Jackpot! I found a secret island better than Bali
Indonesia has over 17,500 islands. It's not surprising then that only a small percentage of them are well-known. What is weird though is when an Indonesian island, of similar size to Bali, with beautiful beaches and big resorts, is so unknown that even those living one over from it, have never even heard of it.
The mystery island I'm talking about is Belitung. Part of the Bangka-Belitung Regency, it lies to the east of Sumatra and north of Java, and was apparently so under-the radar even my local guide in Sumatra didn't know about it.
My journey to it began months earlier I opened an email with 'Jackpot!' as the subject line and a single website link. My friend Christie and I were planning a trip around South East Asia together, and before finishing up in Bali, we wanted to visit as many unknown places as possible.
The link took me to a blog with photos of clear water, cute and colourful houses and a scenic blue lake surrounded by white mounds that looked exactly like snow, but was actually pure white … clay minerals?!
It was Belitung, and it these pics alone were enough to make us book.
Boarding the hour-long flight from Jakarta, we realised we were onto something special. We were the only two non-Indonesians, and the plane was packed. Though there hadn't been too many Westerners in Sumatra, there had been enough to make the situation now noticeable.
Landing at the tiny airport, we found that was still the case, and again at our hotel, the four-star Fairfield By Marriott. Dropping our bags in our room, we immediately ordered a Street Taxi Belitung (the only legit taxi service on the island), on WhatsApp. We were there for five days, but were keen to see as much as we could.
We headed to Tanjung Kelayang Beach, to a place called Crabby Hut where the Street Taxi operator told us Westerners went (not that we'd asked).
The two-lane road there winded through jungle and past the turquoise and orange and pink and blue houses we'd seen in the blog before we were dropped at an over-size beach shack.
Out front were huge granite rocks that looked like they'd been dropped from the sky into the sea. It was eerily quiet.
Not only were there no Westerners, apart from the few workers around, there was no one else for the entire next few hours.
"Where is everyone?" I'd asked Christie. I'd find out two day later.
We booked a private island hopping tour, also through the Street Taxi operator, and for the incredibly affordable rate of $60AUD for the whole day. Unsurprisingly, our boat guide didn't speak a single word of English.
We spent the day docking at islands that looked straight out of Desktop backgrounds … minus the crowds of Indonesian tour groups wearing matching T-shirts and toting massive cameras, that is. There seemed to be a drone for every 10 people present.
Striking up conversation with a woman, fully-clothed and wearing her hijab in the water at Kepayang Island, I asked where she was from.
"Jakarta," she said. "We're a church group."
We got into a routine, starting each day early, thanks to the morning megaphone-d prayer calls at sunrise. We visited an old mining site called Danau Kaolin (the snowlike mounds place - turns out Belitung was once the world's second largest tin producer after China), went on an island hopping boat again with a French family we'd met in the hotel lobby - four of the eight other Westerners we'd see in Belitung - and lounged by an infinity pool we found at hotel BW Suite next door.
There were no scuba diving centres, no day clubs, and if there was any night-life, we didn't see or hear about it. Hardly anyone spoke English, and we only came across one "tour centre".
Belitung couldn't have been any more different to Bali, or even Jakarta. But it had its own charm. It felt like we'd discovered an island that had completely slipped through the cracks - at least as far as global travel went.
It was the most genuinely local and un-touristy place I'd ever been - despite still having lots to see and do. When people talk about off-the-beaten-track travel experiences, this is it. In that sense, it was better than Bali.