Asia expert Rachel Bailey went island hopping in Indonesia to uncover the best bits the country has to offer, and discovered that the 18,000-island-strong archipelago really does have something for everyone. Read on to find out what makes Indonesia an ideal luxury holiday destination...
My sister and I were lucky enough to really get off the beaten track on our recent trip to Indonesia. The archipelago has an experience for everyone, from stays in traditional villages with no hot water to luxurious five star hotels - plus hidden-gem boutique hotels that only a handful of people know about (and want to keep that way!).
We started in Maumere, on the island of Flores, and worked our way to the more well-known Labuan Bajo. Our first outing, a visit to the illuminous volcanic lakes at Kelimutu, began before dawn. After catching the sunrise, we hiked our way to the traditional village of Belaragi, where we were welcomed with open arms (despite being a bit sweaty on arrival!). By evening, we were sipping on Arak, a traditional alcoholic drink made from palm sap, under the full moon. With the occasional 'oink' from a pig or bark from one of their dogs, we really felt the remoteness of our location. The villagers sacrificed a chicken for our dinner (an experience perhaps not for the faint hearted), which was then cooked over the open fire and served with delicious rice and green vegetables.
In the morning, we headed onwards to Ruteng, where we shared our accommodation with nuns in the local monastery. Despite being comfortable, the nuns had a strict rule that everyone must be in bed before 9pm, so (no arguing with Sister Ruteng!) we ate our dinner at a local restaurant early and were tucked up by nine.
Dragon-spotting on Komodo Island
The journey continued to the western end of the island where, at Labuan Bajo, we boarded the vessel that would take us out to Komodo National Park. The beautiful Felicia boat took us swimming off the pink sandy shores of Pink Beach, and then on to Komodo Island in search of the archaic dragons of the same name. As the sun went down, we watched 30,000 bats awaken and fill the sky before flying off over our boat. The following day we headed back to Labuan Bajo, stopping to snorkel with giant manta rays which must have been in excess of 2m wide. I have never seen such huge creatures: it was like watching mini cars scale the bottom of the sea.
Back to Bali
From Flores, we headed back to Bali to check out the buzzy beaches of Jimbaran and Seminyak. Locals come to bathe and play on the beach in the coolness of the evenings, and the bars and restaurants fill with holidaymakers and locals alike. It's here that you'll find the juiciest of lobsters and freshly-caught fish for no more than a few pounds, laid out on tables as though for a feast. Bali has expanded in the last decade, not only in terms of the number of hotels, but in the sheer volume of people descending upon the destination. But despite the tourist bustle, Ubud, the cultural heart of the island, is still well worth a visit. Surrounded by lush paddy fields, temples, monkeys, boutique restaurants and shops and fantastic hotels, it's a welcome step back in time.
Relaxing in Lombok
If you ever get a chance to go to Indonesia, I recommend exploring more than one island - there are 18,307 of them, after all! Lombok isn't too far away: just a couple of hours in a speedy cat (which beats the six hour ferry) and you'll find yourself on the island's quiet, sandy shores. The pace is much slower and more relaxed, and the island has so much to offer, from volcano treks to waterfall visits. It's also home to some of the best snorkelling and diving in the area, and the infamous Gili Isles are only a stone's throw away, too.
Surfing in Sumba
We finished off our trip by heading out to Sumba, an island far less populated than the others we had visited and just an hour's flight from Bali. Local cattle herds and school children dotted the roads, and at the end of a bumpy track, miles from anywhere, we finally arrived at Nihiwatu, an understated but funky beach hotel. Nihiwatu's empty beach stretches as far as the eye can see. At the other end of the hotel, dramatic cliffs are undercut by waves which I was told can reach enormous heights - the resort is home to some of the best surfing in the world. Boutique hotels like Nihiwatu can be found all across the Indonesia: they just need to be sniffed out. A trip to the region doesn't have to be all about staying in a 300 room hotel in all-inclusive destinations like Nusa Dua - there are still so many beautiful and relatively unexplored spots to visit.
Despite having stayed in 17 beds over the course of 18 nights, we didn't want to leave. The country fosters such a strong sense of community, and even despite it's growth, it hasn't lost its identity. The people are happy, eager to please, and willing to tell you all about their life and culture. They're also (understandably) extremely proud of the peaceful melting pot of religions that can be found in Indonesia, which - as they will tell you, and I would agree with - has so much to offer...