Our luggage has been stickered and stacked on a sandy-footed platform by the efficient ground staff of Rocky Fast Cruises at Sanur, the beach that drew the first package tourists to Bali half a century ago. The hotel that was the island’s first high rise still stands, right on the beach here, looking shabby but defiant. But we’re embarking for a place that, while long being popular with break-watching surfers, has only begun to make a mark on the general tourist trail more recently.
Nusa Lembongan sits just southeast of Bali, around 45 minutes by ‘fast’ ferry from Sanur, but feels deliciously far removed from the mainland hustle. Although tourism has swiftly overtaken seaweed farming to supply the cosmetics industry as the main earner here, the island retains a chilled out, friendly vibe. It’s also noticeably cleaner (on land and in the water) than many if not any other tourist spot in Bali, thanks to the locals teaming up with the surf and dive communities to pounce on plastic.
While the majority of visitors to the island are day trippers on big cruises, you really want to allow at least a few nights to get a feel for the place, settle in and–as we certainly did–to relax completely into the laid-back vibe of the place.
Nusa Lembongan is just 8km2 but is the most populated (with around 5,000 residents), of the three-island chain that also includes tiny Nusa Ceningan and larger Nusa Penida to the South. We hired a couple of scooters (about $8/day) and went sightseeing. The north and east coast is home to mangrove forests, while the south coast offers dramatic clifftop views. A sturdy new yellow suspension bridge joins Lembongan and Ceningan–the previous version tragically collapsed bearing too many people crossing on the local holy ‘silence of the sea’ day.
We stopped off to gaze down at the famous Blue Lagoon, the churning waters meeting loose limestone to create an impressive milky blue wash. There are cliff-jumping points close-by, and a zipline too– but we weren’t up for such adventurous pursuits.
Back on Lembongan, we took a hilariously bumpy dirt road down to the west-facing clifftop that’s home to tiny little Cloudland Bar. (By the time we got there I was entertaining the notion of taking up motorcross riding) This isolated, basic little bar ticked the epic sunset box nicely: we lazed on beanbags on the sandy ground, sipping on mojitos as waves crashed below and the big red ball dropped all too quickly behind the watery horizon. The ride home in the dark came with an unexpected intermission when a procession to the temple materialised and took up the road.
My husband and eldest child, ahead, had driven through just prior ,while my youngest and I found ourselves in the middle of it. There I was, feeling anxious that I was intruding on their ceremony, sitting there on our scooter, like some clunky river delta while dozens of villagers flowed past on either side, young and old, fruit and flower offerings stacked on heads, pressing on to the monotone rhythm of drums and chimes. But not an accusatory look did we receive, just smiles and that universal little ‘Excuse us!’ wave. The Balinese are wonderfully relaxed about their ceremonies.
Watersports are what the Nusa islands are most famous for: there are several renowned surf breaks on the reef within stone’s throw of Jungut Batu, which cater to all levels. SUP and scuba enthusiasts are also well catered for. And better suited to my family’s capabilities, the snorkelling here is fantastic. There are over 500 varieties of coral and reef fish in the waters around here, a release station for the endangered Pacific Ridley Turtle and a manta ray ‘cleaning station’–an area where these gentle shark-relatives congregate to be cleaned by small fish.
We booked a tour with Ketut onboard his boat Dolphin. We visited five snorkelling spots around the three Nusa islands, starting with Manta Point on the coast of Penida. There, the water was too rough to tempt the kids and we tried to track down a few mantas we spotted without success. Ketut (who was a gem, forever helping our two kids with their equipment) was determined, taking us on to another less known spot where we had success, getting in a good swim with a couple of big beauties before other boats got the idea and joined in.
At Crystal Bay, the kids found their fins, among scores of brightly coloured fish but we all agreed our favourite spot of the day was our last, at Mangrove Bay off Lembongan, where Ketut dropped us as one end of the bay for us to drift snorkel with the current while he watchfully waited a few hundred metres away. Here the shallow water just covers a complex coral forest ; rainbow-hued fish surrounded us like confetti as we were drawn along: a surreal aquatic ride.
EAT AND DRINK:
There are a number of warungs dotted along the coast, and at any of them you’ll get a decent nasi goreng, chicken curry or French fries if they’re required. We loved the all-day offering at The Deck, right on the water at the south end of Jungut Batu, where everything possible–including the breads, pastries, sauces and ice cream–is made onsite. A few steps is Muntigs, also open from breakfast through dinner, the latter with a romantic , candlelit vibe as guests are seated around the swimming pool and just above the lapping waves.
Just a few metres along the boardwalk, The Thai Pantry make killer cocktails from a cute, kitted-out Combi, and all the Thai classics like larb, pad Thai and curries. They also provided drawing stuff for the kids which is always a bonus.
At the other end of Jungut Batu, Ginger & Jamu was our go-to for its healthful menu of smoothies (glass or pimped-up bowl), nachos and tacos.
The surprise discovery of our stay though was a speakeasy whisky bar–yes, at the beach– called The Howff. Tucked away below ground level under The Deck, The Howff is kind of the folly of Batu Karang’s Aussie owners who claim Scots heritage and, to enjoy a wee dram now and then, decided to bring a bit of the Highlands to the Nusas. They don’t advertise, they just wait for folks with a nose for a good malt to uncover this secret. Go neat or (excellent) cocktails. There’s also a huge range of gin, and a G&T menu to rival any cosmopolitan bar.
Accommodation options include private villas, bungalow complexes and a very small number of higher end properties. We stayed at the island’s most comprehensive premium offering, Batu Karang Resort, which took us less than a minute to reach on foot from the white sands of Jungut Batu where the ferry dropped us off (there is no wharf on Lembongan so be prepared to wade a little).
Occupying a cliff site at the south end of the beach, five-star Batu Karang consists of a range of suites and villas (including family-friendly options) climbing the steep hill. Golf carts are on hand but I quite liked the steep hike a few times a day! There’s a spa and gym, two pools including a 25m lap pool at the top, while down on the waterfront, a third pool is flanked by the restaurant. The site offers what is surely the island’s best view, nowhere more so than from the top-of-the-hill suites in which we stayed: you look straight out over clear turquoise waters at the looming, majestic (and sometimes quite cranky) Mt Agung on the mainland.
- There are no ATMs but some operators will organise cash out, with fees: it’s better to bring enough cash over with you.
- Getting there: Rocky Fast Cruises operate several sailings to and from Lembongan every day, and bookings at Batu Karang Resort include the ferry and transfers from your accommodation on the mainland.
- Most accommodation is along the main beaches Jungut Batu and Mushroom Bay. The former is home to the ferry offices, watersports centres and restaurants, while the latter is a bit quieter.
- There are several well-known surf breaks off Lembongan including Playgrounds, Lacerations and Shipwrecks. Surf can be great but also dangerous (as some of the names suggest) particularly at low tide.