With 17,000-plus isles to choose from, planning an Indonesian island-hopping adventure can feel overwhelming. If you’re beginning – but not wanting to end – your adventure on Bali, the Nusa Tenggara archipelago to the east is an excellent place to start. Bouncing between ferries and buses, you'll have an intimate window on a natural wonderland.

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Journey through the Nusa Tenggara archipelago to see the landscapes and meet the people of these beautiful islands © Tan Yilmaz / Getty Images

Hang out with Indonesians on the decks of boats, gazing at innumerable tiny islands which dot the seas around larger siblings such as Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and West Timor. Catch buses across the major islands, stopping off for beaches, surf breaks, dive spots, eons-old villages, tourist towns, beautiful views and much more.

The following itinerary takes you from Bali all the way to West Timor on a journey that can fill a 30-day visa. Travel as far east as you want and then fly back to Bali from various airports along the way.

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Use our map to plot your itinerary across Nusa Tenggara

Lombok

Just east of Bali, similarly sized Lombok makes a perfect transition to the exotic adventures of Nusa Tenggara. It has the tourist services of its famous neighbour but is much less crowded, and has a vibe that doesn't march to the beat of visiting hordes. Among the star attractions are the superb south coast beaches, starting with the wide, azure bay at Kuta.

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For jaw-dropping tropical sunsets Lombok is hard to beat © Southern Lightscapes-Australia / Getty Images

Personality

Lombok is almost entirely Muslim, with many grand new mosques evidence of the island's growing prosperity. It's relaxed, pragmatic and tourist-friendly.

Getting there and around

From Bali, hourly public ferries make the four- to five-hour trip to Lembar on Lombok. Along the way, enjoy fine views of soaring Gunung Agung on Bali and southwestern Lombok, which includes the legendary surf break, Tanjung Desert (Desert Point). There are also fast boats to Senggigi on Lombok or you can go via the Gili Islands. Public buses run frequently to the eastern port town of Labuhan Lombok. From the main city, Mataram, you can buy through tickets to islands further east. It's about four hours by bus across Lombok.

Lombok's modern airport at Praya is close to the southern beaches and has frequent flights to Bali and the main cities in Nusa Tenggara.

Sumbawa

Large, dry and thinly populated, Sumbawa makes a clear break from its busier neighbours to the west. The pace is slow and traditional attractions few, although it has two famous coasts for surfing: Maluk and Pantai Lakey, near Hu'u. Many travellers hurry across the island on their way to eastern Nusa Tenggara.

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Test your surfing skills (or just watch someone else testing theirs) on Sumbawa © Paul Kennedy / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Personality

Sumbawa is a very conservative Muslim island; the city of Bima is a centre of fundamentalist beliefs. However, travellers are a common sight and the perceived standoffishness of locals is mostly due to shyness.

Getting there and around

There are airports at the main cities of Sumbawa Besar and Bima, and ferries frequently make the 90-minute run between Labuhan Lombok and Poto Tano. Public buses regularly cruise the main highway between Poto Tano and the eastern port town of Sape; it’s about 13 hours across the island.

Flores

On the ferry ride from Sumbawa, you'll sail through the islands of Komodo National Park, home to some of the region's best diving as well as the iconic, flesh-eating Komodo dragons. Flores itself is one of Indonesia's most appealing islands, with traditional cultures, smoking volcanoes, and a string of sublime beaches.

Start in the west in the alluring tourist town of Labuanbajo, where you can wander among great restaurants and cafes while arranging trips to the national park. The trip east on the Trans-Flores Highway is one of Indonesia's highlights. Stone Age villages with unique cultures are found around Bajawa, spectacular volcanic scenery (including polychromatic lakes at Kelimutu National Park) make Moni unmissable, while you simply can't pass up Paga's perfect beaches. East of Maumere is more good diving before all hints of tourist buzz vanish as you reach remote and quiet Larantuka.

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They don't breathe fire but Komodo's dragons are still highly impressive and well worth breaking your journey for © guenterguni / Getty Images

Personality

The nearly two million inhabitants of Flores comprise five major linguistic and cultural groups and are predominantly Catholic, though animist beliefs are common. The Ngada people live in age-old villages near Bajawa and welcome visitors.

Getting there and around

Flores has several small airports. Two are important for island-hoppers: Maumere and newly expanded Labuanbajo, both of which have regular service to Bali and Kupang on West Timor. There is at least one public ferry a day from Sape on Sumbawa to Labuanbajo; these take up to seven hours. You can buy through bus tickets to Flores from major cites all the way west to Bali. You can also book passage on overnight tourist boats from Lombok to Labuanbajo which bypass Sumbawa, but be sure to vet operators for safety. Frequent buses run the length of Flores, linking all the towns on the Trans-Flores Highway, from Labuanbajo to Larantuka. The minimum transit time on buses is more than 24 hours; most people stop off at least in Bajawa, Moni and Maumere.

West Timor

West Timor, the Indonesian portion of Timor island, is drawing increasing numbers of travellers. Many come for the exquisite traditional crafts such as fabrics, which are sold in tiny village markets. But an equally good reason to venture this far east is to visit the ancient villages where time seems to have stopped several centuries ago. In isolated spots such as None (18km east of Soe), they only stopped hunting heads in 1945, while hilltop Temkessi, could be the mystic home of Yoda in Star Wars.

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Cloth making is still very literally part of the fabric of life for many West Timorese © Peter Ptschelinzew / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Personality

West Timor is one of Indonesia's friendliest places, where even former head-hunting villages are now open to visitors. At least 14 languages are spoken and there's a mix of religions.

Getting there and around

The main city of Kupang is a hub for eastern Nusa Tenggara; there are regular flights to Flores and Bali. Ferries from Larantuka on Flores run twice a week and take about 15 hours. You can also venture on to Timor-Leste by bus (organise your visa in Kupang first).

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