A smattering of green smack bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean’s cerulean seas, the Indonesian archipelago is a true island paradise which is home to incredible stretches of predictably powdery beaches, a mind-boggling diversity of marine life and a scattering of charming farming villages that cling tenaciously to the craggy coastline. Deciding on the best islands in Indonesia, however, is akin to choosing whether you need a coat or not during spring in the UK – a near impossible task. While Indonesia rarely requires a coat, deciding which of its 17,508 islands made the cut to our list of the best islands in Indonesia proved a task only fit for our Indonesia expert, Jacqui Brooks. Here are a few of her favourites…
The gateway to Indonesia, Bali is the most popular of the Indonesian islands. Over the years, it has become a mecca for the bohemian bourgeoisie who believe all life’s ills can be solved by a daily açaí bowl. But behind the strobe lights and mid-tempo grooves is an island still stalwart for tradition. One well worth witnessing is the annual Governor’s Cup in Jembrana, a racing event which sees local farmers-turned-jockeys thundering past in chariots pulled by elaborately dressed water buffalo. If relaxation is more your thing when ranking the best islands in Indonesia, visit the island during Nyepi, the Balinese ‘Day of Silence.’ Dedicated to introspection and self-cleansing, you’ll be in for a treat as the entire island shuts down all operations, including electricity and transport (yes – even the airport) and falls into complete silence. Bliss.
You can’t help but go gaga for Java. The archipelago’s – and the world’s – most populous island, it offers a masterclass in island city life. Rub shoulders with Yogyakarta locals on street food tours of Bantul and Banguntapan (make sure to whet your appetite before your trip with Netflix’s Street Food: Asia episode) and lose yourself in the chaotic chasm of Jakarta, where slick high rises give way to restless slums. Away from its humble neighbourhoods, which aren’t to be overlooked, especially if street art is your thing, is the incredible Kawah ljen volcano. Simmering away at 8,660ft, this sulphur-shrouded crater provides the ultimate sunrise stroll. However, if you prefer your hikes to be just a few degrees cooler, there are plenty of plantations, rice paddies and ancient sites like Borobudur, which have the power of invigorating even the most jaded tourist and confirm this spot a worthy contender among some of the best islands in Indonesia.
Sulawesi is where Indonesia really shines. Surrounded by twinkling seas teeming with tropical fish just waiting for their big break in a Pixar animation, you can spend your days frolicking with shimmering schools of black tail barracuda in Bunaken Marine Park and passing pilot whales in Lembeh Straits. And if you’re itching to live out your Indiana Jones fantasy, the rainforests of Northern Sulawesi are the ultimate set, home to a whole host of fascinating wildlife species from shy tarsiers to playful crested macaques. While this splay-limbed island tends to keep its cards and modern-rebutting customs close to its chest, it is precisely what makes it one of the most compelling and best islands in Indonesia.
Sumatra likes to defy the rules. Despite having a notoriously complex relationship with tectonic plates – which tend to make news when its locals shrug their movement off as mere bumps in the road – Sumatra remains a bit of an enigma when it comes to the best islands in Indonesia. Still wonderfully wild, its offering of thick trackless jungle, fog-veiled lakes and steaming volcanoes make it an adventure lover’s paradise. Take a walk on the wild side with retired logging elephants, now cared for by the local community; spot mischievous orangutans swing through the trees in Gunung Leuser National Park; and stay in tropical eco-lodges nestled in the jungle.
Misool is one of the best islands in Indonesia to live out your castaway fantasies. This private and remote island in southern Raja Ampat, is home to a world-class eco lodge (think serene water cottages surrounded only by sea and distant islets) and one of the richest reefs in the world. Spend your days diving among shoals of psychedelic fusiliers, admiring vibrant bommies and spotting elusive denise pygmy seahorses play hide-and-seek in giant gorgonian sea fans. You may even catch a glimpse of the black tip of a patrolling reef shark, a thrilling moment which will remind you that when it comes to islands, Indonesia is home to the very best.