It’s time to let the magic of travel alter your perspective of Indonesia. But first, we must admit that we are creatures of habit. For most, Indonesia means Bali. Trips to Bali become ritual, routine, and perhaps passé. That’s not to say that Bali losses its magic on your twentieth visit, but after a while, habitually landing in Denpasar no longer evokes the same feelings of discovery, adventure, and possibility that attracted so many travellers to the Island of the Gods in the first place.
If you fancy yourself someone who travels to explore the world, learn about different cultures, or be genuinely astounded, taking the same vacation year-in and year-out misses the mark.
Luckily, Indonesia is a big place. Over 18,000 islands of all shapes and sizes dot the archipelago as it spans more than 2,830 kilometres from Sumatra to Papua. With so many options, funnelling all your annual leave and vacation funds into one island seems closed-minded. These days inter-Indonesian air travel has never been easier, thus, you have no excuse but to eschew habit and go exploring.
Start Here: Southern Lombok
Wave goodbye to the colourful offerings, scent of incense, and people named Wayan as you board the 20 minute flight from Denpasar to Lombok. Land, collect your bags, and find a driver who will take you to Kuta, a town not to be confused with the raucous Kuta Beach on the island you just left.
As you drive away from Praya International Airport, you’ll immediately start to spot the differences between Bali and Lombok. It takes about 25 minutes to get from the airport to the main strip in Kuta, and, if you’ve spent much time in Bali, you’ll delight in the utter lack of traffic. Along the road, you’ll notice that the chiselled stone temples have been replaced by golden-turreted mosques, the wonky gamelan music by the call to prayer, and the traditional sarongs by the Indonesian version of the hijab, the jilbab. While Bali’s dominant religion is Hindu, Lombok is almost entirely Muslim. Finally, take note of the markedly drier climate. The stretch of water between Lombok and Bali is the dividing line – known as the Wallace Line – between the tropical climate of islands like Bali and Java and the more arid climate of Australia and islands like Lombok, Sumbawa, and Sumba.
Lombok’s Kuta is an unassuming hodgepodge of paved and dirt roads just a couple hundred metres from a massive turquoise-blue bay of Indian Ocean. You’ll find a small but growing strip of restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops that should keep you satiated for a few days while you explore the area.
Just like almost everywhere else in the world, the first order of the day here is coffee. Fortunately, Kuta is no slouch in the caffeination department. One of the best places to start your day is at Milk Espresso. Order a flat white or an iced coffee and watch the surfers buzz through town on their way to the waves. If you’re hungry, try the eggs benedict, Smashing Avocado, birthday cake pancakes or one of the colourful smoothie bowls. Milk is also a nighttime hotspot for live music, espresso martinis, and good times.
Down the street from Milk at Kuta’s busiest four way intersection lies another epic cafe called Bush Radio. Here you’ll find things are done by hand, the food is fresh, and the atmosphere hip. Try a slice of their homemade sourdough bread with your coffee or smoothie. Bush Radio’s fresh, vegetable-laden cuisine is a great go-to when you need a break from rice and noodles.
After you’ve fuelled up and are ready to go, it’s adventure time. Hopefully, the departure from the norms of Bali has piqued your cultural interest. Your first stop is Sade, a local Sasak village where you can learn more about Sasak culture. Sade is a bit touristy as its residents sell handicrafts such as ikat (tied) and songket (gold braid) weaving to support themselves, but it is also convenient to Kuta and will give you a taste of traditional life in the area. In the village, you’ll see wooden homes with hand-woven reed roofs and cow dung smeared on the walls and floors, which is said to deter mosquitos and evil spirits. The Sasaks speak their own dialect, Bahasa Indonesian, and often some English so don’t be afraid to have a chat with these friendly people.
After a dose of culture, it’s time to cool off. If you’ve ever thought Bali’s black sand beaches and turbulent waves left something to be desired as far as perfect beaches go, you belong here. You’ll notice a theme throughout this trip: Southern Lombok wrote the book on stunning white sand beaches complete with palm trees and calm crystal clear water.
The most famous of Lombok’s countless coves, bays and breaks is probably Tanjung Ann Beach. Located about a 15 minute scooter or van ride from central Kuta, Tanjung Ann is Instagrammer’s dream and a perfect place to spend an afternoon. Calm aquamarine waves lap the shores making it an ideal swimming beach, although you can surf and kiteboard offshore. Several quaint warungs (small-family operated restaurants) offer basic fare like mie goreng (fried noodles), fresh-cut pineapples, and cold Bintangs. Grab a palm shaded lounge at the Turtle Warung – easily spotted because it’s the only warung on the strip painted bright pink – and pass the day turning the pages of a good book, swimming, and taking photos on one of Tanjung Ann’s overwater swings.
Sunsets are a big deal in Lombok. Locals and expats alike flock to the top of hills, rooftops, boats, and beaches to watch the sun as it goes down each day. Although Tanjung Ann is a perfectly good place to sip a sundowner as the day ends, options abound. Try Seger Beach where you can climb a hill and have uninterrupted views of Kuta Bay, Kuta town, and the Novotel below you. Alternatively, opt to sit on the beach in a bean bag and listen to live music while you get your sunset fix. If you find yourself a little too comfortable at SegerBeach, the boys who manage the bar also put an amazing local style BBQ of the freshest catch of the day, rice, vegetables, and sambal.
For more formal dinner options, return to Kuta. Kuta’sEat Street is chock full of delicious opportunities, but some of the standouts include vegetarian groundbreaker, Bamba. Bamba offers elevated Asian street food in an architecturally tantalising poolside setting. Try the tuna tataki, the lentil balls, and the fish curry. Bamba also does a poolside happy hour a couple of days a week with live DJs and cocktail specials.
If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, El Bazar is a Kuta institution that serves authentic Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine. El Bazar is an open air restaurant with blue walls, lavish gardens, and great vibes that will transport you to Morocco in the middle of Indonesia! Go for their signature lamb tagine, beef kebabs, and mezze platter.
After dinner, you can always go to bed, but you might miss out on Kuta’s quirky but entertaining nightlife. As mentioned previously, Milk Espresso always puts on a good show featuring both local and international musicians at their Happy Hour on Wednesdays and Fridays. Since you’re on vacation, late night socializing is not confined to weekends. Hump day is a particularly big night in Kuta, with the Bus Bar inviting world-renowned DJs to spin into the wee hours of the night each week on Wednesdays.
Further Afield: Go West
The following day, plan your morning based on how badly you need to sweat out the hangover from the night before. Recover with a full body workout or just breakfast at Loka. Loka is dedicated to restoring your health with daily Crossfit, surf fitness, and Muay Thai classes alongside a full service health food cafe. It’s a great place to nurture yourself back to health with a tropical smoothie bowl and a turmeric latte.
You’ll need a good infusion of health for the day ahead. It’s time to go explore the pristine beaches west of Kuta. You must hire a driver or a scooter to reach these spots.
Whether you have never surfed or are an expert waverider, the western beaches are less crowded and offer waves to suit all levels. If you are a beginner, set up a lesson with Mul’s Surf School at SelongBelanak, a picturesque beach with gentle waves and a sand bottom. Passing an entire day at SelongBelanak is possible because the water is warm, the swimming conditions fine, and there’s great food and drinks at upscale LautBiru. Look out for herds of buffalo cruising the beach.
If you’ve been surfing for a while or just want to experience one of Lombok’s most remote and beautiful beaches, you should visit Mawi Beach. Mawi is known by surfers for its easily accessed right and left hand breaks. However, Mawi is equally alluring for non-surfers and beach connoisseurs because of its incredible sand that is shaped like millions of tiny round beach balls and it’s west facing position for sunsets. At Mawi, you’ll likely feel as if you’ve discovered paradise when you sit under the palm-shaded roof of a local warung with an ice cold coconut in hand and watch the surfers perform just offshore.
If you can tear yourself away from Mawi and SelongBelanak, there’s one more must-see beach on your way back to Kuta: Mawun. Mawun is a spectacular horseshoe shaped bay that is sheltered by two headlands making the clear-as-glass-water perfect for swimming. You’ll find Lombok’s ubiquitous white sand, fewer tourists, and a plethora of photo-ops at Mawun.
After a dip in the sea at Mawun, make your way to Ashtari for sunset. Located high up on a hill on the road back into Kuta from the west, Ashtari offers 360 degree views of Kuta Bay and beyond, making it a spectacular spot to end the day. Ashtari has a full cocktail menu and serves both Indonesian and Western food nightly. Come back during the day for one of Ashtari’s five daily yoga classes with a view.
In Lombok, Remember Why You Travel
We travel because we want to experience something different from our everyday lives. Sometimes this requires adjusting your expectations and diving headlong into uncharted territory. New places, new faces, and new experiences await those who ditch preconceived notions of what should or shouldn’t be in favour of an open mind. Lombok is an easily accessed and highly enjoyable introduction to the rest of Indonesia. Leave Bali in Bali and be rewarded with spectacular beaches, great food, and jaw-dropping sunsets on the south coast of your new favourite Indonesian island.
Southern Lombok Accommodation
Rascals Kuta Lombok: Perfectly poised in the backblocks of Kuta, lies this adult-only haven with uber cool decor, lux spa, and brand new restaurant.
Origin Lombok: Origin Lombok is a full service luxury hotel located just a short ride from downtown Kuta, Tanjung Ann, and all Southern Lombok has to offer. www.originlombok.com
Villa Bliss: If you’re travelling with the family or a group of friends, why not rent this exclusive private villa complete with a chef in the hills above Kuta? Villa Bliss is part of Origin Lombok, so you can use their facilities and restaurants as well. www.villablisslombok.com ◼
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© This article was first published in Aug-Sept 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.