The Indonesian island of Lombok marches to the beat of its own drum – and, as Donald Berkshire discovers, it’s a beat that is slow enough to make for a super-relaxing holiday.
It was about 40 minutes into our drive along the winding road that hugs Lombok’s craggy west coast that I noticed our guide Sanjay starting to nod off behind the wheel. It was hard to blame him. Every hill our beaten-up Suzuki crested had us drifting trance-like down into half-moon bays, shimmering in the setting sun.
“Sleepy,” Sanjay said sheepishly, as he pulled over to the side of the palm-fringed road and draped a wet cloth over his face. Some 15 minutes later, we were stopping again, but this time to allow a six-foot Komodo dragon to trundle lazily across the bitumen.
Such delays are typical on Lombok, where time seems to slow to a crawl, and for most visitors the only deadline worth keeping is cocktail hour at their local resort. An island of sweeping white-sand beaches and soaring volcanic mountains, Lombok lies only 40 kilometres from Bali, but barring this geographic coincidence has little in common with its famous neighbour to the west.
Comparisons are inevitable for most tourists, who invariably arrive after a short hop from Bali’s Denpasar airport or a two-hour speedboat across the strait. However, they’re thrilled to find sturdy roads free of Bali’s choking traffic – the odd giant lizard notwithstanding – and coral reefs swarming with marine wildlife only a short paddle out to sea.
Among the smattering of resorts on the developed west coast is a handful with genuine claims to offering world class luxury, yet most accommodation consists of family-run, rickety beach-shacks for a few dollars a night. Local officials’ hopes of pushing the island as an “unspoilt Bali” took a meaningful step last year, with a new international airport and plans to develop the pristine southern coast into a thriving tourist hub.
In spite of these grand ambitions, though, Lombok seems content to play the frumpy older daughter staying at home in her pyjamas, while Bali plays the flashy younger sister, dressed to kill and heading out to the party.“It’s funny how it just hasn’t quite taken off,” said Phil Smith, a rugged English travel agent who has been fixing trips to Lombok from Bali for over a decade. “It has lovely beaches, laidback people and a lot of potential, but the money seems to keep piling into Bali.”
The trip from the airport to Senggigi, the centre of Lombok’s half-hearted attempt to graft a slice of Bali onto the island, takes in verdant rice-paddies and fishing villages with a spattering of thatched-roofed houses. Clunky lorries act as public transport, mainly for groups of chattering, head-scarved women dressed in brilliant colours, a gentle reminder that the predominantly Muslim Lombok marches to the beat of a very different drum than the freewheeling locals on Hindu Bali.
The gradual encroachment of development has not stopped local wildlife from mixing in with humans, and I’m dumbstruck one evening when a six-inch centipede scurries over my foot in the bathroom of my hotel room. Still, a cheerful pest control man arrives at my door within minutes of a call to the front desk and picks up the centipede with a tissue. “It wouldn’t have killed you,” he says, somewhat reassuringly, before carrying it off into the night.
Ebony leaf monkeys swing through the trees in the foothills near Mount Rinjani, an active volcano best appreciated during the course of a superb two-day trek to the edge of the smouldering cone. Most, however, come to Lombok simply to “drop and flop”, with the languid possibility of a snorkelling excursion to break up a lazy day.
That largely describes my ambitions as I take a cruise out to the Gilis, the three pint-sized islets off the northwest coast of mainland Lombok that draw backpackers and well-heeled honeymooners alike. The Gilis, reachable within 20 minutes by boat from the mainland, have been darlings of the Lonely Planet set for close to a decade. Each has its own flavour, with Gili Trawangan, the most popular and furthest from the mainland, attracting young party animals with promises of magic mushroom milkshakes and all-night drinking sessions at beach bars spanning the length of its east coast. Gili Meno, second in the chain, offers little more than a few clusters of bungalows on the sand and is beloved by couples seeking a stripped-back getaway. The third, Gili Air, offers a compromise between its neighbours, with a raging full-moon party lifting the sleepy island out of its coma once a month.
Cars and motorbikes are banned on the islands, meaning transport on their sandy paths is purely by foot – or a pricey lift on a local “taxi” – a cart pulled by a donkey.
Those looking for yoga retreats, ayurvedic spas and alternative therapies to boost their qi are likely to be disappointed at the Gilis, where many of the young visitors are simply content to worship at the temple of Bintang beer from dawn to dusk.
But directly off the beach there is a hedonistic free-for-all of a more appealing kind; within seconds of strapping my snorkel on for a spot of snorkelling, I am mobbed by schools of fish, pecking at pieces of bread in my hand and tickling my fingers with their teeth.
My 21-year-old snorkelling guide Sami has taken me on his 214th excursion off Gili Air, but diligently hunts for the endangered Hawksbill turtles that ply the reefs around the islands. Within 15 minutes, we have spotted three and the largest among them even approaches to take a closer look at the wide-eyed moron in goggles, flailing idiotically before him.
Sami tells me that he has big dreams of starting his own snorkelling business, but his hustling for clients strikes me as classically Lombok. “Tell your friends if they want to see turtles, they can come see me,” he said. “But not tomorrow. I’m taking tomorrow off.”
WHERE TO STAY
As one of the first top-end hotels to break ground in Lombok, the Oberoi is something of a pioneer in the island’s tourism history. The chain’s signature is luxury and the few dozen villas and suites nestled in manicured gardens that hug the northwest shoreline offer the perfect balance between privacy and facilities. Palatial rooms under thatched-roof ceilings are decorated with faux-antique furnishings and local artefacts, but also big flat-screen TVs, iPod docks and free, fast broadband. Most offer stunning glimpses of the Gili islands offshore, but the view from the infinity pool, perched above a squeaky-clean private beach, might be the best in the resort and is perfect for sunset cocktails. With an 18-hole championship golf course next door and one of the finest restaurants on the island, there is very little reason to leave the Oberoi, though excursions to nearby local markets and snorkelling trips to the Gilis are easily arranged. The Oberoi also combines with its sister hotel, the Oberoi Bali, in classy Seminyak district, to offer guests a consistent level of service across the two islands, seamless transports links and a perfect stop-off between destinations.
Marketing itself as “a loving testament to old Lombok”, the Tugu is both beachside resort and treasure trove of artwork and sculpture, amassed over decades by an owner who is an avid collector of antiques. Occupying lush gardens on Lombok’s finest stretch of white-sand beach, statues of dragons and Boddhisivattas loom over the Tugu’s swimming pool, while the adjacent restaurant is housed in a mock Chinese temple. The Tugu offers a range of accommodation, from simple bungalows to sumptuously appointed Bhagavit Gita suites that occupy a former Dutch colonial warehouse. Each of the suites features a private garden with lap pool and is just a 20-metre stroll from the lounge chairs on the beach.
Brand new and occupying prime real estate across the road from the Sheraton near the Senggigi beach, the Manna Kebun is perfect for those bent on keeping tabs on civilisation in the heart of Lombok’s thriving tourist area. Hacked out of lush forests lining the coastal hills of western Lombok, the one, two and three-bedroom villas are linked by sheltered boardwalks and secluded behind whitewashed walls for complete privacy from neighbouring guests. All include private lap pools fringed by gardens and are a five-minute walk from Senggigi’s shops, pubs and restaurants.
British-run travel agency Island Promotions offers the most reliable information and tourist services for Lombok and the Gili Islands, including organised transport links, diving adventures and bespoke tours for visitors. Island Promotions also supports sustainable tourism through the Gili Eco Trust project, promoting the protection and regeneration of the region’s coral gardens and marine life. Emailinfo@gili-paradise.comfor more info.