Travel: Lombok, Baliâ€™s big brother
When it comes to the winter vacation period, in my mind there are three options:stay in Japan and indulge in champagne powder skiing (did that last year), head home for creature comforts (this yearâ€™s plan) or jet off somewhere exotic where the idea of needing a kotatsu would make locals guffaw. If you fall into the third category then I have the perfect year-round destination for you…
Indonesia may be best known for the traffic clogged hell of Jakarta and the pounding surf and even wilder nightlife in Bali. However if you want an idyllic destination, just touching the beaten track, where you can experience all the wonders of tourist trap Bali whilst avoiding Jakartaâ€™s smog, then Lombok is the island for you.
Access to Lombok is via neighbouring Bali; usually by a 2 hour fast boat from the port towns of either Padang Bai or Sanur. Even on a good day this speedy crossing is not for the faint hearted. It is highly recommended to nab a seat inside at the back to limit the effect of the impact as the boat crashes down into the water from the peak of each wave. Those foolhardy enough to stake a claim to the top deck to sunbathe should go prepared with waterproof poncho and trousers, and hold on tightly to the safety bar, for it is not unknown to be thrown off into the channel! A short flight from Bali to Lombok is a more decadent, and certainly drier, option, although the taxi drive at either end may be equally as hair-raising.
Arriving at the northern coast of Lombok by boat is an experience in itself. Views of the islandâ€™s volcanic mountains are spectacular; they seem to grow straight out of the sea, covered in an unending forest of palm trees even to the most precipitous of ridges. Brightly coloured fishing boats dot the harbour, and you jump off the boat into warm, clear waters lapping upon the silky sand which disappears just a few metres away into jungle. Onwards, intrepid explorer!
From the harbour in Bangsal the drive to Senggigi is full of hairpin-bends and fantastic ocean vistas. Senggigi is, arguably, the main tourist hub of the island, but when compared with Baliâ€™s Kuta it is just a sleepy town with an unusual number of hotels, all set back from the main road in their jungle cum gardens. For beach lovers, Senggigiâ€™s long sandy strip is a popular haunt, although hawkers can be very persistent as the number of tourists to prey on is fairly low. If you donâ€™t require the multitude of water sports available in Senggigi then grab your snorkel, towel and packed lunch, hire a scooter or driver, and explore secluded coves along the rugged coastline. Experienced surfers will need to head to the tourist-sparse south coast of Lombok for excellent reef surfing.
If youâ€™ve had your fill of saltwater, a day trip to Rinjani National Park is an absolute must for both the views and the chance to rinse off in a cascading waterfall â€“ the ultimate power shower. Hotels are always more than happy to organize a driver (a brother of a friend) to run you around for a very reasonable price. Climbing the volcano, Mount Rinjani, is a serious undertaking involving a four day trek and a team of porters, but for a taste of the national parkâ€™s rugged beauty, and to get the heart pumping, then head to Senaru village, just inside the park. From here a stroll and a scramble will take you through majestic jungle, past (and potentially through the tunnel of) an aqueduct, to two beautiful waterfalls. The first waterfall, Sendang Gila, is just a 15 minute meander along man-made paths into the forest. Although a very picturesque waterfall, I really recommend the extra 40 minute trek through the jungle (and at times knee-deep in the river) to the second, Tiu Kelep, where you can strip off for a plunge. Tiu Kelepâ€™s waters are renowned for their healing qualities, and for every time you swim behind the main waterfall you become a year younger. Be warned, however, that the force of the spray may actually prevent you from getting close to the cascade itself. Jungle adventurers must also keep their eyes peeled for the local wildlife; adorable wild monkeys (not like the dangerously tame pick-pockets you find in Ubud, Bali) scamper among the trees, and savvy guides tempt them into photo proximity with any bananas left over from your trek snack-pack. Although I am sure the full trek up Rinjani is spectacular, if you only have a couple of days to explore northern Lombok(or simply want something more relaxing) then this waterfall walk is the perfect way to experience the islandâ€™s luscious rainforest.
Once youâ€™ve taken in all the nature you can, visited some of the many craft villages inland and taken plenty of photos in the delightfully untouristy monkey forest (pretty much a road which is just very popular with incredibly cute monkeys), you may think itâ€™s time to head back to Bali for a livelier atmosphere, but here you would be wrong. Donâ€™t go back to the tacky fluorescent light lined strip of Kuta; instead hop aboard a 20 minute shuttle boat to the idyllic Gili islands where the days are luxuriously and the nights even longer…
As a Muslim island Lombok has, so far, been little affected by the hordes of Australian sixteen year olds who stumble around Baliâ€™s hub Kuta after one too many Smirnoff Ices. But fear not party people: Gili Trawangan is here for you. Whilst neighbouring islets Gili Air and Gili Meno offer zen-like calm and access to some of the best diving in the world, Gili Trawangan boasts not only the same diving access (approx. 15 minutes to all major sites, from reefs to wrecks), but also a buzzing nightlife scene. There are three official â€˜party nightsâ€™ a week (each finishing at a different venue) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. However thereâ€™s also a multitude of bars with music open every night; Sama Sama reggae bar is particularly good for its house band. If you happen to visit in Ramadan, when music has to be shut off at 11pm, itâ€™s a little different, but no less fun, with beach-bar film nights and a nightly silent disco at â€˜the Irishâ€™ to please the hordes. Make no mistake though, Gili T hedonists are seriously committed to their island lifestyle, with many revellers going straight from sunrise cocktails at Surf Bar to a 7am yoga class for a pre-dive detox. If yoga, either post or pre party, appeals to you then try Gili Yoga for excellent morning and evening classes daily and an unbeatable position opposite the beach.
The Gilis have become a Mecca for diving, boasting incredible water quality and fantastic marine wildlife, as well as the chance to try night dives and use Nitrox. For those who donâ€™t yet scuba dive, snorkelling is an excellent alternative, either from the islandsâ€™ white-sand beaches, or, if you prefer to limit the number of people watching you penguin waddle in your fins, then join a tourist snorkel trip around all the three islands. There are dozens of such tours which take you to five dive sites where you can admire brightly coloured corals, schools of even brighter fish, and, if youâ€™re lucky, giant sea turtles and manta rays.
It can be very easy to get stuck in the Gilis; a two night stopover easily becomes ten, and youâ€™re likely to meet seasonnaires from Europe who spend several months (and all their money) in tropical paradise after five months in the snowy Alps. The heavily European crowd ranges from hip families staying in the pricier eco bungalows, to honeymooning couples usually on Gili Meno, to the year round backpacking set clad in appropriately garish trousers from the last South East Asian country they were in. All types of people rub along happily in the Gilis, where time is kept only by the calls to prayer from the mosque.
Although these three tiny isles just off the north coast are destinations in their own right, they are still technically part of Lombok itself and add a touch of glamour and party to the main islandâ€™s culture, nature and adventure; truly making Lombok the best all-round holiday haven. With lows of 24ËšC in December, where better to spend your Christmas than lazing by the turquoise waters of the Gilis, cocktail in hand? You know you want to.
Where to stay
Senggigi: The Beach Club offers beach bungalows at very reasonable prices, and backpacker rooms for even less. As well as being right on the beach, with beautiful sunset views, you can enjoy an infinity pool in a delightful jungle like garden. They also serve up a mean breakfast.
Gili T: If you are travelling off-peak, take the risk of turning up and finding accommodation on arrival; the island has a huge array of accommodation set back from the beach, ranging from budget to luxury. There are plenty of signs along the main track (there are no real roads as there are motorised vehicles) or people waiting by the boat drop-off to tempt you to their homestays.
Backpackers rave about the prices and atmosphere at Gili Hostel. The islandâ€™s only hostel has a great rooftop bar and excellent location, but the bathrooms do leave a little to be desired.
Thereâ€™s a huge number of companies operating transfers between Bali and both Lombok and the Gilis. Unfortunately there have been several accidents on the choppy crossing over the past few years, so fork up for a slightly more expensive company with a good safety record. Check here for options.
Perama Tour & Travel organise transfers between the islands as well as lots of tours and trips on both Bali and Lombok. These are particularly good for lone travellers, but if youâ€™re travelling in a group I recommend checking out their itineraries and then hiring your own driver, better for budget and flexibility.
Everything you eat in Lombok will be delicious, but my favourite restaurants in Senggigi were Square for divine tuna tartare and excellent lamb, and CafÃ© Alberto for sunset views and crispy Italian pizzas (conveniently next to The Beach Club).
On Gili T Kokomo is the most expensive dinner location (but itâ€™s all relative) on the island, and rightly so; the service and food are excellent and I canâ€™t recommend the seafood platter enough. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the small night market, always teeming with budget travellers seeking out a cheap, cheery and delicious dinner of fresh seafood. Somewhere in the middle in terms of price comes Italian restaurant Trattoria whose pastas and pizzas taste like theyâ€™re straight out of Naples, but the caprese salad and tuna carpaccio just might steal the show.