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"THIS is a land waiting to be raped," said a friend, melodramatically, as after a long drive through arid landscapes we stumbled out on to the empty white powder sand of Kuta beach, fringing a turquoise sea and dotted with billboards showing which hotel chain had bought which plot. There were shells everywhere. Another friend popped one into his swimming trunks for safe-keeping, only to discover half an hour later that it was a live crustacean.

At present Lombok - a 20-minute flight from Bali - is best known to those travellers who wouldn't be seen dead on a padded sunlounger, who tread the global hippy routes, clutching a patchwork Guatemalan duffel bag and a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide. Often billed as the Bali of 20 years ago, Lombok's gentle rusticity has been preserved by a low temple-count, and inaccessibility. But the first flights direct to Lombok from Singapore began last summer with Silk Air; a new international airport is scheduled and within the next few years an Oberoi, Novotel, Holiday Inn, and second Sheraton will be popping up.

We were initially attracted by the Gili Islands: tiny, undeveloped coral atolls off the north-west coast with cheap accommodation and excellent snorkelling. Another attraction was the fact that Indonesia is one of the few tropical holiday haunts where it isn't raining in August; you can stay in Lombok's poshest hotel, the Sheraton Senggigi, for just pounds 60 a night for two; and the hotel has a swimming pool where you make your entrance by sliding down the tongue of a mythological head, and bursting out in a cloud of vapour.

It's a bloody long way to Indonesia and after 15 hours of flight, what could be more charming than to slip into softly lit waters down the tongue of what looked, from one angle, like a lager lout's head being sick? Oriental hotels are brilliant at swimming pools, brilliant. This was designed to look like a flooded ruined temple, winding through channels overhung by greenery, past a sunken cocktail bar where you sit on stone turtles, under a bridge leading to a sunbathing platform. At the edge nearest the sea were picturesque shallows studded with rocks and stone crocodiles where a girl was sucking her cheeks and stomach in, shouting, "Now do me in profile!" at her boyfriend, who was trying not to drop the Canon Sureshot in the water.

All Lombok's posh hotel development has until now been centred on Senggigi Beach - a curve of sand more dishwater blonde than golden, half an hour from the airport. It isn't the clearest sea for swimming but it's a fun beach, with Lombokian families taking the water, brightly painted boats, and a market selling fantastic textiles and imitation Rolexes. Every day at sunset people gather at the end of the bay, to listen to guitars and try not to buy any more sarongs: tricky given their cheapness and extreme beauty.

Ours was a lovely hotel, we thought, with delicious food and courteous service, nice - if simple and slightly dark - rooms arranged around the pool and generous lawns, and padded gazebos where you can be massaged if you aren't too British to do that sort of thing in public. The only big disadvantage was the cloud. Lombok is an island of contrasts: lush and mountainous in the north and dry and dusty in the south. Senggigi Beach nestles under an attractive mountain - so attractive that an enormous cloud sat there every afternoon. One day we decided to dodge the cloud and travel to Kuta in the arid south.

Until the new airport is built in the centre of the island new arrivals will have a long thirsty drive here as the paddy fields give way to scrub and poverty-riven villages. A project piping water to the new hotel sites (and, it is sincerely to be hoped, the villages) is planned. One person we passed who had more than piped water on his mind was a toddler being sported aloft on a flower-decked chariot to get him in the mood for circumcision. Kuta village itself is an uninspiring collection of simple restaurants and huts; but its beaches are wild and stunning, its climate cloud-free and the sea, when the tide is in, fabulously swimmable and blue to the point of being lurid.

Lombok's people, an interestingly harmonious mix of Muslim and Hindu, seemed delightfully courteous and welcoming, but in selfish tourist terms of visitable culture, Lombok cannot compete with Bali. On our way back we visited Suranadi and Lingsar, the most celebrated of Lombok's temples. Suranadi was tiny and Lingsar, where both Muslims and Hindus worship, sprawling, with more emphasis on brick than dragons and bits of boiled egg everywhere. On entering - past a modern moral dilemma-style sign saying "No menstruating women" - we discovered you can buy bags of boiled eggs which local experts throw into the pools to lure enormous sacred black eels out of their holes in the water system. Happily, we were unaware of their presence earlier when we had swum in the spring-fed pool in the Suranadi Hotel - Lombok's fadedly charming original Dutch Colonial hotel. We couldn't help feeling that in millennia to come visitors would find the ruins of Lombok's new hotels more awe-inspiring than its temples, and wondered what they would think the hotels had been for.

Naturally we were not the type to linger in these, like, hermetically sealed neocolonialist enclaves, right, despite warnings that the Gilis were so swarming with mosquitoes you could hardly see. So after driving north through jungle teeming with monkeys, we alighted at Bangsal, departure point for the Gilis, where the four of us were fallen upon by a throng of eager transportation executives and swept on to the backs of four staggering fishermen and into a flimsy wooden boat. Happily, the terms were more than reasonable; pounds 4 each for a 40-minute crossing.

There are three Gili islands: Gili Air, soon to become part of a new Oberoi Hotel; Gili Trawangan, with the reputation of a hippy party island; and Gili Meno in the middle. This last was our choice and we were piggy- backed ashore where a horse and cart - there are no cars on the Gilis - was ready to carry our bags. The beach, white as talcum powder, looks like you imagine the skeleton coast in Namibia to be, but the "skeletons" are pieces of bleached coral. A few paces into the sea and you are on the edge of the reef. The first time I put my head under it was like being in a Snowstorm Souvenir: brightest blue with glittering fluttering goldfish on all sides. Such fish! One of my friends - a designer - kept poking his head out gabbling "There's a fabulous one here with a repeat Keith Haring motif in terracotta and a reverse underneath."

A range of accommodation was available, beginning at about pounds 3 a night for a bare hut on stilts and peaking with the Gazebo at around pounds 25, an extraordinary oriental/ Victorian establishment. The huts, in spindly woodland on the best bit of beach, were dark wood throughout, with platform beds, verandas and vases of wooden lilies. There were impressive upmarket touches: flush toilets, electricity that came on with the generator at sunset; but standards of hygiene were less than exemplary. Two of my friends were initially turned off by a visiting cockroach, but were soon remarking how nice it was to have a pet.

As darkness fell we covered every available inch of flesh with repellent and sturdy clothing and set out for the handful of beach cafes, only to find everyone else in shorts. Mosquitoes were not a problem. Having arrived neatly ironed, within a day we were scruffy and chilled out, settling into an idyllic rhythm: majestic sunrise from behind the mountains of Lombok, banana pancake-breakfast, snorkelling, strolls, sunbaths, and in the evening a cheap and delicious tuna or semi-disgusting stir-fry by candlelight followed by moonbathing on the beach, followed by worry about having sat out too long without moonblock.

One day we scuba-dived. Our instructor was not the most attentive - often swimming ahead instead of checking us for octopuses - but he returned from one sortie holding the most lovable little fish. Clearly designed by Disney, the puff fish was round, orange and full of water, with huge eyes fringed by long, curled ginger eyelashes. Our instructor tossed it gently like a football then caught it again while it blinked at him, hurt. We watched it swim away with hearts full of love and senses roaring with underwater beauty as if on some monster Ecstasy trip.

That night we walked across the island to watch the sun set over the sacred mountain of Bali. Our guide book informed us that an imaginary line had been drawn in the channel between Lombok and Bali by the famous Victorian explorer Wallace, called "Wallace's Line", which, he claimed, divided the fauna of Asia from that of Australasia on our side. After a desultory search for kangaroos in the scrub we concluded his theory was rubbish but decided that, it being so near, it seemed a shame not to drop in on Bali.

I was loath to leave the tranquil, relaxed and irresponsible world of the tiny island, but as we sat round our beach fire on the last night - joined by the Gili Meno head guitarist obligingly playing requests for "Wild Horses" from drunken hippies over and over again - it emerged that my enthusiasm was not shared by all my companions. One was weak with diarrhoea and another deaf in one ear from the scuba-diving. They told me we needed a night in the Bali Four Seasons to recuperate and I thought better of arguing, the more so next morning when I emerged from the sea with a swimsuit full of miniature jellyfish; and the even more so when we arrived at the Bali Four Seasons, which turned out to be the best hotel any of us had ever stayed in.

For pounds 200-pounds 300 a night for two (which is what you'd pay for a standard room in a posh Caribbean hotel) you have a 200 sq-metre private thatched villa suite based on a Balinese village design, with its own petal-strewn plunge pool, garden, large bedroom, dressing room, marble bathroom with double bath, outdoor shower, and canopied lounging and dining area where you can take all your meals and a range of massages and beauty treatments. There have been guests, apparently, who didn't emerge from their room for a fortnight. We, however, were lured out by the wedding of an Indonesian supermodel, attended by Linda Evangelista and a parade of the most beautiful, stylish and thin young jetsetters it was possible to imagine. The gardens leading down to Jimbaran beach were dotted with hot and cold Jacuzzis, tinkling Balinese musicians, shrines, and a spectacular lipless pool plunging over the edge in a cascade.

Despite the fact that we could have stayed on the Gilis for a month for the price of a night here, and the absence of darling pet cockroaches, my friends all agreed they much preferred the Four Seasons. For me it was neck and neck, the gorgeousnesses of each enhanced by the contrast between them, but I think if you're going to combine the two - and want to make it to Gili Meno without sulking - it is probably best to stay in the hut on Gili Meno first.


Helen Fielding travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines (0181-747 0007), which connects via Singapore with Lombok six times a week. Superpex from pounds 649 return. Singapore-Lombok return via Silk Air (a Singapore Airlines subsidiary) from pounds 419. Lower fares on Singapore Airlines are available through travel agents. For further information, contact Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia (0171-499 7661), 38 Grosvenor Square, London W1X 9LL.