Guyan Mitra, The Daily Telegraph, September 20, 2013
Among Indonesia’s islands, Bali is the doe-eyed beauty. The child star who rose to a life of stardom; the name, for decades, on the lips of every traveller dreaming of a tropical getaway.
But Indonesia is an incredibly diverse archipelago, with no less than 17,000-odd islands, each with an individual identity. And though Bali is still an A-lister, the limelight is justifiably spreading – raising the curtain on a land of myriad islands sprinkled across the twinkling tropics. From Indian Ocean-facing, volcanic Sumatra to the Pacific waters of tribal Papua, the long-standing supporting cast of Indonesia’s islands are primed and ready for billboard status. Those prepared to venture that bit farther will be rewarded with some of the country’s most exotic wildlife, best diving and surfing spots, tallest volcanoes and interesting tribal cultures.
They will also find a country becoming more affordable and accessible. The pound has strengthened against the rupiah by 24 per cent in the last six months and direct flights between the UK and Indonesia start in May next year.
Bali is the complete tropical island; lush, culturally unique and exotic, yet with all forms of creature comforts. It pretty much invented tropical luxury, with a signature style of pavilion-like hotels with teak daybeds and handcrafted interiors that is plagiarised in boutique hotels from Anjuna to Zanzibar.
An island of Hindu offerings, incense wafts through the air from the second you step off the plane, and colourful, eccentric-looking gods poke their head out of every taxi mirror, shop door and hotel lobby.
Most visitors focus their stay on the southern shores – Seminyak for couples seeking luxury, and Kuta for raucous merriment and markets. These well-trodden, southern beaches are vast, yawning swathes of surf-crashed sand, alive with neon-hued après-surf nightclubs.
The party crowd is easy to avoid, however. Escapists make for the hidden coves of Bingin, where fierce waves have carved out a parade of cliff-skirted, white sand coves, with frothy shallows created by peeling barrels of surf on the horizon.
Things get wild on the tempestuous northern shore as inky black volcanic sands line the coast at beaches such as Lovina. For sunset, surf and swinging in hammocks, the tiny island of Nusa Lembongan, just off the east coast, is the beachy postcard many come to Bali expecting.
Others leave the coast all together to explore the verdant waves of rice paddies that undulate between the island’s inland volcanoes and the slow beating heart of the island, sleepy Ubud. Here, craft-selling villages, Hindu temples and monkey-filled rainforests surround the spiritual soul of Bali.
Where to stay
Bali Uma Ubud (00 62 361 972448; comohotels.com/umaubud ). This boutique hotel lies on the outskirts of Ubud, surrounded by gardens of banyan trees and coconut palms. It is furnished with huge pieces of Balinese furniture: antique carvings and giant sized, intricately carved teak sofas. Colonial-style, straw-thatched rooms look out onto the volcanic valley of Mount Batur. A popular activity involves a dawn hike up to the crater. Doubles from £243.
Nusa Bay Resort (00 62 361 484085). Roomy bamboo-thatched and pastel-brushed concrete villas overlook the silky white sarong of sand that is Mushroom Bay on Bali’s cheery offshoot isle, Nusa Lembongan. In keeping with the friendly vibe of the island, Nusa Bay is a place for mingling with fellow holidaymakers. Diners all squidge in together on the grand communal tables under the Indonesian village-style long house where Bintang and Arak (local beer and firewater respectively) flow into the early hours. Doubles from £78.
Lombok and the Gili Islands
Whisper it quietly; Lombok has far prettier, quieter and whiter beaches than neighbouring Bali. While its profile may be lower, the island looms over Bali with its 13,200ft-high pinnacle, Rinjani. This is Indonesia’s second highest volcano – no mean feat in such a ripped archipelago.
In the smoky shadows of this behemoth, the southern coast is licked with coconut-white coves and waves that draw discerning beach lovers and surfers respectively. For a Robinson Crusoe adventure, take your pick from any of the Gili Islands that dot along Lombok’s north-eastern fringe – a trio of tiny jungle-and-sand islands, haloed by kaleidoscopic coral reef – all without cars, crowds or complexity.
Where to stay
Oberoi Lombok (0207 207 222 0606; oberoihotels.com/oberoi_lombok ). Lovely as they are, the Gilis offer little in the way of luxury comforts so it’s best to admire their simple beauty from the day beds of the Oberoi’s private beach on Lombok’s mainland. The hotel also arranges picnics and day-trips to the islands – just 20 minutes away by boat. Doubles from £227.
Hotel Tugu (370 612 0111; tuguhotels.com/lombok ). Also on the Gili-facing side of Lombok. Take your pick from bamboo and thatched-roof rooms, styled on those found in traditional Lombok villages, either facing out to the cerulean sea and islands or inland to the ember-crowned Rinjani volcano. Three-night packages from £264 a night.
There may not be any great beaches to speak of on Java, but it does lay the bold, yet justifiable, claim to having the most mesmerising temple in Southeast Asia, credible urban nightlife (i.e. genuine alternatives to karaoke) and a fantastic volcano to hike.
Rise with the morning adhan (call to prayer) for a dawn viewing of the 8th-century Buddhist temple Borobudur and you can explore the intricate lattice stupas while the morning mist unveils the surrounding paddy fields – all in the foothills of a steaming volcano.
Then hike (or take a 4x4) up Mount Bromo for lunar-like, cloud-carpeted views of Java’s nobbled, volcanic spine of craters and smoke-spewing peaks.
Where to stay
Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa (293 788 888; plataranborobudur.com ). Balinese-inspired villas are dotted about a teak forest in one of the many valleys that roll into the foothills of central Java’s volcanoes, paddy fields and coffee plantations.
For maximum majesty, pick a bungalow looking out onto the Borobudur temple, flanked by the looming Mount Merapi and Menoreh Hill. Doubles from £134.
The untamed island of Borneo (of which Kalimantan makes up around two thirds) has enchanted adventurers since the days of the great Victorian explorers – and today little has diluted that raw experience. Home to one of the globe’s great rainforests, bone-through-the-nose tribes and the largest population of orang-utans in the world, this is just the spot to find the last corners of wilderness, untouched by human hand. River boating into the “heart of darkness” through the Tanjung National Park is the way to do it.
Putter along in a klotok river boat while bobble-nosed proboscis monkeys whoop at your arrival and kind-eyed orang-utans loop through the trees.
Where to stay
Most people stay on klotoks when exploring the jungle rivers, parking up by riverbanks.
If you’re not keen on that level of (dis)comfort, then Rimba Ecolodge ( rimbaecolodge.com ) has a chain of as comfortable digs as you’ll find in these parts.
Simple wood pavilions have statues of proboscis monkeys – unnecessary given the scores that perch and leap across the roof. One night’s accommodation together with a one-day tour costs from £54.
One of the world’s great movers and shakers – from the tsunami of Aceh to the earth axis-jolting volcano of Krakatoa – the sixth largest island in the world is renowned and unknown in equal measure. Once limited to those with an adventurous spirit, Sumatra is slowly opening to mainstream tourism. Start by ogling the orang-utans in the jungles of Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan. Then lounge on the shore of the vast volcanic lakes of Maninjau and Toba – where a bohemian beach culture has been bubbling under the radar since the Seventies.
The real show-stoppers are beyond Sumatra’s west coast, where little-known offshore islands boast the best surf spots on the Indian Ocean. Nias and the Mentawai Islands are inhabited by indigenous tribes and their swells are the stuff of beach fireside fantasy.
Unpredictable currents and razor-sharp coral have kept the Mentawai Islands one of the most socially and ecologically isolated archipelagos in the world. Shamanistic, loincloth‑clad tribes make up the majority of the population and can be found chanting in the rainforest of the main island of Siberut. Take your pick of the barren beaches on every island, but you can’t go wrong with the coral-fringed, Indian Ocean-facing stretch on Pulau Sipora, where consistent barrels of surf unravel and peachy sunsets are standard.
Where to stay
The Aloita Resort & Spa (Tua Pejat, Pulau Sipora; aloitaresort.com ) has just eight thatched-roof cottages dotted across a kilometre of creamy-white private beach. As well as world-beating surf on your doorstep there’s also diving, yoga and fishing (line and spear). Doubles from £150 per night.
Flores ("Flowers"), named by the Portuguese, is an island of smoking cones, fertile flanks and forest ridges studded with the occasional tin-roofed village. The winding trans-island road, forever either climbing or falling, is lined with Catholic churches, neat wooden houses and tethered goats, pigs and tawny cows.
Stay in the sleepy port of Labuan Bajo to access the Komodo National Park for boat trips to arid Rinca, the island home of fearsome Komodo dragons, the largest lizards in the world.
At Mount Kelimutu, you can walk to three crater lakes which have a spiritual meaning for locals and represent the afterlife. They change colour depending on mineral levels and have, in the past, been a rainbow palate of brown, cream, red, blue and emerald green.
Where to stay
The Bintang Flores Hotel is a fairly new, low-rise four-star hotel a short drive from the port at Labuan Bajo, set in attractive gardens with a pool that looks onto the surrounding islands and next to a thin beach. There is a gym and restaurant. Doubles from £44 a night.
For a varied, thrilling trip, combine a visit to Bunaken, a tiny, coral-fringed island and one of the world's best dive and snorkelling spots, with a homestay in Toraja. The Toraja people, who are well known for their lavish funeral ceremonies, live in valleys lush with rice terraces and fertile coffee plantations. The biggest and most elaborate funerals take days and are usually held between July and September. Toraja also offers excellent trekking opportunities and rafting experiences through the Sa'dan river rapids.
Where to stay
Bunaken Cha Cha Nature Resort is situated on the quiet eastern part of Bunaken Island is the intimate and secluded Bunaken Cha Cha Nature Resort, accommodating a maximum of 20 guests in 10 twin or double bed en-suite cottages with large balconies overlooking the beautiful island of Siladen, the outer islands in the distance and the volcanos of Manado. The large balcony of the restaurant, bar and 24-hour reception overlooks a private beach and house reef. Italian and Japanese flavours complement the local meals.
The Luta Resort Toraja is a luxury hotel located in the centre of Toraja at an altitude of 2,300 feet, offering gorgeous views over the rice fields and mountains. It is one of Toraja’s most stylish places to stay, with an open-air restaurant, bar, swimming pool and spa. There is also a carving gallery where the works of traditional Toraja carving are stored. Superior rooms come with balconies overlooking the lush central garden while deluxe rooms feature river views.
Remote Papua makes up the western portion of New Guinea and is where you can find some fo the most impenetrable jungles in the world, along with snowcapped mountain peaks and glacial lakes. It is Indonesia's largest and most eastern province. Adventurous travellers can enjoy memorable treks and superb diving, while meeting indigenous tribes whose traditions hold strong.
Where to stay
Papua Paradise has large, elegant bungalows sit above the water on a small, pristine island off northern Batanta. There are lots of good dive sites nearby making the resort a haven for anyone visiting Raja Ampat. It’s also a good base for birdwatching (including the red and Wilson’s paradise birds) and offers PADI courses, too.
The Baliem Valley Resort is located at the eastern edge of Baliem Valley, this boutique hotel occupies a gorgeous hillside position 21km east of Wamena. The resort complex boasts 15 large bungalows decorated in traditional Dani-Honay style and equipped with modern bathrooms. A superb collection of Papuan (especially Asmat) art adorns the dining hall, overlooking picturesque grounds. The German owner has a wealth of Papua expertise and offers a variety of excursions and expeditions.
Garuda ( garuda-indonesia.com ) flies to all the islands listed via Jakarta and Abu Dhabi from London Heathrow and Manchester. Garuda will also be launching direct flights from London to Jakata in May 2014.
Qatar Airways ( qatar airways.com ), Virgin Atlantic ( virgin-atlantic.com ), Thai Airways ( thaiairways.co.uk ), Singapore Airlines ( Singapore air.com ) and Qantas ( qantas.com ) fly to Denpasar, Bali via Asian or Middle Eastern stops. Malaysia Airlines ( malaysiaairlines.com ) flies to Medan, Sumatra via Kuala Lumpur.
Black Tomato (020 7426 9888; blacktomato.com ) runs 14-night island-hopping trips, staying at hotels that include the luxurious Aman resorts, from £3,299 per person, including flights, accommodation and all transport. Audley Travel (01993 838110; audleytravel.com ) runs a 14-night trip exploring Bali, Java and Kalimantan, staying at some of the hotels mentioned from £3,409 per person including flights, accommodation and transport. Bridge and Wickers (020 3393 7990; bridgeand wickers.co.uk ) runs island-hopping trips from £1,466 per person, including flights, accommodation and all transport.