South Sulawesi is huge. Makassar in the far south is the capital of the island and is fittingly tumultuous yet friendly. Stop here for a day or two to feast on some of the best seafood on the island. From Makassar consider heading southeast to sleepy Pantai Bira, which has world-class diving and fine sandy beaches, or do what most people do and go directly to Tana Toraja.
Even as development from south Bali creeps ever further west (via hot spots like Canggu), Bali's true west, which is off the busy main road from Tabanan to Gilimanuk, remains mostly little-visited. It's easy to find serenity amid its wild beaches, jungle and rice fields. On the coast, surfers hit the breaks at Balian and Medewi.
Hot and arid, the southern peninsula is known as Bukit (meaning 'hill' in Bahasa Indonesia). It's popular with visitors, from the cloistered climes of Nusa Dua to the sybaritic retreats along the south coast. The booming west coast (often generically called Pecatu) with its string-of-pearls beaches is a real hot spot.
Gili Trawangan is a paradise of global repute, ranking alongside Bali and Borobudur as one of Indonesia's top destinations. Trawangan's heaving main drag, busy with bikes, horse carts and mobs of scantily clad visitors can surprise those expecting some languid tropical retreat.
Beaches just don't get much better: the water is warm, striped turquoise and curls into barrels, and the sand is silky and snow-white, framed by massive headlands and sheer cliffs that recall Bali's Bukit Peninsula 30 years ago. Village life is still vibrant in south Lombok as well, with unique festivals and an economy based on seaweed and tobacco harvests.
Sumatra’s major metropolis, and Indonesia’s third-largest city, is seen as a necessary evil by many Sumatra-bound travellers. It’s almost inevitably a place to pass through en route to more exciting destinations and also, for some, a welcome return to the trappings of ‘civilisation’ in the shape of modern malls and restaurants.
North Sulawesi has lots to offer in a relatively condensed space. You can dive some of the world’s best coral reefs at Bunaken one day, explore volcanic scenery near Tomohon the next, and visit the lowland Tangkoko-Batuangas Dua Saudara Nature Reserve and its wildlife the day after.
Your initial impressions are not going to be great. A polluted, congested, business-driven city, Surabaya is not ideal for visitors. Just crossing the eight-lane highways that rampage through the centre is a challenge in itself. Attractions are slim on the ground, and against the calm of rural East Java, it is pandemonium writ large.
The gritty metropolis of Makassar is one of the nation's greatest ports. It's a seething maelstrom of commerce and shipping, with a polyglot population of Makassarese, Bugis and Chinese residents. But as the city has few sights, and the tropical heat and pollution is pretty unremitting, few travellers stay more than a night or two.
Lombok's traditional tourist resort, Senggigi enjoys a fine location along a series of sweeping bays, with light-sand beaches sitting pretty below a backdrop of jungle-clad mountains and coconut palms. In the late afternoon a setting blood-red sun sinks into the surf next to the giant triangular cone of Bali's Gunung Agung.
The landscape and character of Riau province is distinct from the northern and western rind of Sumatra. Rather than mountains and volcanoes, Riau’s character was carved by rivers and narrow ocean passages. Trading towns sprang up along the important navigation route of the Strait of Melaka, across which Riau claims cultural cousins.
Steamy Semarang, bustling and strange, with bosomy hills, a somewhat restored historic core and rapidly developing, affluent outskirts is home to a huge middle class, Chinese population and a massive north-coast port. Taken with a wide angle, this sprawling, schizophrenic city can feel charmless, but zoom in on its best pockets and there is life.