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Magic and Mystery on Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan, with a reputation for the dark arts, still conjures some sorcery by keeping its sleepy pace of development in contrast with neighboring Bali. Story and Photographs by IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER.

Published on Jun 12, 2017


According to an old Balinese legend, Nusa Lembongan rose from the ocean in the 13th century when a necromancer named Dukuh Jumpungan sailed southeast from Bali and sunk his boat in these psychedelic-coral-filled, neon-blue waters.

Manta Ray
Nusa Lembongan's waters are some of the best in the world to see manta rays.

These days, boatloads of mere mortals are intentionally aiming to maroon themselves here on this knockout natural beauty. It's easy to see why. "This place has it all: breathtaking views, blood-red sunsets, world-class surf, snorkeling, diving," says Jamie Ragen, a surfer from Sydney I meet on this small satellite 15 kilometers southeast of Bali, which locals like to brag is the best place in the world, short only of Mozambique, to see manta rays. It also has a passionate group of residents dedicated to preserving its pristine mangrove forests, waters stocked with reefs and bioluminescent phytoplankton, and, perhaps most importantly, the slow life that visitors to this corner of Indonesia specifically seem to crave.

"When people go to Bali for the first time, they think it's going to be like Eat, Pray, Love, but when they see it, they get a shock," says Annabelle Webb, the British manager of Tigerlillys, an organic café on Jungut Batu, Nusa Lembongan's main beach. "Then they come here and see it's actually what they thought Bali would be like. It's only half an hour away by boat but it may as well be on another planet."

Tigerlillys Cafe
An organic smoothie bowl, or nalu, at Tigerlillys Cafe.


NUSA LEMBONGAN'S HISTORY IS SKETCHY.  In the 18th century, the island was conquered by Bali's Gelgel Dynasty and used to imprison political dissenters. Beside the chain gang, though, Balinese generally steered clear of the island fearing the residents' predilection for sorcery and black magic. As evidenced by the skull-and-crossbones symbols that mark Lembongan and its two sisters islands, Nusa Penida and Nusa Ceningan, on old maps, European mariners were none too keen to visit either. In February 1942, war came to the isles when an Allied fleet suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese.

Nusa Lembongan did not join the global economy until the mid-1980s when seaweed farms in Bali's south were disbanded in favor of its tourism industry and transplanted to its southeastern neighbors. While industry brought Lembongans their first taste of hard currency, it was a drop in the Badung Strait compared to Bali's tourism boom.

But when Bali's beaches became too crowded, travelers began peering across the strait at the mysterious landmass shimmering on the horizon. "Like so many islands, this one was popularized by surfer dudes about 10 years ago," says Mark Smith, a Brit who runs Sandy Bay Beach Club, an alfresco restaurant and bar in the southwest. "It was a backpacker destination to start but the transformation has been dramatic. To give you an idea, five years ago we had no road to Sandy Bay—just a rubble track—and no electricity, only noisy diesel generators. Then expats living in Bali started buying plots of land and building villas so they could spend their weekends here."

"Now more travelers are skipping Bali altogether and coming here directly," Smith says, as a waiter brings us a pair of Asian Mules, a muddle of fresh strawberries, lychee, mint, ginger and vodka served over ice.

Today the waters around Nusa Lembongan are pockmarked with barges replete with water slides that are a big hit among Bali's new wave of Chinese tourists. To expats who live here, Chinese tourists are a cause for concern, though to locals they are just more of the same—a source of easy work and better living. The main beach, Jungut Batu, meanwhile, is lined with low-key restaurants and bungalows, with flash new villas dotting the hills.

Jungut Batu Beach
Above Jungut Batu Beach.

From Jungut Batu, a network of unpaved roads reaches out like an octopus to almost every corner of the island. They meet again at Lembongan village—a warren of Hindu temples and crumbling brick terraces where old-timers sit outside shopfronts regurgitating memories and watching tourists whiz past on scooters. The road also reaches across to Nusa Ceningan island via The Golden Gate, a canary yellow suspension bridge for scooters and pedestrians only.

The shallow channel dividing the two islands is home to one of the region's last remaining seaweed farms, gigantic underwater gardens that create striking checkerboard patterns on the surface. "I'm happy we have tourism because seaweed farming is hard work," says Weri, a barman at Le Pirate, a whitewashed pool bar cut straight out of Mykonos that I discover on Nusa Ceningan's side of the channel. Locals tell me about better job opportunities, better schools and the island's new hospital, thanks to the shift from selling seaweed to shilling surf.

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge, linking Nusa Lembongan with Ceningan.

On the mouth of the channel, Secret Point is a popular cliff-diving spot and right-hand break where surfers test their mettle on the perfectly rounded liquid ramps that break on a sharp coral reef. There are three other breaks on Lembongan—Playground, Lacerations and Shipwrecks—that continue to attract the surfers that put these islands on the non-skull-and-crossbones map. "It's starting to get a little more crowded," says Scott Davis from Western Australia, who's surfed Secret Point since 2010. "But it's still far less so than in Bali."

ONE PART OF NUSA LEMBONGAN WHERE the road still doesn't reach is the mangrove forest on the east coast. A vital nursery for fish, these waterlogged forests can now be explored by kayak or on pole-boat tours. However, two high-rise hotels are now being built a stone's throw from the mangroves, feeding fears these concrete juggernauts will be harbingers of more to come.

"In 1963, when Bali's Mount Agung erupted and the rice harvest failed, there was famine across Indonesia. My grandfather told me they ate a fruit from the mangrove that tastes like tapioca," says Kris, a former seaweed farmer who now co-manages the Sandy Bay Beach Club. "If it wasn't for the mangroves, they would have starved. So we protect them now."

This type of hereditary tradition is driving initiatives across Nusa Lembongan, with the island's chief administrator, Ketut Giday Arjaya, hoping to indoctrinate his youngest constituents. With rallying cries of "No More Plastic Bottles" and "Bye, Bye Plastic Bags," he helped organize an Earth Day event that saw kids clean up the beach on Mushroom Bay. Meanwhile, another part-time philanthropist, Soosh, a British villa manager living on the island who goes by her first name only, is working in conjunction with the Bali Children's Foundation to bring in an English teacher to a primary school near Sandy Bay—not just for language instruction but also to implement an environmental education and conservation program.

Mushroom Bay
Kids clean up the beach on the Mushroom Bay.

A marine park has been established to protect the 247 species of coral and 562 species of reef fish in the waters of Nusa Lembongan. The island's diving industry has banded together to help marine park officials. "We're their eyes and ears," says Andrew Taylor, a Canadian who runs Blue Corner Dive. "When we see illegal fishing or aquarium collecting taking place, we document it and send them the information. They've been really responsive, fining fisherman who break the rules and confiscating their boats."

It may seem harsh, but both local leaders and more recent transplants are confident they can steer this little island toward a sustainable idyll while keeping the tide rising for all. Everyone I meet here—from Ketut Giday Arjaya to Jaiia Cerff, an 18-year-old science student from Australia volunteering on the island to teach local kids about conservation and sustainability—buys into this dream of Nusa Lembongan as a world apart. "As a parent I feel it's a lot safer than Bali for my kids," Jamie Ragen, the Aussie surfer, told me. "We've made lifelong friendships with the locals here."

Le Pirate Bar
Le Pirate Bar on Nusa Ceningan.

En route to the ferry at Jungut Batu Beach, I spot a young Chinese couple behind me along the rubbly track. They're not on a coach tour, as many Chinese tourists tend to be in Bali, but buzzing around on a scooter like the locals. The driver and I make eye contact, sharing a silent understanding of the beauty in the simplicity. Like Ragen, I'm utterly bewitched. I'll be back next year, and the year after that.





Air Bali offers direct transfers from Denpasar airport to Nusa Lembongan. Rocky Fast Cruises offers airport transfers to Sanur with boat transfers to Nusa Lembongan.

The Beach Shack A stunning Hamptons-esque three-bedroom oceanfront pool villa. Sandy Bay; +62 822 3633 7755; doubles from US$750 in low season, US$860 in high.
Hai Tide Beach Resort Beachfront and garden-view lambung double-story bungalows. Mushroom Bay; +62 361 720 331; doubles from US$100.

Blue Corner Dive Offers dive courses and holds daily guided dive trips. +62 877 6137 7718; guided dive trips US$42.
Serenity Yoga On Jungut Batu Beach, has thrice daily yoga classes. +62 812 3849 9141; classes US$7.
Newbro Surfing Lessons for beginners, and guided surf trips around the islands. +62 813 3734 6056; lessons from US$30.



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At The Beach Shack villa on Sandy Bay.
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