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Why You Need to Check Out This Underrated Island Paradise Near Bali


The largest of Bali's neighboring islands, yet curiously overlooked, Nusa Penida's untouched beauty is finally getting the kudos it deserves. Go before it's too late. Story and photographs by IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER.

Published on Nov 24, 2017

 

WHAT WAS BALI like in the seventies, when mass tourism had only just begun? The answer lies on Nusa Penida, a one-hour speedboat ride from Sanur in east Bali and the largest of the three "sister islands" southeast of the main attraction. The kaleidoscopic coral reefs surrounding the island have been visited by dive operators in Bali for more than 20 years, yet few, if any, ever made landfall.

That began to change when a 2012 National Geographic article describing Nusa Penida as "a biological and cultural treasure, basically immune from all the trappings of Western culture," coincided with the meteoric rise of Instagram in Indonesia. The island's towering sea cliffs, colorful marine life and sugar-white beaches made fantastic fodder for the app, and earned it a place on Bali's alt-tourism map. But now that travelers are arriving in numbers, can Nusa Penida retain its raw beauty and off-the-grid charm?

A one-woman coconut shop.
A one-woman coconut shop.

After alighting on an unmarked beach on Nusa Penida's north coast, I rent a moped and ride west through Sampalan, the island's near-comatose capital. The road ebbs and flows past dreamy palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters, pockmarked with the dark blue rectangles of seaweed farms.

My destination is Goa Giri Putri, an underground cave frequented by Balinese pilgrims seeking peace and balance from the site's energy. The only way inside is through a small crack in the ground. Yet the tiny entrance belies the immensity of the cavern inside—as tall as a cathedral at its center—with dozens of little shrines hidden in dark nooks and crannies.

I make a stop in Ped at The Gallery, a fair trade arts and crafts store run by Mike Appleton, a retired aid worker from the United Kingdom who first arrived in 2011 to set up a volunteer program. "If you read the Lonely Planet at the time, it would tell you Nusa Penida was a dry, barren place with nowhere to eat, nowhere to stay—so don't bother going there," he says. "But over the last two years, everything has changed. We've now got a dozen restaurants in this village alone."

Does Appleton fear change has come too quickly? "Tourism," he says, "is a double-edged sword. It brings great benefits… but it comes at a cost. The culture is very strong, so it would be sad if it were lost. But I don't see things taking off as they have in Bali," he tells me. "The big problem here is water. There are no rivers or lakes. It will be a restrictive factor for big resorts."

 

AS DUSK APPROACHES, I continue west to Toya Pakeh, a Muslim village on the west coast where I've booked a room at Agung View, one of the first modern hotels on Nusa Penida. Built two years ago by a Czech couple who live part-time on the island, it offers touches of luxury like air-conditioning and a communal plunge pool but, oddly, no hot water. That said, who really cares with views like these: a golden sunrise over the jungle, crimson beach sunsets and Bali's stone colossus, the Mount Agung volcano, appearing in flashes through distant clouds.

Agung View
A literal take from Agung View.

In the morning I take a stroll through Toya Pakeh. It has the island's only ATM (though it wasn't working on my visit), a gleaming silver mosque and a small, messy wet market where women sell fruit, fresh seafood, pungent dried fish and nagasari—steamed rice, coconut and banana cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Paired with a strong coffee, they fuel me for today's mission: a ride to the cliffs and small inlets of the south coast.

The road cuts a path along hills covered with coconut trees, and terraces sewn with taro, mango and banana plantations. Kids in school uniforms wave hello from the side of the road, while old women carry bundles of wood on their heads. It's the Bali of yesteryear minus the rice fields.

Toya Pakeh
Toya Pakeh at sunset.

 

AT THE HALFWAY mark, the asphalt is reduced to a mess of deep, dusty potholes along steep rock-strewn hills. Riding on it is torture and it's a great relief when I finally reach Angel's Billabong, a series of neon-blue saltwater ponds stamped inside the floor of a chasm within a sea cliff. It's the most Instagrammed site on the island, but also a death trap, susceptible to freak waves that wash anyone inside out to sea. In March 2017, a New Zealand man drowned here, and, in 2016, two members of an Indonesian wedding party, including the bride, suffered the same fate. A sign warns visitors not to enter, but the lure of Insta-likes is too strong for three Scandinavian girls, who I see climbing into the chasm for their risky shot.

Another hour on the rough backcountry roads takes me to Kelingking Beach. Also a social media hotspot, this perfect crescent of white sand lies far below the road. It's a sheer drop of 228 meters, the highest on the island. But the path to the beach is via a ridiculously steep walking track. The only way down to the sea is on all fours, and even that takes nerves of steel. This is a dance with the devil; time to turn back.

Kelingking Beach
Dramatic Kelingking Beach.

Nusa Penida is rugged and weather-beaten, but it's also a place of rebirth. "Here it's a wilderness with bumpy and broken roads," says Agung View co-owner Katerina Cizkova. "And relatively no tourists compared to Bali." What was once considered undesirable—mystery, timelessness, nature in the raw—are now the objectives of today's bucket lists, an inevitable threat to this still-sleepy paradise.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

GETTING THERE
Caspla Bali offers speedboat transfers twice daily from Sanur in Bali to Nusa Penida for Rp500,000 round-trip. baliseaview.com.

WHERE TO STAY
Agung View Micro-resort with panoramic village, ocean and volcano views. agungview.com; doubles from Rp800,000.

DRINK
Penida Colada A family-run seaside lounge bar in Ped with a Balinese and Western menu. fb.com/penidacolada.

Penida Colada
Cute beachside bar names.

BUY
The Gallery
Also in Ped, this social enterprise sells local handicrafts and tasty vegetarian food. Jalan Raya Bodong; +62 819 9988 7205.

 

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Dramatic sea cliffs dot naturally raw Nusa Penida.
  • Agung View.
  • Dramatic sea cliffs dot naturally raw Nusa Penida.
  • A Hindu temple is a hint of the island's roots.
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