The tropical islands east of Bali, some just a stone’s throw from their much-visited neighbor, have long been the unsung Indonesia. But that’s all starting to change. The region is coming into its own with chic lodges, villa resorts and eco-hotels popping up on islands such as Lombok (a 45-minute catamaran journey east of Bali) and Sumba (an hour-long flight southeast of Bali), and where there aren’t hotels, upscale boats are cruising the Indonesian archipelago all the way east to West Papua, on New Guinea. Meanwhile, dive resorts, especially those in Raja Ampat (near West Papua) and Southeast Sulawesi (northeast of Bali), are drawing rave reviews. In other words, it’s the perfect time for some island-hopping—before these oases become too discovered.
Where to Stay (and Surf)
Lodging options get better all the time on Lombok and Sumba. Well-serviced and up-and-coming Lombok Lodge (rooms, from $395; Tanjung; 62-370/662-2926; thelomboklodge.asia) satisfies the need there for something small and sophisticated. The sun-drenched, nine-suite bayside hotel, with its contemporary grays and whites and sharp lines, is the creation of a detail-obsessed Belgian couple, who used to be regulars of the neighboring Oberoi hotel, and Italian architect Vittorio Simoni. The Oberoi-trained chef, I Wayan Jiwa Raga, has made Lombok Lodge a dining destination as much as a place to stay. You can charter boats out to the nearby Gili Islands—car-free dots with good beaches and snorkeling reefs.
Southeast of Lombok is the lesser-known Sumba, which is about twice the size of Bali. It has one of the best left-hand surf breaks in the world and an ancient tribal culture. Each February the clans attack one another with blunted lances thrown from horseback in a ritualistic festival called Pasola. Sumba is also the location of Nihiwatu (rooms, from $495 a person per night with a minimum three-night stay; West Sumba; 62-361/757-149; nihiwatu.com), an ecofriendly resort that’s evolved over 13 years to command a distinct following (Hermès family members are among its regulars) while bringing measurable benefits, such as improved health care, education and employment, to the local Sumbanese. In fact, some 90 percent of the staff is Sumbanese, which gives the place its uniquely convivial ease. In April a significantly refurbished Nihiwatu will reopen under its new owners, the U.S. retail magnate Chris Burch and James McBride, the former general manager of New York’s Carlyle hotel, with a section of new villas launching in July. The wave, however, remains the resort’s unalterable highlight, breaking along the honey-colored one-and-a-half-mile-long beach.
The only resort on Moyo Island, a 65-minute charter east of Lombok, is the tented Amanwana (tents, from $800 a person per night; 62-371/22233; amanresorts.com). While special for its castaway character, it’s not the best of the Amans; it lacks the monumental architecture of the brand’s Bali hotels, and the jungle location is relatively dark.
Boats to Charter
Sailing the Indonesian archipelago is perhaps the region’s biggest draw, with a number of new boats, as well as three main regions to choose from.
The most accessible cruise areas include Komodo and its surrounding islets (don’t miss the Pink Beach on Komodo, as well as its famous giant dragons) and the Suva Sea, taking in islands Sumba, Savu and Flores, with calm sailing weather from April to June. Week-long to ten-night itineraries mix tribal culture with beaches, snorkeling and diving. The place to sail to for hard-core diving is Raja Ampat, a string of 1,500 islands off West Papua; it’s best accessed from October to March. The Bandas—a four-hour flight from Jakarta—are ten islands that see fewer than 30 visitors a month, with the cruise season running from March to April and September to October. Reef life is excellent, but it’s the history that makes the islands Indonesia’s cruising crown jewel: To end the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, the British swapped one of its Banda islands for the Dutch island of Manhattan.
Of all the boats to charter, Tiger Blue (cabins, from $6,200 a night; 62-813/5495-8840; tigerblue.info) is among the best for family-friendly value. It’s a 112-foot, eight-crew Indonesian teak phinisi with air-conditioned double cabins and en suite bathrooms. Considerably more expensive are Amanresorts’ Amanikan (cabins, from $33,500 for five nights; 62-371/22233; amanresorts.com) and two boats owned by American-born Patti Seery: Silolona (from $15,000 a night for up to ten people; 62-361/286-682; silolona.com) and its new sister, Si Datu Bua (from $11,000 a night for up to six people; 62-361/286-682; silolona.com). Seery is a Southeast Asia expert; she also takes these same two boats up to Mergui, Burma, for private charters (see Burma's Moken Sea Gypsies). Alila Hotels and Resorts launched Alila Purnama in December 2012 (cabins, from $11,000 a night; 62-361/236-384; alilapurnama.com), with a crew of 16.
Places to Scuba
There are two important dive resorts east of Bali: Misool Eco Resort (from $2,830 a person with a minimum seven-night stay; Batbitim; misoolecoresort.com) in Raja Ampat (also a favored cruising region off West Papua), and Wakatobi Dive Resort ($ rooms, from $300; 62-361/759-669; wakatobi.com) in Southeast Sulawesi, between Borneo and the Maluku Islands. Getting to either can be an expedition. Misool is a four-hour flight from Jakarta to Sorong (which borders West Papua), followed by a four-hour speedboat transfer. Wakatobi is 36 hours from Bali by scheduled services, which is why the resort offers a two-and-a-half-hour private charter to its own airstrip (from $675 a person round-trip). Misool’s activities are slanted toward diving, snorkeling and boat excursions; 18-year-old Wakatobi, which has evolved over time, has the added benefit of working well for families. Sure, there are better pool villas in Asia, but Wakatobi, which specializes in marine conservation, doesn’t pretend to be a five-star resort. It’s somehow magical, with a staff completely genuine in their desire to make your vacation the best it can be. Guests get their own private dive guides. Experienced divers can also witness underwater fluorescence (when marine animals change colors).
Meanwhile on Bali...
Jiva Puri is a new villa nestled in a sleepy locale amid rice paddies that roll down to the sea on the island’s southern coast, a 40-minute drive from busy Kuta. The low-rise, open-sided bungalow, which sleeps ten and has a hotel-grade staff, owes design influences to the father of tropical resort architecture, Geoffrey Bawa. It has a showstopping pool (though no significant beach) and immaculately tended lawns. Jiva Puri is a solid choice for second-time visitors to Bali, or those seeking true downtime rather than spa treatments. Villa starts at $5,000; near Cemagi; 44-203/432-7784; firefly-collection.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.