Shaped like a wonky four-legged octopus and rather romantically named, Indonesia's Sulawesi is a complete destination in its own right—which is lucky, as it seemingly takes a very long time to get anywhere on the world's 11th largest island.
Sulawesi crouches between Borneo, which lies to the west across the Strait of Makassar, and the Maluku islands, across to the east. Formerly called Celebes by the Portuguese, Sulawesi comprises four regions that roughly correspond to its four peninsulas: the north (Minahasa), east, south and southeast. Plenty of smaller islands worth exploring are scattered in the waters surrounding the main island: the Gulf of Tomini between the north and east, Gulf of Tolo between the east and southeast, and the Gulf of Bone between the south and southeast.
Sulawesi is home to varied cultures—the Minahasans in the north, the famed seafaring Bugis and the Tana Torajans—as well as loads of natural attractions such as national parks, volcanoes and lakes, plus world-class diving and snorkelling.
Islam is the main religion, but around a fifth of the population is Christian, and devotees of either faith may worship indigenous deities as well. Communal unrest struck Central Sulawesi in the early to mid 2000s, but peace has reigned since around 2007 and tourism in this area is gradually coming back to life.
While certain stops tend to be on most traveller itineraries, the awkward geography of the island means loads of variations are possible, and this is one island where planning a route ahead of time is a very good idea. Infrequent connections are common, so timing is important, and trips can be lengthy.
A sample route might be Makassar - Bira - Takabone National Park - Sangkeng - Rantepao - Tentena - Ampana - Togean Islands - Gorontalo - Manado - Bunaken.
But if you want to go to Wakatobi, Perhaps Manado - Gorontalo - Togean Islands - Ampana - Poso - Kendari - Wakatobi - Bira - Makassar may work instead.
Bus trips of 10-hours plus are not unusual—you'll traverse the Trans-Sulawesi Highway that goes for nearly 2,000 kilometres between Makassar and Manado—and at some point you'll likely have an overnight boat ride to factor in as well. To save time consider flights—perhaps Makassar and Manado to elsewhere on the island. Pack your patience.
Makassar is a fairly relaxed city, where a highlight is likely to be the seafood warungs and some Dutch architectural remains. Bira is home to several beautiful beaches, from Bira beach proper, infested with banana boats, through to more deserted Bara beach. Takabone National Park, the third largest atoll in the world, is undeservedly very undertouristed, while Sangkeng is home to a stunning lake worth getting up at sunrise to explore.
Rantepao is the main town of Tana Toraja, a regency where elaborate funerals compete with beautiful scenery for attention. Tentena, after years of unrest, is now a chilled out lakeside spot to relax. The Togean Islands offer uncrowded diving spots and more white-sand beaches.
Manado, the wealthiest city in Sulawesi, is fairly cosmopolitan and a good place to get your bearings and stock up on what you need before striking out. Bunaken offers incredible diving, though be warned, litter is becoming a more consistent issue here, so keep expectations of this being a pristine, remote getaway under control.
Wakatobi, too, offers excellent diving in reward for the required time spent to get here. Other national parks worthy of stops include Lore Lindu, home to megaliths, and Tangkoko, home to the cute little tarsier.
The peak period for travel in Sulawesi is July-August, when many Europeans seem to spend a full month here exploring—and there's absolutely more than enough to keep them—and you—busy over four weeks or even six weeks.
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