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This paradise island has its mojo back: cheaper than Bali and without the crowds

“The closest I’ve ever seen to Eden” – this is how award-winning actor Sam Neill describes Bali, and for years the Indonesian island – one of 17,000 – has been a paradise retreat for famous people and the rest of us citizens.

But in recent years its idyllic reputation has begun to be tarnished. Its oh-so-attractive beaches are in trouble: Due to waste management issues, much of the country’s 300,000 tons of plastic waste ends up on beaches or in waterways. You often see reports of unruly tourists desecrating holy sites, driving under the influence and causing fatal traffic accidents.

In 2023, 5.2 million people came to Bali to experience its enticing mix of desert island vistas, hospitality for every budget, world-class diving and boisterous nightlife. By August of that year, 213 of these visitors had been deported for inappropriate behavior. Today, the streets of Seminyak are still bustling, with all kinds of bars doing a bustling trade, alongside boutique fashion stores and somewhat bawdy souvenir shops.

I stayed in the city earlier this year on my way to Lombok, Bali’s sister island, which is just a 90-minute ferry ride away. Of similar size but with fewer inhabitants, Lombok possesses Indonesia’s mix of intricate temples, tropical climate and earthy beauty, but without the excessive crowds and high costs of its neighboring country.

Despite its proximity to Bali, mainland Lombok – unlike the popular party and diving destination of the Gili Islands – is often overlooked by tourists, despite the country’s efforts to attract such clientele. The tourism industry began to flourish in the 1980s, but suffered a blow in the late 1990s when a financial crisis and political unrest destabilized the region.

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Tiu Kelep Waterfall in northern Lombok (Getty Images/iStockphoto)Tiu Kelep Waterfall in northern Lombok (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Tiu Kelep Waterfall in northern Lombok (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Growth started again in 2010. Then in August 2018, the island was hit by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, killing more than 500 people and collapsing homes and resorts across much of the north. The following years saw more and more attempts at revival, but then Covid struck. According to Tanmay Vaidya, general manager of The Oberoi Beach Resort, Lombok, this duo of disasters has set the country’s hospitality industry back “20 years”.

But now Lombok is on its way up.

Since the pandemic, the country has welcomed a new arsenal of travelers. In 2022, the destination was added to the MotoGP calendar, with the high-performance Mandalika International Street Circuit seducing car enthusiasts from around the world. Last year, Singapore Airlines launched a new route to Lombok, connecting Indonesia’s shores to a new market. Additionally, development is booming in Lombok’s less populated regions, with developers seeing opportunity in much of the pristine southern coastline.

You can't get more beach than Innit Lombok (Willem Keuppens).You can't get more beach than Innit Lombok (Willem Keuppens).

You can’t get more beach than Innit Lombok (Willem Keuppens).

Innit Lombok is one of these openings. A cluster of six high-quality villas on a private beach in Awang Bay. To enter the property you must drive across miles of farmland on rough roads before navigating a steep dirt road that seemingly leads into the wilderness. The nearest shops are a 20-minute drive away and the “local amenities” include a surf-friendly ocean, private beach and beautiful sunsets. Upstairs, guests can enjoy uninterrupted views of the sea from the moment they sit up in bed in the morning, while downstairs the living room connects seamlessly to the beach: with just three walls it is open to the ocean, and on a sand floor where crabs crawl under kitchen cupboards. It’s remote and luxurious – a USP that Lombok cherishes.

One luxury hotel chain has been mastering this for a while. Oberoi Hotels and Resorts has properties in both Bali and Lombok, and while they share similarly seductive design, decor and decadent services, they also feel distinctly different.

Opened in 1978, The Oberoi Resort, Bali was the first hotel in Seminyak – it made such an impression that many locals still call the area itself ‘Oberoi’ and as such benefits from a spacious 60,000 square meter plot that is second to none is by other local hotels. Mornings here are spent enjoying Balinese massages to a soundtrack of chattering honeyeaters, afternoons hypnotized by the sun-drenched tides and evenings savoring the native delights of mangosteen, snake fruit and rambutan. At least it’s peaceful, but in Lombok Oberoi somehow goes even further.

Time can disappear next to the book at The Oberoi Resort, Bali (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)Time can disappear next to the book at The Oberoi Resort, Bali (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)

Time can disappear next to the book at The Oberoi Resort, Bali (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)

Stretching over 97,000 square meters of impossibly green, tropical topography, Oberoi Beach Resort, Lombok greets guests with pavilion-shaped views of cascading infinity pools, a sapphire Indonesian Ocean and the low, green humps of the Gili Islands on the horizon. The villas here are decidedly palatial; a luxury villa with ocean views and private pool extends over an expansive 255 square meters. While both Indonesian properties overlook sandy beaches, Bali’s are dotted with runners, riders and tourists taking a dip, while Lombok’s are untouched, with the only movement being the swaying silhouettes of netted hammocks and tumbling palm fronds.

Tanmay is convinced that Lombok has the edge when it comes to tourist appeal: “(Lombok) has great potential, much better than Bali,” he explains. “Once you get here, you have great beaches, golf courses, diving, hiking – and fewer people around you. The price-quality ratio is also much better.”

His last point is a key factor in the destination’s growth. For those who can’t fly directly, while the added cost of a ferry or connecting flight is a consideration, once on the ground almost everything in Lombok costs less than in Bali – especially if travelers visit out of season.

February may be a time when rain-phobic Europeans flee the other way from the threat of monsoons, but in the two weeks I was there I only experienced a half-hour downpour and a sprinkling of welcome, cooling showers. Furthermore, temperatures remained stable at around 32 degrees Celsius, supported by blazing sunshine and blue skies.

Villas in the Oberoi feel palatial (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)Villas in the Oberoi feel palatial (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)

Villas in the Oberoi feel palatial (Oberoi Hotels and Resorts)

But apart from the accommodation, Lombok feels different from Bali. The ferry port is quieter and the roads less hectic. There is also interesting conservation work happening here, providing travelers with meaningful ways to contribute to the community, learn more about local culture, and enjoy the region’s incredible natural offerings.

One of those companies is Project Hiu, a two-year-old shark conservation company founded by filmmaker and influencer Madison Stewart. Her team has hired boats and their crews for monthly stints to show tourists some of the destination’s best snorkeling spots. In theory, about 60 sharks evade capture for every month the fishermen work at the project. Indonesia often tops the charts as the country that catches and exports the most sharks worldwide, and while some species are protected, it is barely regulated.

My time with them was an eye-opener. In addition to enjoying a guided snorkeling session at Pink Beach, watching nesting bats and swimming with blacktip reef sharks, I learned about the crew’s daily lifestyle.

A Project Hiu boat off the coast of Lombok (Project Hiu)A Project Hiu boat off the coast of Lombok (Project Hiu)

A Project Hiu boat off the coast of Lombok (Project Hiu)

The six members who crew our boat have been in this industry since they were young boys. They cannot read or write and the work is physically unbearable. They sleep on a deck barely high enough to crawl on, while shark carcasses disintegrate beneath the planks below. One crew member chuckled as he showed us a video of a shark hook being removed from his hand. He almost lost his thumb. In an effort to break the cycle of an inherited industry, Project Hiu sponsors two of the crew’s children to attend college. It’s a far cry from the luxurious lifestyle that many tourists come to this destination for.

Bali is certainly convenient, but the extra ‘effort’ to visit Lombok – very little actually – is worth it. Ferries between the islands are plentiful, fast and while not exactly luxurious (many cram hundreds of passengers in and are fitted with air fresheners everywhere that can’t mask the heated human stench), they are inexpensive; some routes cost as little as $11 (£8.60). More comfortable transfers are available, such as private speedboats, or travelers can skip the water altogether and simply fly the 40 minutes between Bali and Lombok. From there it’s a stone’s throw to Komodo National Park, Jakarta, Sumba and other hotspots across the water.

As you sit on a bench in the sand, or watch sleeping turtles buffeted by underwater currents, it’s hard to imagine Lombok as the new Bali. I think that’s a good thing. Peace on Lombok is precious and something to enjoy before the rest of the world catches up.

How to do that

Prices start at £4,200 pp (based on two sharing), including return flights, all transfers and seven nights of B&B accommodation, with two nights at The Oberoi Beach Resort, Bali, two nights at The Oberoi Beach Resort, Lombok, and three nights at Innit with Original Travel. Also included are the Project Hiu snorkeling, waterfall tour and a day of diving. Origineelreizen.nl

Read more: Indonesia travel guide – everything you need to know before you go

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