Everyone knows about the lush tropical islands of Java and Bali. But here's a secret: Indonesia has 17,000 other islands worthy of your attention.
Catherine Heald has nothing against Bali. In truth, says the chairman and CEO of New York-based tour operator Remote Lands, Bali's culture is just as mesmerizing as advertised: a unique tropical brew of Hinduism, ornate costume and dance, and a spectacularly lavish habitat.
But Indonesia isn't just about that tourist mecca - or even the neighboring island of Java and the capital city, Jakarta, with 130 million people and attractions like the Buddhist temples of Borobudur. Why? Because there are plenty of other islands for serious travelers to consider - more than 17,000 of them, in fact (6,000 of which aren't inhabited).
"Bali is absolutely wonderful, a Shangri-la with some of the best hotels in the world," says Heald, who, along with partner Jay Tindall, organizes tailor-made trips to some of the planet's less-discovered places. "But if you want to have remote cultural experiences, you have to go where fewer tourists go. For the real traveler, it's worth it."
From big-but-overlooked neighbors like Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and Papua to tinier gems like Lombok and Flores, these Indonesian islands are destinations in their own right. "Most Americans think only of Bali," says Laura Kidder, editorial director for Fodor's Travel Publications in New York. "But for Australians and more intrepid travelers, this is almost like their Caribbean, because each of these islands has a little something different to offer."
To be sure, island-hopping through Indonesia isn't as simple as skipping through Hawaii, from Oahu to Maui and back.
For travelers looking for experiences beyond the usual, Indonesia's islands represent a virtual buffet of Southeast Asian culture. "Indonesia is all about variety," explains Tindall, who has traveled to Papua and also spent time with Indonesian tribes, whose customs have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Accommodations on the islands can range from simple losmans, or backpacker guesthouses, to high-end resorts. "There's the luxury of Bali; the remoteness of Nias, off the coast of Sumatra; and islands that combine ruggedness and luxury in one place," says Tindall. As such, for your island-hopping pleasure, here are a few remote jewels to consider.