In this August 2016 photo, a local captain guides his boat near Pangabatang Island in Indonesia. (AP/Kristi Eaton)
With more than 13,000 islands, Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago. Only about 6,000 of the islands are inhabited, but that still leaves a lot of options for island-hopping.
Most travelers know about Bali, the surf-and-sand island of "Eat, Pray, Love" fame, and Java, home to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and 60 percent of the country's population.
But I recently traveled with friends to two lesser-known — though still tourist-friendly — islands, and from there, a few even smaller islands, that gave glimpses of local culture while offering heart-stirring views of serene aqua water, dazzling waterfalls and thrilling volcano peaks.
This August 2016 photo courtesy of Kristi Eaton shows visitors as they pose in the water at Tiu Kelep, one of most awe-inspiring views on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. (AP/Kristi Eaton)
Next door to world-famous Bali, Lombok offers many of the same attractions as its better-know neighbor: waterfalls, white-sand beaches, snorkeling and scuba diving, but with a fraction of the tourists. Here are some of its top destinations:
—Senggigi. Located on the northwest part of Lombok, Senggigi is the main tourist area lined with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, massage parlors and more. The town of Senggigi is where visitors can set up tours or find guides to take them to different parts of the island.
—Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls: Icy, cold and slippery, these waterfalls are probably some of the most awe-inspiring sights on the island. We hired a guide to lead us to them.
—Authentic handicrafts: Banyumulek is a village known for its world-class pottery. We visited a family of three generations creating pieces of various sizes. Farther inland, Sukarara is a community where visitors can learn about the process of traditional hand-weaving and attempt to give it a try themselves. Pottery is available for purchase at Banyumulek, and sarongs, wall hangings, blankets and scarves are available for purchase at Sukarara.
—Gili islands: A string of three tiny islands off the northern coast of Lombok, the Gili islands are popular for their laidback feel and lack of traffic. We headed to Gili Air because it was the closest, hiring a private speedboat and driver and spending a few hours walking around the island and jumping in and out of the water. Don't forget to get your picture taken at one of the well-known water swings.
In this August 2016 photo, a crater on Mount Egon is seen on the island of Flores in Indonesia.(AP/Kristi Eaton)
Known mainly for being the jumping-off point to Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island of Flores is much larger than you may think. I made the mistake of thinking we could fly into the city of Maumere — the largest town on the island — and take local transport to the western side of the island and head on to the Komodo area. I was wrong. It turned out to be at least a 12-hour drive, and with just a few days on Flores, we decided to stick around Maumere instead of being rushed. But we were not disappointed.
One interesting aspect of visiting Flores was the Christian influence here. Indonesia is the world's largest majority-Muslim country, but here Christian churches and a large cross can be seen along the coast. Flores means flowers in Portuguese; it was a colonial outpost for Portugal in the 16th century.
Other attractions here:
—Local market: An authentic slice of life here, with vendors selling fruit, livestock and chatting with each other and customers.
—Pangabatang Island: We decided on the fly to try to visit Pangabatang Island, an uninhabited island about an hour off the coast of Flores. With the help of some friendly locals, we flagged down a bemo, a public transport van, found out one of the women on board was married to a boat captain, and headed to meet him at the fishing village of Nangahale. He spoke no English, but I was able to communicate with my rudimentary Indonesian language skills, and we hopped on his rickety boat. We sat in stunned silence snapping photos of some of the most scenic water views we'd ever seen. Once at Pangabatang, we suntanned, jumped in and out of the sea, and, of course, took selfies. One note of warning: Ferry sinkings and boat accidents are not uncommon — including a glass-bottomed boat that capsized off Bali in early November, killing three people including a Japanese tourist. So use your judgment on boat rides, especially if traveling with kids.
—Mount Egon: Hiking Mount Egon takes several hours and lots of stamina. It's very steep with lots of loose gravel. We hired a guide to take us up to the summit, where a volcanic crater and outstanding views made the trek worth it.
(Read also: Sabang in Aceh becoming popular cruise destination)
Learn a little bit of the language, Bahasa Indonesia, and it will help tremendously.
Being on time is relative. A 7 a.m. meeting time with your guide may actually mean 8 a.m. Sip some coffee and wait.
There are three time zones across Indonesia. Keep this in mind when booking flights.
Approximately 13,000 Indonesian rupiah equals U.S. $1.
Several direct flights go from the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta and from Bali to Lombok each day.
Getting to Flores is more complicated and takes longer. From Jakarta, flights can connect through Bali or even Kupang. Be ready for small planes, small airports and adventure.
Slow ferries between the islands are also an option.
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