The hundreds of islands stretching east from Bali are collectively known as the Nusa Tenggara, a region of eastern Indonesia that’s becoming an increasingly popular travel destination. Some of the islands boast the same type of picture-perfect beaches that attract visitors to their Balinese neighbor. Others have landscapes, tribal traditions and cultural attractions that are truly unique. From multicolored crater lakes and volcanic peaks to Komodo dragons and animist rituals, the sheer diversity of the islands of Nusa Tenggara is what makes a visit to the archipelago so distinctly memorable.
Alor is one of the easternmost islands in Nusa Tenggara. It’s also one of the archipelago’s least visited isles, making Alor an ideal destination for travelers who wish to experience island life in an unspoiled environment. Soaring volcanoes in the center of Alor form a formidable barrier, and islanders often use wooden ferries to travel to different parts of the island. The capital city of Kalabahi in the only flat area on the island. Diving and snorkeling are popular activities on Alor’s outlaying islets. Alor’s scenic beaches, including Mali, Maimol and Batu Putih are favored for sunbathing and relaxed swimming.
Located at the eastern end of Nusa Tenggara archipelago, West Timor makes up the Indonesian half of the island of Timor. East Timor is an independent country. Kupang is the region’s main city and the capital of East Nusa Tenggara as well. Nearby attractions include the coconut palms, white sands and clear blue waters of Lasiana Beach and the underground natural swimming pool located at Crystal Cave. Kupang is also a good place to shop for authentic ikat textiles and hand-carved wood tokens. West Timor’s offshore islands of Kera and Semau offer excellent opportunities for snorkeling and diving.
Located to the east of Lombok, Sumbawa is best known for its great surfing, although getting to the best surfing spots can be challenging in this largely undeveloped island. With its mountainous terrain and predominantly conservative Muslim population, Sumbawa lacks the infrastructure and tourist accommodations of other islands in Nusa Tenggara. Surfers can catch a bus or charter a car at the main town of Sumbawa Besar to reach the breaks at Maluk or Lakey beach. Sumbawa Besar also offers access to Moyo Island, an atoll and nature preserve that’s a popular snorkeling destination.
Situated to the south of the arcing Nusa Tenggara archipelago, Sumba is most notable for retaining its ancient traditions. Whether it’s the Bronze Age megalithic burial sites, the sometimes lethal spear-throwing war game of Pasola or the highly detailed ikat textiles that can take months of labor to craft, Sumba can feel like an island lost in time. East Sumba features several bungalow resorts where visitors can relax on white sandy beaches or participate in water sports like surfing, snorkeling or game fishing.
Lying to the east of Sumbawa and to the west of Lembata in Nusa Tenggara, the long island of Flores offers an array of natural and archeological wonders. The most famous attraction in Flores is the Kelimutu volcano caldera, which has three lakes fed by volcanic gas that change color according to the amount of oxidation in the water. Archeological finds abound in Flores. A prehistoric bronze boat is on display near the village of Maumere, the villages of Bena and Luba are known for their Stone Age megaliths and at the Liang Bua Cave is western Flores, skeletons of the previously unknown species Homo floresiensis, nicknamed “hobbits,” were discovered in 2004.
Encompassing both Rinca Island, Komodo Island and a number of islets, the Komodo National Park is known the world over as the habitat of the Komodo Dragons, giant carnivorous monitor lizards that can reach up to 3 meters (10 feet) in length. The reptiles roam freely over the islands, and visitors rely on experienced tour guides to keep them safe. Komodo National Park is also famous as a world-class scuba diving destination. Because sharks, sea snakes and sea-wasp jellyfish share the coral reef with other sea life, however, it’s not a place for novice divers. Snorkeling areas like those at Pantai Merah offer an alternate option for underwater explorations.
The most western island of Nusa Tenggara, Lombok is often compared to its closest neighbor: Bali. Lombok has the same kind of beautiful beaches, splashing waterfalls and volcanic scenery as the island across the Lombok Strait, with less commercialism and fewer crowds. In many ways it is the tropical paradise that many people still mistakenly imagine Bali to be now. The island’s northern area is dominated by the enormous volcano of Gunung Rinjani, and trekking at least part of the way up is the reason many tourists visit the island. The three Gili Islands, just off the northwest coast are Lombok’s most popular beach destination, while the luxurious Senggigi resort and Kuta, a popular surfing center, also offer great beaches. With its manmade lagoon and mix of Hindu, Islamic and native Sasak architectural styles, the Narmada Taman temple is worth a visit as well.