Java's jewel

30 Sep 2009 by Mark Caswell

The vibrant Indonesian capital has much to offer outside the boardroom, discovers Alex Frew McMillan.

Jakarta is a city that you’re likely to have to visit, rather than one you want to visit. It’s not the kind of place where you’re scouting out the venue for your fantasy retirement home as soon as you arrive.

“No – it’s not Bali, it’s definitely not Bali,” says Philippe Clarinval, resident manager at the city’s Shangri-La hotel. “You don’t come here to live here. But we have all the amenities any foreigner would need for a short period of time.”

Visitors may be surprised by the warmth of the welcome they receive in Indonesia’s capital, and the variety of entertainment options on tap. Golf fans in particular will find plenty of distractions to take them out of the boardroom and on to the fairway, but there’s also tennis, football and jogging if you want to escape the hotel gym.

Els Ramadhinta, director of public relations for Jakarta’s Ritz-Carlton hotels, says: “I was told there were more than 40 golf courses spread around Jakarta and its surroundings, and I am still trying to get round them all.”

You shouldn’t expect anything less from the most populous city in South East Asia. Jakarta, home to about 8.5 million people, is a thriving commercial hub for the natural resources and banking industries. It’s the economic centre of the island of Java, which in turn is the political and business heart of Indonesia. The country has a number of distinctions itself – it’s one of the world’s most populous nations, the largest archipelago, with about 17,000 islands, and is one of the largest majority-Muslim countries.

Technically, Jakarta is a province rather than a city, but that distinction really only matters to local politicians. The urban area is extensive and sprawling, and Jakartans are proud to call it home, and to be part of “Betawi” culture – a word taken from “Batavia”, the Dutch name for the city during colonial rule. Indonesians in other parts of the country may feel Javans – and Jakartans in particular – lord it over the rest of the nation, but the capital’s residents don’t care. They know they live where it all happens – if you’re in Indonesia, anyway.

Adeza Hamzah, assistant director of communications at the Hotel Mulia Senayan, one of the city’s largest luxury properties, says: “Jakarta is a colourful city with a lot of tales to tell.” And for visiting executives, there is a broad selection of places to stay, with some of the high-end properties undergoing recent revamps. The 272-room Mandarin Oriental is due to reopen this month after a complete renovation, while the Hotel Indonesia reopened in March under the Kempinski brand, with 289 rooms. Most top-end hotels have executive floors, with cocktail hours in the evening, conference rooms and the typical services you’d expect from an “office on the road” (see panel, left).

Besides natural resources such as oil, gas, rubber or palm oil, your business-floor neighbours may also be working on projects in high finance, consulting, consumer products or retail. Thankfully, the city has not been as affected as others by the global downturn.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hit Indonesia hard, with many of the country’s major banks being nationalised. But thanks to the long reform period in the decade since, the finance industry has held up well in the most recent crisis, which has had a much greater fallout in the West. Indonesia, the biggest economy in South East Asia, has not fallen into recession and is expected to post growth of 4.4 per cent this year and 4.6 per cent in 2010.

Security is an issue, of course, after two recent hotel bombing incidents, in 2003 and July this year. The JW Marriott was targeted both times, while the 2009 bombers also hit the Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, with Islamic fundamentalist group Jemaah Islamiyah suspected of links to both attacks. But hotels are committed to demonstrating that lightning can’t strike thrice, and have beefed up their countermeasures. Most have moved their drop-off points for taxis, and vehicle inspections are de rigueur.

Inevitably, the recent incident has rattled residents. “Everybody is on their toes now and avoiding mass gatherings,” Clarinval, who is a recent arrival from Switzerland, says. “But I feel safe here,” he adds, noting that his risk-averse fiancée has recently joined him in town. Jakartans feel that, much like Bali, which was attacked in 2002, they can bounce back from the incidents. “The people are friendly, outgoing and very accommodating to foreigners,” Clarinval says. “It’s a good life here.”

In fact, business travellers may find smog, traffic and petty crime to be more of an inconvenience. Getting across town, as in cities such as Bangkok or Manila, can be a half-day affair if you travel at the wrong time.

The main gateway to Jakarta, Soekarno-Hatta International airport, is also the main airport into Java. About 20km west of the city, it serves Jakarta both for domestic and international air travel. It takes about 45 minutes to get into the centre, and major hotels will arrange an airport pick-up. You may want to leave up to 90 minutes for this depending on the location of your hotel and the time of day.

The construction of a long-touted railway link between the airport and the city has been delayed numerous times. Likewise, a monorail project is on hold, despite visible efforts around town, and locals say they have no idea when it will be completed. In rainy season, which happens from late October to early May, flooding exacerbates travel problems.

Hotel-arranged taxi is the securest mode of travel, but executives have been surprised even by hotel cars at times. One Hong Kong-based Australian lawyer visiting Jakarta on business was shocked when his driver pulled over and let a scruffy guy into his vehicle. Thinking he was being set up in some way, and noting that his work to expose bribery meant he had no shortage of potential enemies in Indonesia, he clobbered the unwitting passenger over the head.

He needn’t have feared, as there is a widespread practice in Jakarta of “car jockeys” waiting by the roadside to be picked up. For a small tip, they help drivers to exceed the number of passengers necessary to enter the city’s “three-in-one” zones – car-pool areas designed to reduce traffic. Despite efforts to combat this, locals say it will remain popular as long as the zones are in effect.

As well as being a dot on the map you may visit for business, Jakarta is making a concerted effort to attract leisure travellers. While it is already popular for Indonesians living elsewhere in the archipelago, the tourism board wants to encourage overseas visitors to stay for longer than just a business stopover. It is having some success, mainly with residents of other Asian nations who are up for something new.

The city certainly has much to attract visitors. Ritz-Carlton’s Ramadhinta says: “I’ve spoken to so many travellers hopping around Asia for both business and leisure, and have been proud to hear Jakarta mentioned many times as one of the best places in Asia for entertainment.” Resident expats often stick to five-star hotels and perhaps the odd country club, but Jakarta is also known for its bars and nightclubs, such as Dragonfly and Red Square, as well as its historical and cultural pursuits (see panel, right).

Plus, you might forget as you explore the vast sprawl that it is a coastal city, on Java’s north shore. The Thousand Islands, or Pulau Seribu, is a misnomer for a group of 105 tropical islands near Jakarta that stretches 45km into the sea. You’ll find resorts on several of the islands, which are protected as a marine park, as well as fishing villages and some ruins from the Dutch occupation.

If you’re here during Ramadan, which falls in August and September next year, you’ll be in for a culinary treat. During the Islamic month of fasting, observant Muslims refrain from eating during daylight hours. But as soon as the sun sets, hotels lay on lavish feasts – this year, the Shangri-La flew in the executive chef from its sister hotel in Muscat to serve Middle Eastern meze and a vast selection of meats. Jakarta, you’ll find, is full of surprises.


Hotel Mulia Senayan

This huge luxury hotel is next to the greenbelt area around Bung Karno football stadium, which is perfect for jogging and is also home to the 18-hole Senayan golf course.

It’s owned by a local Chinese-Indonesian family and is a good option for people who would rather stay at a local hotel that is still operated according to world-class standards. It has 996 rooms, including 115 suites, and one of the largest ballrooms in South East Asia, a 2,500 sqm venue that can host up to 4,000 people. It is in the process of refurbishing its top three suites.

The hotel has made cuisine one of its top priorities, and it frequently updates the menus in its eateries and flies in world-renowned chefs. Next month, two-Michelin starred chef Caludio Sadler will be serving up high-end Italian dishes in Il Mare.

It has recently revamped most of its seven restaurants, including the Café, its 24-hour eaterie, which now features a buffet and five zones based on the elements earth, water, fire, wood and gold. The entrance near the water zone has a dizzying bank of diamond-white lights and flatscreen TVs, courtesy of Memphis design firm Wilson Associates.

Jalan Asia Afrika, Senayan; tel +62 215 747 777; hotelmulia.com

Shangri-La, Jakarta

The Shangri-La is in the Sudirman Central Business District (CBD) and has 661 rooms, a spa and a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. For long-stay guests, the Shangri-La Residences offer 168 serviced apartment suites.

The hotel can host up to 3,000 people for drinks in its 1,800 sqm pillar-less ballroom, and has updated its Horizon Club lounge on the 23rd-storey executive floor, doubling its size. Bats bar (happy hour from 5pm to 7pm) is a city institution that’s popular with expats.

Jalan Jend, Sudirman Kav 1; tel +62 215 707 440; shangri-la.com

Ritz-Carlton Jakarta/Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place

There are two Ritz-Carlton hotels in the city, the original one in the new Mega Kuningan commercial district, open since 2005, and the Pacific Place hotel in Sudirman CBD, which opened in November 2007. The older hotel has 333 rooms and a spa, while the newer one has 62 rooms and connects to the Jakarta Stock Exchange and Pacific Place shopping mall.

The Pacific Place hotel claims to have the biggest rooms and suites in the city (73 sqm to 169 sqm), and all feature 46-inch LCD TVs and 24-hour room service. The latest addition to the original hotel’s eateries is Lobo, which opened at the start of August. It’s an Italian restaurant under the guidance of chef Mariano Liuzza that focuses on grilled meats and seafood, bringing together what used to be the hotel’s steakhouse, and its Portovenere Italian diner in what used to be the lobby lounge.

Lobo’s bar is a good place to hang out and enjoy a pre-dinner drink, and the main dining room has private rooms on request. There’s also an outdoor dining area with a great view of the city.

Ritz-Carlton Jakarta: Jalan Lingkar Mega Kuningan Kav E11 No 1, Mega Kuningan; tel +62 212 5518 888. Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place: Jalan Jendral Sudirman Kav 52-53; tel +62 212 5501 888. Visit ritzcarlton.com

Go to jakarta-tourism.go.id, the Jakarta City Government Tourism and Culture Office’s website, for information about the city, as well as contact details for every five-star hotel in town.


Many of Jakarta’s oldest sights are in the historic district, once the walled city of Batavia. The 24-hour Café Batavia (cafebatavia.com) is a good place to stop for refreshments – it’s housed in a restored 19th-century building on Fatahillah Square and has great colonial charm.

  • Fatahillah Museum is opposite Café Batavia. Also known as the Jakarta History Museum, it is well worth a visit. It has exhibits across two floors on Jakarta’s development, local cultural and colonial history, and the influence of Chinese settlers and other immigrants that have helped to shape the city. Open 9am-3pm Tue-Sun. Visit jakarta-tourism.go.id
  • The museum sits in a building that was once the old City Hall of Batavia, directly in front of the square used for public executions by the Dutch. There’s a prison, which used to flood with water, in its bowels.
  • Near the historic neighbourhoods of Batavia is a Chinatown that is once again thriving. Although Indonesia has a torrid history of persecuting Chinese Indonesians, and has at times banned Chinese characters and symbols, Jakarta is once again celebrating its cultural diversity.
  • The Museum Nasional Indonesia is on Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat, and has been in operation since 1778, focusing on archaeology, history and ethnography. It’s open 8.30am-2.30pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8.30am-11.30am on Fridays, and 8.30am-1.30pm on Saturdays. Visit museumnasional.org
  • The city is dotted with memorials and sculptures to Indonesian independence. The Monumen Nasional is a 137-metre tall tower in central Jakarta. Construction started in 1961, but was not completed until 1975. It is near Merdeka Park and the Istana Merdeka, the national palace complex.
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