Judging by the ferry that whisked us from Bali to Lombok, only 21/2 hours away, Lombok is rapidly achieving its goal. Indonesian ferries are best described as adventurous, but the air-conditioned catamaran to Lombok, with "in-ferry" movies, is the stuff of tourist industry dreams.
So was the passenger list. Predominantly European, and strapped with foreign currency, we were all escaping Bali's undeniable but undeniably overdeveloped charms. The island of Lombok - the name means "chilli pepper" - is a tempting, exotic fruit, away from Bali's built-up resorts, hawkers and hustle. Lombok promised Bali's beaches, culture and landscapes, but without the tourist hordes.
On arrival designated coaches waited to take us to our hotels, avoiding the usual melee of bus touts that greet Indonesian ferries. I sat next to three Japanese girls, who explained that they were branching out from their package trip to Bali, seeking adventure. "Senggigi," they told the bus jockey, afraid that he didn't understand. They need not have worried, for almost everyone on the bus was bound for Lombok's premier beach resort.
We made a detour via the low-rise sprawl of Mataram, the island's capital, notable only for its Hindu temple and the Mayura Water Palace, the court of the former Balinese rulers that colonised Lombok in the 18th century. A large element of Balinese culture survives in western Lombok, though mosques are far more numerous and Lombok is not a Balinese clone as it is often promoted.
Islam is not easily marketed as a tourist attraction, it seems, but, as elsewhere in Indonesia, religion is a fascinating blend of eastern thought. While Islam dominates, the Hindu presence is significant, and Lombok's own indigenous religion, Wektu Telu, mixes the two with animism.
Out of Mataram the road swings along the coast and soon reaches Senggigi and its fine, palm-fringed bays. Development is still relatively low key. The Sheraton and Holiday Inn chains have invested in this piece of paradise, while other accommodation ranges from cheap, thatched huts on the beach to mid-range bungalows. The main beach bustles with beachside cafes and pubs still pumping out reggae; quieter bays lie further along the coast.
Senggigi's travel agents and car rental agencies make it a good base, but Lombok has many other fine beaches. In the south, Kuta Beach, bearing the same name as Bali's biggest resort, is as fine a stretch of sand as you will find. For those seeking a real beach escape, the coral atolls of the Gili Islands are unmatched.
The local bus to Bangsal harbour, from where the ferries to the Gilis depart, travels through superb countryside, offering a parade of rural life. The road skirts the slopes of Mt Rinjani, the towering volcano that dominates the entire island, its fertile slopes terraced with brilliant green rice paddies. Our bus stopped in small villages and at roadside markets, delivering produce as well as passengers.
The last couple of miles to the port has to be completed by cidomo (horse cart), for no other reason, it seems, than to provide local employment for the cart drivers. After some haggling, we clip-clopped our way to the port.
About 20 or so tourists had gathered to catch a boat to the islands. Schedules have no place here; boats simply go when full, sometimes very full. We all piled on board a motorised outrigger, crammed with people and luggage until someone had the sense to say enough was enough. Those left behind had to charter their own boat or wait until another full complement of passengers showed up.
Then a chugging, one-hour journey across the calm seas. No catamarans service the islands, and those looking for luxury will be disappointed, but once the boats berth on the beach and you have waded ashore it is hard to leave.
The small islands of Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air each have superb, white-sand beaches, clear water, coral reefs, brilliantly coloured fish and fine snorkelling. The islands have no cars, motorbikes or hawkers, and accommodation is in very simple but ridiculously cheap bamboo bungalows or slightly more luxurious cottages.
Gili Trawangan is the most developed island, with a growing party scene in its few pubs, but most visitors are attracted by the peace and quiet. With nothing more strenuous than snorkelling or scuba diving, this is the place to relax and indulge in such time-honoured pursuits as watching the sun set across the Lombok Strait, silhouetting Bali's holy Mt Agung.
Indonesia is a string of volcanoes, whose eruptions provide its fertility and drive its mythology, and receive appeasement and pilgrimage. Almost the whole island of Lombok, barely 80 km across, lies on Mt Rinjani's slopes, and the climb to the crater is unforgettable.
You start your ascent from the village of Senaru, where a guide and equipment can be arranged. The demanding climb requires a night camping on the mountain, but is rewarded with fabulous views next morning, looking north across the coast of Lombok, west to Bali and down to the crater lake of Segara Anak.
The descent is much kinder on muscles and lungs, and on the way down I again met the Japanese girls coming up the trail. They told me of their trips to craft villages, mountain temples and other delights of Lombok. They wanted to venture further east, especially to see the fabled dragons of Komodo, but had to go back to Japan in a few days. They had tasted the next Bali, found a related but very different island, and were planning to return to see some more of Indonesia's 13,000 islands.
The writer is editor of `Bali & Lombok - Travel Survival Kit' (Lonely Planet, pounds 8.85).
Getting there: Most flights from the UK involve a change of planes. For travel in January, Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) quotes pounds 638 (including tax) from Heathrow, on Qantas via Singapore, or pounds 30 less if you are prepared to travel via Frankfurt or Rome. Singapore International is quoted at pounds 582. The Indonesian airline Garuda is selling for pounds 533. Alternatively, Aeroflot has a fare of pounds 500 - but only as far as Jakarta.
Getting in: British visitors require no visa for short stays (up to 60 days). It helps, however, to have an intact passport - Ross Taylor was refused admission on his first visit, because of a somewhat dog-eared passport.
Getting around: the standard form of transport is the bemo, a minibus that takes a considerable number of passengers and transports them uncommonly fast at low cost. Between Bali and Lombok, take a boat (fast, two hours, pounds 12; slow, four hours, pounds 1.50) or a plane (20 minutes, pounds 25).
Getting advice: The Indonesian Tourism Promotion Board is based at 3-4 Hanover Street, London W1R 9HH (0171-493 0030).Reuse content