Porcelain crabs on soft coral off Sulawesi.

Islands off Sulawesi

There are more than 1000 islands off Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes: the Spermonde islands off Makassar alone encompass roughly 115, a surprising number of which are inhabited. Sulawesi’s islands sprawl all the way to the Philippines, Borneo and Lombok, inter alia, as well as probably the ultimate destination for the Indonesian island collector, Maluku (the Moluccas). Take this as a working overview of Sulawesi’s islands rather than a comprehensive guide.

The big K to Halmahera’s little K, Sulawesi itself – Indonesia’s third biggest island and the eleventh (or twelfth, if you count Australia) largest island in the world – has much to offer travellers with time to explore. And for the explorer – or the serious diver looking for liveaboard indulgence – these classic Indonesian islands have boundless potential.

For divers, Sulawesi’s best-known islands are undoubtedly Lembeh and Bunaken, to the north of Sulawesi, although this group of close-to-shore islands includes others with great diving. Much further north are the Sangihe islands and Talaud islands, which are best visited by liveaboard. The tiny Karkaralong islands are rarely visited (if you’ve been, please drop us a comment!).

Public ferry, Togian islands, Sulawesi.
Backpackers adore the Togian islands, in between Sulawesi’s northernmost and central peninsulas: these have the second best tourist infrastructure after Lembeh, Bunaken, Gangga et al in the north. Although the public boat makes the journey time-consuming, the Togians offer pretty beaches and decent coral that are perfect for playing Robinson Crusoe, and plenty of simple beach huts that are backpacker heaven.

Moving south, the substantial island of Peleng offers access to the Silumba islands. Yet further south are the Menui islands: we’ve heard Pulau Kokoh, one of the closest to shore in this group, is one of Indonesia’s most staggeringly beautiful islands.

South and East Sulawesi are especially fertile ground for the fan of Indonesian islands. The best-known group here are probably the diving mecca most popularly known as Wakatobi, after the island with the much-publicised top-end resort. There are many cheaper options within this group too, while the resort runs its own luxurious liveaboard for explorations further afield.

Moving west, the Takabonerate islands are best explored by liveaboard or from the national park’s dive resort on Tinabo: several are quite densely populated. Selayar, a large island off South Sulawesi, and its surrounding islands, offer outstanding diving, especially on Selayar’s east coast during the October to May season. Further west, the Sebalana islands and the Bala Balakang islands sprawl towards Flores.

Samalona, in the Spermonde islands, off Sulawesi.
There are three distinct island groups off Makassar. The closest are the Spermonde islands, reached from Makassar and/or the port of Maccini Baji in Pangkep, an hour or two north on the road that leads to Toraja.

The dinky little island of Samalona, just half an hour from the city, is an expat and backpacker favourite. Kapoposang and its surrounding islands sit between the Spermonde islands and the more remote islands: whale sharks visit here each September.

Further out are the Kalukuang islands and the Paternoster islands, AKA Tupabirring. Public boats leave from Makassar’s Paoetere harbour for the 12-hour journey to Kalukuang, also reachable from Labuhan Lombok in Lombok and Bima in Sumbawa, and the 24-hour journey to the Paternosters, also accessible from Indonesian Borneo. Don’t even think about taking one of these in rough seas.

Liveaboard dive boats are a great option for exploring Sulawesi’s islands. When it comes to liveaboard diving the famous Lembeh Strait, you’re spoilt for choice, while plenty of liveaboards explore Wakatobi. La Galigo, named for the ancient Buginese text, has trips to Takabonerate; the eminently affordable Sunshine runs to Sangihe from time to time, as does Waow.