The sea crossing from East Java's mainland to the small island of Madura takes just half an hour. A regular ferry service transports cars and passengers across the narrow strait between Surabaya's harbour of Tanjung Perak and Kamal on Madura's south west coast.
Measuring some 160 km in length and about 40 across at its widest point, Madura supports a population of close to 2.3 million inhabitants, most of whom are farmers or fishermen. Although the island is a part of the province of East Java, it is home to a completely separate ethnic group, which has its own language and customs.
Renowned over the centuries for their sailing prowess, the Madurese are a tough, high spirited people, whose character appears well suited to the harsh climate and dry landscape.
Madura's most famous attraction is the annual bull racing (kerapan sapi), which takes place during the dry season in August and September. These exciting and colourful tournaments consist of a race between two pairs of bulls, each team pulling a rider and sled. Following a series of heats, which take place in different parts of the island for some weeks, the highlight of the season occurs when the finals are held in Pamekasan, Madura's capital.
Recently a new bull racing stadium has been built in Bangkalan with the object of attracting more tourists to the island. Madura is not so large and it is possible to travel the whole way round it in a couple of days. However, there is quite alot to see and more time is needed to explore even the major places of interest.
Starting at Kamal and moving along the southern coast, the first stop is the town of Sampang, near to which lies Camplong Beach. The best time to be here is shortly after sunrise or at dusk, when the blue sailed Madurese fishing boats (prahu) are either arriving or setting off. The air is clearer at these times and from the beach there is a good view of the mountain ranges on the mainland to the south.
Just over 30 km beyond Sampang is the capital city of Pamekasan. There is not much for the visitor to see here unless it is bull racing season. The town of Sumenep on the north eastern end of the island, while smaller than Pamekasan, is more vibrant and has some interesting historical sites as well as some good beaches nearby.
The city's old palace (kraton) and museum are worth visiting, as is the large Jamiq mosque with its green tiered roof. Above the town is the royal mausoleum called Asta Tinggi, from where there are good views of the town and coast beyond.
The two main beaches near Sumenep are Slopeng and Lombang. The former, which lies on the north coast some 21 km from the town, is a beautiful location with tall palm trees shading the edge of the beach. At weekends and on holidays Slopeng is popular with families from Sumenep, but otherwise it is quite deserted.
A few of the local village people have set up stalls and offer fresh young coconuts and Siwalan fruit, taken directly from the surrounding trees, to passing travellers. At Lombang, on Madura's north eastern point, a long and narrow stretch of white sand is backed by short cemara trees. Aside from the occasional fisherman the beach is deserted, making it the perfect place for 'getting away from it all'.
A narrow but good road runs the whole way down Madura's attractive north coast, from Slopeng to Bangkalan. There are many small villages and quiet beaches to stop at on the way, in particular the fishing communities of Pasongsongan and Pasean, where narrow estuaries are packed solid with colourful sailing boats.
Before arriving at Bangkalan, which is the last major town before Kamal, it is well worth visiting the Aermata tomb of Ratu Ibu, who was the consort of Prince Cakraningrat I of Madura and a descendant of Sunan Giri, one of the famed Wali Songo, or 'nine saints', who originally propagated the Muslim religion in Java. The tomb, which is set on a hill about 4 km inland from the town of Arosbaya and approached by a long flight of steps, dates back to the mid 17th century.
Madura is also a well known center for batik production and has its own unique style. In the performing arts, the island is famous for its topeng dalang, a mask dance/theatre, which at one time was only seen within the royal palace.