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.
Sidemen Valley, Bali
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 Eftcrop.
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.
Ubud is Bali’s spiritual centre.
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.
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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
Babi Guling roast pork
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
Bamboo double at Serenity Eco Guesthouse, Canggu
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.
Java is the home of Indonesian dance and courtly ritual. Photograph: Alamy
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.