An Island Paradise Better Than Bali - OZY | A Modern Media Company

An Island Paradise Better Than Bali

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because you won’t find this remote island getaway in the guidebooks. 

I tried not to squirm recklessly as I glided alongside orbs of football-size jellyfish in an isolated, ancient lake off the shores of Indonesia. Hundreds of them — upside-down jellyfish, box jellyfish, spotted jellyfish and moon jellyfish — ran amok along my skin through the brackish, jade-blue water. It was serene, it was magical and it was downright terrifying.

But no fear — these yellow jellyfish are a non-stinging species, and their home is the island of Kakaban, a little-known getaway for wayfaring travelers who are sick of big-time Bali. The Derawan Islands in East Kalimantan offer a renaissance of uninterrupted island life, 2,500 miles away from the throng of honeymooners and revelers who pour into Indonesia’s biggest tourist trap. And although the tropical nation has more than 17,000 islands, the far-flung atolls of Indonesia are a hidden trove for scuba diving and snorkeling fanatics too. If you’re a water newbie like me, the laid-back atmosphere and easy-to-access reefs make it easy to get into the flow of things. 

As far as Indonesia goes, it doesn’t get any more “no frills” than this.

This golden triad of islands — Derawan, Sangalaki and Kakaban — allows the few visitors who stumble upon them to float with reef manta rays, doe-eyed dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, barracudas and, of course, the aforementioned non-stinging jellyfish, right off the coasts of three coral-reef islands. And this lively underwater world is finally starting to give Derawan’s small diving industry some wings: Indonesia’s manta-ray tourism industry alone is worth $15 million. Granted, the infrastructure is quite sparse, says Marjolijn Christianen, a gonzo researcher who spent five years watching green turtles graze on Derawan. But that simple island life is “also its charm,” she stresses.

Best of all, there’s no need to brace for heavy crowds of bikini-clad tourists. With the island’s small sandy roads, there are no cars — only speedboats that hop from island to island. The beach lodges and diving shops on the islands cater exclusively to the handful of scuba divers who visit each week. During my stay in August, I had my pick of quiet, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that served heaping plates of charcoal-grilled ikan bakar fish and fresh fried squid. As far as Indonesia goes, it doesn’t get any more “no frills” than this.

But if you want to pursue isolated island life, you have to be willing to spend the time to travel there. From the United States or Europe, it’s a three-day journey full of flights, taxis and speedboats. By the time I reached Derawan from Malaysia — nine hours later — I was in no condition to plunge straight into the waters. Moreover, it’s expensive for the solo diver. It’s best to go with the big 20-person dive groups to each of the three islands; otherwise, be prepared to fork over $100-plus to hire a speedboat for the day. “Derawan burned quite a hole in my wallet, but she’s quite a beauty,” says Luke Walley, a diver extraordinaire from Australia on a weeklong trip to Derawan.

There are more than 22 million licensed divers in the world, and vast swaths of receding, overexploited waters. That makes Derawan one of the few places left to fulfill that stranded-beach-bum island fantasy. Or that dream of swimming with sting-free jellyfish.

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