If you are ready for a relaxing break from your Sumatra travels in pleasant and interesting surroundings, then check out Berastagi in the Karo Highlands. This is where the Dutch colonial well-to-do spent weekends and holidays, taking the cool mountain air, away from the heat of Medan.
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LUSH, BEAUTIFUL and 1300m plus (4,500 ft) above sea level, Berastagi remains a popular ‘hill station’ resort area.
It has plenty of good low-cost accommodation, including large older-style hotels in the grand mountain resort tradition.
For some of them, like the Sinabung Hills Resort, the glory days have faded. But they compensate with stunning views, sweeping landscaped gardens, massive pool areas and plenty of cool spaces to wind down and relax.
Sinabung Hills Resort, one of several grand resort style hotels at Berastagi. One of them even has its own ‘Fun Land’ amusement park next door.
Berastagi is about 70km and two hours south of Medan. The name means ‘rice store’ and the connotation of bountiful food is appropriate.
The Karo Highlands is famous for its rich volcanic soils and is a major growing area, shipping vegetables, fruits and cut flowers to markets throughout Indonesia and the region.
Some ‘weird’ and wonderful Karo fruits to see and taste
Those famous Karo fruits include the familiar oranges, pineapples, bananas, persimmons, passion fruit, and avocados.
But there are also exotic tropical varieties like mangosteens (sometimes described as the ‘queen of fruits’), Indonesian snake fruit, dragon fruit, and tamarillos.
Some of Berastagi’s unusual tropical fruits – snake fruit or salak and dragon fruit (TOP) – Pics indoindians.com and specialtyproduce.com. Watch the video for more about the salak. ABOVE RIGHT are mangosteens – Pic foodbank.com
Snake fruit, known locally as salak, is native to Indonesia but is now grown more widely around Asia. It as been named for its brown, scaley, snake-like skin.
Despite its shuddery exterior, snake fruit is said to be rich with protein, beta-carotene, vitamin-C, dietary fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorus, and carbohydrates.
It has been claimed that eating snake fruit on a weekly basis could maintain your healthy heart and blood vessels, give you a stamina boost, help balance your blood sugar levels, and improve brain memory. Hmmm …
It has a slightly astringent taste and is crunchy like an apple. Its make-up means it is not a good idea for people with ulcers or prone to constipation. But it is said to be a natural cure for diarrhea.
From snakes to dragons for another different taste treat
Dragon fruit is another (seemingly weird to Western eyes) fruit of Indonesia. But in fact, it originated in Mexico and Central America.
It comes from a climbing cactus, mainly in a magenta pink with green scale-like leaves, but it also can be yellow.
The white flesh inside is dotted with tiny black seeds like a kiwi fruit. It tastes good but sometimes with a hint of sourness.
The tamarillo is known locally as terong belanda or Dutch eggplant and tastes great blended with passion fruit to make a fresh juice drink.
Farm visits fruit and flower market
You can visit small farms to meet some local Batak growers, taste some of those exotic fruits and see how they are grown.
The Karo Highlands region is noted also for the quality of the arabica coffee produced from its cool, highland plantations. You can arrange to visit them too.
Section of the famous Berastagi fruit and flower market – Pic Ralph Apeldoorn
A visit to the Berastagi fruit and flower market is a must – here you can see the wide range of produce from this fertile region. Vendors sell succulent fruits, vegetables, and flowers, plus clothing and souvenirs, honey, and local snacks.
The market is full of color, activity, and good humour. Make sure you have your camera and be prepared for vendors to encourage you to taste their products. It’s great fun.
Gundaling Hill for viewing twin volcanoes - safely
About 5km and 15 minutes from Berastagi is the Gundaling Hill viewing site with spectacular views of twin active volcanoes.
Mt Sibayak (it means King’s Mountain) rises to 2012m (7,250 ft) and its nearby, slightly bigger brother Mt Sinabung rises to 7,460m (about 8,000 ft).
After lying quietly dormant for some 400 years, Mt Sinabung came back to life in 2010 and 2013. More periodic and spectacular eruptions resumed from 2014 with more recent eruptions in 2018 and again in 2020.
The activity brought disruptions for local people living close by, with more than 10,000 forced to evacuate and relocate.
Many lost homes and income and were left with little alternative but temporary evacuation shelters built by the government.
The Straits Times published this graphic image of the erupting Mt Sinabung in 2015 and below is spectacular video coverage by Global News of a recent eruption in March of 2021.
Sinabung’s activity continues to be closely monitored and if anything is amiss, the local authorities order more evacuations and limit visitor access.
The Gundaling Hill viewing area is 7km from Sinabung and outside the designated exclusion zones. Close enough to see, but far enough away to be safe.
From Gundaling Hill you also will be able to catch distant glimpses of Lake Toba.
A beautiful blue lake and bathing in Berastagi's thermal springs
Another popular short excursion from Berastagi is to the nearby village of Lau Kawar, nestled by a beautiful lake in the foothills of Mt Sinabung.
The lake’s peaceful, bluish green waters are a sharp contrast to the periodic anger of the nearby, sometimes erupting mountain.
ABOVE – Pools warmed by hot springs are one of Berastagi’s popular attractions, and (LEFT) the Blue Lake at Lau Kawar in the foothills of Mt Sinabung,
Nearer to Berastagi you can ‘take the waters’ at hot springs. You will need modest swim togs, a t-shirt top, and your own towel. (Be aware the healing waters will have some smell of sulphur).
Berastagi is not far from majestic Lake Toba, one of Indonesia’s natural wonders. It should be your logical next port of call when travelling Sumatra.
It is a journey to be taken slowly because there is much to see.
Truly interesting pauses along the road to Lake Toba
American 19th century man of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is credited with being the first to reminded us that it’s not the destination that is important, but rather the journey.
It as since become a cliché, but is very apt for the 170km sightseeing trip from Berastagi to the township of Parapat on the eastern shore of Lake Toba.
Toba is one of North Sumatra’s most magnificent destinations, but there are some good reasons for pausing along the way. However, you should consider engaging a capable local guide to explain and interpret.
You will need around four and a half hours of travel time plus a lunch stop and the time you spend viewing interesting places along the way.
Dokan Village - one house, up to 6 families and the critters beneath
Traditional Batak house with characteristic high roof in the village of Dokan about 25km from Berastagi.
At Dokan Village you can see the traditional long houses of the Karo people where families still live as they have for generations. Up to 8 families can share one extended house with livestock penned beneath the elevated dwellings.
These are the iconic homes of the Batak people. Traditionally they have with soaring thatched roofs and two or three floor levels.
They are constructed of timber and bamboo bound with sugar palm fiber. No nails or screws are used.
Residents will permit you to look inside a house, where they or your guide will explain the traditional Karo way of life. You are expected to make a modest donation – anything from Rp20,000 to Rp50,000 (AUD$2 to $5) can be very helpful to these hospitable families.6
Exploring the Royal compound of a dynasty of Batak tribal kings
At Pematang Purba, about 55km from Berastagi, you can explore the royal compound that served as home to 14 generations of the Purba dynasty of tribal kings of the Simalungun Batak people, dating back to 1624.
Intricate pillar decorations – old Simalangan Batak royal compound at Permalang Purba – pic www.timothytye.com (Asianexplorers blog)
The elevated status of Indonesia’s regional Kings and Sultans ended in 1947 as Indonesia moved to independence.
The emerging national government incorporated Sultanates and kingdoms into the new independent nation.
For a time, the Pematang Purba royal compound fell into disrepair, but then local officials designated it as an historical museum and the buildings and intricate decorative motifs are progressively being restored.
Your guide will tell the story of how the Simalungan rulers, their wives, their concubines, and their courtiers who once lived and ruled here.
The waterfall that pours out of a cliff-face to tumble into Toba
You can view the sparkling Sipiso-piso Falls near the fish farming village of Tongging. It’s quite a sight.
The plunge waterfall is formed by the Pajanabolon River dipping underground as it approaches the escarpment of the Karo plateau.
The water bursts from a hole in the wall of the escarpment as though pumped from a tunnel. It falls some 120 metres (360ft) and runs into the northern reach of Lake Toba.
It is one of the highest waterfalls in Indonesia
Water pours from the cliff-face into the Toba caldera via the Sipiso Piso Falls. It’s much more dramatic in the short video below by Panorama Destination.
The name Sipiso-piso means ‘knife-like’ in the local language and reflects the tall, thin, gleaming stream and the way the stream cuts into the face of the cliff.
There is a viewing area near the top of the falls. If you have the energy and the time you can go down to the base via a pathway with steps cut into the rock – a lot of them, and slippery in wet weather.
From the falls it is an 80km journey (around two hours) around the shores of Lake Toba to the town of Parapat and the ferry terminal for crossing to Samosir Island.
You can read the fascinating story of Lake Toba and all about Samosir Island in these articles:
THE BIG PICTURE
When travelling we sometimes need a pause for some R & R. If you are travelling in North Sumatra, Berastagi is an ideal place to slow down and take a break.
It is a beautiful area with the added benefit of a highland climate. It has easy and handy attractions you can explore without exerting yourself too much, and is conveniently located on one of the routes from Medan to Lake Toba.
If you wish to be more active there is more to explore than the places and experiences described above. Many visitors climb the Mt Sibayak volcano. It’s said to be a not too difficult hiking challenge. See more at this link.
If you want a change from the restaurant or coffee shop at your hotel you might like to check out the eating places in the township. The Jabu restaurant receives consistently favorable reviews for its service and mix of local and Western food.
It also has live music at weekends and sometimes midweek. This is the country of the Karo Batak people who love to play music and sing. If you get the chance to hear some local music grab it.
The Jabu is located in a side lane some distance from the main business district so you will need to engage transport or obtain good directions