Located at the far western end of the 5000-kilometre long Indonesian archipelago, Pulau Weh has over the past decade or so become one of those beachside places that successfully treads the fine line between remote jungle-covered island paradise with no facilities and tourist hell filled with hundreds of beach resorts. It's managed to navigate this line so well that Pulau Weh may well be that island paradise you've always dreamed of, but never been able to find -- especially if you've tried looking in Thailand.
The atmosphere on Pulau Weh is still low-key enough that you're unlikely to see more than about 50 foreigners during your weeklong stay on the island. On the other hand, enough people are coming here that hoteliers and restaurant owners are making an effort to ensure their guests' stay is comfortable for fear of losing out to their competition. At the bottom end of the accommodation range are small huts tucked in the forest with shared facilities -- expect to pay about 60,000 rupiah per night for these. At the upper end are all-in resorts catering for people wanting a few more luxuries, but far less gaudy and mono-cultural than what you might find in Phuket and Bali. In fact, when not diving, most people choose to spend their time swinging in a hammock on their balcony, reading a book and sipping on an ice cold beer.
Diving is the biggest draw to Pulau Weh and dive enthusiasts are the real reason that tourism to the island has taken off. On each ferry arriving from the Sumatran mainland city and provincial capital of Banda Aceh are a handful of tourists eager to see what all the fuss is about under the ocean around Pulau Weh. What they find are shipwrecks, canyons, underwater volcanoes and a diversity of marine life that is truly world class.
For those not interested in diving, the waters around Pulau Weh are perfect for snorkelling. In fact, right in front of most guesthouses in Iboih, the main town for tourist accommodation on Pulau Weh, is a great reef with all sorts of colourful tropical fish. Further afield across the 400-metre-wide channel between Iboih and Pulau Rubiah is an even better reef with fantastic visibility, even more fish and some vibrant corals. But the best way to experience Pulau Weh's underwater delights is by diving it and this can be done quite cheaply, even if you have never dived before.
Although most accommodation is located in Iboih, a few resorts are dotted around the island, with our favourite being Freddie's at Sumur Tiga. The problem with staying at some of these resorts is that you're a little bit trapped for food options other than the in-house restaurant. Additionally, diving is generally either more difficult or more expensive as it's usually arranged in-house. Still, if you're looking to split your time between diving and relaxing, a visit to Sumur Tiga is well worth a diversion.
Facilities on Pulau Weh are limited, although these days there is 24-hour electricity island-wide and ATMs can be found in both Sabang and Iboih. Fast internet is available at most guesthouses, but you may run into the issue of every other tourist being on at the same time, making a normally fast connection turn to sludge.
Medical facilities are available in Sabang some 21 kilometres from Iboih, although you're going to want to get out of there and to Banda Aceh as quick as possible if the ailment is serious.
Getting to Pulau Weh requires getting a ferry from Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra. While not totally off the beaten path, keep your expectations in terms of facilities low when visiting the island -- Bali this is not.
By Adam Poskitt