Often a stopover on the way to more glamorous destinations, Jakarta makes for a rewarding city break, says Andy Welch.
Jakarta is a relentless city. Noisy, humid, traffic in gridlock – the Indonesian capital, on the north-west island of Java, is like nowhere else on earth. And now Garuda Indonesia, the country’s national airline, is flying there direct from London (with a touchdown in Amsterdam), it’s a city open to more visitors than ever before.
During the 1990s, Garuda didn’t have the best reputation. But thanks to a long break and new ownership, the airline has completely transformed.
From hitting rock bottom, it’s now one of only seven five-star airlines in the world, and in 2013, was awarded World’s Best Economy Class by Skytrax, providers of the industry’s top global benchmark.
It’s difficult to judge how far Soekarno-Hatta airport is from the centre of Jakarta. Conservative estimates suggest an hour, although my journey takes more like three hours. So bad is the traffic in Jakarta that lateness to appointments is not just tolerated but factored in.
During peak hours, the city’s highways and byways almost completely come to a standstill, and there aren’t many pavements, so walking is normally out of the question.
In light of this, Jakartans have decided the best way of getting from A to B is by scooter. There are about seven million of the two-wheelers in the city, making every traffic light and junction look more like an off-road rally.
Tourists can hire scooters, but it’s not the most relaxing way of getting around this metropolis. Instead, it’s best to carefully plan what you’re going to do and set off early.
One place you should visit is the Jakarta History Museum in the old town hall of Batavia. It’s a well-maintained colonial building dating back to the 17th century (when Jakarta was part of the Dutch empire), as beautiful on the outside as it is interesting on the inside.
There are multiple ornate rooms with maps, furnishings, weapons and artworks detailing the city’s colourful past.
The National Monument is another spot worthy of your time. The monument, not unlike Nelson’s Column in appearance, was built to recognise Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Netherlands in the 1940s.
Here, you can sit, enjoy an ice-cold drink from one of the many vendors, and hopefully take in some rare quiet. During my visit, there aren’t many people around here at all, giving the place an oddly tranquil feel.
Tradition is a big deal in Indonesia, and there are many sites explaining the country’s rich and varied past. But with a population of around 240 million, making it the world’s fourth most populous country, and a staggering 50 per cent of the inhabitants aged below 30, the future is going to be infinitely more exciting.
As a result of that youthful boom, Indonesia is in transition from slightly creaking former colony to world-leading technology hub. And as a stopover en route to the Indonesian islands or even Australia, it’s quietly fascinating.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hermitage (www.lhw.com/hermitagejakarta)
It’s among the most luxurious hotels in Jakarta, and is certainly one of the newest. Despite a recent extensive renovation and extension, the beautiful art deco building contains many nods to its former existence as a government office, a school and a telephone exchange.
A swim in the open-air rooftop pool provides the perfect start to a day, and soaking up the view at sunset, while sipping a gin and tonic, is about as relaxing as it gets.
The rooms, all marble and glass, are very tasteful, and the food in the restaurant is second-to-none, catering for any taste.
The cheapest room is around £140 a night for real five-star luxury and worth every penny.
WHAT TO SEE
Grand Indonesia Shopping Town (www.grand-indonesia.com)
This is one of the largest malls in Asia. Bargain or bling-hunting or not, it’s worth seeing simply to experience how big and confusing a shopping centre can be.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Jakarta’s nightlife should be investigated. There’s a thriving ex-pat scene, so if you don’t want to venture too far into the city’s underbelly, you don’t have to. The Skye bar and restaurant is particularly popular with tourists and well-to-do locals.
Situated on the 56th floor of an office tower, it’s easy to see why – you get an incredible view of the city, with its neon towers and high-rise apartments.
Eastern Promise (epjakarta.com)
This Jakartan take on a pub offers great food, darts and pool, and it’s nowhere near as seedy as the name suggests.
Cafe Batavia (www.cafebatavia.com)
This Dutch colonial restaurant is also the second-oldest building in Jakarta. The menu includes Western, Japanese and delicious local cuisine.
* Andy Welch was a guest of Garuda Indonesia (www.garuda-indonesia.com) who offer flights from Gatwick to Jakarta from £528 return, in economy class, including 30kg baggage allowance.