Indonesian island hopping: 11 of the best islands

Published on: Monday, July 31, 2023
Indonesian island hopping: 11 of the best islands - Wayag Islands, Raja Ampat, Indonesia


Indonesia's accessible island chains allow travellers in search of blissful beach scenes and tropical adventure to island-hop to their heart's content

With over 18,000 islands and approximately 750 languages or dialects spoken by 300 ethnic groups living among these islands, Indonesia is a truly fascinating destination. If you are looking to venture beyond the tourist traps and explore some of Indonesia’s hidden gems, our list of the 11 best suggestions may just tickle your fancy.

1. Karimunjawa (Karimun Jawa) Islands

The Karimunjawa Islands, consisting of 27 enchanting islands spread across the tranquil Java Sea, are a paradise waiting to be discovered. Twenty-two of these islands are designated as a National Park, promising a vibrant underwater world teeming with coral reefs and marine life, including over 400 species of fish, 300 species of coral, and various other aquatic animals.

The crystal-clear waters here make it an ideal spot for snorkelling and observing the fascinating marine life up close. The best snorkelling sites include Menjangan Kecil, Cemara Kecil, Geleang, Karang Kapal, Gosong Cemara, Tengah and Menjangan Besar. As responsible travellers, let’s ensure reef conservation by using reef-safe sunscreen, not disturbing the marine life, choosing reputable operators, and disposing of trash properly.

Getting to the Karimunjawa Islands requires a combination of transportation modes, as the islands are relatively remote. You must first travel to Semarang, the capital of Central Java province, and from there, catch a ferry that takes about 6 to 7 hours to reach the destination. Alternatively, you can travel from Semarang to the coastal town of Jepara overland, and then jump on an express ferry, which takes about 2 hours to reach Karimunjawa.

2. Komodo National Park

The UNESCO-listed Komodo National Park is a captivating destination situated in the Lesser Sunda Islands of the East Nusa Tenggara province. The park includes several islands, with the main ones being Komodo, Rinca, and Padar, along with several smaller islands and islets.

As the name suggests, the park’s most famous inhabitant is the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard and a unique species exclusive to this region. Alongside these magnificent creatures, the islands are also home to freely roaming horses, deer, wild boar, snakes and water buffalo, adding to the allure of the area against the stunning scenery.

Another star attraction on Komodo Island is the Pink Beach (Pantai Merah), a striking beach adorned with pale pink sand caused by the presence of foraminifera, tiny organisms that live in the coral reefs and sometimes get washed up on the shore. However, it must be noted that in recent years, due to the alarming amount of plastic waste ending up in our oceans, manmade debris can also be found on the Pink Beach.

Going to Komodo National Park requires some planning – you must first fly to Labuan Bajo on Flores Island, and from there, embark on a ferry journey lasting approximately 3 hours.

3. Flores

The name “Flores” is derived from the Portuguese word for ‘flowers’, reflecting its historical connection to Portuguese settlers who arrived in the region during the 16th century. As a result, Flores is now home to a vibrant ethnic group known as Portuguese Indonesians, descendants of those colonial settlers. This historical influence has led to over 90% of the island’s population embracing the Roman Catholic faith, making it the highest concentration of Catholic identity in Indonesia, a stark contrast to the predominantly Sunni populace elsewhere in the country.

One of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders on Flores is the crater lakes of Mount Kelimutu. Positioned at the volcano’s summit, each of the three lakes can undergo daily colour changes, transforming from shades of blue, green, red to dark brown. These mesmerising shifts in colours are attributed to the interaction of volcanic gas with minerals in the water.

Furthermore, don’t miss the opportunity to explore Koka Beach, located approximately 44 km (27 mi) south of the Kelimutu Ecolodge. This stunning beach offers a captivating coastal experience that complements the island’s other natural wonders.

Flores is part of the East Nusa Tenggara province (which also includes other islands like Komodo, Rinca and Sumba). To reach Flores, you can fly to the island’s main airport, Komodo Airport (also known as Labuan Bajo Airport), in the town of Labuan Bajo.

4. Lombok

After making the treacherous crossing from Bali to Lombok in 1859, British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace immediately realised that he was standing on the edge of something unique. Despite the mere 35 km (22 mi) distance between Bali and Lombok, the distribution of fauna and flora differed significantly between the two islands. This striking contrast prompted Wallace to draw the famous Wallace Line, which acts as a boundary separating the ecozones transitioning between Asia and Australia, a region now known as Wallacea. In essence, this line explains the distinct presence of kangaroos in Australia and tigers in Asia.

Today, Lombok is considered a tranquil and less touristy alternative to its bustling neighbour, Bali. The south coast boasts the magnificent Mawi Beach, a fantastic surf spot that attracts wave enthusiasts, while the north features the imposing Mount Rinjani, offering excellent multi-day trekking opportunities for adventurous hikers.

Lombok is accessible from Bali, Jakarta, Makassar, Surabaya, and even Singapore, making it an appealing destination for travellers from diverse locations.

5. Raja Ampat Islands

Raja Ampat Islands, situated in West Papua province, Indonesia, form an awe-inspiring archipelago off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea.

This remarkable destination has earned global acclaim for its exceptional marine biodiversity and stunning natural beauty, attracting divers, snorkelers, and nature enthusiasts from all corners of the world. The crystalline waters of Raja Ampat are alive with vibrant coral reefs, a myriad of marine species, and captivating underwater landscapes. Divers are treated to extraordinary encounters with rare and exotic marine life, including pygmy seahorses, walking sharks, and majestic manta rays.

One of the must-see wonders in Raja Ampat is the Wayag (or Wajag) Islands. Nestled within the archipelago, these islands are renowned for their breath-taking karst formations and picturesque limestone islets that dramatically rise from the turquoise waters. The panoramic views from the limestone cliffs offer a postcard-perfect vista of the surrounding islands and tranquil lagoons, with some even likening the beauty to Leonardo DiCaprio’s mythical hideaway in “The Beach.”

Reaching Raja Ampat demands some travel effort, but the journey is undoubtedly rewarding for the unforgettable experiences that lie ahead. Most travellers opt to fly to Sorong, the gateway city to Raja Ampat, benefiting from a domestic airport with regular flights from major Indonesian cities like Jakarta, Makassar, and Manado. From Sorong, you can embark on a ferry or speedboat ride to reach the main islands of Raja Ampat. For more remote destinations like Wayag, private boat charters will be necessary to explore these hidden gems.

6. Gili Islands

To the east of Bali, and off the northwest coast of Lombok in the Lombok Strait, lies a group of three small islands collectively known as the Gili Islands or Gilis.

Gili Trawangan, the largest among the three, derives its name from the Indonesian word for ‘tunnel’ due to the historical presence of a cave tunnel built during World War II by the Japanese occupation. Today, the war is long gone, replaced by a vibrant and lively party atmosphere. Indeed, Gili Trawangan is very tourist-friendly, with its sandy shores adorned with numerous beach bars. Notably, it proudly boasts the title of ‘the smallest island in the world with an Irish pub’.

On the other hand, Gili Meno, the smallest island of the three, offers a complete contrast with its serene and tranquil ambiance. Check it out if you are after a peaceful, secluded and romantic experience.

Gili Islands can be reached by taking a ferry from Bali or Lombok. Do note that no motorised vehicles are allowed on all three Gili islands, so expect to see bicycles and cidomos (horse-drawn carriages).

7. Bintan Island

Just a one-hour ferry trip away from Singapore is Bintan Island, often hailed as the country’s next Bali. This growing reputation has led to a proliferation of resorts, hotels, and golf courses sprouting up like fresh pea shoots after a night of rain.

Trikora Beach, a collection of four white sandy beaches on the eastern shore, beckons travellers with the promise of the ultimate sand-between-your-toes tropical experience. Another must-see attraction is Senggarang, a charming village home to a significant Chinese population whose ancestors settled here centuries ago when the island served as a vital stopping point on the India-China trade route. For a delectable seafood feast, head to Sebung village on the north side.

You can fly from Jakarta to Bintan or take a ferry from Singapore.

8. Derawan Islands

Situated in the East Kalimantan province, this exotic array of 31 stunning islands is collectively referred to as the Derawan Islands. Although reaching them may be more challenging compared to other destinations on this list, the journey is undoubtedly worth it for diving and nature enthusiasts. These islands are part of the Coral Triangle, a region renowned for hosting some of the world’s most diverse marine life. Prepare to be mesmerised by the abundance of marine biodiversity, from giant turtles, manta rays, dugongs, and dolphins to an astounding 460 different species of corals.

Among the islands, Kakaban Island stands out as a hidden gem. Its large lake, occupying almost two-thirds of the island, is filled with stingless jellyfish. These unique creatures have lost their natural defences due to the absence of predators, making Kakaban Island one of the few places on Earth where such a phenomenon exists.

Most tourists get to Derawan Islands by flying to Berau, which is about 2 hours away. Several airlines, including Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, and Wings Air, offer flights to Berau. After arriving in Berau, travellers can continue their adventure by taking a smaller boat to the Derawan Islands.

9. Bali

We cannot overlook recommending travellers to experience Bali, arguably the most renowned island in the Indonesian archipelago.

Despite its reputation as a bustling tourist destination, Bali’s charm lies in its captivating bright-green rice terraces, majestic soaring volcanoes, and picturesque palm-fringed beaches, making them must-see sights for countless travellers. Additionally, Bali is celebrated for its rich Hindu culture, which permeates the island with colourful flower offerings adorning its numerous temples, and dynamic dance-dramas grace its religious events.

Getting to Bali is easy, as many international carriers fly there directly. Among them are China Airlines, Emirates, Jetstar, Garuda, Qantas and Singapore Airlines. To find the best and most-effective flights, you can search through Skyscanner.

10. Banda Islands

Famous for the spice production, the group of Banda Islands is a fascinating location with a rich history that has not always been as pretty as the island’s views. These islands were once the exclusive source of nutmeg and mace in the world, a commodity highly prized by various empires, from the Persian and Roman Empires to the colonial powers of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. The latter two even engaged in several bloody wars to gain control over this lucrative trade.

Today, the nutmeg plantations are long gone, and the Banda Islands have transformed into a hotspot for affluent tourists seeking the beauty of its coral reefs and marine life. Divers are treated to enchanting encounters with large schools of dolphins and whales frolicking in the crystal-clear waters.

To reach Banda, visitors have the option of taking a small plane or a ferry from Ambon. However, it’s essential to note that both modes of transport operate seasonally and may be subject to cancellation in adverse weather conditions.

11. Belitung

About 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, lies the island of Belitung, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse islands in the region. Here, you will find Bangka Malays, Chinese, Buginese, Sundanese, Javanese, and Madurese people living harmoniously on the island, creating a rich tapestry of cultures.

In 2021, Belitung was designated as Indonesia’s newest UNESCO Global Geopark, a well-deserved recognition of its unique geology, biology, and culture. With this prestigious accolade, the island aspires to attract more tourists to discover its spectacular granite landscapes, traces of meteorite impacts, fascinating mining heritage, and diverse local culture. Belitung’s allure also lies in its abundance of plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the island.

To reach this enchanting destination, you can take a 45-minute flight from Jakarta to Tanjung Pandan on Belitung Island. Alternatively, opt for a 4-hour speed boat ride from the larger neighbouring island of Bangka Belitung.

It is vital to remember that many islands mentioned here are in remote and protected areas, requiring visitors to exercise great respect for the local environment and practice responsible tourism.

Before you go, check out the Indonesia travel guide.

This article was updated on 31 July 2023.