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Sumatra was once known as Swarnadwipa, the Sanskrit term meaning “Island of Gold,” for gold deposits found by the
island’s first settlers, members of the Hindu empire of Srivijaya, who arrived in the 7th century. Over the centuries, other
groups would try to claim this tropical paradise for their own, beguiled by its striking volcanic Barisan mountain chain, with peaks averaging over 610m (2,000 ft.). The highest peak rises over 3,658m (12,000 ft.) in the middle of the range. The mountains make a majestic backdrop for its lush rainforests, home to exotic animal species like tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros. Sumatra has the distinction of being both the largest island in Indonesia and the sixth-largest island in the world. Despite its geographical significance, it is less touristy than better known islands like Bali and Java , making it
more of a bona fide getaway.
Although Hinduism dominated its early history, Islam began making inroads here during the 13th century. The first Europeans to settle were the Portuguese, who staked their claim in the 1500s. They were followed by the Dutch and English about a century later, and the Dutch influence can be seen in the architecture in the capital city of Medan. The Dutch struggled with the native Atjehnese, a Muslim tribe, in sometimes bloody battles. Another chapter opened during World War II, when Japanese forces commanded the island from 1942 to the end of the war. The island won its freedom from the Dutch in 1950, and was officially declared part of the Republic of Indonesia, but that did not spell an end to conflict; the Atjehnese led a rebellion in 1958, and tensions still sometimes flare up. Another factor to consider is the devastating earthquake that hit the island in October  2009.  At  press  time,  thousands  were believed dead or missing and many buildings were leveled. It’s best to check on the current situation before planning a trip.

Once on the island, you could do worse than  spend  a  day  or  two  discovering  the city of Medan and its environs. Medan is in North  Sumatra,  a  province  resplendent with  rainforests,  jungles,  volcanic  lakes, and  lovely  beaches.  The  town  is  notably home to the Museum of North Sumatra, which  houses  prehistoric  artifacts  that reflect  the  island’s  changing  leadership: Buddhist  statues  share  space  with  weaponry   and   Arabic   gravestones.   Nearby Maimoon  Palace  is  another  example  of the island’s history. It was built in 1886 by an architect blending Asian, Western, and Middle  Eastern  influences.  Gang  Bangkok Mosque—the oldest mosque on the island—is also worth a visit while you’re in the Medan area.

Be  aware  that  Medan  is  a  major  port, home  to  more  than  two  million  people.  If you  want  to  get  away  from  the  crowds,  I recommend  renting  a  motorcycle  or  car and  taking  in  the  island’s  natural  glories beyond   this   port.   Sumatra’s   flora   and fauna outside this hub make for breathtaking sights. The island is home to 10 national parks, including 3 that are listed as World Heritage Sites. You can climb smoking volcano craters in the town of Berastagi, or see an orangutan in the rainforest canopy of  Bukit  Lawang.  The  rainforests  host unique   species   including   the   Rafflesia arnoldii,  the  world’s  largest  flower—just one of this island’s rare treasures.