A 1999 referendum brought an end to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, but during the political violence that followed, many parts of the capital, Dili, were reduced to ashes. The city remained on a knife-edge in the following decade as a traumatized nation struggled to free itself from factionalism and unrest. But an international peacekeeping effort has finally borne fruit, with the former Portuguese colony now being likened to Bali before its tourism boom. With its grand government buildings, idyllic waterfront setting and laid-back dining scene, Dili makes a tantalizing introduction to Southeast Asia's best-kept travel secret.
1. Dare Memorial
Timorese children helped two companies of marooned Australian soldiers inflict huge casualties on Japanese imperial forces during World War II by providing them with food, shelter and knowledge of the land. The last Aussies were evacuated in 1943, but during the campaign, many of these adolescent guides, the criados, were slaughtered by the Japanese, along with 60,000 Timorese. Refurbished in 2008 by Australia's Department of Veterans' Affairs, this war museum and café funds a neighboring school and offers panoramic views of Dili and surroundings. Open weekends only, no phone.
2. Atauro Island
Lying 30 km across the Wetar Strait, this volcanic island that was once home to a penal colony has been reinvented as Dili's weekend getaway. The Berlin Nakroma, a seagoing ferry, departs from Dili Wharf every Saturday morning and returns in the afternoon, giving passengers enough time to take in the handicraft market at Beloi, snorkel over colorful coral reefs and enjoy a tropical lunch at community-based eco-property Nema's Lodge, tel: (670) 723 6084. See islandofadventure.tl.
3. Areia Branca Beach
When the tropical heat dissipates late in the day, jog, cycle or catch a taxi to the aptly named Areia Branca (White Sand) Beach. Set on a tranquil cove, this frangipani-lined strip edged by sheets of cobalt blue waters is the best place in town to take in Dili's blood-orange sunsets. As you do so, sip an ice-cold coconut carted onto the sand by friendly waiters from the Beach Side Hotel, tel: (670) 750 2184.
4. Avenida de Portugal
Dili's quirky expatriate community a rowdy brigade of builders, security contractors and entrepreneurs cashing in on the city's development rush lets its hair down on Friday nights, mostly along this coastal road. Kick off with beer on tap at the Dili Beach Hotel, tel: (670) 331 0493 before going next door to the Castaway Bar for wood-fired pizza and a game of pool. Afterward, visit the Casa Minha hotel, tel: (670) 735 8312, where techno and house pump all night long.
5. Hali Laram Market
Start your day with a visit to East Timor's largest outdoor market, where you'll find purple zucchinis, zesty green tomatoes, betel nut, Timor's world-famous arabica coffee beans and tais handwoven textiles with distinct patterns representing the district from whence they came. Visit early in the morning, before Dili's tropical heat reaches boiling point.