MightyTravels reader Aisha Jade recently went to the beautiful Maratua Island, off the coast of Indonesia's East Kalimantan. The nearest airport is Berau, served by Garuda Indonesia and others.
"Maratua Island is located in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in the Celebes Sea. It's rare to find a beautiful, undisturbed island with fabulous diving today and that's why Maratua Island is the new Pearl of the Orient. What's great is that very few people seem to know about Maratua yet.
One of the reasons for this is that Maratua doesn't have an airport yet. There are plans for an airport on Maratua Island and the runway is partially completed, but the project is currently 2 years behind and possibly won't go forward. Such is the fate of major construction projects in Indonesia.
If you're like me and want to keep beautiful islands like Maratua off of the Banana Pancake Trail, which was started by Lonely Planet, you'll be fine with taking a boat to Maratua. To get to Maratua, you fly into Balikpapan and then onward to Berau in East Kalimantan. The major gateways to Balikpapan include Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Denpasar and Surabaya.
From Berau, you catch a taxi to the jetty at Tanjung Batu and from the jetty it is an hour and a half boat ride to Maratua. The ride to Maratua is exhilarating. Beautiful, uninhabited islands dot the landscape and a giant pod of dolphins swam beside us for part of the journey. When you spot Maratua in the distance, it's apparent that it's the largest island in the area.
Maratua has 384 sq km of beaches, mangroves and jungles. The island is crescent-shaped, with a fairly decent road stretching from one end to the other. It would take a day to explore the length of the island. To put that in perspective, you could walk the circumference of nearby Derawan Island in 40 minutes. There are 4 villages spread out on Maratua. For accommodation choices, you have Maratua Guesthouse and Maratua Paradise Resort.
Travelers and environmentalists often choose to stay at Maratua Guesthouse, which is an eco-concept guesthouse built in the jungle on the beach. The guesthouse sits on 12 acres on a remote part of the island, where there are no neighbors. The bungalows are built under the canopy of trees and the restaurant is on a cliff overlooking their private beach. It's a simple but clean guesthouse and the owners are wonderful hosts.
Maratua Paradise Resort is an upscale resort with bungalows built on stilts over the sea. Yes, it looks a little like those resorts that you see in the Maldives. The meals are buffet and lack imagination, but the views are lovely. The resort fills up with local Indonesians from Jakarta on the weekend and there is a festive spirit in the air. The resort is walking distance from the main village on the island, so it's easy to see a bit of village life.
Most people visiting Maratua are interested in the snorkeling and diving in the area. There are many dive spots around Maratua Island and you could spend weeks exploring the area. Some of the names of these spots include Hanging Garden, Sponge Reef, Cabbages Coral and Gorgonzola. Love that name! Two of the most popular places to visit near Maratua are Kakaban Island and Sangalaki Island.
Kakaban Island is famous for the salt water lake in its interior. It's inhabited by 4 species of stingless jellyfish. The lake is quite large and you can snorkel from a jetty erected on the edge. It's a wonderful place to bring children, as the snorkeling is safe and easy. Also, the waters off of Kakaban are excellent for diving or snorkeling. I took my 8 year old snorkeling and he commented that it looked just like the movie, Finding Nemo.
Sangalaki is famous for the manta rays that gather near the island. If the weather is calm, you can see upwards of 30 or more manta rays. These manta rays head to Sangalaki like clockwork for the regular cleanings, so it's fairly certain that you will see them when you visit. There aren't many places like this in the world anymore. Palau is the only one that I know of with regular manta ray sightings.
So, if you are looking for a destination way off of the beaten path, you might want to travel to Borneo and visit Maratua Island before it becomes the next Phuket. My favorite part of visiting Maratua was hanging out with intrepid backpackers who were willing to travel the distance for a once in a lifetime nature experience. Maratua is not for the faint-hearted or cushy tourist. It's a traveler's destination and it will be until (if) the airport is completed".