This vast country’s 17,000 islands would take years to explore. As a new direct flight from the UK to Indonesia launches, we pick what to do and see plus the best hotels, food and drink in four popular destinations
The world’s largest island nation, Indonesia comprises about 17,000 islands sprawling over almost two million square kilometres either side of the equator. It includes half of the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea, and most of the world’s third-largest, Borneo, as well as rugged Sumatra and busy Java. Its distinctive wildlife includes pygmy elephants, tree kangaroos and the Komodo dragon; its dramatic landscape embraces ancient rice terraces, untamed jungle, islands with pristine coral fringed by white sands and lava-spewing volcanoes. And now that national carrier Garuda has launched the first direct flights from the UK to Jakarta, the nation’s capital and transport hub, Britons are just two flights away from pretty much anywhere in the archipelago.
Indonesia’s cultures are as diverse as its geography. Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it’s also studded with ancient Hindu temples, and its quarter of a billion inhabitants practice six officially recognised religions, as well as a range of animist rituals.
Swept by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it’s one of the best diving destinations in the world – many would argue the best. Year-round breaks in warm, tropical waters bring surfers flocking to Bali, as well as nearby Sumbawa and the westerly Mentawai islands.
Like any developing nation, Indonesia presents its travel challenges. Litter, particularly plastic, is an issue, while traffic, grime and massive inequality can make cities grim places at first glance. While cheap air travel has opened up great swathes of the nation, it can still take huge amounts of time to get from A to B. Java has a working rail network and Sumatra a handful of lines, but many journeys will involve internal flights, jolting bus journeys, ferries of a range of shapes, sizes and safety standards, or, quite often, all of these. Travelfish.org is a great Indonesia travel planning resource.
You could spend years exploring Indonesia and barely scratch the surface. We focus on the most-visited areas – Bali, Java, Lombok and up-and-coming Flores – with some suggestions for adventures further afield.
While parts of lush, approachable Bali are textbook examples of the impact of mass tourism, it remains, in essence, the island that enchanted western artists in the 1930s. A well-rounded trip will include a bit of beach as well as time in Ubud and a few days elsewhere inland.
Bali in general is less about the beaches themselves than the water. Pemuteran on the north coast and Amed on the east coast offer outstanding diving and snorkelling: don’t miss the remains of the USS Liberty near Amed, one of very few substantial wrecks to lie in relatively shallow and calm waters close to shore. Euro Dive offers two dives for £40. Hipster Canggu on the west coast and the peaceful Bukit peninsula in the far south are surfing destinations. Uluwatu and Padang-Padang on the Bukit peninsula have waves to challenge experts. In Canggu, Old Man’s Beach is kind to beginners (expect to pay under £20 for a two-hour lesson with board hire from any of the guys with board stands on the beach), while Echo Beach is better for intermediates and above.
Inland, Ubud, the island’s cultural and spiritual capital, may be touristy but still offers top-notch food, ancient temples and colourful ritual, handicrafts and self-improvement activities from silver-smithing to every kind of yoga on the planet. The annual Ubud Readers and Writers Festival runs from 28 October-1 November this year.
The real Bali can be found deep inland. To the east is Besakih, with its Hindu Mother Temple, the sacred volcano, Mount Agung, and popular Sidemen for rice field walks and staggering views. To the north and west, Munduk has waterfalls and highland hikes, Bedugul is cool enough for strawberries to grow, and there’s nothing quite like easing sore muscles in lakeside hot springs after a sunrise climb of the Mount Batur volcano.
And today, thanks to metered taxis, Uber and a host of shuttle services including the new Kura Kura bus with its mobile app, Bali is easy to get around without braving the hectic traffic or the bemo minibus network.
The rainy season peaks between December and February, bringing high humidity and grey days: weather is at its best between April and August, although traffic is particularly bad over the August peak.
What to eat
Must-try Balinese dishes include babi guling (roast sucking pig with spices). This is usually eaten in the mornings or at lunchtime, from specialist restaurants with low prices and plastic chairs. Look out for duck or chicken betutu (a smoky, spicy dish originally served at ceremonies), and sate lilit (lemongrass-heavy minced meat satay) in similar, street-style places that offer them as a speciality. Those with cash to splash can enjoy fine dining and cocktails at restaurants such as Locavore in Ubud (Jalan Dewisita 10, locavore.co.id), or in the beach resort of Seminyak at Mozaic Brasserie (Jl Pantai Batu Belig, mozaic-beachclub.com/mozaic-brasserie) or Mejekawi (Jalan Kayu Aya 9), a “kitchen and laboratory concept” with five- and 12-course tasting menus (from £37 a head).
Where to stay
Serenity Eco Guesthouse (doubles from £26 B&B), is 150 metres from the beach in Canggu, with simple rooms, pool and yoga studio. In Ubud, Taman Indrakila (doubles from £30 B&B) has pretty bungalows on a dramatic jungled gorge, and a cliffside pool. Teras Bali (doubles from £32 B&B, terasbalisidemen.com) sits amid rice fields near Sidemen with a striking swimming pool. Arjuna Homestay (doubles from £21 B&B) in Pemuteran makes a great base for diving the coral walls off Menjangan island, and has a pool.
More people live on Java than in the whole of Japan, which makes for slow travel and congested cities. Yet this is also the heartland that defines Indonesia: shadow puppets, courtly ritual, elaborate dances, smouldering volcanoes and timeless landscapes. At least until the long-awaited urban light rail system arrives (perhaps in 2018), the capital Jakarta, in the west of the island, is a gridlocked mega-city that most people will want to avoid. The main sights at this end of Java are the volcanic islands of Krakatoa and the national park of Ujung Kulon, home to the endangered Javanese rhino. These are best visited on a tour from the resort of Carita Beach: try krakatau-tour.com.
Banyunwangi in eastern Java is reached by an hour-long ferry hop from the port of Gilimanuk in north-west Bali, making the Ijen plateau above Banyuwangi a natural trip from Bali. Head here for hot springs, coffee plantations, spice gardens, perfectly conical volcanoes and a stunning crater lake where locals still mine blocks of sulphur. On the coast south of here, Plengkung beach has an iconic surf break (G-Land), and Red Island is an up-and-coming surf destination.
Further west, brooding Mount Bromo, an Indonesian icon, sits stark in a black sand desert: the horse-riding Tenggerese people still make live offerings to the volcano at the Yadnya Kasada festival, usually in June (6-20 June this year).
In central Java, the eighth-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, serene in the lush volcanic highlands, is one of the world’s great religious monuments: Buddhist pilgrims come here from across Asia to celebrate Waisak (the Buddha’s birthday, 20-22 May). The cultured university city of Yogyakarta, one of few Indonesian cities with a preserved historic centre, is much more than just a base for exploring Borobudur and the temples at nearby Prambanan. In town, visitors can catch a traditional masked dance performance in the Kraton walled city, explore museums and the bird market, and check out contemporary arts spaces like Cemeti and Sangkring.
Trundling past Java’s timeless rice paddies on slow but not uncomfortable trains is far more preferable to sitting on buses in traffic. Most trains are bookable on tiket.com by credit card.
Java’s rainy season is between November and March: around Eid (Idul Adha in Indonesian, 10-11 September this year), half of Indonesia heads home for the Islamic holiday. Don’t even think about travelling in Java around this time.
What to eat
You’ll find the meatball-noodle soup called bakso all over Java, as well as sop buntut (oxtail soup) and often kambing gule (delicious goat and coconut curry). In Yogya, the signature dish is gudek, a curry of young jackfruit and coconut. Head to the city’s main drag, Jalan Malioboro, for street food, or the House of Raminten (Jalan Faridan Muridan Noto 7, +62 274 547 315) for dishes from across the archipelago.
Where to stay
The hot and cold spring swimming pools at Catimor Homestay (doubles from £10 B&B, +62 8233 262 8342, no website), a short walk from coffee farms, more hot springs and waterfalls, make this basic spot a good base for exploring the Ijen plateau. In Yogyakarta, centrally located Bamboo Bamboo Homestay (doubles from £11 B&B, mybamboobamboo.com) has dorms, en suite doubles and a sweet two-bedroom house with bamboo bathrooms. Archipelago Beach (doubles from £32 room only) in Carita Beach also has two- and three-bedroom villas in styles from across the archipelago. From £80 per night, they’re a great choice for groups headed to Krakatau or Ujung Kulon.
Lombok and The Gilis
All most visitors to Lombok see of this intriguing island are the trio of white sand isles known as the Gilis, off the north-west coast: party-hearty Gili Trawangan, stylish Gili Air and less-developed Gili Meno. Fast boats run directly from Bali to these hedonistic hotspots, which are famously free of powered vehicles – the crossing is often included in a hotel transfer, though Eka Jaya has returns from around £34. While there are many better diving destinations in Indonesia, the Gilis are a popular base to learn both scuba and freediving: try Manta Dive or Freedive Gili ( – the latter is run by British freediving champion Michael Board. Avoid the Gilis during the August peak period, when prices can triple.
But Lombok merits a longer stay. It offers world-class surf breaks between April and November – principally the metronomic barrel at Desert Point in the south-west, but also around Kuta in the south. Gunung Rinjani, the 3,762-metre peak that dominates the island, makes for an epic, three-day climb (for the properly equipped; see gunungbagging.com for details). In its foothills are ancient mosques and villages still populated by practitioners of a Hindu-Islam fusion unique to Lombok, as well as pretty waterfalls.
In the south, the coastline around Kuta is a series of gorgeous, white sand bays backed by stark green promontories – perfect road trip territory. The Bau Nyale festival, held around late February, is a three-day celebration of the rising of seaworms – a local delicacy – from the coral. The Southern (or Secret) Gilis are cluster of west coast islands reached by boats from the tiny ports of Tembowong or Tawun. Well off the beaten track, they are full of character and charm.
The main form of public transport on Lombok – besides the horse-carts known as cidomo, which remain very much in service – is short-hop minivans, though these are tricky to negotiate without time and language skills. Tourist shuttles run between major destinations, and the airport has national and international connections, as well as a shuttle to the eminently avoidable resort area of Senggigi. Fast and slow boats run from Bali to the port at Lembar.
What to eat
Typical Lombok dishes include sate pusut (spicy minced satay), and ayam taliwang (fiery fried chicken). In Mataram, the island’s capital, Dua-Em (Jalan Transmigrasi) is a good place to experience these and weirder delicacies. Beachside fresh fish barbecues are a highlight of the Gilis: Scallywags in South Beach, Gili Trawangan, is a classic choice. Around Kuta, Ashtari has stunning views, healthy food and great cocktails.
Where to stay
There is budget accommodation in Lombok and the Gilis, but none of it is very special – better to splash out a little more for somewhere memorable. In Selong Belanak, west of Kuta on Lombok’s south coast, Sempiak Villas (from £80 a night, sempiakvillas.com) has six individually designed self-catering bungalows above a sweeping, white sand beach. In Senaru in the Rinjani foothills, Rinjani Lodge (doubles from £50 B&B, rinjanilodge.com), offers stunning views, infinity pools and hot-spring tubs. For basic beachfront chic, Madak Belo (bungalow from £26 room only, dorm beds from £13, madak-belo.com) is at Madak Belo Beach on Gili Gede, the largest of the Southern Gilis. It’s worth paying a premium for a quiet location on Gili T: Wilson’s Retreat (classy suite with outdoor bathroom from £80) is on a peaceful north coast beachfront.
After Lombok, the mostly Catholic Flores is the most visited of the hundreds of islands that make up Nusa Tenggara, although Sumba is increasingly popular too. Most people fly from Bali to Labuanbajo, the gateway to spectacular diving and the dragons at Komodo national park, Divers could splurge on a liveaboard such as traditional phinisi sailing ship Moana (from £1,000 for a five-day dive cruise) or just pick up a deal at the harbour. Inland, Bajawa and Ruteng are gateways to fascinating tribal cultures in the island’s lush valleys. Buses run to both from Labuanbajo, or it’s easy to negotiate a car and a driver at the airport. Hotels and guesthouses in Ruteng will be keen to introduce you to a guide. Heading on east across the island, the lunar landscape of Kelimutu, near Ende, houses crater lakes so brilliantly coloured they look like paint spills.
What to eat
Labuanbajo has a diverse dining scene, and a huge choice of food at its busy night market: Italian-owned Made in Italy (Jalan Soekarno Hatta) has strikingly good food. Padang food and Chinese-Indonesian specialities – besides dog meat - include sop ikan asam manis, a tangy, tamarind fish soup.
Where to stay
Kanawa Beach Bungalows (doubles from £40) on tranquil Kanawa island, connected to Labuanbajo by one boat a day (at noon), remain a popular choice. Outside Labuanbajo, there’s little tourist-focused accommodation. An interesting place to stay is Hotel Susteran, actually part of the convent of Santa Maria Berdukacita in Ruteng (doubles from £13, no website, +62 385 22 834). Local guides can arrange homestays in the cone-shaped huts of the remote Manggarai village of Wae Rebo (details at Flores Tourism).
Of course, there’s much, much more to Indonesia than Java, Bali, Lombok and Flores. Sumatra, the world’s sixth-largest island, is home to orangutans, tigers and more. Catch the wildlife in Gunung Leuser national park, explore pretty Weh island, and chill out by highland Toba, the world’s largest volcanic crater lake.
With diverse tribal cultures, the thousands of islands that make up Maluku (the Moluccas) are an island-hopper’s mecca. Laszlo Wagner of website East-Indonesia.info recommends starting on the island of Ambon, then moving on to Saparua, then either the Banda islands – the original home of nutmeg – or the rarely visited Kei islands.
Indonesian New Guinea offers not only the Raja Ampat islands – 40,000 sq km of marine territory whose pristine reef makes it a diving haven – but outstanding jungle adventures. Mikel Leitzinger of Archipelago Explorer recommends guided trekking in the Baliem Valley and then a trip by boat and on foot upriver and through swamps to meet the treehouse-dwelling Korowai people.
Though vast, jungled Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) has been hit hard by logging, mining and palm oil farming, it is still home to animals from pygmy elephants to orangutans and maintains some unspoiled forest. Lucas Zwaal of De’Gigant Tours recommends a guided trekking and riverboat trip through virgin jungle from Long Bawan to Tanjung Selor.
The elongated geography of sprawling, spidery Sulawesi means that, even with internal flights, the island takes longer to explore than you’d imagine. A good plan is to start in Makassar, explore the karst landscapes of Rammang-Rammang, then head to the Toraja highlands. Wildlife lovers could choose to fly from Makassar to Manado for the Bitung-Tangkoko national park, with its huge-eyed tarsiers and unique marsupials, as well as the diving islands of Bunaken and Lembeh.