An island touted as the ‘new Bali’ is paradise, if you can overlook one big problem

A tropical paradise of powdery sand, turquoise surf and verdant mountains is gaining a reputation as the new Bali — minus the crowds.

With about 1.25 million Aussies flocking to Bali annually before COVID-19 — plus tourists from around the world — many holidaymakers are searching for a quiet alternative.

Enter Lombok, a comparatively untouched Indonesian island to the east of Bali that is rapidly coming into its own as a tourist destination.

Once the secret adventure land of diehard surfers, the Indonesian government is now promoting Lombok as one of “10 new Balis” to expand tourism.

As one local boasted when we were there in March, Lombok has all the beautiful aspects of Bali – waterfalls, surf breaks, secret islands, coral reefs and friendly locals – without all the people.

Local children come to say hello. Photo: Kat Donaghey

It is culturally different from Bali’s colourful brand of Hindu; Lombok’s people follow Islam (the main religion in Indonesia), with soothing prayers ringing out from mosque loudspeakers throughout the day and evening.

We visited Lombok twice in the past nine months, taking advantage of cheap Jetstar promotions from Brisbane to Bali.

After our first trip in June 2022, just when the borders reopened after COVID, we loved Lombok so much we returned in March for two weeks on $400 return Jetstar flights to Denpasar International Airport.

From Bali it is either a 45-minute domestic plane trip to Lombok on Indonesia’s Lion Air, or a bumpy 90-minute ride on one of the many fast boats (we have done both).

What struck us most when we discovered Lombok was its open spaces and untouched beaches (except for the plastic waste washing up from the Indonesian mainland — but more on that later).

We had just spent four days in Bali, which was our first experience of that party playground (after many years of deliberately avoiding it).

There was so much to love about Bali’s vibrant Hindu culture, wellness-inspired vibe and its street meals doused in chilli.

But to an outdoors lover like myself, Bali felt too closed in, crowded and hectic. The blustering narrow streets and busy traffic were confining. Plus, we have no interest in bars and clubs.

Arriving in Lombok was like unshackling city chains and being set free to explore.

We based ourselves on the island’s emerging southern end, in the hip beach enclave of Kuta Lombok, which has about three main tourist streets, with no high-rises in sight.

Kuta Lombok has taken over from the ’90s resort town of Senggigi as the tourist hub (you just have to ignore Kuta’s rubbish-choked esplanade but, again, more on that later).

Unlike densely developed Bali, Kuta Lombok was just the right size for us, with a casual mix of funky eateries and stalls to satisfy our love of food.

A newly constructed scenic road follows Lombok’s southern coastline up and down mountains. Photo: Kat Donaghey

The tourists were mostly young (we, in our 40s, were perhaps the oldest visitors there!) and they exuded a breezy, carefree surf vibe.

We reverted to our inner-beach hippies and explored the region’s many secluded sands that were more stunning than any we had seen in Australia (or Bali for that matter).

Unlike Bali, where riding scooters is risky, we cruised through rice farming villages and up mountains that offered breathtaking views across the sparkling Indian Ocean.

Unlike Bali, riding a scooter on Lombok is cruisy. Photo: Kat Donaghey

For miles and miles there were no resorts, no towns and very few people other than the locals resting from the tropical heat on shaded bamboo platforms.

There was not a single body basking on the long white beaches that anywhere else in the world would be shadowed by skyscrapers.

As we gazed at cliffs plunging into the sea, we felt privileged to have seen this seemingly untouched coastline before the inevitable time comes when it is blanketed in development.

Not a soul on Pantai Transat beach in southern Lombok. Photo: Kat Donaghey

Lombok is perhaps best known for its glittering ‘gilis’ (which means island) off the north-west coast – Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air – which are packed with resorts. Gili Trawangan is Lombok’s answer to Bali’s party scene.

But with our preference for avoiding tourists, we didn’t go there.

Instead we explored the “secret gilis” that people don’t know about, which is a cluster of tiny uninhabited islands off the south-west coast of Lombok.

For just $40, we hired a local fishing boat that dropped us at the secret gilis’ best reefs, where we spent a day marvelling at colourful schools, giant starfish and diverse coral gardens.

We hired a boat for the day to snorkel Lombok’s ‘secret islands’. Photo: Kat Donaghey

On another memorable adventure, we climbed with guides to the top of Lombok’s steep and rugged volcano, Mount Rinjani, in the north.

We reached the summit before dawn on the second morning, and as the sun broke over the horizon it was colder than I had ever felt in my life as we stood mesmerised by the 360-degree views.

After that two-day trek without toilet opportunities, we indulged and booked into a resort for grown-ups only — Rascals in Kuta Lombok.

Our king room was decorated in chic modern furniture made of island materials like bamboo and palm leaf. It had a fun outdoor shower among the trees.

Rascals, a stylish modern resort, was just $80 a night. Photo: Kat Donaghey

Rascals was the fanciest hotel we had ever stayed in and cost just $80 a night, with a restaurant-quality a la carte breakfast of tropical fruits, juices and sourdoughs that we looked forward to every morning.

“You couldn’t even get a stuffy room in a dodgy roadhouse for that price in Australia,” we repeatedly quipped while stretching out on sunbeds by the central pool.

We loved Rascals so much we stayed there again when we returned to Lombok in March.

We also enjoyed a few nights at Yuli’s Homestay, one of the oldest homestays in Kuta, which at $30 a night is popular with backpackers.

The view from the top of Mount Rinjani, a volcano in Lombok’s north. Photo: Kat Donaghey

In the short gap between our trips to Lombok, we could see big changes happening in Kuta.

Streets were noisy with construction as five-star hotels like Pullman claimed their spot of beachfront land, anticipating what everyone is predicting – Lombok is on the up.

The Indonesian government wants to create a luxury destination that it promises will improve the local economy and people’s lives.

Exposure has also been revved up by Kuta hosting one of the world’s top motorcycle races, the MotoGP, in March 2022 and again in October 2023.

But with such sudden progress, the United Nations has reportedly raised concerns about human rights violations as locals complain of land-grabbing and evictions without compensation.

In March last year, the BBC reports UN experts denounced Kuta’s mega development as “trampling on human rights”.

A ‘hidden’ waterfall in the Rinjani Geopark – one of many on the island. Photo: Kat Donaghey

As more tourists discover Lombok, the island may be forced to address another one of its big problems which I alluded to earlier – rubbish.

Lombok is stunning in its natural beauty, but only if you look from a distance.

Close up, the land is smothered in litter and the beaches are choked with plastic waste that washes up from the rest of Indonesia.

The lack of waste collection services means millions of tonnes of garbage is deliberately dumped into waterways.

It ends up in the sea and is carried along ocean currents to the same empty beaches we were so thrilled to discover.

On one little island we visited, Gili Gede, villagers who should have had an idyllic beach life were literally stepping out their front doors into other people’s discarded waste.

We were horrified as we walked Gede’s circumference to sights that wouldn’t look out of place at a tip — plastic bags, nappies, shoes, plastic cups, light bulbs, toothpaste, deodorant, you name it.

We took out a kayak but turned back in dismay as we paddled through plastic bags.

The shoreline on the island of Gili Gede looks like a tip. This was not an uncommon sight on Lombok. Photo: Kat Donaghey

It was a relief that our snorkelling spots were clean because of the currents, but we weren’t expecting to see any turtles which we imagined had all choked to death on plastic.

News reports state that Indonesia is second only to China as a source of ocean plastic.

The country’s leaders say they have goals to reduce plastic consumption, to recycle and re-educate the public.

We hope it happens soon because as much as we loved Lombok and its beautiful people, the rubbish is the main reason we probably won’t go back.

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