Tucked in the highlands of West Java, away from the endless hustle engulfing Jakarta, tea estates harkening back to the Dutch colonial period have become Indonesia’s answer to France’s famed vineyards or California’s Napa Valley.
Providing getaway seekers with a chance to savor a different world, these tea estates are drawing city dwellers and foreigners looking for a taste of something out of the ordinary.
“Tea plantation tours offer something different,” said Jimmi Lapotulo, a visitor at the Goalpara Tea Estate in Sukabumi. “The natural beauty, the fragrance of tea leaves, the fresh air breeze — you can’t really find places like this anywhere else.”
Indonesia’s introduction to tea came in the 18th century, courtesy of the Dutch colonialists. Java’s tea industry was painstakingly cultivated by Dutchman Jacobus Isidorus Lonevijk Levien Jacobson, who arrived in Jakarta, then Batavia, in 1827. For six years, Jacobson made exhaustive trips to China to bring back seeds, plants, workmen and materials, until he was able to start a tea plantation in Bogor. The Indonesian tea industry continued to grow, and now the country is the fifth largest producer of tea in the world.
But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that these tea estates began drawing tourists, 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 with mountain cyclists, processing factories offer educational and tasting tours and colonial homes are now charming guesthouses. Here, vacationers can travel back to a bygone era and partake in ecological adventures without ever having to set foot on an airplane.
Today, there are more than 30 state-owned tea plantations in West Java and a handful of them are tapping into the growing tourism market.
“Developing tourism at other plantations was simple because the infrastructure was already in place,” said Ali, a spokesman for Goalpara. “Malabar has a big colonial mansion and is close to a hot spring, and Gunung Mas is located at a high altitude, so it’s perfect for adventure sports.” Gunung Mas is another tea estate.
Goalpara’s high production targets mean it doesn’t have the time to promote agrotourism as much as other estates, but Ali said tourists, both locals and foreigners, do make their way to the plantation.
“Locals like to come here to escape the noisy city life,” Ali said. “Here, they can do lots of outdoor recreational activities — picnics, trekking, enjoying the cool weather and the view. It’s all very refreshing.”
According to Ali, tea estates are also popular getaway spots for European tourists, who enjoy the old-world charm.
“Most of the [foreign] tourists come from the Netherlands, because most of these plantations used to be owned by the Dutch,” Ali said. “Coming to the tea plantations 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 plantation tours are more relaxed. Vacationers can choose to participate in leisurely “tea walks” around the estate, accompanied by cool breezes and the scent of flowering shrubs.
At Malabar Tea Estate in Pangalengan, walkers can head to the nearby hot spring afterward to soak their tired muscles; Gunung Mas in Puncak has a swimming pool where 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, winding paths of the plantations provide a perfect backdrop for challenging treks and mountain biking, while tea estates at higher elevations like Gunung Mas offers adrenaline junkies the chance to paraglide over Puncak’s rolling green hills.
In addition to refugees from the city and adventurers, West Java’s tea estates are also drawing visitors with their educational tours.
“Coming here is not just about relaxation, but also about education,” Jimmi said. “You drink tea every day, but a lot of us don’t know how it gets from the earth to our tea cup.”
Senari has worked at Gunung Mas for 35 years and now leads tours around the processing facility and the plantation.
“We get a lot of young tourists also,” Senari said. “Parents would come visit for the weekend, bring back the tea, and their kids would want to come for themselves to see how it was made.”
Tea estates like Goalpara and Gunung Mas have tours that allow visitors to walk through the shrubs (some close to 100 years old), partake in the tea picking process, observe tea production and packaging, and sample the estate’s teas.
Many tour operators now offer tea-tasting getaways, which include transportation and accommodation at a colonial plantation house, but escaping to these tea estates is simple to do on your own. All it takes is a three-hour drive from Jakarta, and, if you can make it through the traffic, you’ll find yourself up in the cool hills, raising a steaming cup of antioxidants in salute to 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
Malabar Tea Estate
Tel: 022 253 4517, 022 250 2049