If Lombok’s flash new airport reaches its full potential, the island will see a big increase in visitors. So you’d better be quick if you want to see it before the rush.
The terminal had been under construction for years, frustrating the locals with delay after delay. It was finally opened late last year and the island’s business-owners hope airlines like Virgin Blue and Jetstar will schedule direct flights soon.
Until they do, visitors can enjoy an Indonesian holiday destination that is not too busy or burnt-out, like Kuta.
Our family took a risk that paid big dividends by choosing not to stay with the pack in one of the many resorts that line the coast at Senggigi.
Our decision to head to Linsar amid the ricefields gave us experiences we would not have had at a coastal resort.
The little boutique hotel Villa Sayang was a large part of what made ours a sensational holiday.
Sayang in Indonesia means dear or darling and Villa Sayang is a really sweet little hotel about half an hour’s drive from Senggigi’s shopping strip and 15 minutes from the capital Mataram.
Staying at Sayang was a little like stopping with a favourite aunt who happens to live on an idyllic island and who knows all the best places to go and how to get there.
That “aunt” was Rosilawati, or Rosa, Stuart. A proud member of the indigenous Sasak population, she carved the hotel from the fields in 2004 and opened it in 2006 with the aim of giving visitors a taste of the real Lombok but with the home comforts to which they were accustomed.
The hotel is her home and her passion. Over the years it has grown big enough to have a bitumen road past the front door and she grows food in the surrounding farmland which she serves in the villa cafe.
She’s a woman of many talents – during our 10-day stay she gave cooking demonstrations at one of the posh hotels in Senggigi and jetted off to Jakarta to meet a minister.
At home in her colourful dress, she was a perfect host and arranged shared sightseeing trips for guests in order to cut their costs.
While my husband and I took a cycle tour through the rice fields with the hotel’s guide Kevin, Rosa gave our gregarious 10-year-old daughter Ella an Indonesian cooking lesson in the hotel kitchen.
While we trekked to a local waterfall well off the beaten path, Rosa and her colleague Sinta again took Ella under their wing, steering her through the local markets where her lanky frame and red hair attracted lots of attention. They introduced her to the smelly durian fruit and other market delights.
Our daily walks in the streets around the villa gave us some of our favourite memories. They were snapshots of local life where village men and women quarried rock by hand, young boys played soccer on dirt pitches in crisp colourful uniforms and women bathed and washed their clothes in the rivers.
As luck would have it, we visited Senggigi on festival day where it was a mass of colourful costumes, music and excited teenagers. A gang of international photographers with Nikon lanyards around their necks were testimony to the fact that this was a photographer’s dream.
There were plenty of good shots for them all, as people from around Lombok gathered in their brightest costumes to showcase their regions.
We also visited the Gili islands off the coast of Lombok. One of the upper Gilis, Trawangan, was frequented by some of the most beautiful people I had ever seen, while at the lower islands, Gili Nanggu had some of the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was like swimming in an aquarium.
Trawangan is a real party island by the looks of the bronzed buffed bodies on the beach.
There were a couple of boutiques for the well-heeled, loads of snorkel hire places and little hotels lining the main beach. There are no scooters there – everything is moved by horse and cart, even building materials.
There are loads of colourful traditional boats (with motors) for hire along Lombok’s beaches to get to the three islands that make up the upper Gilis but we drove to the harbour at Bangsal and hailed a taxi boat.
It was fantastic to sit among the families and their bags and baskets of leafy produce, although the guy smoking his cigarette next to the fuel tank had us on the edge of our seats.
There are no shops at Gili Nanggu, just one cafe that sells excellent banana fritters and a sprinkling of double-storey holiday huts with thatched roofs. It was clear that this was the place to come to really get away.
We took a boat from Tawun to get there and, courtesy of Rosa, shared the taxi with other hotel guests. The only drawback was that some of the tourists treated the locals like shysters rather than poor folk trying to make a meagre living.
Having said that, we took the two-hour ride up to Senaru in the north for a guided walk to the waterfalls, and the mob there was extortionist. We told them so good naturedly and from the broad smiles they gave us in response, they knew they were. With a mutual understanding reached, we struck a fairer price with no hard feelings.
It is not an easy trek to the biggest waterfall – the rocks are slippery and there’s a makeshift bridge to cross high above the water. Looking down is a little bit hairy.
There’s no doubt the island is gearing up for the flood of tourists that the international airport could bring. Elsewhere on the island there’s a weaving village which is fastidiously clean and the women are busy on their porches clicking out splendid fabrics with every sweep of their looms.
There’s a pottery village and a traditional Sasak village where an old lady still throws her woven mat down on the ground outside, pulls her sarong around her and lies down in the afternoon to have a sleep.
If there’s a negative about Lombok it is the rubbish. Shopping bags of it are piled on the edges of villages.
But the oft-used description that Lombok is what Bali used to be is true – that little extra step across the Bali Sea seems to be keeping it that way. At the moment, travellers still have to touch down in Denpasar and then cross the water to Lombok.
The public ferry can take four to five hours but offers an authentic Indonesian experience sure to deliver loads of colour, while the fast boat can cut the journey time down to two hours. The best bet for travellers with children may be the 20-minute flight to Mataram.
Unlike Hindu Bali, Lombok is predominately Muslim and has thousands of mosques. Calls to morning and evening prayer compete to be heard across the steamy countryside.
The mosques use amplifiers and the wailing is well heard to say the least, but as early risers we felt it added to the local colour.