Sprawling along the line of the equator, the 18,000 islands of Indonesia are a kaleidoscope of landscapes, peoples and cultures. A boat ride from one island to the next can transport you from skyscraper city to tropical rainforest, from volcano to dive site, or from modern mosque to ancient Hindu temple.
Getting from island to island in Indonesia will almost certainly involve some boat travel, though domestic flights link all the major islands. Pelni operates ferries linking the main centres, and boats can be chartered almost everywhere for trips to outlying islands. Buses go almost everywhere on the main islands.
Jakarta is Indonesia’s largest city and the gateway to the ruins of ancient kingdoms. After exploring Kota, the heart of the former Dutch colonial capital, roam into the Javan countryside to tour historic Keraton (royal palaces) and the Hindu temple ruins at Borobudur and Prambanan.
From Java, it’s an easy hop to Denpasar and the island of Bali, where Islam gives way to ancient Hindu traditions. Bali truly is the island with everything – amazing beaches, ancient temples, spectacular surf breaks and fascinating traditions. Heading west instead of east, Sumatra is vast and impenetrable, with bubbling volcanoes and rainforest reserves that provide a home for wild orang-utans.
For the classic surf, sand and seafood experience, go island hopping around Nusa Tenggara. Visit Lombok, with its crowning volcano, see tribal longhouses in West Timor, meet the world’s largest lizard on Komodo, and dive the rainbow-coloured reefs of the Alor archipelago. East again is the Maluku archipelago, whose reef-fringed volcanoes were the original spice islands.
Adventurers head to Borneo, where jungle rivers provide the only access to remote rainforest reserves and Dayak villages almost untouched by the modern age. Neighbouring Sulawesi preserves more fascinating cultures, and the adventure goes into overdrive on Papua, a land of untouched jungle and uncontacted peoples.
With so many islands to choose from, the problem in Indonesia is not how to find the hidden gems, but which of the thousands of hidden gems to choose from. Wildlife encounters don't get much more thrilling than a houseboat journey in search of orang-utans in Tanjung Puting National Park, while the very public spectacle of a Tana Toraja funeral is one of Indonesia’s most astonishing cultural encounters. If you find Bali too busy, find sand and serenity on the Gili Islands, or explore the Javan temple complex at Sukuh for a peaceful escape from the Borobudur crowds.
Indonesian food makes an obvious cultural nod to neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand, but each island has its own delicacies and specialities, many using the home-grown spices that made the islands famous in colonial times. For fine-dining, browse the upscale eateries of Jakarta and the other megacities of Java. For the perfect beachside seafood buffet, head to the sands of Jimbaran on the island of Bali, Sumatra is the birthplace of delicious rendang (coconut and beef curry), while Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua offer the chance to sample strange and exotic tribal delicacies.