There is a certain perverse eccentricity about suggesting Bali as a hub for further journeying, a place which is itself so beautiful, so bountiful, and so world-renowned a delight-"the morning of the world," as one great statesman put it. But the tiny anvil-shaped island does happen to be very conveniently sited, more or less at the geographic midpoint of the 3,800-mile-wide, 13,677-island-strong archipelago that is Indonesia. Moreover, the air and ship connections to the rest of the country are, because of the explosive recent growth of interest in Bali itself, formidably good.First of all, don't rush away from Bali.
There is a new Ritz-Carlton, and a particularly stunning Four Seasons is opening in August. The country stretches, as locals like to say, dari Sabang ke Merauke-from Sabang (in Sumatra) to Merauke (on the land frontier of Papua New Guinea)-and transport is relatively simple and relatively quick. All Indonesian airfields, more or less, are within a couple of hours flying time; thus, Bali becomes both an ideal base and the perfect place to be.
Assuming you can break free from the island's limitless attractions, he ad west to Java, the lush and densely populated main island of the republic. Although some say "give Jakarta a chance," I would advise against it. Instead, fly to Yogyakarta, on Java's southern shore, and spend as much time as possible observing the rich mysteries of Javanese cultures, which are grown to their fullest bloom in the petri dish that Yogya long has been. Gamelan music, batik-making, wayang shadow puppetry-they all have their greatest exponents and best examples in and around the dazzling little town, and time spent in Yogya is time spent learning, by osmosis, the amazing richness and depth of Javanese art.
Nearby, too, are the astonishing temples of Borobudur (Buddhist, eighth century) and Prambanan (Hindu, a little later): Both are vast, unforgettable, and essential way stations for anyone coming to Indonesia. Miss them and regret it eternally.
The other great sight on Java is sunrise on Mount Bromo, a 7,000-foot volcano that is to Indonesia what Yosemite is to America spectacular, popular, and justly so. Nearby is
the large island of Madura, where, among other attractions, there are Pamplona-like bull -running festivals.
North of Bali is the oddly shaped island once known as the Celebes, now Sulawesi, which has as its principal attraction the amazing funeral rituals of the southern people called the Torajans. (In crude shorthand, while one may say that Sumatra has scenery and wildlife, Java culture and history, Sulawesi's claim is largely to a multitude of ethnicities and societies, all living in reasonable harmony, all fascinatingly different.) Torajaland can best be explored from a base such as Rantepao (accessible by air from Bali, with a change at Ujung Pandang). There are good hotels, like the Toraja Prince, from which guides can take you to see the famous burial caves and explain the rituals of these curious Christian -animist peoples.
Just east of Bali-and across biology's famous Wallace Line, which marks the separation of Asian from Australasian fauna (the latter including such marsupials as the kangaroo )-is Lombok, an island that is similarly Hindu-dominated but not so remarkable as Bali. Stay at the new Oberoi Hotel Lombok.
But to the north are the Gili lslands, all of startling beauty-coral-fringed, unvisited, inexpensive, the perfect place to get lost. Farther east still is an island off the north coast of Sumbawa, where this peace has been recognized and is on sale for more than $500 nightly at the famous Amanwana tented hotel. Indonesia is a place where you have to decide whether you want to pony up big bucks or to stay frugally-both experiences will be perfectly safe, and each has its own magic.