Lovina, Bali: Black sand beaches, Dolphins and Scuba Diving

Early morning with dolphins at Lovina

Lovina, in the north of Bali, is famous for its black sand beaches and early morning boat rides among large schools of dolphins. Wanting to try something different from our other destinations, I booked us 4 nights at the Starlight Hotel, a cluster of small cottages on the beach owned by a Dutchman. We enjoyed our stay, but found the location to be lacking in much to do outside dolphins and diving. Our hotel restaurant (open-air like every single restaurant we found in Bali) was hotter than most and sadly lacking in ocean breeze or ceiling fans although the food was good, service very friendly (and their frozen “welcome drink” the best we had on the island).

Beautiful view from and of Starlight Hotel restaurant

Our cottage also sported an inadequate a/c, even after a repair attempt so we moved to one adjacent to the lobby area; not as secluded, but cooler. The cottages were identical inside; pretty if simple with mosquito netting draped over the bed and a high Balinese-style ceiling. We had a small flat-screen tv I only glanced at, a coffee/tea pot set up, a small fridge and a nice little porch.

Starlight Hotel cottage

The grounds are lovely and well-maintained with the many fruit and flowering trees labeled, a nice touch. The property, like most we saw in the area, is long and narrow with beach front on the narrow end, obviously a precious commodity. The beach was quaint with the black sand and dolphin boats looking like oversized water bugs with their thin pontoons, but it is narrow and not groomed so sea refuse makes it not overly appealing for spending any time there. The Starlight Hotel does offer a nice pool, though and we made good use of that.

The ungroomed beach didn’t inspire us to linger there
Starlight Hotel grounds with Bali “cannonball tree” in foreground and pool in the distance

Quite a few dolphin boats anchor along the narrow stretch of beach in front of the Starlight so it was easy to book a 6am trip for our first morning. The hotel offers to book these trips for 100,000 and our boat “captain” made us the same offer, but quickly came down to 75,000 rp each. The ride out to the dolphin-spotting area is short, and visible from shore. In no time, we counted right at 100 small, motorized pontoon boats milling around and darting after the numerous dolphins. It’s certainly not a tranquil moment with wildlife, but the whole event was fun in its own way. (While I sort of assumed the dolphins were always there, we met a Hungarian couple a few days later in Munduk who made the pre-dawn trip down to Lovina to see the dolphins and saw none.)

We had a great day scuba diving Menjangan Island, part of West Bali National Park, with Arrows Dive Centre. They picked us (and 4 snorkelers from different hotels) at 8am and drove us in an air-conditioned (seatbeltless) van the 1.5 hours to the park where we boarded a small, ratty dive boat–one of many identical boats docked there–for the island. We were back at our hotel around 5pm.

Not the swankiest of dive boats, but functional

We saws lots and lots of dolphins on the way out to the island. (Sadly no pics due to a camera glitch.) Apparently, this is unusual as our guides were very excited about it, whistling to call the dolphins closer. Pairs and groups swam right up to and under our boat. With no other boats in sight, it was that tranquil moment with wildlife that the previous day was not. Wonderful!

The diving itself was good, but not great only because the visibility was just OK. The coral was lovely and the fish abundant. We didn’t see anything too unusual: a lone barracuda, a grouper in a small cave, lots of small lionfish which we’re sadly familiar with from the Caribbean where they are an invasive species. Still, we really enjoyed the 50+ minute dive and moderate depth. I get cold on long dives even in warm water and was happy with a long wetsuit, but David was content with his shortie. Both suits were in excellent condition and well-fitted as was the other equipment. Yay for Arrows!

Good-condition Scubapro equipment at Arrows Dive Centre

Lunch was a nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) picnic affair (packed from a restaurant near where we boarded the dive boat) on a remote little dock on the island we shared with a few other boats.

Stopped for lunch on Menjangan Island

I spotted one of the island’s sacred deer near a small cliff-top temple nearby. Unafraid, he followed me back to our little group at the lunch spot.

Small temple on Menjangan Island
Sacred Menjangan Island deer

A few other boats docked near ours, but there was no crowd at all and no one already on the island itself in this area. Our second dive after lunch was much like the first and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We ran into a few other divers briefly down below, but there was no crowding. All in all, I highly recommend Arrows Dive Centre and our divemaster, Wayan (“Yani”) who David and I had to ourselves.

We used Arrows again for muck diving the following day. Muck diving is an unusual form of diving and some of the best spots in the world are in north Bali. I really wanted to try it while in Lovina. We chose Puri Jati as our dive spot, a mere 30 minutes from our hotel. Yani and a driver picked us up at 8:30am and we at the beach site in no time, a pretty spot with a Hindu temple and Hatten vineyards adjacent to the beach.

Temple, rice fields and vineyards at Puri Jati (beach is behind photographer)
Black sand beach at Puri Jati where we waded in to muck dive

This was a beach dive, i.e., we waded into the water rather than take a boat out to a remote location. As opposed to the more usual coral reef or wall dive, a muck dive is a shallow dive over silt or “muck” where you search for often tiny and unusual bottom dwellers that live in this environment. It turned out to be spectacular. We saw a mimic octopus in action, ghost bone fish, thousands of a type of white sea urchin, thousands of live sand dollars and several oddities I can’t name. The few bits of flotsam we saw formed mini-reefs with colorful coral, tropical fish, an eel, and shrimp of various kinds.

Mimic octopus, Puri Jati muck diving
Seahorse at Puri Jati

I highly recommend Lovina for the dolphins and local diving opportunities (or snorkeling, if that’s more your speed) and I’m glad we went. As a place in and of itself, though, the city and adjoining little towns don’t offer a lot. Also, way too many roaming dogs lead to a lot of barking at night that mingles with the ubiquitous Bali noise of crowing roosters.

____________

We paid  Arrows Dive Centre 1,400,000 rupiah (about $102) each for the 2-tank day of diving at Menjangan Island and 750,000 rupiah (about $55) each for the 2-tank muck diving half-day. Both dives included all equipment and transportation to and from our hotel. The Menjangan day also included entrance to the national park and lunch. Yani was an excellent divemaster, respectful of the environment, and very good at spotting camouflaged sea life.

Ubud Restaurant Faves

Traditional Indonesian lunch at Cafe Lotus, overlooking a lotus garden and Hindu temple

Just a quick post with a few of our favorite restaurant finds in Ubud. First off, we didn’t find any air conditioned restaurants, so prepare yourself for that and focus on the food, a breeze and great atmosphere and/or view. We also wanted Indonesian/Balinese food while in Bali so no pizza recommendations here.

I’ve already mentioned Café Lotus, but in my last post, but it bears repeating. Choose from regular or traditional low tables where you sit on cushions on a raised floor. The traditional tables have the best view of the spectacular lotus water garden in front of a beautiful Hindu temple, Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati. The food was fresh and good and reasonably priced, if a touch more expensive than other, less-spectacular restaurants.

Front of Cafe Lotus facing Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street of Ubud)

The restaurant at our hotel, Sri Ratih Cottages, got great reviews and we agreed…so much so that we ate every dinner there. The food is excellent, the service friendly and the upstairs location lovely with ceiling fans, couches, and a nice cross breeze. They offer western dishes as well, which we heard were good, but never tried. There’s a spa on site and special health drinks of various herbs and spices are a specialty. We breakfasted downstairs in front of a picturesque koi pond and waterfall. Gorgeous!

Indonesian dinner at Sri Ratih
Delicious breakfast by the koi pond at Sri Ratih

Just down the road from Sri Ratih Cottages, on the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Jalan Raya Penestanan we discovered a spectacular new vegan restaurant called Zest. We’re not vegetarian, much less vegan, but the food and the view were so good and so unique that we went back for a second go. I read that the chef used to be at a local spa, and the food definitely has that feel: healthy, creative, fresh and tasty. Zest is so new that it’s in pre-soft-open stage, i.e., no prices, only “donations.” So, for the time being pay what you want, but be fair. Zest should be fully open sometime in April. We used the menu prices as a guide and paid approximately that, not bothering with small change.

Chic Zest interior

Zest sits atop a hill with great views from large, open windows down on the temple at the head of the Camphuan Ridge Trail, Pura Gunung Lebah, in one direction. Tables on the other side face a temple in front of the Wiswarani homestay and at the far end, you can look out on a rice paddy. The decor of Zest is chic and modern while maintaining a definite Bali vibe. There are universal plugs for those sitting around a central bar, a nice plus. Note: Alcohol is not on offer; a shame since this would be a fantastic place for a glass of wine at sunset.

Bangkok Bang flaming wok salad and a papaya- passionfruit-coconut soothie
We tried all 3 of these flaming wok “salads.” Delicious!
Bali Breeze flaming wok salad and a pineapple-cashew-ginger smoothie
The smoothies are to die for! I especially loved the papaya- passionfruit-coconut. David liked the pineapple-cashew-ginger. The jackfruit-avocado-chocolate chip was too weird not to try and turned out to be too weird for me. 🙂 Thick, frozen glasses kept the smoothies frozen to the end. No small feat in steamy Ubud!
Zest, facing the grounds of the Wiswarani homestay

Bali Beginnings: First up, exotic Ubud

 

Hindu ceremony in progress at Pura Gunung Lebah in Ubud

In making plans for our 2+ weeks in Bali, I chose 4 very different locations and accommodations to try to give us a real sampling of the island. Our destinations included 2 interior locations: a boutique hotel in cultural-center Ubud and a homestay in rural Munduk for its waterfalls and rice terraces; and, 2 waterfront spots: a little beachfront hotel in backwater Lovina in the north for narrow black sand beaches, dolphins and scuba diving and a sprawling resort in gated-enclave Nusa Dua for wide white beaches and a little luxury.

I chose Ubud as our first destination because I wanted to start with the cultural heart of Bali. I also wanted to organize our trip so that we ended up in Nusa Dua, our closest stop to the airport. With traffic notoriously bad to Denpasar International Airport (DPS) especially during ongoing construction of an underpass intended to alleviate the problem, I wanted the shortest trip possible when it came time to leave Bali.

Denpasar International Airport

We arrived DPS from Singapore in the early afternoon and found a lovely airport and a horrendous line at customs despite the recently-enacted 30-day visa waiver. The line moved relatively quickly, though, and we were out the other side in about 25 minutes. (Note: There’s a shorter line for locals and those over 60 and those traveling with small children. Although shorter, it did not seem to move very quickly. There are also toilets just to the side of the line if you need to dart over there while someone holds your place in line.)

Expect to search through this mob if you’re meeting a driver at DPS

A driver from our boutique hotel in Ubud, Sri Ratih Cottages, was waiting for us when we landed at DPS. Although Ubud is only 38km (less than 24 miles), the drive takes about 1h30 due to traffic. (The main roads are actually in good shape; it’s just a matter of too many cars and motorcycles, especially near the airport where clubbing hotspots like Kuta add to the crush. Further into the central hills and mountains, the going is slowed by winding narrow roads.)

The lobby of lovely Sri Ratih Cottages
We woke the first morning to find fresh offerings and incense burning on the “toad god” in front of our cottage.

We found ourselves charmed by Ubud. Although brutally hot and humid, the town defines exotic. Every doorway seemed to open onto a gorgeous hidden courtyard replete with temples, tropical flowers, statuary and incense. The traditional dress of sarong (k), sash, 3/4 sleeve lace blouses for women and tied “udeng” head scarves for men are commonly worn.

Again and again, some beautiful door would beckon and we’d duck in to find a gorgeous courtyard and temple or achingly beautiful guesthouse and temple…
Behind one of those doors. A breakfast area for a guest house.

Offerings are made throughout the day to the many Hindu gods and little banana leave trays with flowers, snacks and often with burning incense are left everywhere. You actually have to watch your step as they are left in doorways and in the middle of sidewalks. David twice stepped on incense sticks, one still burning, that lodged in his sandal. Ouch!

One of the many ubiquitous offerings found everywhere in Bali
A gate in Ubud Palace from inside the main courtyard
Gods are often dressed in bright cloth. Workers wear traditional clothing.

Our hotel offered free shuttles into town that dropped us off in front of “Ubud Palace.” (It was about a 15-minute walk.) The place is open free to the public and consists of several open courtyards with altars and raised roofed seating areas. Just across Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street) from the palace begins the byzantine Ubud Market, a combination of open-air stalls and a rabbit warren maze of covered stalls selling items of all kinds: sarongs, dresses and shirts, sandals, jewelry, spices, and other souvenirs.

Ubud Market

Back on the main street, we wandered into the spectacularly beautiful Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati, a large temple fronted by a massive lotus pond. Entrance is free to the garden and front area, but the temple itself is closed to the public. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at adjacent Café Lotus, sitting cross-legged under a thatched roof overlooking the lotuses. A tiny alligator made an appearance among the flowers as we ate.

Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati
Tasty Indonesian lunch with a view

Another day took us to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a 15 minute walk down Monkey Forest Road from the Ubud Market. We weren’t expecting too much, probably something uber-touristy and kitschy. Instead, we found a large and breathtakingly beautiful jungle park filled with exotic statuary, free-roaming macaques and a river gorge. An active temple sits among all this beauty.

If you go to Ubud, don’t miss Monkey Forest! Entrance is 50,000 rp/adult. Also, beware the monkeys. They’re little thieves. I watched one jump on a girl and wrest the water bottle she had tucked into a side pocket out. He ran off with it, bit holes in the bottom and drank. Not far from him, another monkey was drinking from another pilfered water bottle. Before we entered the forest, I took the precaution of removing my jewelry, too. I had no desire to have a monkey rip the earrings out of my ears. For the most part, though, they were busy doing monkey things and not all that interested in the people among them. Vendors sell bananas and sweet potatoes to feed them, but I didn’t want to start that kind of attention. Signs also warn against making eye contact as that is seen as a sign of aggression. We saw many mothers with babies, some clearly newborns. The interaction among the troupes was fascinating and delightful to watch. We laughed as one older monkey kept grabbing a little would-be runaway by the tail.

We were surprised to see a small monkey swimming underwater in a little pond. A larger monkey with him was very defensive whenever the little one was under water and was the most aggressive with a human that we saw. She tugged on the leg of a man who got to close trying to take a picture, snarled, and literally chased him away.

One morning, we got up early for a sunrise hike along Camphuan Ridge, a paved trail through picturesque rice terraces to end in an area dotted with homes, some for tourist rent, artist studios, a few cafes and a little spa. A temple called Pura Gunung Lebah at the beginning of the ridge trail had caught our interest for some time. It’s large and beautiful and had been the focus of local activity.

This view of Pura Gunung Lebah from a bridge over the River Oos caught our eye from our first day in Ubud.
Pura Gunung Lebah from the beginning of the Camphuan Ridge Trail (to get to the temple and the hiking trail, go down the road to the Ibah Warwick Villa & Spa of Jl. Raya Ubud (main street), but turn left before you enter the hotel compound.
Camphuan Ridge Trail in the early morning. The best time to go. It would be brutally hot midday!
Rice fields at the end of the trail

A highlight of our trip came when some of the staff at our hotel invited us to join them for a Hindu ceremony at this temple when the saw how intrigued we were by small parades filing past our hotel entrance carrying musical instruments and things similar to Chinese dragons to the temple. A waitress we’d made special friends with, Ugune, told us there was a 4-day celebration going on and we were welcome to come, but that traditional Balinese dress was required to attend a ceremony. Sometimes, sarongs or long skirts are required to visit active temples, but this was something more. We needed sarongs, sashes, long-sleeved shirts and a udeng head scarf for David. We bought the sarongs, improvised sashes from my scarves, used our own long-sleeve shirts (my long-sleeved t-shirt decidedly less beautiful than the lace blouses of the other women) and borrowed an udeng.

When the time came, we met the others in the hotel parking lot where our fleet of motorcycles and scooters assembled. Our new friends ferried us on the backs of two bikes and we were off.

Lovely in their finery, women in the group also brought baskets full of offerings. After parking the motorcycles, they carried the baskets on their heads as we walked the final way down a steep hill to Pura Gunung Lebah, the temple which sits on the Oos River near the start of the Camphuan Ridge Trail.

Before entering the main gate, Ugune dipped a bundle of straw-like leaves in a container of water then flicked it on each of our group for cleansing before we entered the gate into the first courtyard of the temple.

Cleansing water

The temple was beautifully decorated for the ceremonies, which seemed to be on a rolling hourly basis. Long bamboo pole decorations called “penjor” dipped gracefully overhead and flowers and bright cloth adorned the platforms and idols. We proceeded into the next courtyard where we joined others waiting for the preceding ceremony to finish.

We weren’t the only ones admiring the decorations.

David and I were the only Westerners present, but everyone was very welcoming. We felt comfortable taking photos and videos as the Balinese were doing the same thing, snapping photos of family and friends dressed in their holiday best. It was a cheerful, happy crowd.

We could hear the voice of the priest leading the ceremony in the main courtyard and glimpse some of the worshippers through the main gate. Eventually, things seemed to be winding up then we saw people filing past a side gate, evidently having left the main courtyard by a side exit. People in our courtyard began to line up by the main gate and our group joined them.

The gate to the main courtyard is just opened for the waiting congregants to enter

A guard/usher opened the gate and we entered the spacious main courtyard Women with offering baskets headed to the right and around the main area to mount the raised front area to leave offerings on the altar. They filed from right to left, descending again to find a seat, kneeling or sitting cross-legged on the ground with the others. They kept some flowers in their baskets to take back with them to be used in the ceremony. Men, women and children sat together on the ground. Agune told us we were welcome to stay for the ceremony which would go on for an hour, but we decided to excuse ourselves thinking we’d be more than a little out-of-place. And not wanting to intrude or treat their religious ceremony like some sort of tourist entertainment. We found a spot in a side courtyard, though, where we could watch the ceremony.

Presenting offerings and taking seats before the ceremony at Pura Gunung Lebah

The priest, who sat in a small structure behind and to the side of the worshippers rather than in the front, led the congregants over a loudspeaker in a series of prayers while chimes tinkled all the while. Each time they prayed, a bell would ring along with the chimes, then increase in volume to indicate the approaching end of the prayer. Worshippers would lift a flower between their pressed palms which were held as Christians would in prayer but raised so that the thumbs pressed against their foreheads. Then, they would place the flower before them and put a petal behind an ear (men) or tuck one in their hair (women).

Agune later explained the priest would tell them to which god they would pray next and that the petals were to indicate a sort of blessing. It was a beautiful ceremony!