Saturday, July 30, 2011

West Java Highland Tea Tours

Tuckedin the highlands of West Java, away from the endless hustle engulfing Jakarta,tea estates harkening back to the Dutch colonial period have become Indonesia’sanswer to France’s famed vineyards or California’s Napa Valley.

Providing getaway seekers with a chance to savor a different world, these teaestates are drawing city dwellers and foreigners looking for a taste ofsomething out of the ordinary.

“Tea plantation tours offer something different,” said Jimmi Lapotulo, avisitor at the Goalpara Tea Estate in Sukabumi. “The natural beauty, thefragrance of tea leaves, the fresh air breeze — you can’t really find placeslike this anywhere else.”

Indonesia’s introduction to tea came in the 18th century, courtesy of the Dutchcolonialists. Java’s tea industry was painstakingly cultivated by DutchmanJacobus Isidorus Lonevijk Levien Jacobson, who arrived in Jakarta, thenBatavia, in 1827. For six years, Jacobson made exhaustive trips to China tobring back seeds, plants, workmen and materials, until he was able to start atea plantation in Bogor. The Indonesian tea industry continued to grow, and nowthe country is the fifth largest producer of tea in the world.

But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that these tea estates began drawingtourists, thanks to a collaborative initiative by the Indonesian government,state-owned plantations and travel bureaus.

Tea fields have been turned into hiking trails, hilly paths are dotted withmountain cyclists, processing factories offer educational and tasting tours andcolonial homes are now charming guesthouses. Here, vacationers can travel backto a bygone era and partake in ecological adventures without ever having to setfoot on an airplane.

Today, there are more than 30 state-owned tea plantations in West Java and ahandful of them are tapping into the growing tourism market.

“Developing tourism at other plantations was simple because the infrastructurewas already in place,” said Ali, a spokesman for Goalpara. “Malabar has a bigcolonial mansion and is close to a hot spring, and Gunung Mas is located at ahigh altitude, so it’s perfect for adventure sports.” Gunung Mas is another teaestate.

Goalpara’s high production targets mean it doesn’t have the time to promoteagrotourism as much as other estates, but Ali said tourists, both locals andforeigners, do make their way to the plantation.

“Locals like to come here to escape the noisy city life,” Ali said. “Here, theycan do lots of outdoor recreational activities — picnics, trekking, enjoyingthe cool weather and the view. It’s all very refreshing.”

According to Ali, tea estates are also popular getaway spots for Europeantourists, who enjoy the old-world charm.

“Most of the [foreign] tourists come from the Netherlands, because most ofthese plantations used to be owned by the Dutch,” Ali said. “Coming to the teaplantations is like a way for them to preserve the memory of their ancestors.There’s an emotional connection.”

Unlike a lot of ecotourism, which focuses on adventure travel, tea plantationtours are more relaxed. Vacationers can choose to participate in leisurely “teawalks” around the estate, accompanied by cool breezes and the scent offlowering shrubs.

At Malabar Tea Estate in Pangalengan, walkers can head to the nearby hot springafterward to soak their tired muscles; Gunung Mas in Puncak has a swimming poolwhere hikers can cool off.

However, adventurous vacationers, seeking more than just rest and relaxation,will also find plenty of activities to keep them occupied. The sloping, windingpaths of the plantations provide a perfect backdrop for challenging treks andmountain biking, while tea estates at higher elevations like Gunung Mas offersadrenaline junkies the chance to paraglide over Puncak’s rolling green hills.

In addition to refugees from the city and adventurers, West Java’s tea estatesare also drawing visitors with their educational tours.

“Coming here is not just about relaxation, but also about education,” Jimmisaid. “You drink tea every day, but a lot of us don’t know how it gets from theearth to our tea cup.”

Senari has worked at Gunung Mas for 35 years and now leads tours around theprocessing facility and the plantation.

“We get a lot of young tourists also,” Senari said. “Parents would come visitfor the weekend, bring back the tea, and their kids would want to come forthemselves to see how it was made.”

Tea estates like Goalpara and Gunung Mas have tours that allow visitors to walkthrough the shrubs (some close to 100 years old), partake in the tea pickingprocess, observe tea production and packaging, and sample the estate’s teas.

Many tour operators now offer tea-tasting getaways, which includetransportation and accommodation at a colonial plantation house, but escapingto these tea estates is simple to do on your own. All it takes is a three-hourdrive from Jakarta, and, if you can make it through the traffic, you’ll findyourself up in the cool hills, raising a steaming cup of antioxidants in saluteto the charms of tea-estate culture.

“I like to go on ecotours because it’s about preserving our natural wonders,”Jimmi said. “It’s about nurturing the environment and getting away from it all.It makes me feel younger every time I go.”

Additional reporting by Astrid Paramitha Lyssens & Lauren Zumbach.

Goalpara Tea Estate
Jl. Raya Goalpara, 43/92
Tel: 026 622 1500

Gunung Mas Tea Estate
Jl. Raya Puncak Cawas, Bogor
Tel: 025 125 2501

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