Because I scuba-dive, almost all of my vacations are spent near the ocean. Traditionally, I’ve been choosing destinations based on water temperature (MG makes it hard to dive in cold water) and reputation of dive sites, with little regard for anything else (well, except for cost!). This type of thinking got me to the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Tahiti, among other. But while these places offered great beach resorts and (mostly) world-class diving, they were cultural dead zones. Outside the hotels or dive resorts was little to see, feel, smell and explore.
So this time round, I decided to do things differently. I was after healthy coral reefs and pristine beaches, of course, but I also wanted history, folk art and exotic food – something to feed the soul and excite the senses! I opted for Southeast Asia because I’d never been there and, since I was going to be traveling alone, I wanted a place that was relaxed, easy to navigate and not too expensive. Bali became the obvious choice. After some research, I decided to spend 2 days in Sanur, 4 days on Nusa Lembongan, 4 days on Gili Meno and 4 days in Ubud. I read about the boutiques and five star restaurants in Seminyak but decided against it, because I knew I would drain my band account (I’m not one for self-control), but also because I wanted to avoid touristy areas as much as possible.
Sanur was pretty awful, so I won’t say much about it, except that it’s filthy and that most of the pictures of Sanur Beach you can find online are photoshopped to death. Because I wanted to get away but couldn’t change my itinerary without paying cancellation fees, I decided to join a couple on their tour of the island. It was also excruciatingly humid and so the air-conditioned drive around the island sounded like a nice alternative. We visited the Tanah Lot Temple near Kuta, and the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan Water Temple in the center of the island, made a stop at the Blahmantung Waterfall and drove through some of the villages around the Danau lakes. Since it was my second day on the island, I couldn’t have known how different these villages were compared to the more touristy parts of Bali, rustic, traditional and seemingly forgotten in time. We had grilled chicken, strawberries and coconut water for lunch, all bought off street vendors.
Despite our nice little ride around Bali, I was excited to hop onto the fast boat to Nusa Lembongan and get away from the main island. I bought an open ticket that would get me from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan to Gili Meno and back to Sanur with Scoot Fast Cruises, and while it wasn’t the cheapest option it worked for me because they include pick-up and drop-off from/to the hotel in the ticket [if you’re interested in looking at other transport options, this site has a good overview].
Nusa Lembongan is a tiny island of the southeast coast of Bali and it’s a well-kept secret, at least for now. While it’s known for its snorkeling, sunsets and laid-back vibe, it’s not crawling with tourists like Kuta, Gili Trawagan or even Ubud are. After Sanur, my first reaction upon arrival was “wow!”. Even though it was cloudy and about to rain, I couldn’t get over the beautiful huts and turquoise water. My second reaction was “crap, I have to carry my own bag?!”. I don’t need premium luxury service but I was worried about my MG (myasthenia gravis) and whether my legs could take the walk in the sand and up the stairs with all the weight. Nevertheless, I was glad that I’d opted for a backpack instead of a suitcase with wheels, which I definitely recommend if you’re going to be doing any sort of traveling around Bali and Lombok.
The second pleasant surprise was my accomodation. I booked three nights at Rama Garden Retreat through Airbnb, but didn’t realize it would be a full on resort. They offer surfing, freediving (that’s how you know a place is cool) and yoga classes, and have a bar and restaurant that serves some of the best food on the island. On their website (which doesn’t do them any favors) you can also book scuba/surf and surf/yoga packages.
Upon arrival, they offered me a complementary green juice with apple, cucumber and mint, which was delicious and a nice gesture. The manager then asked me what kind of activities I was interested in and went on to offer recommendations for dive shops, beaches, spas, bars/restaurants and places to visit.
I’d picked a hut with no AC and was a little worried about the heat, but when I entered the room, I was relieved to see that they had three fans in there. The room was up a pretty steep flight of stairs and the bathroom was downstairs, which is a no-no for people with mobility issues, but my MG didn’t act out too much. The bathroom was a little run down and rusty, and I didn’t like that they didn’t offer shampoo and body gel/soap, but I had some samples with me, so it was OK (just come prepared). The room itself was very clean and tastefully-designed, with wood and bamboo all around. It also had a good mosquito net, which you really should but actually can’t take for granted in Bali. However, they didn’t make my bed or provide any fresh towels during my 3-night stay, which I found a liiitle disappointing.
The food at the restaurant was absolutely delicious though and so worth it AND they offered some gluten-free specialty items, like pancakes (both flourless banana pancakes and gluten-free cassava pancakes), as well as cassava fries fried in soybean oil (not ideal, but hey). Although I tried a couple of other places, I ended up eating there pretty much every day. Breakfast was included in the $35/ per day price-tag and included eggs (any style), fresh fruit, toast and a beverage of choice (coffee, tea or fresh juice). Because I couldn’t have the toast, I ended up ordering banana pancakes on the side and they were marvelous.
For lunch/dinner, I tried their chicken-veggie kabobs, their grilled salmon and a yellow curry with green beans, pineapple and tempeh (fermented soy products are allowed on occasion on Wahls Level 2). The most flavorful, I thought, were the kabobs, although everything was really fresh and far superior to anything else I had on the island. Their smoothies and juices were also really good. A lot of mint and aloe in the juices, and the smoothies were mostly coconut milk based, although they did contain agave (which they were happy to omit).
The beach near Rama Garden wasn’t one of the famous ones (Dream Beach, Mushroom Beach), but it was still beautiful, with glowing white sand and crystal clear waters. It was also extremely quiet, which I relished. I checked out the dive-shops in the area, which were all more or less shabby, and so I decided to go with Blue Corner Dive because they’d been recommended by the hotel manager.
While Blue Corner is a certified PADI 5-star instructor development center, the two-tank dive I did with them was a complete shit-show. First, there was no safety briefing, no description of the dive sites and minimal communication between dive guides and divers overall. There was no instructor around, only divemasters and, despite being an advanced diver, I was buddied-up with a girl who was training for her Open Water certification and was on her second dive ever (!). Of course, she was incapable of inflating/deflating her BCD and couldn’t control her buoyancy, so the divemaster was holding her by the arm and inflating/deflating the BCD for her. And since she sucked the air out of her tank in no time, we had to cut both dives short and wait in our tiny boat for the other two groups to come up – fun times.
Despite the less than perfect diving operation, Blue Corner Dive did have a marvelous little bar where you could hang out pretty much all day, sipping cocktails, beer and young coconuts (not chilled, unfortunately). It was also the only place around with some shade, which becomes a necessity mid-day. Food-wise, they had limited paleo-friendly options, and the two items I tried (chicken wings and seaweed salad) were below average, although I did hear a couple of people raving about their quac and chips.
The stretch of beach from the port to the Mangrove forest turned out to be a great place to watch seaweed farmers working when the tide was low, which was around sunset. And the sunset itself was as magical as promised.
Given my unlucky (ok, shitty) dives with Blue Corner Dive and the lack of appealing alternatives, I decided not to spend any more money diving and instead explore the island by foot. Motorbike would have likely been the better option because the distances are not that short, but I don’t know how to drive one and there’s no taxi on the island, so I had to suck it up. I’d heard mixed reviews about the Mangrove Forest, so I decided to walk the other way, toward the famous suspension bridge that connects Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan. Although it took several hours to walk there and back, the view from the bridge was beautiful and ultimately worth it.
After the long (and painful) walk to the Yellow Bridge, I decided that I’d earned a spa visit, and so I booked my first ever Balinese massage at Kemilau Spa & Wellness for my last day on the island. Apparently, good spas are hard to come by and Nusa Lembongan, but I got lucky. The facilities were clean and beautiful, and the staff extremely friendly. The massage wasn’t very strong, especially compared to ones I later had in Ubud, but it was more than sufficient and exactly what I needed at the time. After the massage, I decided to grab a bite at the much-raved about Bali Eco Deli but found the menu a little too grain-heavy for me (though excellent for vegetarians). The only (solid) thing I could have without breaking my diet was the fruit salad and an energy ball, but I was craving something salty (and filling) so I grabbed a green tee and returned to Rama Garden for dinner.
It was difficult to say goodbye to Nusa Lembongan.