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.

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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.

Diving the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

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Top on my list of things to do while in Krabi–other than lounge on a gorgeous beach with David and drink mai tais–was to dive the Phi Phi Islands (amusingly pronounced “pee pee”). The Phi Phi Islands consistently get top marks as a world class dive site. All dive shops I’d found going to the islands were in Ao Nang, and that was a 20 to 30-minute ride from our hotel, Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort. I’d made some inquiries prior to leaving the U.S., but was frustrated by their requirement that we come into Ao Nang at least a day before to “show our dive cards, sign forms and try on equipment.” This sounded ridiculous to me and I had no desire to take time away from a coveted beach day traipsing into a town I’d deliberately avoided and back…Not to mention the pointless expense added insult to injury.

I tried emailing the resort to see if they worked with any dive shops that would pick up at the resort, but got no response to either my emails or my attempts to message them on their Facebook page until they miraculously responded to the FB message nearly 6 weeks later. Oh well, better late than never. They informed me they could book a 2-tank dive trip to the Phi Phi Islands, including pick-up at the hotel and we wouldn’t need to go in ahead of time.

Sure enough, when we got to the resort and asked, they could book us the dive trip we wanted with Local Diving and they’d pick us up. The price was exactly the same as with the dive shops I’d found previously which did not include pick-up, i.e., 3500 baht ($100) per person, including equipment, lunch and the 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang.

We had time for a quick breakfast before our ride arrived at 7am on our second morning at Tup Kaek. Our Local Diving “limo” was quite a sight: a battered red “SUV”/station wagon sort of vehicle with a red leather interior and red leather facing seats in the far back. The driver’s seat was broken so that it leaned a good 6″ back from the level of the front passenger seat (and into my knees). Hand cranks rolled down the windows…except on David’s side where the crank had broken off. Hmm. A questionable start, but the vehicle seemed to drive OK.

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The “limo” in front of Local Diving
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Driver’s seat “reclining” into me
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Rear seating

In twenty minutes, we were in Ao Nang. We made a quick stop to pick up a Norwegian sheep farmer, Per, who would be the only other diver to join our group. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Local Diving shop. Small and not impressive, they quickly produced qood-quality wetsuits and fins for us to try on. No one cared about seeing our dive cards; they just had us sign statements that we had them. So much for that other dive company wanting us to come a day early to present cards and try on gear!

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Local Diving in Ao Nang

Our guide then led us on foot across the parking lot and through a park to where a fleet of long tail boats were docked. We waded out to one, full of other divers, that tendered us to a larger, two-story dive boat anchored just off shore.

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It turns out that Local Diving and several other dive shops share large boats so that there were 3 or 4 groups of divers on our boat. Everyone did basically the same dive, shared the same fruit snacks, the same lunch, same everything. There were several of these larger boats operating in the area and this is apparently the same system for dives at the Local Islands as well as at the Phi Phi Islands. I seriously doubt whether it makes much difference which operation you pick so long as the equipment is good and the dive master attentive and knowledgable. (Big items, I understand; I just mean that the basic set-up will probably be identical so–once you verify reviews re safety and quality of equipment–it makes sense to choose by price.)

The trip to the Phi Phi Islands from Ao Nang takes 2 hours, but that’s only because the boats go incredibly slowly. We kept waiting for our boat to kick it into gear, but it never happened. Our dive mate, Per, said he loved the boat ride, but we were a little impatient going out and bored going back. It’s beautiful, but I could have enjoyed the beauty in an hour rather than two…and been back on our gorgeous Tup Kaek beach.

A dive master on board was pushing seasick pills claiming some “magical” properties to Andaman waters that induce seasickness. The water was very calm and we ignored his advice with absolutely no ill effects. If we could survive 3 hours crossing the Sea of Japan just above a typhoon without feeling sick, the Andaman held no threat at all for us.

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Relaxing on the upper deck of our dive boat

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We reached Hin Klai, just east of the Phi Phis, for our first dive right at 2 hours out of Ao Nang. A preliminary check of my gear revealed a damaged octopus so our guide quickly changed out the whole first stage and attachments. The new first stage set-up was in good condition, but surprisingly we had no depth gauge. We made our first descent into a curving school of silver and yellow fish that numbered in the thousands if not tens of thousands. Breathtaking! The sheer numbers of tropical fish were the most remarkable thing about this reef. We saw squid, lionfish (which we’re very familiar with as an invasive pest in the Caribbean), mantis shrimp (like small lobster with “wings” instead of claws…and very, very powerful front “legs”) and more, but it was the huge schools that really blew me away. They let me swim into their midst, so thick I could barely see out of the cloud of shimmering bodies. I felt like a kid playing among them, reaching with my hands to have the nearest dart just out of reach. We ventured off the reef into some pretty barren terrain where our guide later explained he was looking for black fin sharks. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any although Per told us he’d seen a lot of them on an earlier dive to a nearby reef. Next time!

After our first dive, we had a 50-minute break during which we moved to our next dive location, Koh Bida Nok, just south of Phi Phi Ley. We anchored near one of the under-cut rock islands that give the Andaman Sea its exotic and unique appearance. Upon descent, we found ourselves on another beautiful reef. More large schools of fish swirled around us and we also came upon cuttlefish, a large barracuda, a turtle and more lionfish. As at Hin Klai, we saw lots of clownfish tucked in among sea anemone as if they’d been pulled straight from “Finding Nemo.” I half-expected to see the large schools of fish form themselves into shapes and talk to us!

The only real negative to the actual diving part of this trip is that there are just too many other divers around. The Phi Phis draw multiple dive boats to each of their reefs and we frequently ran into other groups of divers below, both from our boat and from others. Newbies are particularly bad about stirring up the bottom and visibility suffered in places.

Lunch was set out in the galley of our boat after the second dive and people served themselves then sat wherever to enjoy the Massaman curry and vegetarian noodle main dish with plenty of steamed rice. More fruit supplied dessert. Then, we settled in for the puttering 2-hour ride back…except it was closer to 2.5 hours on the return trip. It’s hard to believe that’s all the engine power the boat could muster, but apparently so. Again, it was beautiful, but too long for David and me.

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Our dive master–and pretty much everyone else–crashed out on the long ride back to Ao Nang

Then, it was back on a loud, exhaust-spewing long tail boat for the tender back to shore and the walk to the Local Diving shop and our red leather chariot.

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On the long tail tender

 

Local Diving did a professional job (even though they didn’t check dive cards) and I’d dive with them again. I’m super glad we dove the beautiful Phi Phi reefs, but I’d have loved a faster boat. You can find out more about Local Diving at: http://www.localdivingkrabi.com.

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016