Indonesia's accessible island chains allow travelers in search of blissful beach scenes and tropical adventure to island-hop to their heart's content.
With over 18,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups, and approximately 750 languages and variants, Indonesia is a truly fascinating destination, especially for travelers who love to be on the go. It is no surprise that many visitors want to venture beyond the tourist traps to get the fullest possible picture of Indonesia.
1. Karimunjawa (Karimun Jawa) Islands
Located north of Semarang, Central Java province's capital city, the Karimunjawa Islands are full of biodiversity, rainforests, and coral reefs. Designated as a Marine National Park and consisting of 27 islands spread across the calm Java Sea, this idyllic archipelago is extremely camera-friendly – its stretches of white-sand beaches and turquoise seas are popular Instagram backdrops.
The underwater flora and fauna in Karimunjawa are incredible. Among the most significant are the 444 species of fish, 11 species of seagrass, and nine seaweed species. The favorite snorkeling spots are Gosong Island, Menjangan Kecil Island, Tengah Island, and Tanjung Gelam Island.
Only five of the 27 islands are inhabited, and they are home to a variety of cultures – predominantly Javanese, but some people of Buginese and Madurese ethnicity also live here.
2. Komodo National Park
Located within the Lesser Sunda Islands, Komodo National Park comprises numerous islands, but primarily Komodo, Rinca, and Padar. There are said to be upwards of 2,500 Komodo dragons – the world's largest species of lizard – living on the islands, as well as horses, deer, wild boar, snakes, and wild buffalo.
The famous Pink Beach, one of only seven beaches in the world featuring this particular hue, is quite the attraction – although the growing number of tourists has had a devastating impact on this destination, and the beach is often littered with rubbish that has washed up on the shore. Despite this, the island's surrounding waters still continue to lure divers, with schools of colorful fish, marine invertebrates, and luminescent corals hidden below the waves.
Flores is one of Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Islands and is often regarded as a launching pad to get to Komodo Island.
The name Flores comes from the Portuguese word for 'flowers'. It is home to Portuguese Indonesians – an ethnic group comprised of descendants of the colonial Portuguese settlers who landed in the broader region during the 16th century. Due to this history, over 90% of the island's people are of the Roman Catholic Christian faith, in stark contrast to Indonesia's predominant Sunni Islam populace. As such, you'll find a variety of churches across the island – as well as a statue of Jesus in Maumere, one of the island's major cities.
The most magnificent natural wonders here are the crater lakes of Mount Kelimutu. Each of the three lakes at the summit of this volcano can change color daily, varying from blue, green, red to dark brown. The drastic color shifts are thought to be caused by volcanic gas interacting with minerals in the water. Apart from this, Flores, and its surrounding areas, have great diving spots.
After making the treacherous crossing from Bali to Lombok in 1859, British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace immediately realized that he was standing on the edge of something unique. Although the distance between Bali and Lombok is a mere 35km (22 miles), the distribution of fauna and flora is staggeringly different between these two islands, which prompted Wallace to draw the so-called Wallace Line, a boundary that separates the eco-zones that transition between Asia and Australia – a region known as Wallacea. The line, in essence, explains why Australia has kangaroos and why Asia has tigers.
Today Lombok is considered a sleepier alternative to the touristy Bali. Mawi beach on the south coast is a fantastic surf spot, while the mighty Mount Rinjani in the north offers excellent multi-day trekking opportunities.
Despite bearing the brunt of devastating earthquakes in 2018, international travelers continue to flock to the island to enjoy its beauty and to help stimulate the island's economic recovery.
We'd be remiss in not recommending that travelers experience Bali, the most famous island in the Indonesian archipelago.
Despite its reputation for being jam-packed with tourists, Bali's bright-green rice terraces, soaring volcanoes, and palm-fringed beaches remain the must-see sights for many travelers. Bali is also noted for its Hindu culture; colorful flower offerings adorn its many temples, and dynamic dance-dramas grace its many religious events.
6. Gili Islands
There are three small islands known collectively as the Gili Islands to the east of Bali and off the northwest coast of Lombok in the Lombok Strait.
Despite its relatively small size, each island offers something a little different. Gili Trawangan is named after the Indonesian word for 'tunnel' due to the Japanese occupation building a cave tunnel there during World War II. The locals speak good English and French, and it is the most tourist-friendly of the three islands with cafes and bars. Gili Meno, the smallest island, is the quietest one – promising a relaxed, secluded, and romantic experience that is absent of cars and motorbikes. For more adventurous experiences, Gili Air is excellent for scuba diving, paddle boarding, and kite surfing.
7. Bintan Island
Just a one-hour ferry trip away from Singapore is Bintan Island, often touted as the country's next Bali, and as a result, resorts, hotels, and golf courses are springing up like sprouting pea shoots after a night of rain.
Trikora Beach, a collection of four white sandy beaches on the eastern shore, offers the ultimate sand-between-your-toes tropical experience. Another must-see is Senggarang, home to a sizeable Chinese population whose ancestors settled here when the island was a key stopping point on the India-China trade route centuries ago. For the best seafood, head to Sebung village on the north side.
8. Derawan Islands
Situated in the East Kalimantan province, this exotic array of 31 stunning islands is collectively referred to as the Derawan Islands. While it is still relatively difficult to get there, the journey is worth it for those interested in diving and nature – and that is because the islands are part of the Coral Triangle, an area known for containing some of the most extensive marine biodiversity in the world. Expect to see vibrant marine life – giant turtles, manta rays, dugongs, and dolphins, just to name a few – among 460 different species of corals.
Kakaban Island is another hidden gem. Its large lake (which makes up almost two-thirds of the island) is filled with stingless jellyfish. Due to being confined to the lake with no predators to worry about, these jellyfish have lost their natural defenses, and this island is one of the few places in the world where this phenomenon exists.
So far, the Derawan Islands have been free from great throngs of honeymooners and bikini-clad tourists, but that may soon change as the Tanjung Redeb Airport has been expanded to receive more flights. A new airport on Maratua Island, which is one of the 31 Derawan islands, is now in operation.
East of the massive island of Sumatra lies the island of Belitung. Once under the British and the Dutch's control, Belitung is now one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse islands in the region. The island is predominantly made up of Bangka Malays, but Chinese, Buginese, Sundanese, Javanese, and Madurese people are also present.
As Belitung is still off most travelers' radar, its tourist activities are not as developed as other islands. Most private resorts in Belitung offer a limited range of classes (cooking or batik-making). At the same time, other highlights include a visit to the Lengkuas Island and its 19th-century lighthouse and a hike up Baginda Hill (a large boulder).
10. Banda Islands
Famous for spices' production, the Banda Islands is a fascinating location with a rich history that has not always been as pretty as the island's views. Since the Banda Islands were, at one point, the only source of nutmeg and mace in the world. Many empires valued the produce of these islands – from the Persian to the Roman Empire. Eventually, the Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial powers, with the latter two, fought a few bloody wars to control the lucrative trade.
Today, the nutmeg plantations are long gone. The islands are a hotspot for affluent tourists who come for its beautiful coral and marine life, where divers regularly encounter large schools of dolphins and whales frolicking in the water.