies; scotch and bourbon for the gents.
Then you have the eco-resort, which I was first sampling here: low-slung palms and plenty of shade. Chilled-out, long-haired staff in organic sandals and t-shirts, guys as likely to high-five and laugh as to bow and scurry off for your next cocktail. Rooms with no AC but plenty of sea-breeze. Showers with no hot water because electricity leaves a carbon footprint and it’s all these guys can do to make up for the fossil fuel you spent getting out here. Tennis courts are gone, replaced by rainwater collection systems and a small workshop turning island driftwood into artsy, hipster furniture. And the evenings see chilled-out jazz wafting from solar-powered speakers gleaning the sun’s energy throughout the day. Eco-resorters sip juices blended with fruit and kale and quinoa.
We stretched stiffened limbs a brief moment on the pier, then bounded off to explore the island. It was just before 10.
The outgoing guests lounged about on couches and paddled lazily through water still as a pond and clear as bottled water, in no hurry for their 2 PM departure. Incoming guests hauled their backpacks and camera bags into the waiting lounge where crepes and fruit juice awaited.
Ricky, half-Floridian and half-Jakartan, lanky and unassuming, inured to anything involving hurry or stress, welcomed us in soft-spoken English and Indonesian, explained a bit about the island, and turned us loose to explore.
Here’s what we found: the island can be circumnavigated in five minutes, walking slowly. The perimeter coast is filled with bamboo-and-driftwood bungalows walled in with lacy mosquito nets and gentle sea breezes. The interior held a handful of old-school brick and concrete, the bathroom and shower houses, staff quarters, and the aforementioned workshop.
We hardly got through the first few bungalows, though.
“We have to come back!” Andy was already gushing, “and stay here!” Here was a bamboo with sea-view bungalow, featuring a white linen sheets rustled by the breeze, and a miniature table looking out over the glimmering morning sea. “Stay in that chair and let me take your picture. Smile. No, more naturally. And how long did they say we need to book in advance? Two months? We should do that now for a weekend later this summer…”
It was true—a shimmering turquoise sea stretched sensuously in all directions, and the horizon glowed in distant green islands. Soft splashes of tender surf cooed in over the beaches and slipped among the shorelines rocks A ruddy sun smiled through an impossibly blue sky, and the whole thing looked like something photoshopped for a cheesy tourist postcard—one of those images that’s always better in the camera than your actual eyes.
Personally, I was more interested in the hammocks slung alongside the lazing paths of the islands, and as soon as our bungalow-snooping ended, Andy cashed in her island buzz to chat up the other guests, and I made good on my promise to myself for a quick doze in one of those nap machines.
Palm fronds and sea breezes greeted my groggy eyes an hour later. Andy rushed over to introduce me to her new friends—fellow ex-pat teachers and their visiting friends and families, a Philippine couple working as international accountants, Indonesian Instagram-ers, a handful of Indian gentlemen who’d stopped by on a one-day tour and decided to prolong their stay. I rubbed my eyes and shook their hands and tried to keep up with the chatter.
But all that, you have to know, is part of the resort culture. You don’t come to paradise just to chill by yourself: you come to casually, but intentionally, show off to each other how cool you are.
Lunchtime chatter over an enormous grilled fish turned to banter of exotic recipes; moonlit dinner with jazzy vibes and starlit ambience led to regaling one another with witty travel anecdotes, beachside run-ins turned to comparing this to past destinations, podcasts casually name-dropped in, and through it all, we all got to feel, got to know, that we, yes even we, belonged in this resort culture.
Yes, scarcely three hours into the experience, and we were one of them.
It’s mutual self-affirming of hipness. It’s letting everyone pat themselves on the back and enjoy a unspoken sort of acceptance—acceptance into the community whose calling cards consist mostly of Snapchats and a handful of anecdotes about previous trips. Well, that and a snooty sort of putting on airs that you belong, somehow belong, in the ranks of the resort culture elite.
It’s all part of what you do here. It’s expected.
Eco-resorts win two ways, you see. Maybe three. On the one hand, it’s marketable. Pulau Macan, for example, gets to brand itself a bit, appeal to trendy sort of people like I was now starting to feel a part of. It’s a cool added label to add to the property—it may incite a few more tourists to shell out a few more bucks for the eco experience. Surely no one is going to turn down a stay because a place labels itself green.
Aside from the marketing, though, eco is also an excuse to trim out amenities.
For example, Pulau Macan offers no hot water. For another, most bathrooms and showers were shared facilities. For a third, wi-fi was confined to a couple hours in the evening, no room had any sort of TV, and AC, well, simply asking about that labeled you as a definite oil-sheik robber-baron intent on raping planet earth, and was likely to get you ostracized at the next fish-grill going on in the evening.
You may as well use plastics sacks the next time you shop.
But try offering that list of (lacking) amenities to the country-club resort crowd across the horizon; they’d scurry back to their private yachts and set sail to the next island over, one that would squirm obsequiously and bow to their whims.
But an eco-resort can charge similar prices—maybe even more—and make do with none of that fluff.
But here’s the sneaky third way an eco-resort wins: with every glass of water clinked over toothy smiles at the dinner table, with every new pic posted in a driftwood chair, with every guest willing to laugh over sleeping in a tent because rooms were overbooked (for the price of a four-star hotel back home), with every steaming meal of locally-sourced greens and fish prepared over grill or steam rather than palm oil, they are creating a self-identifying sub-culture far more likely in the future to seek out an eco-resort.
That’s right: they’re ushering their customers into a rewards club that costs the company nothing extra to promote or maintain, but ensures a steady influx of return guests. The green eco leaf is not just an icon on the website booking screen, it’s a bold, bright statement about who you are as a destination, and who the snazzy guests are that saunter into your property.
One of these was a middle-aged teacher who has worked in Jakarta for the last eleven years. “My first time here,” she told us while shuffling through the line loading up the speedboat for the jaunt back home, “I came for the weekend, and I stayed for twelve days!” She nodded vigorously and wagged a defiant finger in the paradise air, “And I will never return to the other resorts. You get what you pay for. I demand quality.”
This guest was also an active proselytizer: in her tow was a former colleague from her New England school, also gushing over the Macan experience, gobbling up her time in the eco-hip crowd.
“That’s right,” her Jakartan host butted in. “Because no other resort here offers this type of stay. This is quality!”
Make no mistake: that quality extends past the rising tide of Macan’s trendiness. The resort has an undeniably awesome location.
The premises consist not only of the aforementioned glories, but also encompasses the pint-sized isle next door. Management formerly offered tent lodging here—marketed as an all-natural stay on a completely deserted island—but have since begun construction on a handful of renewable-resource housing. Plus that space, unlike the original Macan, boasts a pristine spur of fine, golden sand to stretch out and lounge on. You just have to paddle-board the fifty yards over, or walk waist-deep through the crystal tide.
The other perk of Macan’s particular property is a deluxe snorkeling reef just a hundred yards into the sea: that’s right, you need to circumnavigate the island offshore as well as on. The north side offers shallow coral that brings the sea critters up close—I’m talking belly-scraping close. The west side boasts a long tear-drop trail of coral exploration that sucks in attention from competing resorts—Andy counted a dozen boating excursions from surrounding islands weighing anchor there for snorkel adventures.
And the south rim—for those willing to venture a couple hundred meters into the sea to find it—provides a drop-off lined with popping coral homes of remarkable variety. I swam out there the forenoon before we left, and got startled by the fish that could have killed me.
Ricky had warned me about this fish, right after his big, laid-back introduction. He had shrugged his lanky shoulders, tossed his mop of curls laughingly to the side, and drawled, “Sure, there could be stonefish. But they’re pretty rare.”
And as he sauntered out into the shadows of palms and glisten of crystalline surf, he waved his hand and declared that he, in his expert opinion, “wouldn’t worry about it.”
Twenty four hours later, here I was: alone in the ocean, a half-kilometer from shore, floating above a spectacularly purple reef, staring into the groggy eyes of a fish that just might kill me.
Brown scales waved in the sunlit waves sprinkling across the reef, and row after row of venomous spines bristled down his back, across his sides, over his eyes, out of his lips. Each held venom potent enough to render me spasmodic and convulsing in gurgling screams of agony, hundreds of meters from shore. Alone.
“Ricky was right!” I mumbled into my tube. “Stonefish. Twelve o’clock.” And I did what any sensible, responsible, self-respecting snorkeler would have done—I readied the camera and swam in closer.
Andy, meanwhile, was indulging in a massage: a seaside hut, a bamboo shack, an hour staring across the turquoise bounty of Java’s Sea while melting her muscles in a wave of sweet therapy. The massage wasn’t pricey—half a tank of gas for our tiny Civic back in the states. The masseuse was three-quarters blind and recently widowed, rubbing away the long island hours in smooth contemplation, paradise views blazed into white-hot brilliance filtering through the thatched roof of his hut. High-season weekends he’s busy—more than a dozen customers daily, he claims, and hand-muscles knotted enough for three more. But weekdays and rainy season, he’s alone in the hut, feeling the time sift and drizzle away like oil between his beefy fingers.
Meanwhile, I was slipping through the sea, closing in on a quite rare, and very venomous stonefish, wondering why boatloads—literally—of scuba tours weren’t using this wall for their explorations. It’s got the coral. It’s got some fish. It’s got variety.
The stonefish never really smiled. He just grinned a little, glistened his poison darts spiking from his lips.
I swam on. He stayed right there.
Back on land, Andy and I had managed to lodge cheaper than the rest—that last room available turned out to be a stuffy and antiquated bombshelter, an insufferable twenty second stroll to the nearest seafront. It was brick and mortar, heavy, and probably the only things for miles that people could flock to in the event of a tropical storm. Windows were present, and the shower (shared with the guests next door) was nifty in décor, and functioned ok for an eco-resort. Our room, however, did share a wall with an identical room on the other side.
Our buddies over there insisted on laughing loudly into the night, dumping half-eaten trays of fast-food Ramen noodles on their doorstep—apparently an effort to recruit a few thousand ants to our rooms. But that little bit of business-class, someone-had-better-pick-up-after-me mentality failed to impress any of the eco-resort housekeeping staff. Ricky probably ought to have given them a stern lecture about littering. Maybe he did. No one hurried to pick up that trash. Not satisfied with that eco-faux-paux, this trio of giggling brats spent all their meal times, most of their beach time, and pretty much all the evening, playing on phones and tablets, and clamoring for electricity to charge these.
Apparently they didn’t get the memo. This is Pulau Macan. Tiger Island. Resort Culture.
That type belongs with the dinosaurs on the country-club islands.
Andy says she can’t go back to Jakarta’s other islands. “Now that you know the best, why would you spend your money on the others? Just save a little more and get Macan,” she chimes, back in Jakarta, over the café menus, to our friends.
She’s pretty convincing. And so was the magnetic draw of Macan. Was it that the unspotted beauty of this crystal-sea island, alone of the hundreds of others, was really that much better? Was the castaway luxury of lacey white curtains in the bamboo sea breeze really enough to knock out all the competition? Were the cold showers and lack of electricity and flocks and flocks of sea-urchins—plus one nasty stonefish—really that inviting?
I suspect, though, that the real tug of Pulau Macan is not its amenities, or its real estate, but its ability to brand. Tiger Island doesn’t not just sell you its image, it makes you see, even believe, that you, yes you, are also a resort person. An eco-person. If you come away uncool, like our neighbors in the bomb shelter, well, man, you just don’t get it. Go back to the country club. Settle for a homestay with a questionable beach.
But Macan is for the eco-elite who are suave enough to belong in the jazzy chatter of cuisines and travel, exotic ingredients and starlit smiles.
It sells you a new you that you like to see in the mirror. A hip you. A you who needs to be with other like-minded, trendy you’s.
As much as anything, the current wave of eco-friendliness sweeping the West relies not merely on updated data on climate change, nor on repeated studies coming to the same doomsday conclusions, nor to slightly increased government initiatives to battle the problem. No, the current eco-trend relies on marketing itself as the new and cool thing to be a part of.
It’s how any real social change happens, I suppose. It’s just people being people, finding some way to form distinct groups, finding a way to set their distinct group up as superior, finding ways to create something cool, and then making themselves feel special for being included.
Pulau Macan is just another flagship of the eco-front indoctrinating the masses into the hip new mindset of “I’m green too.” It’s all about the bandwagon. and as long as that wagon is rolling toward a pretty rocking cause, well, I’ve got no problem jumping on board.
Unfortunately, jumping on board was all too literally exactly what we had to do next—as in, get my saltwater-dripping self away from the reef, meet up with a freshly-massaged Andy to jointly wolf down the final rice-and-fish lunch, and once again be the last passengers scurrying aboard the boat back to Jakarta.
And so once again we rode in style, newly-branded eco-ambassadors, in the back of the boat—next to all the luggage and the porters, skimming our way over the crystal sea. Sure enough, the seas turned murky—as fishing dinghies gave way to chugging cargo freighters, as islands faded to the stern and the man-eating conglomerate of Jakarta towered over the horizon.
Tiger Island was amazing alright; it lived up to its billing and then some. But is it enough?
Enough to wrest away tourists from Bali? Enough to shift a megalopolis from a littering hoard to a green gang? Enough to train a resort culture away from noisy gimmicks and learn to love the island life for its own natural beauty?
It’s a tall order—even for an island with such a fearsome namesake—and peeling back into the grim skyline of Jakarta, I didn’t know whether or not Macan could pull it off. Especially if its fighting the battle on its own.
But here’s what I did know: that when Andy leaned over to me, smiling brilliantly in the sun, glimmer of the waves still bouncing in her eyes, shouting over the whine of the double outboard motors, I knew exactly what she was going to say.
“When we come back, we’re coming to Macan.”