Most travellers crossing the scorched, mountainous island of Sumbawa, east of Lombok, experience it solely through the window of a long-distance bus. But transit travel doesn’t do justice to this friendly, laidback island, with its fine beaches and surfing, offshore islands and traditional villages.
Historically, Sumbawa was divided between east and west, with the western Sumbawans influenced by the Balinese and Sasaks of Lombok, while the eastern Bimans share linguistic and cultural similarities with the Makarese of Sulawesi and the peoples of Flores and Sumba. The whole island is Muslim, however, and conservative dress is recommended.
Sumbawa Besar, usually referred to simply as Sumbawa, is the largest town on the island, although it sprawls without a real centre. The main streets run on a one-way loop, forming a convenient racetrack for ojek drivers in the evenings, although the side streets are quiet and leafy. The area around the Sultan’s Palace, to the south of town, is a particularly pleasant place to wander, where luxurious modern mansions sit side by side with old wooden huts on tiny, colourful alleys. You’re welcome to walk through the palace itself, an elaborate stilted wooden mansion at Jl Dalam Loka 1; ask the guard to unlock it for you.
The main attraction around Sumbawa Besar is Moyo Island, home to deer, buffalo, wild pigs and vast numbers of bird species. The island sits in a nature reserve and is surrounded by coral, making it ideal for snorkelling. A luxury resort owns half the island, but a cheaper way to explore it is to hire a guide via one of the hotels – the Hotel Tambora is the best place to enquire. Independent excursions are also possible, either on a day-trip or overnight.
Boats arrive at Tanjung Pasir, on the south side of Moyo Island. From there you can hike on the eastern half of the island (the western half is owned by the resort), including up to some waterfalls in the north, and swim off the beach. You may have to pay a park fee, but there is rarely anyone there to request it. There are no official maps of the island, but the hiking is fairly straightforward.
Boats to the island sail from the village of Ai Bari (30min), about 20km north of Sumbawa. The public bemo from Sumbawa Besar to Ai Bari runs infrequently, and to guarantee getting it you will have to be at the market at around 6am. However, it is easy enough to hire an ojek or charter a bemo to get there. It’s advisable to pre-arrange return transport to Sumbawa, and if you want to stay on the island you’ll need to bring a tent or rent one from one of the fishermen. There is no water or food available, so make sure you have plenty of provisions.
The rather sleepy port town of Bima is quiet but friendly. Its people have a strong sense of Bimanese identity, offering an insight into the patchwork of ethnicities you’ll find throughout Nusa Tenggara. The town is centred around the market on Jalan Flores; most of the accommodation lies to the west of the Sultan’s Palace, whose museum houses a rather shabby collection of traditional costumes. The area around Bima, Wawo, boasts a distinct style of traditional thatched house; examples can be seen at Maria and Sambori, both on the Bima–Sape bus route. If you need to relax on the beach after a hard day’s travel, charter a boat from the harbour out to the island of Pulau Kambing, where you’ll find relative seclusion.
Sape, where you’ll find the port of Bugis, is a quiet, dusty town where livestock wander the streets and local fisherman ply the harbour at dusk. There isn’t much to see, but it can be a pleasant place to stay the night. Nearby Gili Banta makes a good day-trip, with nice beaches and a burgeoning turtle population; if you get a group together, you can charter a boat there from the harbour. Otherwise, there’s the dark sand Papa Beach, 10km out of town, which is a peaceful spot for a picnic; an ojek will take you there. Most of the town’s facilities, including the post office and a BNI Bank with an ATM, are on the main road down to the port.
Sumbawa has gained a reputation for offering some of the finest surfing in Indonesia, without the crowds you’ll find in Bali. Getting to the beaches with a surfboard can be an arduous task unless you charter a car from Sumbawa Besar, but once there you’ll find plenty of accommodation and facilities. The main breaks are at Hu’u, off Lakey beach, and around Maluk beach on the west coast. The latter has direct buses from Sumbawa Besar (3–4hr), though they’re infrequent. To get to Hu’u, you’ll need to take a bus from Bima to Dompu (3hr), and from there to Hu’u (2hr). Many of the waves break over reefs, so are not suitable for novices; however, the beaches are stunning even if you don’t surf.