A small island in Indonesia that’s too-perfect-to-be-real

In all his wisdom, the Buddha once counseled, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

Gazing out across the roiling waters of the Bali Sea where the tip of a slowly sinking ferry boat bobs beneath a tide of crashing waves, I am beginning to wonder whether I might not live long enough to experience either of those things.

A 60 kilometer swath of water known as the Bandung Strait separates Bali, Indonesia from a cluster of three islands known collectively as Pulau Penida. It is one of the most turbulent passages in the region, and the journey is made all the more perilous by the relatively dubious safety records of Indonesian ferries, which do little to inspire confidence in their passengers even in the most serene sailing conditions.

But boats are the only means of reaching this trio of islands, and perhaps it is this nautical gauntlet that every traveler must face to ensure that on the other side paradise still awaits. With no cars, no Western chains, spotty Wi-Fi, and sometimes even no electricity, a voyage across the strait is said to be like traveling back in time, to the glory days of Bali 20 years ago.

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From largest to smallest, the islands that beckon across the water are Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan, and Nusa Ceningan. All have their charms, but I am like the fabled Goldilocks, fixated on the mid-sized Lembongan. It is the most developed and visited of the three- boasting everything from mangrove forests and fishing villages to Balinese temples and killer surf breaks, it seems to have a little something for everyone. The consensus is that Lembongan is neither too big nor too small, not too busy or too quiet, but just right. It sounds like perfection, but watching as the boat offshore finally slips to a watery grave, it’s hard to shake the sense that this is anything but a terrible omen.

The following day breaks with the sorbet hues of dawn punching through dollops of cloud as the sky swiftly shifts from warm to cool tones that match the surface of the sea. Rumor has it that
the crossing is calmer earlier in the day, and I am first in line to buy tickets for the public boat that will ferry us across.
I have heard horror stories of boats being dangerously overcrowded and overloaded, of passengers sharing the space with all manner of livestock for the 90-minute crossing, so I’m relieved to find that when we cast off, there are only a handful of other passengers and plenty of room to spare.

P1250673 by Tony Kuehn

Although initially placid, about an hour into our journey the water turns choppy and hostile. Massive waves tear themselves from the sea and batter angrily against the sides of the boat.
Our captain does his best to steer the doddering craft around the swells, but even still, we are tossed about like rag dolls on a rollercoaster. It never feels as though we are in danger—the crew is unflappably nonchalant, suggesting these conditions are nothing to worry about— but just the same, I’m glad I caught the early boat. I’d hate to be out here when the weather is actually a concern.

As Nusa Lembongan finally glides into view, all cares and worries disappear. Watching as the frothing waves crash against the rocky southwestern coastline and families frolic on the soft powdered sand of pristine beaches, I know the journey has been worth it. Salty splashes of chilly seawater against my cheeks and forehead assure me this is not a mirage and, with shrieks of laughter ringing in the air as groups are zipped along on banana boats, I smile with happiness. When I tear my eyes from the island before me, I note that every single person on the boat shares my look of satisfaction.

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Feet First

Although Nusa Lembongan is far from undiscovered, it is still more untouched than not. Most of the boats lining the main beach are used for fishing or diving, and as there is no dock, visitors must splash knee deep in the water and make their way to shore on foot. From there, it’s a quick walk across silky sand to the main road (effectively the island’s only road), which circumscribes Lembongan like a crooked halo. Lining its length along the western side of the island are a handful of casual eateries (warungs) where locals and visitors dine side-by-side, charming homestays set within traditional Balinese courtyard complexes, and plenty of dive and surf shops. Noticeably absent? Any kind of bars or clubs — Lembongan is fiercely protective of its laidback, low-key island vibe and prides itself on its complete lack of nightlife. Evenings are spent on the beach (or beachside restaurants) watching the sun burn low in the sky, sipping a few cold beers and tucking into some fresh caught seafood; if you’re lucky, you’ll dine on grilled tuna dipped in a potent sambal made of chili, shallots and lime. Every morning, the head of my host family sets out in his boat to catch the family’s supper; every evening, I return from my adventures to find they have saved me my own massive fish, while the family of five shares one of comparable size. I protest their generosity, but they are resolute and I never go to bed hungry. Come 10pm, the last of the lights are out and the only sound is the crashing of the waves until morning is heralded by the crowing of the neighborhood roosters.

I spend my first days on Lembongan diving—apart from surfing, it’s the island’s primary tourist attraction. Ironically, the influx of cold water that makes the journey here so tempestuous is one of the main things that makes the voyage worthwhile: the confluence of warm and cool waters also brings brilliant marine life. Smack- dab in the middle of what is known as the Coral Triangle, Lembongan offers some of the best diving and the greatest biodiversity in the world. I am lucky enough to be here during prime mola mola season; also known as ocean sunfish, these creatures can weigh up to 1,000kg and can reach up to three meters in height. Despite their size, they are notoriously elusive and although I brave the chilly waters seven times and gaze upon the graceful glide of manta rays and the curious courtship of cuttlefish (not to mention the hundreds  of other beautiful creatures that dwell beneath the waves), I never spot these beautiful behemoths. A disappointment, certainly, but I still count the diving here some of the best I have experienced in Asia.

Encouraged by the beauty found underwater, I am pleased to find 
that exploring Lembongan by land is rewarding in its own right as well. At eight square kilometers, the island is sufficiently compact that it doesn’t take much time or effort to get around, but
is just big enough that to fully explore, walking isn’t really an option. The ring road is paved, and although riddled with potholes, it makes for an unchallenging ride on a motorbike, which can be easily rented from any guesthouse for about USD6 a day (helmet included).

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Shades of Blue

One of the joys of Lembongan is that it’s impossible to get lost, so there’s no need for a map. Puttering down the main strip, I do a lazy clockwise loop of the island, a tour that shows me the many sides to life here that make Lembongan so special. Starting in Jugut Batu, the busiest section of the island, I zip past traditional homes with smoldering sticks of incense and colorful floral offerings for the gods laid on their doorsteps. Rounding a bend in the road, I leave 
the village behind me, faced instead
 with ramshackle huts on quiet beaches where locals wade out waist deep to harvest seaweed. Sarongs dripping and arms laden with hanks of algae, they lay their bounty out to dry. It may not be glamorous work, but this is the island’s primary industry—these precious bundles are richly prized ingredients for the Asian cosmetics industry—and it
is this humble commodity, rather than tourist dollars, that keeps the island afloat.

Pushing on down a sandy stretch, I reach the edges of a dense mangrove forest that can only be toured in a rickety little dinghy whose seaworthiness seems questionable. Instead, I return to the ring road and ride through dense woods passing a little yellow bridge that connects Lembongan to its tinier sibling, Ceningan. For those feeling a bit stir- crazy, Ceningan is a popular diversion, famed locally as it is for its surf spots, sunsets and—for the truly daring—some epic cliffs from which adrenaline junkies vault into the deep blue. Alas, the bridge is under much-needed construction and smartly closed to all traffic, so rather
 than testing my mortality, I continue down the road to Mushroom Bay and the spectacular Sunset Beach. As the surf crashes against the rocky cliffs and the icy froth sluices across the pearly white sand. The beauty of this spot paralyzes me. I am so reluctant to leave it, that I splurge for lunch at one of Lembongan’s few upscale resorts, The Beach Club at Sandy Bay, indulging in a duck and boudin noir sandwich perfectly complemented with soft slices of apple and sprigs of fresh thyme. This is about as far from the local fare as one can get, but one cannot live on grilled fish and rice alone. My meal is accompanied only by the susurrus of the waves, the soundtrack of paradise.

P1250605 by Tony Kuehn

Afterwards, I work off my decadent meal by walking down the beach and scrabbling over the jagged rocks to
visit the Devil’s Tear, one of the island’s most famous geographical attractions. Years of turbulent tides have worn
away a small cauldron in the wall of rock, forming a dramatic outcropping where the water churns and swirls with violence. Occasionally a blast of spray bursts upwards, forcing a shimmering rainbow to briefly sparkle in the mist. It is the perfect place to sit for a few hours, marvel at the power and perfection of nature, while the sun dips in the sky. Even with a scattering clouds hanging low on the horizon, it’s clear how Sunset Beach got its name.

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Most of my days on the island follow of the beach, I am hypnotized, my mind reeling as I attempt to categorize every shade of blue of the water before me. Azure, cerulean, aquamarine, sapphire… I run out of adjectives long before the bay runs out of chromatic shifts to dazzle me a similar pattern—there’s not much else to do than to slowly explore the nooks and crannies of the island, inevitably returning to this spot as dusk settles in and afternoon slides into evening. I only intend to spend a handful of days here, but I find myself reluctant to leave and wind up extending my stay to a week and then again until 10 days have passed, much of them the same, but peaceful
and happy nonetheless. Truthfully, Lembongan is the kind of place where it’s easy to fall into a routine, to while away the days doing not much of anything
but simply soaking in the surroundings and it’s easy to understand how people get sucked in and stay far longer than intended. If time does not exactly stand still here, it at least seems to slow to a crawl, content to let the world pass it by.

A question hangs in the air as to just how long the island can preserve its sleepy ways, and there is some sense
that travelers should enjoy it while they can before it follows in Bali’s footsteps
or is overrun like the better-known Gilli islands that float off the coast of Lombok. If that day should come, it will be a sad one indeed. For now, however, it’s nice to know that on Lembongan, a paradise long thought lost can still be found. 

IMAGES BY TONY KUEHN