From its mystical history as part of the kingdom of Klungkung to the sparkling tourist destination it is today, Nusa Lembongan has changed, and it’s all good. More places to stay, eat and play, while the sunny white sand beaches, the famous surf breaks and the underwater wonderland remains pristine and beautiful. Today, Nusa Lembongan, less than half and hour from Bali’s mainland, is a destination that sees more visitors than ever.
We’re giggling like girls as we arrive at Serangan Harbour heading for a two-day staycation in Nusa Lembongan. Packing a bag and heading off on a mini-adventure does that to me. It’s over a year since I’ve been to the island and there’s a lot of new places to explore; things are moving along at a cracking pace it seems.
The crossing can be a little bumpy. I’m not a big fan of small boats but the Rocky Fast Boat is, as the name implies, fast. Before I know it, we are moving slowly through the beautiful mangroves to the pretty little island that is one of Bali’s most popular destinations.
Our open truck transport arrives to take us to over to the wild side, Sandy Bay Beach Club and their new Garden Shacks are home for the next two days and it’s as stylish and pretty as we had hoped. I’ve enjoyed many long lunches and more than a few sunsets at Sandy Bay Beach Club and each time I come back I fall a little bit more in love with the location, the laid-back elegance, and the food, which is well priced and delicious.
The Garden Shacks are new and here we lay our hats, in the beautifully restored Javanese Gladaks (pretty wooden cottages) that are laid out across a leafy garden. Our friend and hostess for the stay is Shush Ingram, who discovered this little bay on an early trip when there was little more than a dirt track access and very little infrastructure. She fell in love, decided to build a home and the rest fell into place.
“ It reminded me of some of the Mediterranean bays I have visited over the years, something of the wild, and it’s so spectacularly beautiful,” she explains. Over time, the bay has become home to the beach club and some of the most spectacular luxury villas on the island, all offering vast views of the ocean. This is definitely the wild side of Nusa Lembongan with the infamous but seductive Devil’s Tear to one side, a popular cliff edge lookout Insta-spot that has claimed more than one enthusiastic selfie-taker, and ruined quite a few wedding shoots.
Sandy Bay is now a destination, with the beach club, the accommodation, a Glo spa, a pretty emporium, a pavilion for yoga, events, and movie nights and a new rooftop Asian Bistro. It’s also a popular wedding venue and a great sunset spot.
Shush has a great eye for design and she has created these little “shacks” in her inimitable style. Shabby chic exteriors, little verandahs ( where I sit happily writing this), washed-out beach-inspired interiors with fabulous air-conditioning and pretty outdoor bathrooms, it’s incredibly comfortable and I have slept like a baby in the luscious cotton sheets.
Breakfast is served in the rooftop bistro with great views across the bay. Inspired by a recent trip to Morocco, everything is served in little individual dishes and pots with home-made yogurt, jams, sauces and fresh bakery items that change daily. There’s a pool, day spa, and a lovely team to take care of the guests. Our neighbours had a candlelit dinner on their verandah last night, it all looked like a postcard.
With a girlfriend in tow, we decided to spend our first day soaking up the atmosphere at Sandy Bay’s Beach Club. We had both lunch and dinner here, all delicious. From gourmet hot dogs, garlicky prawns, a generous Caesar salad and a few frosty beers, we spent the afternoon on the large sofa beds, washed by a cool ocean breeze, enjoying the sunshine, the pool and dozing off with a book.
Wednesday has live music, so we celebrated the setting of the sun with cocktails and refreshing performance by an acoustic duo. At dinner, we were joined by an Australian friend who has a villa here and we shared travel tales over a couple of bottles of good wine and perfectly cooked steaks. Chocolate desserts were a signal to call it a night so we glided a few metres up the path to our ‘shack’ and tucked ourselves in.
Determined to see all the progress on the island we set out the following day with Balo, the transport man, armed with a list from Shush. Driving away from Sandy Bay the day grew noticeably warmer ( think HOT!), as this side of the island benefits from amazing breezes.
Our first stop is Mahagiri Resort and Beach Club, a sort of Surfer’s Paradise-meets-Bali development on an incredibly wide beach that has been created from what was formerly arid bushland. I recall driving along this bit of coastline that faces Bali’s Klungkung regency and offers great views of Mt Agung when it chooses to appear, and it never looked like this. Balo confirms that the sand has been imported and there’s literally a sea of it. Boats pass along the channel heading for the Gili islands and parts unknown. The water is a milky turquoise and the shoreline is covered in rocks and broken coral making it almost impossible to get in without reef shoes. At different tides, it may reveal more sand but after attempting it unsuccessfully we moved on.
Ohana’s Beach Club is a popular day spot on the main beach. This is the village of Jungut Batu, which is lined with hotels, homestays, dive companies, temples, cafes, restaurants and pool decks. Ohana’s is a bit of an Insta-hit, offering a beachside restaurant, bar and pool club with accommodation behind. The menu is modern Australian, it’s good, although a little pricey, and our friendly waiter informs us that happy hour today includes 2-for-1 burgers. As we are still full of breakfast we opt for a couple of beers and a snack, shaded from the hot sun. I take a little wander next door to the sweet, healthy café of Ginger and Jamu, lust over the fridge full of home-made cakes and peek into the sweet bungalows behind. It’s a great stop for the budget-conscious, and right on the beach.
We then head off in search of the chic French resort and creperie, Indiana Kenanga, which we are told is one of the best places to eat on the island. Unfortunately, we head in the wrong direction ( I am sure the waiter said it was this way!) and manage a decent case of sunburn before we give it up. As luck would have it we have stopped directly in front of World Diving, which is on our list of places to visit. There we meet the friendly Sue, another Englishwoman who has made her home here and gets the low down on all the reasons to submerge in the waters surrounding Nusa Lembongan and the neighbouring islands, the tiny Ceningan and the imposing Penida.
Diving in Lembongan
Sue and manager/dive master Andrea explain that due to the currents and deep water, the coral and sea life here is abundant, healthy and full of incredible variety. From July to October is the season for the giant sunfish, Mola Mola, although you do see them at other times of the year. They have also identified over 650 different mantas – each one has a distinctive marking and an adopt-a-manta program has proved a popular way to support further research. Sue currently has four.
“We really are blessed by the currents here and the water temperature. There are about 19 sites for diving, from the local spots where we take beginners to 3 or 4 sites that are only for expert divers. In between, there is an incredible diversity of things to see and we regularly get scientists coming over to study the marine life,” explains Sue.
After refusing her kind offer to take me diving one day, it turns out she also suffers from claustrophobia but says it never bothers here down deep (I’m still not convinced but maybe..), we head off in search of relief from the heat.
Once again we manage to miss Indian Kayana, but we do check out the little boutique huts and café at Tigerlilly’s. Set in a beautiful garden with a pool, it’s on the village road but not far from the beach. It’s a happy place and I am not surprised Shush suggested we check it out. Budget travellers and healthy eaters will love this little place. The Deck hangs over the sea at the base of the beautifully designed hillside resort of Batu Karang. The villa resort is decidedly upmarket and popular with surfers as it overlooks some of the island’s main surf breaks. The design is quite brilliant as every villa (and many of the bathrooms) enjoys expansive ocean views and all have private pools, while there is an event centre for weddings and parties and a larger pool up top. Australian-designed and managed, it’s definitely one of the island’s top resorts. We order a very Aussie-style steak sandwich and down another cold beer before moving on.
Balo has immersed himself down on the beach at a local bar that he says is one of the island’s best. The beer is cold, the view is great and I imagine long-haired reggae types mixing it up with surfers and backpackers on a regular night. I have no clue what it’s called but ask a local and you’re sure to find it.
This is where tourism began on Nusa Lembongan unless you go back as far as the days when permission from the king was required to stay overnight. Here Bali Hai has a large property with a bamboo beach club called Hai Bar & Grill along with a very sweet resort with lumbung-style accommodation. This is by far the best swimming beach on Lembongan, the only problem is from about 10 am-4 pm it is filled with day-trippers and the boats that pick them up and drop them off, so early morning and late in the afternoon are the best times to head here for a swim. We did exactly that and the water was glorious; clear and cool, the sand is a creamy white and it is a beautiful bay. There were still a few boats hanging around and a few stragglers playing on the beach but it was still exactly what we needed. We stayed for a much needed refreshment at the beach, there are now quite a few beach bars to choose from, before heading back to Sandy Bay.
Time to go and we are absolutely reluctant but also feeling very chilled out and just a bit sunburned. It’s amazing how a two-day staycation can feel like longer, I definitely recommend this one.
Before leaving I had to see what was happening on the other side of the famous yellow bridge that connects Nusa Lembongan with Nusa Ceningan, a little postcard island. Formerly the shallow water that divides the two islands was home to seaweed farms. Many of them are now gone and I’m surprised how clear the water is. Quite a few bars have been built along the shore and a few have little sandy beaches. Shush recommends Mama Mia for the mud crabs and they are all vaguely Mediterranean looking.
We tackle the bridge where the boats leave for Penida day trips, swerving the selfie-takers as we go. Le Pirate is a popular boutique resort over this side but we are heading further to a new beach club called Klyf, as the name suggests, it is on a cliff overlooking a beautiful bay that opens to the sea.
“The next stop is Australia,” Shush points out.
This is definitely luxe, especially for Nusa Ceningan. Villas have been built behind it but it’s the Klyf Club we’ve come to see. Run by a French guy it offers a pool, breakfast, lunch, dinner built on multiple levels hanging off the side of the cliff, and I am sure an incredible sunset. Hikers walk the surrounding cliffs and the famous Blue Lagoon cliff jump – where dare devils leap into the crashing sea – is on the point. I have no intention of going off. Instead, we grab a cold drink and watch mesmerised as the turquoise waves pound the rocks below. The colours are fabulous. The club has become a popular spot for lunch and dinners with friends, or just to hang out by the pool for a few hours. Built-in bamboo, literally overhanging the cliff, it’s very smart.
The bike ride back take us again along the little cafes lining the channel and I’m thinking next time I’ll check them out. For now, it’s back to grab the bags, linger longingly at the beach club before heading home. I check the Sandy Bay retail shop, The Walking Tree, where there are more than a few things I’d quite like to own, but in the end, I resist. Over here you really need very little and I do like traveling light. The ride home is flat and peaceful and we land back in Bali to hustle, bustle, street sellers and grumpy taxi drivers but the glowing holiday feeling stays with us. I’m happy to say that Nusa Lembongan has not been corrupted by progress, rather it’s grown into more than a day trip. I’m already planning the next trip. It’s only 30 minutes from Bali but really a world of its own and it’s not surprising that holidaymakers are choosing to head here straight from the airport and hanging up on the world for a while. It’s the perfect place to disconnect and let your hair get messy.
We took Rocky Cruises which is a walk in the park. The sea can get a little rough on the crossing but these boats are made for this.
Where to stay:
We stayed in Sandy Bay’s Garden Shacks. There are currently six little ‘shacks’ and another 4 are currently being built. Being steps away from the beach club makes for a perfect holiday and the shacks are designed for stylish comfort. Trade up and book Sandy Bay’s 3-bedroom private villa, The Beach Shack, it’s a gorgeous, spacious pool villa with glorious ocean views.
Nusa Lembongan Villas has a collection of villas ranging from $200 to $5,000 per day. Definitely worth a look if you’re traveling with family or friends.
Hai Tide Huts on Mushroom Bay are great if you have kids. There’s a big pool, the gorgeous beach and lots of (noisy) activities.
Batu Karang. You’ll spend a bit more here but the villas are beautiful and if you have a surfer with you, he’ll love being able to watch the breaks from the villa.
Where to eat:
Sandy Bay was definitely one of the better restaurants we ate at, and the prices are really good. It’s also a hotspot for sunset, Wednesday night acoustic sessions and the Saturday party nights are popular.
Ohana’s has a modern Australian menu, a little pricey but what we tried was very nice and lots of choice on the menu. Ginger and Jamu next door is a sweet spot to enjoy some healthy, home-made food, and the cakes looked delicious.
Indiana Kenanga. Although we didn’t make it there, all the reviews are really good. French-inspired menus and a creperie, Lembongan locals say the food is great.
The Deck. More than just a café overlooking the surf breaks, there is also a sneaky little nightspot here as well. The menu is modern and the food is fresh and well done.
Hai Bar & Grill. The cavernous bamboo restaurant overlooks Mushroom Bay and offers a full bar, cocktails, and a wood-fired pizza oven.
Klyf Club. You need a bike to negotiate the bridge and the road up the hill but it’s an impressive restaurant and day club with fabulous views and a very nice menu. It’s a bit of a splurge but sometimes you need that.
Top things to do in Nusa Lembongan.
Surf. It all began with the surfers who discovered the breaks, with names like Impossible and lacerations (sounds a little scary to me), and this is still a big surf town.
Enjoy a day at the beach. Swimming at Sandy Bay is a little treacherous and not recommended but the pool overlooking the beach is lovely. Otherwise, Mushroom Beach is still the best swimming for my money, while Mahagiri at the right tide is beautiful. Dream Beach is also a pretty swimming beach at the right tide.
Tour the Mangroves. The mangroves at Nusa Lembongan are rich with sea life. Boardwalks line the entrance and tours by boat which includes snorkeling is a great way to discover this green pocket of the island.
Cliff jumping. While definitely not for everyone, and sometimes accidents do happen, an amazing amount of people do jump the cliffs at Devil.
Swim with the Mola Mola: This is one of the best places to see the giant sun fish.
Discover Nusa Penida. Boats go daily from near the bridge. Crystal Bay is a beautiful swimming beach while dive trips are organised daily from Nusa Lembongan.
Snorkel and dive. This is some of the clearest water you will find and everyone from beginners to experienced divers will find stunning coral and abundant sea life.
Rent a bike. The roads around Nusa Lembongan are the perfect place to learn to drive a scooter. The roads are busier than they were so you’ll need to take care but it’s a great way to explore.