03 November 2022

Island Hopping in Nusa Lembongan & Nusa Penida

Although I was able to cool off in various swimming pools and waterfalls during my first few days in Bali, before long I was craving the ocean and I headed out to Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the east coast. It's a 30-minute speedboat ride from Sanur and once there you can visit its larger (Nusa Penida) and smaller (Nusa Ceningan siblings). If you aren't sure you have time to visit the Gili Islands and want something a little more rugged, the Nusas could be a good place to visit.

***Note: Many of the beaches and bays around Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida often have strong currents and rip tides. The islands are still developing for tourism and often, there aren't any warning signs on beaches. As I describe in more detail in the Nusa Penida section below, I got caught in one such rip current while swimming in Crystal Bay. Although I'm a strong swimmer, I was carried out of the bay; thankfully, I was able to flag down a snorkelling boat for help and I was OK, if a little shaken. Please be aware of the rip currents in this part of the world and please don't put yourself at risk, no matter how beautiful the beaches and no matter how good a swimmer you are.***

I took a speedboat from Sanur with D'Stars Fast Ferry, which included pick-up from my hotel in Ubud and drop-off in Canggu, as well as buggies to and from my Nusa Lembongan hotel. The journey takes just over 30 minutes and can be extremely bumpy so I'd recommend sitting near the back of the boat if you can. It's also worth wearing sandals as there is no dock so you'll have to hop off the boat into the sea. There are three boats per day with D'Stars but there are other companies too.

Nusa Lembongan is only 8 square kilometres and it's shaped like a wonky piece of farfalla pasta. Most of the hotels and eateries are clustered either in Jungutbatu village, along the beach, or in Lembongan village on the west side of the island.You can walk pretty much everywhere — and I did my absolute best to — although the hilly, precarious roads, motorbike traffic and high temperatures mean it's not a walker's paradise. You can easily pick up a motorbike or buggy taxi for 20,000 to 100,000 IDR (depending on your destination) and if you try to walk anywhere, you will probably receive invitations until you accept! And if you book a restaurant or excursion, it will probably include free pick-up.

You can even walk or take a taxi to Nusa Ceningan across the famous yellow bridge (unfortunately, it was too stormy on my last morning). To get to Nusa Penida, it's easy to book a boat ride or a day trip.

As you might expect, my first item of business after checking into my hotel was heading for the beach. I was staying on the beach in Jungutbatu, which was pleasant enough albeit dotted with seaweed farms — one of the primary forms of income on the island. Instead, I decided to walk west to Mushroom Beach and Secret Beach. 

The first time, I followed the Google Maps route, whose steep, winding roads were very busy with buggies and motorbikes. For a much more pleasant route, walk to the south end of Jungutbatu Beach (see the photo just above), climb up a few steps to the hillside path — part of it has a boardwalk, although be prepared for plenty of uneven terrain as well as great views and beaches. 

Mushroom Bay is quite lovely and the beach has soft white sand, although the view is somewhat impacted by the large number of boats parked in the water during the day. For a more secluded feel, you can either follow the signs to 'Secret Beach' (very secret...) — or if you're feeling adventurous you can climb through the gap in the rock at the east end of Mushroom Beach. Note that the currents on Secret Beach (pictured below) can be very strong — I got bruised ankles as a result of large chunks of coral falling onto me.

Further round to the west is Sunset Point, which is perfect for...er...sunset! After several grey days in Ubud, I was glad that my first sunset on Nusa Lembongan was worth the climb up to the top of the cliffs! You can also walk further on to the Devil's Tears (a geological feature not dissimilar to Sunset Point).

There are lots of great snorkelling and scuba diving sites around the Nusa Islands. I booked a morning trip with Lembongan Snorkelling Trips and we visited three places: Manta Point, where I was lucky enough to swim with three manta rays (they came very close, hence the photo close-up I got!), and two other spots where we could snorkel over the coral reefs and spot a huge variety of fish (and teeny jellyfish!). Our guides were great and I had a very enjoyable time.

Nusa Penida Day Trip
As I noted at the top of this post, I got into trouble in the sea during this day trip. But the day started off well, as the sun was shining when our group of six took a small boat over to Nusa Penida. Almost all of the tour operations in the Nusas do the same two Nusa Penida tours, one covering places in the west and one focusing on the east.

I went for the more popular west option, and our first stop was the beautiful Broken Beach and Angel's Billabong — a natural bridge and some stunning cliff formations set above pristine turquoise waters. The roads on Nusa Penida are hilly, narrow and often not in very good condition and there are big queues to get into the car parks for some of the main sights. But this didn't detract from the island's beauty.

Another hot and bumpy car ride later and we arrived at Kelingking Beach, perhaps the most famous sight on the island: a T. rex-shaped promontory arching out from the mainland above a perfect sandy beach and clear blue-green waters. I couldn't wait to climb down the steps and run into the sea (it takes about 25 minutes) but our driver told us we didn't have time to visit the beach as we had to get to our lunch stop. I was a little disappointed and also dripping with sweat by the time we climbed back up from the photo point to our car. I cooled off a little over lunch and luckily, I ate a big plate of chicken fried noodles although I wasn't really hungry.

The next stop was Crystal Bay, our designated beach stop. It was a perfectly nice sandy beach — although not as stunning as the other places we'd been — and I was so hot and so desperate for a swim, I grabbed my underwater camera and followed another group member into the sea. The photo below was the last one I took before running in. There were people swimming and snorkelling at different spots in the bay. There was a bit of surf but the waves weren't very big. There were no warning signs on the beach and no warnings from our driver. My guidebook just described Crystal Bay as, "good for snorkelling."

I was, therefore, quite surprised when after swimming underwater, looking down at the coral, for a minute or two, I had drifted quite far from the beach. I could still touch the bottom and I'm a strong swimmer, so although I paused for thought, I wasn't too concerned. But then when I tried to start swimming back towards the shore I found that I was having to swim as hard as I could just to stay in the same place. I also noticed that I was moving between hot and cold water and realising it must be a rip current, I tried to swim parallel to the shore but the current was so strong and I kept getting carried further out. 

At this point, I started shouting for help but no one could hear me. I started shouting at the top of my voice but still nothing. Concerned about being dragged into the rocks, I let myself drift into the open water instead, beyond the little island in the photo. I had my snorkel mask (which helped to keep water out of my nose) but not the tube. I wasn't panicking, but I was becoming more and more worried, especially after the first distant snorkelling boat I tried to flag down didn't stop. After what felt like ages but was probably only a few minutes, I managed to get a second boat to stop. Even then it took a while for me to get into the boat because of the waves it created. I've never been so relieved in my life to get into a boat — thank you so much to the driver and the two honeymooners whose afternoon I had crashed. Unable to avoid being British, the first thing I said was, "I'm so sorry." But they just told me it was OK and that I was safe.

The boat dropped me back near the beach and I swam to shore, rejoining my group and the driver. Thankfully, one woman had noticed that she couldn't see me anymore and they had also sent out another boat to look for me. I'm just relieved I was able to keep myself afloat until I reached a boat but experiencing those currents made me realise how every second counts in these situations. My group and I were, understandably, all quite shaken for the rest of the day. I'm just glad that I was completely fine. I didn't want to get a complex, so I made the decision to go snorkelling (with a good company) the following day and felt very safe. 

But please, please be careful whenever you're in the ocean, and especially in the rip-current-filled waters of the Nusa Islands. The ocean doesn't care if you haven't done your research. The ocean doesn't care if you're hot, tired and desperate for a swim. And if, like me, you travel alone a lot — don't ever take a day off from looking out for yourself and always staying alert. The UK RNLI has this information about rip currents.

After my incident on Nusa Penida, I wanted a very low-key evening and, after sunset Sprite on Jungutbatu Beach, I walked to Warung Bambu, a family-run beach restaurant on the north side of the island. There was a bit of a wait for food (which the staff warned me about) but the freshly caught tuna steak was delicious and the staff were all lovely and welcoming.

I had another sunset supper at Hai Bar & Grill inside a resort on Mushroom Bay. Fish and chips with 2-for-1 cocktails was a great way to spend an evening, and my meal included a buggy back to my hotel. 

I'd also recommend Pondok Baruna Warung and Kayu Lembongan in Jungutbatu: the former is more traditional (I had grilled mahi mahi with mango and avo, which was so tasty), whereas the latter has more of an antipodean influence (I caved and had a veggie burger with my cocktail).

There are even a few speciality coffee options on Nusa Lembongan. Bonzer Cafe serves coffee from Goldmine, pastries and brunch in a relaxed, open-air cafe. I also had a decent piccolo at Ombak Zero Waste Cafe. And while I was never in Mushroom Bay at coffee o'clock, I got several good reports about Mushroom Espresso.

After splurging on my accommodation in Munduk and Ubud, I opted for more of a mid-range option on Nusa Lembongan. Pemedal Beach Resort is at the north end of the main beach in Jungutatu, a small, family-run hotel with accommodation in air-conditioned wooden villas set back from the beach (only a couple of feet back in my case, so I could hear the ebb and flow of the sea from my bed and even got a couple of marine visitors in the bathroom).

Breakfast is included and there's a small infinity pool and direct access to the beach. The beach itself is fine though not the nicest on the island (and there was some construction work going on to repair storm damage while I was there), but it's just a short walk to any of Nusa Lembongan's other beaches.

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